While many Denver locals head for the hills in summer — as in the nearby Rocky Mountains — others know that sticking close to home can be just as satisfying in this active, outdoors-oriented city. As events, live music and Colorado Rockies baseball games regain their status as popular draws, and patios, alleyways and newly closed-off streets welcome diners and beer enthusiasts, Denver feels fairly back to normal amid the lingering pandemic.
Currently, Denver is at the “clear” level on Colorado’s six-tier COVID-19 dial. Masks are required only for those unvaccinated in certain settings you’re unlikely to visit (think: prisons), though people who are not vaccinated are encouraged to wear masks in all public indoor settings.
In particular, two neighborhoods and one arts district — LoDo, Five Points and RiNo, respectively — merit exploring right now. All of them are served by Denver’s light rail system, and the city started a new bike and scooter share program in May.
The rehabilitation of Denver’s historic Lower Downtown, or LoDo, took off in the mid-1990s when Major League Baseball arrived and Coors Field, home to the Rockies, was erected. Former warehouses gained second life as restaurants, bars, lofts and offices, joining the city’s first brewpub, the Wynkoop Brewing Co., which was started in 1988 by John Hickenlooper, now a Colorado senator, and partners.
The neighborhood received another jolt of energy in 2014 when Union Station was extensively upgraded, adding a hotel, restaurants and shops to the longtime transportation hub. Now more recent developments like McGregor Square, which began opening in March, and the Dairy Block offer even more to do.
A sports vibe dominates McGregor Square, beginning with the new 182-room Rally Hotel, which lies 528 feet from Coors Field — just a bit longer than one of the blasts Pete Alonso hit to win this year’s All-Star Game Home Run Derby at the stadium. Baseball- inspired design cues range from subtle to overt, like glove-stitched leather headboards and Rockies memorabilia in the lobby.
The square also houses Tom’s Watch sports bar (with custom brews from AC Golden, a craft division of Coors), restaurants and a two-story branch of the Tattered Cover bookstore, a Denver institution beloved by bibliophiles. Above the stadium-shaped outdoor plaza, a large LED screen broadcasts Rockies games and other sporting events, as well as weekly free outdoor movies through Sept. 1. And, of course, the real thing is just across the street; the Rockies have a few more homestands before the end of the season.
Usually described as a neighborhood, RiNo (for River North) is technically an arts district made up of portions of five neighborhoods in north Denver, said Tracy Weil, the district’s co-founder and executive director. Within a one-time industrial zone of low-slung buildings, RiNo’s 400 acres include not only artist studios and galleries, but more recently, a mushrooming number of high-end condos, hotels, co-working spaces, restaurants and breweries that have given the area its hipster cred.
The district is spread out, and blocks are long, so it helps to have a destination in mind when walking (or hop on one of the popular Lime scooters). RiNo’s website gives an excellent overview of where things are.
For a look inside many studios, check out the monthly First Fridays. But RiNo’s best-known art form — an eclectic array of more than 100 outdoor murals on buildings, on shipping containers and in alleyways — can be viewed anytime. A new interactive map, correlated with QR codes on the murals, gives details on the creators. The two-hour Denver Graffiti Tour interprets some of the murals on a stroll through RiNo, while Zilla Charter hosts occasional tours led by the artists themselves.
In place of an annual festival that introduces new art, murals are now added monthly. Among the most recent: an installation created partly by local youth at the new Burton snowboards retail store and a series on garage doors, created by seven Colorado artists for Black History Month. Two graffiti crews are currently collaborating on a mural in the alley behind Denver Central Market, a bustling food hall and grocery, through the end of August.
Named for the intersection of Washington, Welton, 26th and 27th streets, the neighborhood northeast of downtown Denver was once known as “the Harlem of the West” for luminaries like Billie Holiday and Count Basie, who played in local clubs in the 1930s to the 1950s (one of these venues, the Rossonian Lounge, is being redeveloped into a hotel). Five Points was home to many of Denver’s Black residents for the first half of the 20th century, and it remains a rich source of African American culture and enterprise, though the racial makeup has changed.
The neighborhood is vast, but for a hub of outdoor dining and music — albeit still in transition — visit Welton Street, which has been designated the Five Points Historic Cultural District.
As new businesses take hold, restaurants, retailers, and a yoga studio still alternate with empty storefronts. During brunch on the new Mimosas’ cheery back patio, bright with colorful chairs and umbrellas, dishes included sweet and savory cheddar-topped scrambled eggs and housemade pork sausage served with potatoes and a fluffy waffle, and, yes, five kinds of mimosas. A few doors down, Welton Street Cafe has been dishing up Caribbean-inflected soul food for more than 20 years (honey hot chicken wings are a favorite), while Rosenberg’s Bagels and Delicatessen buzzes on weekend mornings as patrons pick up their dozen. The secret ingredient? Water filtered to replicate that from New York City taps. One of the newest spots, MBP (for mood, beats, potions), offers entrees like blackened red snapper and New York strip steak, plus dessert martinis, on its back patio, as well as live music occasionally.
Among the neighborhood’s cultural institutions, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance celebrated 50 years in 2020; the company also offers classes for all ages, including outdoor Zumba, and maintains a theater in a renovated church. Another cultural gem, the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center, is currently closed for restoration. You can get a glimpse into Five Points’ trajectory via a self-guided walking tour that highlights the neighbor’s history through short accounts and photos posted on some of Welton’s buildings.