High Art, Low Stress

07/19/2010 - 20:00
Travel Writer

There’s something about the sight of snowy peaks that instantly cools you off, even in the midst of a long, hot summer. 

Whether wandering around the stately red-brick buildings of downtown Denver or prowling its pretty Victorian neighborhoods, one never loses sight of the shimmering Rockies that make the Mile-High City so picturesque. Amid the bright, clear mountain sunshine, Colorado’s capital offers a breezy, verdant summer retreat, along with plenty of culture to fill the non-skiing months.

Denver seems to exude a mysterious pull on those who have lived there or visited. On a clear, blue-sky day it’s easy to see why. The city itself is small — about 600,000 residents in a metro area roughly five times that — but surprisingly cosmopolitan, with year-round events for athletes and culture vultures alike.

Founded during the rugged, pioneering era of mid-19th-century mining, Denver retains a very Western openness, an anything-goes spirit that fosters a culture where wine bars thrive next to old-school saloons, and where cowboy boots and Polartec are perfectly acceptable attire for Saturday-night gallery openings. 

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Granted, you no longer see ‘49ers trawling for gold nuggets in rocky streams. But the gold rush legacy lives on here in the form of the U.S. Mint, which originally processed those very same nuggets when it was founded in the mid-19th century. Today, the Denver Mint is one of only two locations to offer public tours; these are free (and fascinating, especially for a sneak peek at the newest dollar coins), but you must make a reservation. 

The pioneers’ other legacy is an enduring Colorado passion for the outdoors. Greenery is everywhere — in the trees that line well-kept streets, on the forested mountain landscape, and in the dozens of lovely parks that dot the city, providing urban oases for picnickers, bikers and those simply seeking shade. My favorite is Washington Park, whose surrounding neighborhood of the same name has some of the city’s most elegant buildings and upscale restaurants.    

If you fly into Denver’s huge, modern airport, you’ll want to rent a car, though the city is small (and agreeably level, despite its mountain setting). Head out of the downtown skyscraper zone to a neighborhood known as LoDo (for Lower Downtown) — once neglected, now gentrified into a charming historic district. This area east of Union Station is a perfect way to acquaint yourself with the best of modern Denver: Victorian architecture, organic cafe's and galleries of Western art.

Going south, you arrive at the Denver Art Museum, where a recently opened wing designed by noted architect Daniel Libeskind looks a bit like a spectacular, glittering spaceship landed downtown. 

More than just another second-tier-city collection, this institution has a strong local focus, with excellent holdings of Western and American Indian art and several timely exhibitions. Through October in the museum’s new photography wing is “Exposures: Photos from the Vault,” including little-viewed works by the likes of Diane Arbus, while “Face to Face,” on view through the end of August, is an exploration of portraiture from 16th-century Italian paintings to fare by Lucian Freud and Philip Guston. 

This summer, though, a myriad of festivals is luring visitors out-of-doors. The city’s Jewish community — which fondly refers to its home as “Mile Chai City” — is abuzz over the 2010 Maccabi Games, which will be held this year in Denver. More than 1,500 Jewish teenage athletes will represent the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Israel, and Europe in a variety of sporting events, hosted by the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center.

Spectators can attend such Olympic-style events as track and field, swimming and basketball at venues around the city. In addition, Jewish visitors should consult the websites of the JCC (listed left) or milechai.org for more information on kosher and Jewish resources around the city. 

On Aug. 14 and 15, Denver will play host to the Mile High Music Festival, an annual event featuring some of the biggest names in pop, reggae and indie rock. The Dave Matthews Band, Cypress Hill, and Jack Johnson are just a few of the acts who will take the stage in a jam-packed lineup, all in a scenic location with views of the city skyline and the Rockies.

For a more long-hair music experience, midsummer travelers might want to rent a car and drive the scenic three hours  (through gorgeous mountain scenery) to the Aspen Music Festival, one of the country’s most prestigious arts events.  Located in the eponymous resort town, the Aspen Music Festival is well worth the trip for serious classical music lovers. 

In addition to the usual summer-festival offerings — top artists, glorious music performed in intimate settings — the Aspen festival offers a pedagogic twist: its affiliated music academy means that the concert calendar is dotted with events such as master classes, open dress rehearsals and concerto competitions, all of which can be great fun for those seeking a behind-the-scenes experience of the world of young musicians. 

 

Clash of styles: Denver’s Union Station, top, is part of the gentrified LoDo section. Above, Daniel Libeskind’s modernist Denver

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