“Denver is Austin five years ago,” we heard from no less than five Denverites during our recent trip.
“There are so many jobs.”
“There is so much construction going on.”
“The traffic is insane!”
“Look at all these condos!”
We heard these statements over and over as we talked to friends, acquaintances and complete strangers on the sidewalks of Denver.
At first glance, Denver looks nothing like Austin. Though ATX is home to 200,000 additional citizens, the skyline and downtown streets of Denver feel like that of a bigger city. It isn’t until you dig into the individual neighborhoods that you discover the quirkiness that lies within. The DIY attitude and outdoor spirit are alive and well in the Mile High City. And as a recent NPR story pointed out, Denver is the no. 2 fastest-growing city behind Austin, and much like its counterpart, the foodie scene is booming.
It is in public transportation and walkability where the two cities begin to differ, though this may change if Denver’s economy continues to skyrocket. As of now, the city is still tightly knit, with suburban sprawl not yet evident. And for the outlaying parts of the city, the light rail, RTD, offers easy and consistent access.
Oh, and Denver has so much weed. Lots and lots of weed.
We stayed at the Warwick Hotel, the former home of the Denver Playboy Bunny Club. Located in Uptown, this affordable ($100-$120 a night when we stayed there), midcentury hotel offers a heated rooftop pool and spacious rooms, each with a balcony. While swimming in pool water as comforting as your mother’s womb while staring at the sparkling lights of downtown Denver, one can only imagine the sexy, sexy times that went down at this classy joint. The popular “Restaurant Row” located on 17th Street is nearby, which includes the retro-style gourmet American hot spot, Steuben’s. I have to admit that this neighborhood was a little too dudebro-y for me, but offers nice walkability and ambiance.
In July of 2014, Denver’s grand Union Station reopened to the public, boasting the swanky Crawford Hotel, boutique shops, eateries and bars. When you first step foot into the stately hall, you’re struck with the detail to originality- opulent chandeliers, arched windows and gold sconces grace the room. Though the station still acts as a working train and bus depot, you don’t have to be a traveler to utilize the beautiful space. Professionals camp with their computers on the square leather sofas and friends drink in the dusky Terminal Bar, all while the delicious smell of ice cream drifts in from the Milkbox Ice Creamry. While waiting for a table at Denver’s uber popular breakfast joint, Snooze, you can play skeeball in the center of the station or graze the books at one of the many locations of Denver’s beloved book store, the Tattered Cover.
(Note: If you venture deeper into the Union Station, you’ll discover the Austin transplant, Hopdoddy.)
The sister hotel to The Crawford, The Oxford Hotel, sits a half a block away and features a similar, albeit a more Victorian, atmosphere. Built in 1891, this polished hotel is a must-pop-into whether or not you can afford the $250-$400 a night cost. One of the hotel’s most iconic features is The Cruise Room, the first Denver bar to open after prohibition. As you can see from the photo, little as changed in the tiny bar since 1933.
From Union Station, we ventured over to the Highlands via Commons Park and the Millennium pedestrian bridge. This trendy neighborhood tells a similar tale as that of East Austin: a predominantly immigrant-inhabited area close to downtown that recently became popular and found many of its old houses torn down for condos. To the outsider, the Highlands look fabulous: plentiful restaurants, boutique shops and cafes. As an East Austin resident, I tried imagining what it must be like for the people who have lived in the Highlands for decades, watching house after house being torn down and replaced with condos. One thing I do have to say about Denver’s condo development is that the condos appear small than the ones you see in Austin, with a more unique and stronger design (you will see a lot of brick). With that being said, real estate has become very costly in central Denver, with 1,000+ square foot condos and houses costing $400,000 and up.
In the Highlands, we ate the neighborhood favorite, Lola, a seafood-centric Mexican spot, where we chowed down on their delicious squash and apple pancakes with lemon butter and tequila syrup. Located behind Lola is another fashionable Denver hangout, Linger, featuring a tour-the-world menu in a former mortuary that once housed the body of Buffalo Bill. Nearby speakeasy Williams & Graham is considered a Denver must-see and was recently named one of the 50 best bars in the world.
Another neighborhood reminiscent of Austin is the South Broadway district. Still in flux, this trendy area features an array of boutique shops, antique & vintage clothing sellers and hip restaurants and bars. Ironwood, a DIYer’s paradise of plants, terrariums, crystals and gems, was recently featured in the New York Times’ ‘What to Do in Denver.’ Next door is the fantastic but unfortunately named vintage store, Boss Unlimited, which offers a brilliantly curated collection of vintage clothing spanning the past several decades. This is a great spot to secure your 80s ski bum sweater or western wear.
An absolute must while you’re in the Denver area is Casa Bonita. Yes, that Casa Bonita. It’s a real place and it’s glorious. Imagine walking into a giganto faux-Mexican villa equipped with lagoons for cliff jumpers to dive into, magic shows, puppet shows and fiberglass stalactites that crowd around your head while you eat questionable Mexican fare.
And so is Denver.
Other places to visit:
Sie Film Center Denver– indie film theater (Capitol Hill)
Twist & Shout– indie music store (Capitol Hill)
Rockmount Ranch Wear– Western wear store (Lower Downtown)
Ratio clothing– custom made men’s clothing (Highlands)
Punch Bowl– one stop shop drinks, food, bowling and karaoke (South Broadway)
Your instagram feed and this post give me such homesickness. I moved away from Denver 6 months ago. I lived in the Highlands and have often visited a number of the places you did. I used to live in a Victorian that was torn down for condos. My husband even used to work at the Warwick. I love Denver (and Colorado) and love to see other people love it too.
Where do you live now?
Florida, of all places. In-laws retired down here and the biggest plus was that housing is so much more affordable. But, it definitely does not have the charm and vitality like Denver.
I bet a lot of states are less expensive than Colorado. The prices shouldn’t have surprised me as much as they did- it’s paradise there! I hope you get to visit Denver often! Florida definitely has its perks (the weather can’t be beat)!
I really enjoyed your article but think it was overshadowed by the fact that Denver had to be compared to Austin. Both cities have great traits that make people flock to them but I wouldn’t go as far to say that one is better than the other or that one is the newer version of the other.
Thanks for your feedback! With these ‘Hipster City Travel’ posts, I usually just write about the city; however, so many people kept comparing Denver to Austin that I thought I’d run with that angle. I hear Austin and Denver coming up in the same news stories more often too. Denver reminds me of when Austin was all over the news a few years ago. I hear ya though. Thanks for reading!
Looks like you had a great time! My best friend moved to Denver three years ago and every time she comes to visit me is always claiming the similarities. I still haven’t visited her, but it’s next on my list. And this made me want to go even more!
I am from Colorado and grew up in Denver and Boulder. I absolutely love being from here and even though I travel a lot I always come back. Why do you think I started a blog about Colorado? It’s a good time, great people, and finally-really good food! I would gently agree with Thomas 🙂 But, have heard the comparisons LOL!
I enjoyed reading this article, but i would have to agree with Thomas here that the comparison to Austin is out of line, we are Denver and Austin is a faraway land. I have NEVER heard anyone here is the 5280 say that “Denver is Austin 5 years ago”. As far as i know, noone i know has even been to Austin, let alone compare it to Denver. Colorado cannot be compared to Texas, its apples and oranges just as Denver cannot be compared to Austin. There are some similarities i agree, but both cities have chosen a different path of growth, we have chosen the public transportation and light rail route, Austin has chosen the highway.
I don’t disagree that public transportation/light rail is infinitely better in Denver. I’ve been spending more time in Denver due to my partner working there, and I can tell you that there a lot of similarities and a lot of differences (some good & some bad). What Austin and Denver have in common is rampant development to cater to all the young people moving there, throngs of condos being built, comparable rental & buying costs (high!), low unemployment and a strong economy that is bringing entrepreneurs there. What they don’t have in common is that Austin is as a liberal as they come, but it’s still in Texas, and it hits some roadblocks caused by the conservatives running the state. Denver does far outpace Austin in terms of public transportation and environmental initiatives. It’s something that I truly respect with Colorado. And obviously the weed thing. However, in my experiences in Denver, I have yet to find a strong arts/creative community there. I think you have to dig a little harder for it. Austin is still full of a lot of poor, hip artists.
Hipstercrite, i agree with your comments. I would go back to your original question which was “Is Denver the next Austin?” and i would answer no, it is not. Austin, i would say is the next Houston and Denver is the next San Francisco/Washington DC/Portland’s big brother. On a side note, i hope you didn’t get sick with Casa Bonita’s food, not even locals go there, you are a brave woman!
Can’t Denver just be Denver, same as we’ve always been? I think the commonalities you’re looking at have way more to do with cultural shifts that are happening across the affluent western world than they do with any one city or location being there first. I’m native to this city (pushing 4 decades of familiarity), have been a gigging musician for the last 15 years, and I’ve worked for financial firms and otherwise who were launching the Denver/Austin sister city corporate campus thing 15 years ago (which never took hold because of various socio-economic turns)… and it had nothing to do with who had the better food scene or the quirkiest artisan light bulb store (yeah, I know, Portlandia reference… but kinda the point). Most of the people I know who say “Denver is like Austin 5 years ago” are people who have migrated from Austin and didn’t know Denver 5 years ago. I’m glad people have a great time here, this city is such a big part of my soul and my identity, so I could never begrudge a fan. But it sucks when everyone else comes here for the “authentic” good parts and then wants to ruin it by slapping their own crappy block-letter label maker black bar on it.
Thanks for writing this Lauren, I have recently become very interested in Colorado and Denver especially. I hear so many good things although I wouldn’t compare it to ATX,( I know others said it not you). Denver is in a blue state, it’s weed culture is sure to boom soon and Texas is far from legalizing it medical, let alone recreational. It also has a more diverse ‘cool’ destinations like boulder, aurora-colorado-manitou springs, aspen, fort collins etc. where people may want to live instead of in the city, so the arts aren’t highly concentrated in one region.
Colorado us a red state. FYI.
Hi, Ryan! Thanks for your comment. Did Colorado not vote for Obama in the past two elections? Maybe a swing state?
Thanks for your post. I’ve spent the past week in Denver for work, but have struggled to find a neighborhood that isn’t either touristy, or empty after 5pm, and is easily accessible from Union Station by public transit. Once I found your post, and ventured into the neighborhood Ironwood is in, I found what I had been looking for. A ton of interesting shops, and sidewalks that remain lively after 5pm.
love the hat
This is definitely on my “to-visit list”! I will have to go check out Union Station for sure. Thanks for your post!
I really enjoyed this! I currently live in Austin-I have for most of my life-and am considering relocating to Denver. Thanks for this article!