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Denver, for me, was always a passing through kind of place. Servicing over 50 million passengers a year, Denver International Airport is the third largest domestic connection network in the United States. That’s why I’d been to Denver often, but never left the airport.

This time, instead of spending an hour or two, I decided to stay a few days. The mile-high city’s new airport express train whisked me downtown in a quick 40 minutes. The $9 ticket fee also allowed me to use local transportation in the city that day. The train dropped me off at the rehabbed Union Station. Unlike formal structures such as Toronto’s Union Station, or New York’s frenetic Penn Station, this historic site was laid back. It felt more like a hotel lobby than a transportation hub. Poking around, I learned there is a good reason for that. On one side was the check-in counter for The Crawford Hotel. The rooms were above the station, and guests could look down on the comings and goings of the central hall where I was standing. A former ticket counter had a line-up of people waiting to purchase craft beer. Comfy chairs were grouped in conversation pits, old trunks were turned into coffee tables, and a flower vendor was arranging brightly colored blooms for some customers.

“The station was derelict for a long time since we only had two trains running through. But government Partner Agencies put a plan together to turn it into a shopping, dining, hotel and transportation centre. After being renovated, it reopened two years ago,” explained Rich Grant, former head of Denver Tourism and author of 100 Things to do in Denver Before You Die. Tucked into one corner was a lovely gift shop with local, hand-crafted items. Restaurants included the bustling Snooze, which specialized in breakfast and lunch. I popped in for a filling brunch of pancakes, buttery eggs and spicy taquitos.

Catching the free bus that ran up and down 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian-only strip of restaurants and shops, I was let off two blocks away from my accommodation, Hotel Teatro, which looked to be the same vintage as the train station. Walking into the boutique hotel the first thing I saw was the lobby café/lounge with shelves full of books, antique curios and an espresso coffee bar. Although it was a pet friendly establishment (Sheryl Crow, Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera have all stayed here with their pooches), I didn’t see any canine guests when I checked in, just a big wedding party.

I had been in touch with Rich before I arrived and he kindly offered to show me around the city. First, he pointed out the iconic 40-foot high Blue Bear statue outside the Convention Center, then we headed to the Tattered Cover, an independent bookstore with a display of books celebrating Asian Heritage Month. Outside, a fellow sat in front of a typewriter and offered to write me a poem for $5. I didn’t go for it, but I admired his entrepreneurial spirit. At Rockmount Ranch Wear, where the snap-button Western shirt was invented by owner “Papa” Jack Weil in 1946, I tried on cowboy hats and ogled the boots. Ducking into the historic Brown Palace Hotel & Spa, we observed ladies enjoying high tea. For those who enjoy a different amber beverage, Denver has more than 100 brewpubs, breweries and tap rooms. At Wynkoop Brewing Company we stopped to take pictures with the same bronze gorilla American President Barak Obama was snapped with when he visited a few years ago. As for shopping, Rich left me to wander Larimer Square, a block of restored Victorian buildings housing some great boutiques. My favorite was Cry Baby Ranch, with upscale women’s western wear. Having worked up an appetite, I spied TAG restaurant a few storefronts down and indulged in a fiery hot sushi roll of yellowfin tuna, avocado, and jalapeno.

The next day was devoted to culture. I started off at the Denver Museum of Art where I was astounded by the exhaustive Native American gallery. Tribes from all over North America were represented and I marvelled at the intricate beadwork, cradleboards and special regalia that was on display. Next door at the Clyfford Still Museum hung large, abstract paintings by Clyfford Still, who was revered by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and is considered one the 20th century’s most creative minds.
At lunchtime I headed to the southwestern part of the city. There is a small but thriving Vietnamese population in Denver, and the Far East Center was home to the Saigon Bowl. My waiter, who was from Hue, guaranteed an authentic experience. I ordered Banh Xeo and Bun Rieu Cua. Baskets of fresh herbs appeared on the table, as did a delicate fish sauce. The Banh Xeo was delicious, light and flavorful. The steaming bowl of Bun Rieu Cua was tasty as well but was so huge I sadly couldn’t eat it all. After, I headed to the Little Saigon supermarket on a quest for Chin-Su sauce. No luck. I settled for Sriracha.

Downtown Denver is easily discovered by bicycle, so I picked up some wheels from a Denver B-cycle station– there are 80 located throughout the city. After swiping my credit card for the $9 daily pass, I pedaled through leafy neighborhoods including Capitol Hill, where I came upon the Molly Brown house. Margaret Brown, a wealthy Denver resident during the city’s gold rush days, gained fame as a Titanic survivor. Feisty and vocal, she fought for the rights of women and workers. A Broadway play and movie, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, was made about her life. For dinner that night I took a cab to the up-and-coming RiNo district (River North), a former industrial area now embraced by artists. Acorn specialized in small plates and is located in The Source, an artisanal food market housed in an old warehouse. I sat at the counter and watched my octopus being grilled. Lightly charred and moist inside, it was a surprising delight.

This was only the beginning. Denver has lots more to see and do. I think that’s a good reason to go back and stay awhile.

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Maureen LittleJohn
Maureen Littlejohn is Culture Magazin's executive editor. She is a Canadian award-winning journalist who has practiced her craft around the world including in the United States, Africa and Vietnam. Currently based in Toronto, she has a keen eye for detail and has a deep appreciation for the “East Meets West” approach of Culture Magazin. Travel is her passion and she is happy to be able to share her adventures on a regular basis with the magazine's readers.