High Time in Mile High!
Hi! It’s us, Paul and Annie! We are on a grand adventure across the U.S., living for a month each in a variety of cities we’re interested in. The origin story of that nutso decision is here.
When we were first planning this nomadic extravaganza, there were really only two cities that we knew for sure we wanted on the list based on the criteria that mattered to us. Portland, Oregon was one. Denver, Colorado was the other. Besides the San Francisco Bay Area, these were the places that we thought had the best shot at being our longer-term home.
After an absolutely fantastic month in Portland — which we attempted to capture in this blog post — we once again packed Paul’s Subaru Crosstrek to the gills in early August, and drove 16 hours from the Beaver State to the Centennial State. After an overnight stay in Eden, Idaho (population: 397; potato quality: 10/10), and a very relaxing change-of-scenery week in North Park, Colorado (population: mostly wild animals), we arrived in Denver, CO.
Both Paul and I had been to the Mile High City several times previously and had a great time. It checks a lot of the boxes we’re looking for in a potential home: access to nature, relative affordability, bikeability/walkability, progressive values, etc. Paul also has a lot of personal ties to the city. He grew up in the Rockies, his folks live in Wyoming, his brother lives in Denver proper, he has cousins and an aunt and uncle in the area, his family’s multi-generational cabin is a few hours away. I have fewer personal ties, but do have several coworkers and friends based in DEN.
And similar to Portland, a month of living in Denver further solidified our interest in the city.
On our way out of Denver in early September, we did the same thing as when we left Portland: we each wrote up a few questions and shared them with one other ahead of time, then talked about our answers during the drive. Some questions were the same as our Portland ones; some were different. We recorded the whole conversation. Then, I took the transcript and edited it into the below. Here are the questions that made the cut!
- Describe Denver in 3 adjectives. Why those adjectives?
- If you had to write your own “36 hours in Denver” article, what would be on it?
- If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about Denver, what would it be?
- In the grand decision of where we might want to live longer-term, what are 3 reasons Portland might win out over Denver?
- In the grand decision of where we might want to live longer-term, what are 3 reasons Denver might win out over Portland?
- Our five favorite restaurants in Denver!
Q1: Describe Denver in three adjectives. Why those adjectives?
Paul: So, I came up with three “h” words. I would describe Denver as high, hoppy, and historic. Each of them has multiple meanings!
“High” has a few different connotations. One is that Denver is literally up in the mountains, right? There’s high elevation. The air is thin. Going to the mountains is one of the greatest parts of living here. But it’s also a place where people have a lot of natural high energy, in order to do all these athletic things like climbing mountains, skiing, etc. And to counteract that high energy, lots of people like to get high. It’s one of the first states to legalize marijuana, and weed is a pretty big part of the culture. Finally, people seem to think very highly of themselves in Denver. Listening to how some folks were talking, I think folks here don’t see there as being other peer cities, really. It’s not like Portland, which sits between Seattle and SF. Denver is its own thing, and Denverites seem to think highly of that.
Ok, now “hoppy.” I think there’s three things under this. “Hoppy,” in the sense that people seem busy all the time, doing all kinds of sports. Colorado is the healthiest state in the country by a lot of metrics, and it’s because people are so active, going up mountains, cycling, skiing, snowboarding, hiking. But of course also “hoppy” in the sense of hoppy beers! We were staying in the RiNo (River North) neighborhood, and gosh how many breweries were near us? It’s a great beer culture. And finally, people hop into Denver quite a bit. It’s a transplant city. Someone being born and raised in Denver, and who stayed here, is basically an unicorn.
Annie: Wow, love all these meanings in your adjectives!
Paul: Yea, for each of these, you’re getting a little bit more for your money’s worth than just one thing. It’s like triple-triple entendres.
All right my last adjective is historic, which admittedly is not a perfect word for what I want to express. It’s this idea that Denver is in search of what its ultimate identity is. It’s stuck between history and future. Historically, it was kind of a small cow town. It has been, in some ways, libertarian, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, like a lot of the West, a part of that pioneer mindset. On the other side is the massive amount of people who have been coming in. The last 15, 20 years, the population of the Front Range basically doubled, and that’s changed this place a lot. We were looking at numbers from more recent elections, and Denver is one of the most progressive cities in the country — even more so than Portland (in 2020, 79.6% of Denver County — vs 79.2% of Multnomah County, where Portland is — voted for Biden; for comparison, 80.2% of Alameda County, where Oakland is, went Biden). So Denver is not a city that has one perfect, united holistic history. It’s trying to define what it actually wants to be moving forward.
Annie: I love that. Three adjectives, except each of them has like four parts. So we got a 12-parter.
Paul: Yeah, that’s why they call me 12-part Paul in Denver. Let’s turn it over to you! What are your three adjectives?
Annie: Yeah, I wasn’t as extra with mine. Okay, maybe a little extra, in that my first two aren’t actually real adjectives.
My first “adjective” is something we’ve been talking about a lot, which is “Type 2.” For those of you who do not know, apparently somebody out there decided to distinguish between different types of fun. See graphic below!
So many iconic activities in Denver seem to fall into Type 2 fun, at least for me. There’s probably no better example than hiking up a 14er (mountain peaks above 14,000 feet — Colorado has 58 of these, by far the most in the country). We went up Mount Bierstadt, and for me, that experience involved getting nauseous even just driving up the mountain roads to the trailhead, and having to sit in the car for half an hour just to avoid throwing up, before the hike even started. We also had to wake up at 4:00am, which is not exactly fun for me. And by the time we were almost at the peak, I was dizzy from the altitude. And breathing is super hard at that height, so even though the distance wasn’t too bad, you just could not catch your breath.
So yea, the hike itself — I wouldn’t describe it as fun during it. But in retrospect, I’m really proud and glad that we did it. It was just such a memorable experience, the view from up there was amazing, anything you eat after that is the best food ever, the sleep you have that night is the best sleep ever. So, absolutely the core definition of Type 2 fun, and while it may seem like an extreme example, I feel like it’s just a normal Tuesday or something for a lot of Coloradans? People in Portland seem really active too, but I think Portland is active in a slightly more “normal” way, maybe more Type 1 or 1.5, where you go for a nice bike ride or something, get a sweat going, but you’re not like, you know, dizzy and wanting to throw up. So yup, Type 2 is my first “adjective” for Denver.
The second adjective — also not one word — is “no frills.” That’s where Denver seems to really excel. For example, when it comes to food, they do traditional and authentic well. They’re not usually trying to do anything too fancy. It’s just meant to be, like, a good, traditional burrito, exactly what you’d expect. By the way, Portland could not be more different in this regard. Portland is like frills out the gills. Everything is fusion, creative.
All right, for the last adjective, I ended up with “proud.” I think this maybe overlaps with what you were talking about, in that I got the sense that some people in Denver think this is just like the best place on earth. They’re very proud of this city, and wouldn’t live anywhere else. I think that can come out in both positive and negative ways. Positive, as in the tremendous amount of local pride, including the fanaticism around the local sports teams, etc. The negative is that it can come across as arrogance, like there’s no city that can even remotely compare to Denver. We listened to a podcast where Salt Lake City was trying to compare themselves to Denver, and the Denverites were not having any of it. They just did not even want to think about Salt Lake City.
Paul: Great adjectives! I’m proud of you. Hopefully recording this conversation is not Type 2 fun. And hopefully reading the blog post is not Type 3 fun.
Q2: New York Times used to do these “36 hours in [city]” articles, where they recommend what to do if someone was in town for 36 hours. If you had to write your own “36 hours in Denver,” what would be on it?
Paul and I came up with answers to this question separately, but there was so much overlap between us that we decided to combine our lists into one!
- Onefold (8:00 AM): Start the day right with brunch at Onefold, which serves delicious dishes such as Chinese sausage fried rice and duck fat congee.
- Cherry Creek Trail (9:00 AM): Get your blood flowing via this lovely, paved bike trail! The Cherry Creek Trail starts at Confluence Park, which is where the city of Denver was founded, and where the South Platte and the Cherry Creek split off from one another.
- Mile High Stadium (10:00 AM): Join the tailgate at the Denver Broncos’ football stadium, which locals will forever refer to as Mile High no matter how much the Empowered folks pay to get their name on the stadium. Then catch the game at 11, and hope the Broncos don’t lose 16 to 17 like they seem wont to do. If it’s not NFL season, see if you can catch another one of Denver’s many, many professional sports teams: Rockies, Nuggets, Avalanche, Rapids, etc.
- Breweries @ RiNo / Five Points (2:30 PM): Go brewery-hopping in the lively Five Points / RiNo district! Spangalang is an unique jazz-themed one. Bierstadt Lagerhaus focuses on German lagers and has a giant space full of giant games (think mega-sized Connect Four, or beer pong but instead of cups, they use 55-gallon oil drums). Odell Brewing is a Colorado favorite.
- Sushi Den (5:00 PM): Get an early dinner at Sushi Den in the adorable South Pearl Street neighborhood to freshen up your taste buds. Pricier but really high-quality food. Be sure to get the miso cod, which absolutely floored us (we are drooling right now as we type this).
- Red Rocks Amphitheater (7:00 PM): Drive to nearby Morrison to catch an artist you like at this beautiful, oh-so-majestic outdoors concert venue. Wedged into giant, epic red rocks, this is truly one of the most unique places to experience live music. Soak in all that amazing surround sound in the middle of the mountains! After the concert, go to bed ASAP, because… (see Monday below!)
- Mount Evans (6:00 AM): Yes, you do have to wake up at 4:00 AM for this. Mount Evans is another great 14er, a bit easier and quicker than Mount Bierstadt. Go up as the sun is coming up, breathe in that fresh mountain air (you’ll have to breathe pretty hard for it), take in the majesty of the Rockies. Paul suggests that you have a summit beer at the peak; Annie is less sure given you might already be dizzy at that altitude. Take pride in having summited a super tall mountain before it’s even noon!
- Swift Breakfast House & art galleries (Noon): Go to the colorful Santa Fe Arts District and devour a green chile smothered scramble at Swift, a no-frills, old-school Mexican diner. It will be the best breakfast you’ve ever had, in part because anything you eat after climbing a 14er will be the best thing ever, but also because the dish is legitimately so, so satisfying. Cheap, too. Expect full food coma afterward. The good thing is the neighborhood has a lot of independent art galleries, so you can check out art and walk off some carbs at the same time!
- Colorado State Capitol (2:00 PM): Walk around and inside the magnificent Colorado State Capitol. Take a photo at the Capitol step that is literally the place in Denver that is 5,280 feet, AKA one mile, high. The adjacent Cap Hill neighborhood is also super vibrant and green.
- Botanical Gardens & Cheesman Park (3:00 PM): Learn about native Rocky Mountain plants (and non-native plants) at the Denver Botanical Gardens, which was 200% more fun than we expected when we visited. The bonsai section is bizarrely fascinating. Then, walk around Cheesman Park; take a nap if you are not yet recovered from your Swift-induced food coma.
- Union Station & Tavernetta (6:00 PM): Grand, refurbished train station that is beloved by many public transit nerds (Annie included). Besides revitalizing a whole neighborhood and serving as a central transportation hub, Union Station also houses several excellent restaurants. Stop by Tavernetta and grab an absolutely delicious Italian meal as a final little goodbye kiss to Denver, before getting on the RTD (Denver’s public transit system) to head to the airport.
Q3: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about Denver, what would it be?
Annie: My interpretation of this question, since it’s about magic wands and all, is that reality doesn’t apply. So for me, the answer is water.
I grew up around a lot of bodies of water. Taiwan is an island surrounded on all sides by water. California: obviously by lots of water. Chicago is near a giant lake. And so coming to Denver, one thing that was pretty noticeable to me is just that there’s not a lot of water. It’s a very landlocked state, that also doesn’t have a ton of lakes. It does have a river and a creek running through the city, but they’re both pretty small. You look around, and there’s a lot of mountains, right? That’s absolutely the defining geological feature here. But there’s just a very clear scarcity of large bodies of water.
That really jumps out at me because of what I’m used to. I love being around water. I find bodies of water to be really beautiful. So if I could wave a magic wand, I would quadruple the size of the South Platte River or suddenly create giant lakes in the middle of the city or something.
Paul: Well you know, if climate change continues, the ocean might eventually come right up to the city.
Annie: Oh yeah. And also there are some cities like Salt Lake where their giant lake has actually become toxic over time. So I guess you just never know really. Okay, what about you?
Paul: So with my magic wand, I’m gonna point it towards transit in Denver. I think there’s the bones of some really great transit in Denver. There’s bike lanes all over the place. But it’s also a city that’s got pretty bad traffic.
We didn’t have to contend with it too much ourselves during our month, but it can definitely take a while to get places. RTD is the local transit system, and again the bones of it are good, but the trains just don’t run very often and they don’t run super on time. And roads in Downtown Denver are a mash-up of a lot of different orientations. They’re not the most intuitive. So yea, I would use my magic wand on a really well designed public transit system and a redesign of some of the roads, so that traffic is less bad.
Q5.1: In the grand decision of where we might want to live longer-term, what are 3 reasons Portland might win out over Denver?
This question is phrased like this on purpose. Throughout these blog posts, we’ve touched on various things we like or don’t like about Portland and Denver. But it’s a different calculus to think about why one might choose to live somewhere. It requires us to examine what really matters to us in a place to call home.
Annie: So Portland and Denver have some similarities, right? It’s one of the reasons they were both on our list. If I were to think about why Portland might win out as a place to live, though, the first thing that comes to mind is something I’ve mentioned earlier: water.
Portland to me is an absolutely gorgeous city, for a lot of reasons, but I think a big part is the river that is such a central part of life there. It’s also not too far from the ocean, and lakes. And there’s something very romantic to me about water, and the sort of infrastructure (like bridges) that go over water. Being able to see the Willamette River and the various bridges in Portland every day, was a very soothing thing for me.
As I mentioned earlier, Denver just doesn’t have a ton of water. And water sort of feels like home to me, because I’ve lived mostly in places that are near them. I know it’s weird to include that in my considerations for where to live, but there’s really something about water that is emotional for me.
Another reason Portland might win over Denver, is that it’s a more manageable city. Portland and Denver are actually not drastically different population-wise (Portland = ~635k and Denver = ~713k in 2022). But maybe because of the way the city is built, Portland feels like a significantly more accessible place. Things felt a lot easier and quicker to get to. We were on our bikes all the time. Part of that is it was July and it was absolutely gorgeous weather every day, but also part of it is it genuinely felt like we could get to everything within a 20-minute bike ride. You don’t have to be as dependent on a car. In Denver, I think you do have to use your car quite a bit because the city is just much more spread out.
My third reason is related, which is that Portland feels like a much smaller town in terms of attitude. Denver is the biggest city for 500 miles in every direction, so it kinda considers itself the center of the universe in the Rockies. Portland, though, is like the little brother stuck between Seattle and San Francisco. I think it has a little brother attitude too, like a bit of a chip on its shoulder. It wants to be different, wants to be quirky. And there was just much more of a smaller-town feel. People were really friendly, like we had multiple strangers open doors for us. Very strong sense of local community. And I do love that smaller-town friendly, community feel.
Paul: All right, three reasons I might choose Portland over Denver. One is similar to yours. It’s on the west coast, so it has that ability to be closer to the ocean. Oregon beaches are really, really pretty. It’s also close to California, and close to Seattle. It has access to a lot of really cool places along the west coast. It also has that west coast lifestyle, you know — kind of laid back. It’s something that I’ve spent most of my adult life in, and something I really, really like.
Another reason I might choose Portland, is that I think it’s actually a more unique city. It’s got a strangeness, a sense of humor, that is really distinct. The food expresses itself in really creative, interesting ways. It’s got that Pacific Northwest kookiness that I find really endearing. I’m curious how that feeling might change over time, but I like it from the exposure I’ve had.
Finally, I think living in Portland would be a great next adventure. We don’t really have any ties to it. It’s all going to be new stuff for us, basically. And that is in some ways so, so attractive. I think that’s one of the great parts of this whole trip: that we get to just constantly be in discovery mode, and I think that would be one of the really cool benefits that Portland would have over Denver, because Denver is a place that I personally feel like I know quite a bit better.
Q5.2: In the grand decision of where we might want to live longer-term, what are 3 reasons Denver might win out over Portland?
Paul: So, I think the first reason for me is basically the Colorado lifestyle.
Annie: Type 2 fun.
Paul: A lot of Type 2 fun, but also sometimes you do so much Type 2 fun, the Type 2 becomes Type 1! So the Colorado lifestyle, which is super active. Outdoor adventures here are seemingly never-ending. And it’s year round, too. People do a lot of activities outside in the summer but also, the snow and the winter certainly don’t stop people. In fact people lean into it super hard. Winter is some people’s favorite time of year in Colorado.
My second reason is a little more personal, which is that my community in Denver is probably the best of any city for me. I’ve got a lot of family nearby. Like my folks got to come up for Labor Day weekend, and my brother lives in town. We got to hang out with my cousin Stephanie a couple of times. My grandma and uncle live just a few hours away in North Park. So there’s definitely the familial aspect. But also, I think the kind of people that are in Denver tend to be really friendly and open, and are people I like a lot. Not that this wasn’t the case in Portland necessarily, but for me it was easy to fall into conversations with people in Denver. And, you know, I relate to a lot of what the community here likes. I’m a big Broncos fan, for example, so there’s that aspect of community, too.
And I think the job community feels stronger in Denver than in Portland. It feels like there’s more opportunities for employment in the areas where I would want to work. Like there’s some game studios, there’s some tech stuff. And I think that scene doesn’t exist as much in Portland, or if it did, it’d need to be something more entrepreneurial, something you have to build out. Denver is certainly not at the same level as the Bay Area or even LA, but I think it would probably be easier for me to get a job in Colorado than Portland.
Ok, my third reason, is that Denver just sort of has that ineffable feeling of being home? I think I feel that pretty strongly, just like walking around a park, or biking down Champa Street, and just breathing in the air, and just feeling that good feeling. Like I’m a part of the thing. There’s just a oneness and a connectedness that I think is really cool. And I think it’s a thing that I could develop in other places too, but I actively feel it in Denver.
Annie: Do you think it’s because you are from the Rockies? (Paul spent a lot of his childhood and teenage years in Wyoming.)
Paul: I think that’s definitely a part of it. There’s just a familiarity that comes with that. I also think being around my family, being around people you love, creates a sense of community and belonging. So yea I think my second reason why Denver might win impacts my third one quite a bit. The city certainly has its issues, but it’s also a pretty great place that I’ve really come to feel good about.
Annie: Yea, I remember when we were staying in Idaho overnight on our drive from Portland to Denver. We came out of the car, and you immediately were like, “ahhh, it smells like a Rocky Mountains summer night here.” You could smell it out there. It’s something that I can’t smell. It doesn’t stand out to me. But obviously, you growing up in the area gives it a different feel for you. Both the literal smell, and the emotional part of it.
Starting this whole trip, we obviously had a set of criteria we had discussed, that are important to us, that’s informed the cities we’ve picked so far. But I think we’ve always known that such a big part of this decision is also the does-it-feel-like-home factor that you can’t really effectively capture in a spreadsheet.
Paul: Yea, absolutely. Like, you feel it in your gut, you feel it in your lungs, that there are some cities where you belong.
Annie: Yea there are some cities where you feel it in your lungs that you take in just too much air every time you breathe, and so it doesn’t feel like home.
Paul: Yea, like man, the oxygen is just too high here.
Annie: Exactly. Okay. So for me, why might Denver win out over Portland as a place to live? The first one for me is also community. Earlier I talked about loving Portland’s sense of local community pride. But when it comes to personal community, we really don’t have one in Portland. We know close to no one there. And Denver is such a different story, right? I have coworkers in Denver. I actually got to go to an office twice a week and hang out with my coworkers, face to face, which just feels so special. And you and I both have some friends in Denver. (Hi Jami! Thanks for hosting us! Your chicken piccata was great! And hi Dev!) And of course we got to hang out with your brother a bunch and your cousin too. Your folks visited us for Labor Day weekend. Our own personal community is so much stronger in Denver than Portland.
My second reason is something you touched on too: career. I think Denver, just by nature of being a bigger city, by nature of being the biggest city for miles and miles a miles in the region, has a lot more of the kinds of jobs that might interest us in general. I’m feeling very privileged that my current job is letting me do this nomadic lifestyle, and it’s probably not a coincidence that I have multiple coworkers in Denver. It’s just a bigger hub than Portland for these types of jobs and talent.
And then my third reason is maybe not shocking given some of the things I said when we were recording our reflections from Portland. I think Denver hands-down wins over Portland when it comes to sun. I love sunshine. Rain is obviously necessary and good, and we talked about how rain is a big reason why Oregon is so green. But I’m somebody who just loves the sun, loves to be warm. Many friends know that I’m kind of obsessed with south-facing windows because of all the sunlight they let in. And a lot of people talk about how Denver has 300 days of sunshine a year. It’s one of the cities in the country that gets the most days of sun in a year.
Paul: Yea, although ironically that did not line up with what we experienced this past month.
Annie: Yea for sure. Because we were in Portland in July, it was sunny and gorgeous every single day, whereas Denver gets a lot of those Rocky Mountains thunderstorms that are normal in the summer. But obviously, Portland has a reputation for being really rainy in the other seasons. I know a lot of people get seasonal depression there, and I can imagine that happening to me too if I lived there. And Denver, even when we were here last winter, there was snow all over the ground, but it was still really sunny. And we were walking around with snow boots and sunglasses on. I don’t really mind the snow, but I love the sun. And so I think that might actually make a pretty big difference between Denver and Portland.
And finally… our five favorite restaurants in Denver — jointly decided! (plus two personal favorites from each of us)
Not gonna lie, it took us some time to get into the food groove in Denver. We had been consistently delighted by Eater’s restaurant recommendations in San Francisco, Oakland, and Portland. But for some reason, many Eater highlights in Denver simply did not impress. After a few disappointments in our first week, we started relying more heavily on our friends and coworkers (and Google) for suggestions, and that led us to many restaurants we loved. Including some of the no-frills type of places that don’t usually make it onto Eater lists as much (Eater tends to spotlight more creative places that are $$+ by Yelp pricing standards). And as mentioned earlier, our experience is that the no-frills, $ places seem to be where Denver really shines, even though it certainly also has some excellent $$+ restaurants. Our list below ended up being a mix of both.
In no particular order:
- Swift (Santa Fe): Cheap, no-frills, old-school Mexican breakfast diner. The green-chile-smothered scramble makes my list for favorite breakfast dishes ever.
- Star Kitchen (Federal): Denver’s Asian population is proportionally small (3.6% in 2022) and as such the city can’t compete with the likes of LA or New York or the South Bay for Chinese food (next-door Aurora, on the other hand, seems to have a lot of great Asian restaurants). But the Federal Blvd area has some gems — including this jam-packed dim sum spot. Fun vibes too. They also let you add yourself to their (long) waitlist on their website, which is practically unheard of for authentic dim sum restaurants.
- Tavernetta (Union Station): From the same people behind Boulder’s Frasca, but in our opinion, significantly better. Pricey, but oh-so-worth-it, Italian food. Best pork chop and cocktail we’ve ever had.
- Safta (Source Hotel): Fresh, creative hummus with warm pita bread, plus dishes that will make you feel so happy, so stuffed, and not gross afterward (a rare combination). Inside the lively Source Hotel, which has multiple restaurants and a rooftop bar.
- Bastien’s (Congress Park): With a giant sign outside that says “Home of the Sugar Steak,” this place both intrigued and concerned us. Like, is “sugar steak” something one should put inside their bodies? Turns out, the answer is very much yes. The sugar-caramelized crust makes this truly delicious without being too sweet. Paul got the Veal Masala and that, too, was great. And so was their Grilled Caesar Salad, somehow? Also a fun, old-timey atmosphere.
- [Paul’s honorable mention #1] Tocabe (Berkeley): Chipotle-style indigenous food. Affordable, quick, delicious.
- [Paul’s honorable mention #2] El Taco de Mexico (Santa Fe): Giant, no-frills burritos that absolutely satisfy. Get them smothered. Obviously.
- [Annie’s honorable mention #1] Kiké’s Red Tacos (Highland-ish): Beef birria tacos with fried red corn tortilla, that you dip in consomé (thick broth). You will immediately become my best friend if you bring these to my parties.
- [Annie’s honorable mention #2] Old Town Hot Pot (Aurora): Affordable, all-you-can-eat hot pot. So satisfying. Such great comfort food.