At first glance Denver can look, well, dull. On the surface, the Mile-High City greets a visitor with sprawl, unassuming skyscrapers, and strip malls -- but try to shake off those first impressions. Dig deeper and you'll click into a vibrant cultural scene and find an underrated city dotted with secret hideaways that ooze everything from hipster funk to world-class luxury. Note too that this is a city filled with highly educated, extremely fit, and very active fans of fun who shift seamlessly from a morning shredding powder snow in the nearby Rocky Mountains to an evening of sipping mojitos and salsa dancing.
The city itself is in the midst of an urban revival. After the oil bust of the 1980s, the downtown area was nearly vacant. But the building of Coors Field and the revitalization of the formerly frightening lower-downtown neighborhood -- known affectionately as LoDo -- in the early 1990s sparked a trendy urban renaissance. Gay culture revolves around LoDo, where you'll find chic restaurants, bars, and clubs, and more traditionally around the Capitol Hill neighborhood and slightly seedy yet authentically urban Colfax Avenue.
These days Denver has evolved from the world's biggest sports bar into a far more erudite place that is embracing cosmopolitan and alternative mores. It has always been the commercial and industrial center for the Rocky Mountain region, but it is recently becoming a national hot spot for the arts and food and wine. Its nascent cosmopolitan qualities combined with its outdoor-sports offerings are a big draw for well-educated young professionals looking to indulge in healthy living.
Although Colorado is home to some of the most virulent antigay politicos on the planet -- chief among them Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, who has sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and James Dobson, homophobic founder of Focus on the Family -- Denver (also referred to as the Queen City of the Plains) is quite supportive of queer culture. Bolstered every summer by a major gay rodeo and the exuberant PrideFest, as one of the best LGBT pride events in the country, the gay scene here is only slightly more conservative than in coastal metropolises and is very focused on active lifestyles. Out on the town you'll meet frat boys, cowboys, mountain-hardened athletes, and a strong, extremely outdoorsy lesbian population. All of it adds up to a city that stands in proud defiance of Colorado's wing-nut provincial politicians.
AM One thing that outsiders don't realize about Denver is that even in the winter the weather can be quite pleasant. While the average temperature in February is a chilly 33 degrees, it's not unusual to see mid-winter highs in the 50s and even upper 60s along with high-altitude sunshine, so spend the morning walking around the city's renovated downtown. Ease into the day with a chocolate croissant and cappuccino at the cozy independent Tattered Cover Book Store in LoDo (1628 16th St.; 303-436-1070). Then peruse the two stories of books, including an excellent gay and lesbian section. From there, wander down to Larimer Square, the heart of LoDo, and shop at trendy boutiques like Cry Baby Ranch (1421 Larimer St.; 303-623-3979), which has such varied goods as boots and kitschy-cool cowgirl knickknacks. For lunch (and perhaps a margarita), head to gay-friendly Benny's (301 E. 7th Ave.; 303-894-0788) and be sure to try the green chili or chili rellenos. Then it's on to an afternoon at the Denver Art Museum (100 W. 14the Ave. Pkwy.; 720-865-5000) to explore the lurching architectural angles and eclectic collections (contemporary Chinese, Oceanic, and others) in the brand-new wing designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. On Friday. nights the museum stays open until 10.
PM For your first night out, head back to Larimer Square and dine at one of the city's chic standbys -- Rioja (1431 Larimer St.; 303-820-2282), which serves up original Mediterranean dishes in a classy atmosphere accentuated by blown-glass fixtures. Denverites like to party, and for a dose of classic raucous cow-town nightlife, the one place you have to visit is Charlie's (900 E. Colfax Ave.; 303-839-8890), a wood-paneled, down-and-dirty, gay (but also hetero-friendly) country-and-western dance bar. It's not just about line dancing there -- some nights feature karaoke, and on others DJs spin alternative beats.
AM It's time to work off the indulgences of the previous day. The mind-set of Denver reaches far beyond the sprawl of the city and into the surrounding mountains. Start your outdoor excursion at the historic renovated 94,000-square-foot tramway building that now houses REI's Denver Flagship Store (1416 Platte St.; 303-756-3100), where you can shop for technical outdoor gear and apparel, rock-climb indoors on a 45-foot man-made pinnacle, or rent snowshoes; the store also offers orientation classes for different outdoor activities. For a taste of the mountains, head up on a two-hour scenic drive to Rocky Mountain National Park (970-586-1206). The trails around Bear Lake are quite popular for good reason; they lead up to stunning frozen alpine lakes (quite often you can even hike in the park without snowshoes in winter). On your drive back, be sure to stop at The Kitchen in Boulder (1039 Pearl St.; 303-544-5973), a restaurant that fully embraces the healthy green-centric town's sustainable vibe by purchasing wind power for energy, using natural and organic foods, and serving up some of the best cuisine in Colorado. If you want resort skiing or snowboarding, make the hour-and-a-half drive up to Breckenridge (central reservation line: 877 -234-3981), which has earned a solid rep as a gay-friendly ski resort. It's also worth perusing the home page of the Gay and Lesbian Sierrans (303-861-8819) to learn about local gay outdoor events and outings for Sierra Club members.
PM Warm up by digging into authentic Cuban cuisine and mojitos at Cuba Cuba (1173 Delaware St.; 303-605-2822), where chef Enrique Socarras serves family recipes with a nouveau twist in an old house painted with Caribbean flair. Then move to the DJ beats at raucous gay club The Compound (145 Broadway; 303-722-7977). And even though it is not a gay venue, it's worth checking out The Church (1160 Lincoln St.; 303-832-3528), housed in (you guessed it) an old church with stained glass windows (and a hip-hop dungeon) that has been converted into a multiroom, multithemed dance club.
AM It's time to explore Denver's funky hipster underbelly. Broadway is the epicenter of the city's thrift stores, antique shops, and alternative-art vibe. Don't miss Flossy McGrew's (1824 S. Broadway; 303-778-0853), a thrift and costume store decorated with silver-painted bones and filled with memento mori and coffins -- all overseen by an aging punk rocker who calls herself Grandma Gothe. But that's just the beginning of kitsch, junk, and real deals you'll find on South Broadway's Antique Row. When you are done browsing, catch a foreign-film matinee at the renovated art deco Mayan Theatre (110 Broadway; 303-352-1992), a historic landmark movie house with a bar attached. If it's a balmy day (Denver enjoys about 300 sunny days a year), head to the Denver Zoo (2300 Steele St.; 303-376-3800) or the Denver Botanic Gardens (1005 York St.; 720-865-3500) to stroll away the afternoon.
PM Celebrate your last night in Denver at swank Table 6 (609 Corona St.; 303-831-8800), an American-style bistro with arguably the best wine list in the city. Then party out in frat-boy style with cosmopolitans and Jagermeister-Red Bull bombs at JR.'s Bar & Grill (777 E. 17the Ave.; 303-831-0459), the massive double-decker center of the gay party scene in Denver. Don't miss Feygele Feud, a drag queen-hosted game show on Saturday nights.
The local joke is that DIA (Denver International Airport; 303-342-2000) is in Kansas, since it's out on the plains about 35 miles east of downtown. But that's a good thing -- all that space makes it one of the most pleasant airports (if such a thing can exist) in the country, despite being one of the world's busiest. It's a major hub for United Airlines (800-864-8331), which serves a long list of cities in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and farther abroad. Friendly, efficient Frontier Airlines (800-432-1359) is based out of Denver and rates high among frequent travelers.
Check into the most unusual place to stay in Denver: the historic, luxurious Hotel Teatro (1100 14the St; 303-228-1100). Decorated with memorabilia from the neighboring Denver Center for the Performing Arts (1101 13the St.; 303-893-4100), the hotel features two upscale restaurants -- Restaurant Kevin Taylor (303-820-2600) for French fare and Prima Ristorante (303-228-0770) for Italian (Taylor oversees the Teatro's room service too). Another solid upscale option is the classy independent Magnolia Hotel (818 17the St.; 888-915-1110). The Warwick Denver Hotel (1776 Grant St.; 303-861-2000) has the reputation as the most gay-friendly hotel in the Queen City of the Plains. All three hotels are in the thick of downtown action.