Cooking Light Best Cities: Denver, Colorado

The Mile-High City ranked seventh on our list for an outdoorsy Western lifestyle that makes living well accessible and irresistible.

The mile-high city ranks seventh on our list of favorite destinations.

Douglas Merriam

Residents of Denver love its recreational opportunities, and with 300 days of annual sunshine, it's easy to see why. The majestic Rocky Mountains serve as the city's playground and provide inspiring views that beckon folks outside. More than 81 percent of Denver residents exercise each month, according to surveys from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Take your choice: Opportunities for kayaking, hiking, and skiing are plentiful. Another of the secrets to why Denverites love living here is found in the city's approach to development. Strict laws help preserve the plethora of walking paths and open spaces that weave through most neighborhoods-ensuring residents room to roam for years to come.

Denver earned the 7th spot on our top 20 list of Cooking Light Cities for low percentage of population with diabetes, low percentage of population that's overweight, high percentage who participated in physical activity during the last month, dollars per capita spent on parkland, and chef wages.

Best splurge meal: The menu at Rioja (303-820-2282) changes with the seasons, which is one of the reasons why the Mediterranean-inspired outpost of top Denver chef and Wolfgang Puck protégé Jennifer Jasinski is one of the hottest dining spots in town. A gem in the Larimer Square historic district, its copper-topped bar and hand-blown glass fixtures provide eye candy. Feather-light homemade pasta, specialty salads, and a fig-gorgonzola pizza with zucchini chips delight the palate.

Best bistro: A few minutes west of downtown, Duo (303-477-4141) serves upscale meals in comfortable surroundings. Try the grilled bread appetizer with whatever seasonal spread (such as hummus) Chef John Broening has dreamed up. Save room for desserts like the pistachio nougat, a frozen confection made with egg whites and cream, as well as caramelized pistachios.

Best pretheater dining: Fine dining thrives at longtime local chef Kevin Taylor's digs (303-640-1012) in the gorgeously renovated Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Noted chefs from around the country scramble to put flavorful and tender Colorado lamb on their menus; sample it Taylor-style, charbroiled with braised lentils, fennel, and a black olive jus.

Best food finds: Just a short walk east of the landmark Brown Palace Hotel, Marczyk Fine Foods (303-894-9499) is Denver's favorite shop for gourmet ingredients-from AA-grade dried Italian porcini mushrooms to organic Spanish olives. It also has some of the best takeout in the city.

In the summer, pick up juicy peaches from Colorado's Western Slope, or come on Friday night for grilled burgers made from organically raised meat.

Best way to reach new heights: The area's mountainous terrain makes rock climbing a popular activity around Denver. Beginners can step into one of the city's biggest indoor training facilities, Thrillseekers, Inc. (303-733-8810), and train with the locals. Once you've gained your footing, make a 30-mile trip northeast of downtown to Eldorado Canyon State Park (303-494-3943) where climbers from around the world practice on 500 routes rated for all levels-from easy to expert.

 

Best river tour: After instruction from Confluence Kayaks (303-433-3676), rent a boat and launch 10 miles south of downtown in Littleton. With the mountains at your back, you'll paddle through a bird sanctuary, 14 miles of man-made rapids, and end up back downtown near Coors Field, the baseball stadium for the Colorado Rockies.

Best way to keep cool: Colorado may be landlocked, but it's home to a large number of certified scuba divers. Underwater Phantaseas (303-220-8282) will outfit you to take the plunge at Aurora Reservoir, a short drive southeast of downtown.

Best bike path: Rent a mountain bike from Cherry Creek Bike Rack (303-388-1630), and cruise the many bike-friendly downtown paths, including the popular Cherry Creek Bike Trail. A good entry point for the trail is at Confluence Park on 15th Street, but the 15-mile trail is easy to spot as it winds through Denver hotspots such as the neighborhoods of LoDo and Capitol Hill, as well as all along Speer Boulevard to Cherry Creek.

Best way to spend an afternoon: Lower downtown, or what's affectionately dubbed LoDo by locals, is a great area for window-shopping. Slip into the Tattered Cover Book Store (303-436-1070), an independent bookseller housed in the restored Morey Mercantile building. It's one of three store outposts in the city, each with a café that earns accolades from locals as a perfect place to enjoy a latte. Across the street is Union Station, where the Ski Train (303-296-4754) takes visitors for a day trip to Winter Park, a ski resort 67 miles northwest of town. The rails wind through beautiful alpine areas not accessible by car.

Best urban park: Washington Park (known as "Wash" Park), with two lakes, 10 tennis courts, soccer fields, and jogging path, is a popular setting for just about any activity. It's located between South Franklin and South Downing streets. Make time for the georgous flower gardens along Downing Street, or, if timing is right, the Colorado Symphony's annual June outdoor concert in the park.

Best wildlife watching: Just northwest of downtown is one of the jewels of Denver's designated "Open Space" areas: 3,000-acre Standley Lake Regional Park. The park offers spectacular views of the Rockies and the Flatirons (five rock formations that pioneers thought resembled flat, metal clothing irons) from just about every path. You also might spot nesting bald eagles in the park's eagle sanctuary. Other wildlife to note: beavers, coyotes, red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, mule deer, and cottontail rabbits, to name a few.

WHERE TO STAY

Best historical stay: Titanic survivor and Denver socialite the "unsinkable" Molly Brown may have owned a home in the Capital Hill neighborhood, but in her later years she preferred being a guest at the Brown Palace Hotel (from $325/night; 303-297-3111). It's a historic landmark and a popular destination even for locals, who book afternoon tea reservations months in advance.

Best indulgent stay: Close to the 16th Street Mall, an outdoor link to restaurants, shops, and Denver nightlife, the stylish, modern Hotel Monaco (from $189/night; 303-296-1717) offers amenities like an in-house spa and complimentary evening receptions with wine, hors d'oeuvres, and head and shoulder massages.

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