Ah, yes. Denver. Where you can find health conscious, outdoor-minded adventurers blending with organic, granola-eating, dope-smoking hippies. High plains ranchers wearing chaps and cowboy regalia mixing with heart-pumping, altitude-loving Olympic trainers. Extreme sports junkies clinking glasses with ski bums.
Denver is second only to New York City in theater productions per capita, boasts one of the most educated workforces in the country, and is consistently ranked one of the healthiest US cities. It has more days of sunshine than Miami or Los Angeles. The city has a vibrant nightlife, plenty of eclectic music venues, and legal weed. It’s a sports town with reigning Super Bowl Champion Broncos and past cup champions including the Avalanche and MLS Rapids.
All of this amidst the backdrop of the majestic Rocky Mountains! The Mile High City, perched proudly at 5,280 feet on the front range, attracts people who crave adventure, culture, and new experiences (the same things that probably drew you to international education).
When you’re ready for a break from the 2016 NAFSA Conference, are feeling particularly inspired and excited from the work, or just need to experience a little local culture, here are a few excursions you might try while enjoying Colorado!
1. Take the 16th street shuttle from Union Station to the Capitol
Just a couple blocks north of your hotel is the 16th Street Mall, a quick getaway thanks in large part to the free shuttle bus that stops at every block. Heading west, the bus ends near the newly renovated Union Station. This historic building has been converted to a cocktail hotspot slash functional cross-country train station.
Head eastward to the State Capitol, a building adorned with an ornate dome, gilded with the gold, shiny stuff mined in the Rockies. A hearty climb to the top of the dome affords some nice views of downtown. Don’t miss the stained glass art, which includes some historical figures such as Chief Ouray.
2. Visit the childhood home of Golda Meir
Auraria Campus is one of the more beautiful urban universities in the United States, seamlessly blending an appreciation of Colorado’s early days with dramatic views of the downtown skyline. The campus also has done an amazing job of incorporating existing historical structures into the campus, including St. Cajetan’s Church (in all its Spanish Mission style glory) and more than a dozen perfectly preserved Victorian cottages. The childhood home of Golda Meir (the first prime minister of Israel) is also located on campus. These late 19th century buildings now house university offices and faculty.
Housing the University of Colorado at Denver, Metro State University and the local community college, this campus sees a lot of students with diverse backgrounds and varied futures walking through its greenery. And, in true Colorado fashion, the former Tivoli brewery (one of few outfitters to survive prohibition!) is now home to the campus student union.
3. Take a pub crawl
Denver has a loose connection to the Titanic via our famous resident the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown. For those who will never let go, be sure to check out the Cruise Room at the Oxford Hotel — it’s modeled after the bar in the Titanic.
If sinking ships of centuries past aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other cool, weird, and eclectic bars in LoDo (lower downtown). El Chapultepec serves hispanic fare with a side of edgy, live jazz music. Larimer’s Square is a busy block perfect for bar hopping. Just be sure not to miss out on the Green Russel Speakeasy — this underground tavern shaves ice off a block and picks fresh, organic herbs from their greenhouse garden to dress your cocktails.
4. Yes we cannabis!
You can’t talk about Colorado these days without talking about the newly legalized Rocky Mountain “High.” Opinions aside, its legalization is still a historic event and worth diving a little deeper into. Why not visit a dispensary during your NAFSA trip?
What’s it like? We’re glad you asked. Typically, a host/hostess will walk you through the buying experience by asking you questions about the “high” you’re aiming for. With the help of descriptions that will rival the most pretentious Sonoma Valley wine tasting, you can find exactly what you’re looking for.
Keep in mind that this isn’t your normal 1975 grass. This stuff is created in a lab and is powerful, potent, and can kick your butt. Use extra caution when eating edibles, sometimes the full effect of the drugs takes up to 3 hours. Visitors usually get in trouble when they eat one Gummy bear and feel nothing so they have a chocolate chip cookie and still nothing and so they try a brownie and then suddenly they find themselves asleep on the floor. Be warned that while marijuana may be legal in Colorado, it is still illegal most everywhere else (so don’t take your weed back home to Utah or Uzbekistan!).
5. See a movie at the Mayan or a play at the Denver Center for Performing Arts
The Mayan Theater is one of the many great movie theaters in Denver. The theater is caked in deco with Southwest America themes and proudly showcases indie films and international fare.
If you’re more into the live theater scene, pay a visit to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Just steps from the convention center, the theater options in the center range from the majestic Beull Theater for Broadway shows to smaller, intimate theaters. (The musical “Once,” a simple love story between an Irish boy and Czech girl told through Trad and Indie music, will be playing the last week in May. If you’re an IE professional who loves music, Ireland, and romance, don’t miss it!).
6. Check out the music scene
Prefer talented live musicians over thumping bass turntables? Denver’s got you covered. Local insiders rotate between the Ogden Theater, the Fillmore, and the Bluebird to pay homage to former arena rock bands in their twilight (or to check out cutting edge new bands). All located on Colfax St, these gritty, general admission venues are sure to serve up live music a little differently. Only want a big ticket show? The Paramount Theater on 16th Street Mall is for you.
If you packed your cowboy boots you will enjoy western and country at the Stampede in Aurora or local dance hall Grizzly Rose (live music, boot-scootin’, plus beer and chicken-fried steak since 1964).
7. Get high!
There’s another way to get high in Colorado – we’re talking John Denver’s natural high – getting up in the mountains for some serious altitude. You can pilot a glider in Boulder, go indoor skydiving at Park Meadows, or try your luck at hang-gliding off of Lookout Mountain.
But if you want to get high and keep your feet on the ground, there are several ways to get up in the mountains. Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the jewels of the National Park system (where you’re sure to see elk, maybe some moose, and, if you’re lucky, some bighorn sheep!). The park is also home to Trailridge Road, the highest paved road in North America.
Have an entire spare day? Start in the adorable mountain town of Estes Park, drive and hike through the park, and finish the day with a drive out through Trailridge Road. You’ll end up in Grand Lake and the beautiful drive over the Continental Divide near Winter Park before you head back to Denver.
8. Gamble in a wild west town
Before Colorado legalized marijuana, it legalized gambling on a limited basis in limited locations. Two of these locations are a reasonable drive from Denver: Blackhawk and Central City. These wild west towns, once home to gold miners, brothels, gunslingers, and less-than-reputable folk, have revived their famous pastime of poker and slot machines. While most of the casinos have familiar names (like Harrah’s), the towns are still authentic, with plenty to see besides blackjack tables. Busses from Denver will take you directly to the casinos.
9. Visit the History Colorado Center
Denver has some great museums, but one of my favorites is the newly renovated History Museum. From the glory days of Buffalo Bill Cody and Zebulon Pike, to the darker chapters of the Sand Creek Massacre and the Japanese-American internment camp, Colorado has some stories to tell. If you bring your kids, check out this museum. If you don’t have kids, check out this museum. It’s a short walk south from the State Capitol.
10. Eat Colorado style
Colorado has all flavors of international cuisine from Maatam Fez (complete with belly dancers) to Tamayo’s Mexican Nouveau. But, if it’s authentic Colorado fare you’re after, you have to eat at the Buckhorn Exchange. Not far from Auraria Campus, the oldest restaurant in Colorado is still serving many of the same dishes it was cooking 100 years ago. The first residents of Colorado ate a lot of meat (fresh game) — think ‘The Revenant’. With a short planting season, little rain, and tough soil, greens were limited in Colorado. But there were plenty of Elk, Buffalo, rattlesnakes and other moving edibles. In addition to all the meat on your plate there are plenty of formerly living animals on the wall, this place is not for the vegetarian.
11. Experience a town of immigrants
Federal Boulevard is home to a lively Cinco de Mayo parade and lined with great Mexican restaurants, with many businesses catering to a Spanish speaking clientele. Head south on Federal and you will find dozens of Pho houses, named for the number of their cross street. There are many Korean restaurants and businesses towards Aurora in the east. West on Colfax through Capitol Hill will take you to Greek Town. Denver is home to a vibrant Russian community, the Jewish Center has relocated scores of families over the decades. So, if you want to eat a buffalo steak one night but also need a dinner with some more familiar dishes the next, you won’t be disappointed.
Bonus! 12. See real dino tracks.
If you loved dinosaurs even before Chris Pratt saved the day, Dinosaur Ridge is only a 20 minute drive into the mountains. It offers dinosaurs tracks, fossils, hiking, mountain biking, and amazing views.
Bonus #2! 13. Because coffee.
Need a quick fuel-up prior to (or in the middle of) a great NAFSA day? We recommend nearby pit stops Novo Coffee, Backstage Coffee, and ink! Coffee. A little further away is the local franchise Daz Bog.
Remember, all this fun can’t be had if you’re suffering from altitude sickness. If you come from low altitude, make sure you drink plenty of water, avoid excessive alcohol, and pace yourself. It takes a few days to acclimate, and you may experience headaches or that stairs are harder to climb than usual (it’s okay, you’re not dying, just experiencing life a mile high).
John Denver claimed he was born in his 27th year (when he moved to Colorado). Most Colorado residents you’ll meet weren’t born here, but they got here as quickly as they could. Denver really is a great venue for NAFSA folks, full of adventure, views, and culture — all the things that brought you to international education in the first place. Have a great conference and take time to experience our culture!
Now that you have some awesome things to do in Denver, be sure to review our Best Practices to Avoid Altitude Sickness at NAFSA!
Still need some other ideas for fun in the Mile High City? Check out AirBnB’s comprehensive guide for Things to Do in Denver.