Surprises abound on our first ever visit to Denver

While Kristi and I have been travelling to Colorado regularly for the past five years, we’ve never visited downtown Denver. Airport, I-70, mountains. The occasion of the Denver Art Museum’s Edgar Degas exhibit changed that.

For at least the past 20 years, Denver has had buzz. Everyone wants to move there. The people who do live there rave about it. It has great weather, arts, culture, pro sports, outdoor recreation… it was the birthplace of the craft beer movement and has moved on to craft distilling.

After 50 hours in town, we can enthusiastically co-sign on top of two decade’s worth of good reviews from thousands of others.

A visit to Denver begins in its airport which we find to be one of our favorites in the country. Granted, that probably has greatly to do with our love of visiting there, but still, it’s an easy, hospitable, open facility with strong food and retail options. Recently added to the Denver airport is a light rail line which comfortably takes passengers downtown for $9 on a regular schedule in well under an hour. Geographically, Denver’s airport is WAY out of town.

I love light rail and in my dream version of America, travel here more closely resembles travel in Europe on light rail.

To me, for a downtown to be great, before anything else, it must be walkable. I don’t care how good your restaurants or museums or attractions are, if I’m constantly having to get in and out of cabs or on and off busses and trains or, worse yet, drive my own car, I knock you down a peg. Denver’s downtown is perfectly walkable.

From the airport, we took the light rail to Union Station downtown then the free 16th Street trolley to our hotel, the Courtyard Denver Downtown. Piece of cake. Once at the hotel, we could walk everywhere we wanted to go with ease, just how we like it.

Aiding the walkability and no doubt influencing the enjoyment of our visit was the perfect spring weather we enjoyed with bright sunshine and midday temperatures in the 70’s.

I’m working on a theory that posits no place has better good weather than Colorado. Everywhere has good weather at least some part of the year. What I’m arguing is that when the weather is good in Colorado, it’s more pleasant than the good weather anywhere else.

We were in town for art and that’s where our trip fortuitously started, with the Denver art walk held the first Friday of every month from 5:30 – 9:00 PM. The First Friday Art Walk in the the Arts District on Santa Fe is as much festival and a street fair as it is art walk. By the time we left, thousands of people were mingling in the dozen-plus galleries.

That’s both good and bad.

It’s good in that the overflow crowds bring attention to the artists on display and reinforce how much interest exists locally in the arts scene. They also bring along with them a great number of food trucks offering everything from bush meat (elk, boar, etc.) to ice cream. I had a sausage Parmesan hot dog that was fantastic.

The downside to the crush of people being this isn’t a great setting in which to appreciate the art. The crowds are too large to allow individuals the time to take in a piece from all angles – up close, far back, from the sides, slowly.

At times, we were like fish in a school being pushed along by the crowd’s momentum.

Food trucks and crowds at Denver First Friday Art Walk.
Food trucks and crowds at Denver First Friday Art Walk. (Photo credit Chadd Scott / TRAVELING WITHOUT KIDS)

Generally, what was on display in the galleries was too abstract and contemporary for Kristi and my tastes anyhow, although the prices were reasonable in general, and I was able to find a gem tucked away in the corner of Alpine Fine Art, covered in dust, a landscape by and unknown artist which made the trip home to Florida with me.

As I mentioned, the reason for our visit was the Edgar Degas exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. We spent most of Saturday there.

The exhibit featured his well-known ballet dancers, and also fantastic examples of his lesser-known jockey paintings, and one dramatic piece from earlier in his career which particularly caught my eye.

Pictured below you will see “Scene of War in the Middle Ages” on loan all the way from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

This painting, of course, looks nothing like the Impressionist ballet dancers for which he is famous. It is grim. It is heartbreaking.

Cutout of Edgar Degas "Scene of War in the Middle Ages"
Edgar Degas “Scene of War in the Middle Ages”

It could serve as the meat in a sandwich between Francisco Goya’s “Third of May, 1808” and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica from 1937 – my two favorite paintings, respectively.

It communicates the horror of war. The innocent victims. The murder, the rape, the pain, in a way easily understandable without an art history degree, just as the other two paintings do. It was my favorite piece in the exhibit.

Outside of the exhibit, a show-stopping, breath-taking landscape by Sven Birger Sandzen caught both of our eyes. An amazing picture.

Be warned about the Denver Art Museum, however. It’s permanent collection, the Monets, the Pissaros the Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, Albert Bierstadt European, American and Western masterpieces are off display for the next several years while the museum undertakes a $150 million renovation and expansion. That was a bummer to put it mildly as we had worked ourselves up into a fever in anticipation of them.

Sven Birger Sandzen "A Mountain Symphony," Denver Art Museum
Sven Birger Sandzen “A Mountain Symphony,” Denver Art Museum

PRO TIP: The DAM has the best museum store for art lovers I’ve ever seen. If you have an art lover on your gift list and live in the area, take advantage of it.

Another warning to art lovers about museums in Denver. The American Museum of Western Art, the famed Anschutz collection, is only open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Few collections anywhere arrival it, and again, our only being there for the weekend prevented us from seeing it. Another bummer.

As luck would have it, the Saturday we were in Denver was Saturday, May 5 – Cinco de Mayo. Denver has developed a huge festival at Civic Center Park next to the state capitol building around the holiday. The better part of 10,000 people attended.

It just so happened the 5th was also Kentucky Derby day.

As Kristi and I ate lunch and dinner we continued to see dozens and dozens of people walking around downtown dressed in their bowties, summer dresses, and garish hats. All these people couldn’t simply have watched the race at bars.

An investigation led us to find that Denver is also a huge Derby town with an annual, ticketed party downtown that has apparently become quite the rager.

PRO TIP: Short of Churchhill downs, downtown Denver may be your next hot spot to watch the Derby.

Sunday, we concluded our visit with the magnificent brunch at the historic Brown Palace Hotel downtown.

Sunday brunch at the Brown Palace Hotel. (Photo credit Chadd Scott / TRAVELING WITHOUT KIDS)
Sunday brunch at the Brown Palace Hotel. (Photo credit Chadd Scott / TRAVELING WITHOUT KIDS)

Since our brunch reservation was for 12:45, and our being on East Coast time, we ducked in to The Market at Larimer Square for breakfast first. This was outstanding.

We found the Brown Palace brunch to be as delicious as the hotel was beautiful – a high standard. Of course they offered bacon (which was really good) and an omelet station and pancakes and everything you’d expect from a traditional luxury buffet. Putting the Brown Palace brunch over the top, however, were the dessert “area” – guess is the best word to describe it – and oysters on the half shell, a rarity on brunch menus.

I’m no fan of dessert, an avowed enemy of sugar, but this was impressive, including a chocolate fountain. The hotel’s pastry chef manned the station explaining what all of the handmade treats were. I treated myself to a piece of apple pie, the first I’ve had in years, and it was worth the caloric expenditure.

A perfect ending to a wonderful first – of hopefully many – visits to Denver.


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