Denver

The Denver gay community is very visible, both socially and professionally

Denver has long been one of the country’s great centers of lesbian and gay culture. The GLBT community here is highly visible – socially, professionally, and politically – and gay-friendly restaurants, bars, hotels, and other businesses are easy to find in a number of prominent neighborhoods. With several new or expanded high-profile museums, easy access to skiing and hiking, a sunny climate, and relative affordability compared with other big urban centers, the Mile High City makes for a highly appealing vacation destination, whether for a couple of days or a full week of exploration.

The city’s bustling, modern downtown skyline is dominated by soaring skyscrapers. Here you can wander along 16th Street, a popular pedestrian mall filled with mostly upscale chain shops. Or explore artsy Larimar Square, a restored Victorian block of hip boutiques and cafes – be sure to check out the Market at Larimer Square, a coffeehouse-bakery-deli where a cool crowd enjoys mocha lattes, hearty breakfast burritos, and hefty pastrami sandwiches.

Larimar Square marks the edge of dapper LoDo, which began as the city’s shipping and retail center in the late 19th century. As recently as the 1980s, however, the neighborhood had been reduced to slums and abandoned brick warehouses. LoDo’s comeback began when artists started converting these classic redbrick buildings into galleries and studios. A flood of restaurants, coffeehouses, and shops followed, as did stately Coors Field, home to baseball’s Colorado Rockies. You can easily spend a few hours exploring this attractive district, perhaps dropping by the Tattered Cover, one of the country’s most beloved independent bookstores, which has an outstanding LGBT section. Another retail must is Rockmount Ranch Wear, a circa-1940s outlet for authentic Western shirts, belts, hats, and bolo ties – this is the very shop that provided those down-home sexy shirts worn by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain.

South of downtown you’ll find Capitol Hill, which is anchored on one end by the gilt-domed State Capitol building. It overlooks a grassy mall surrounded by the Colorado History Museum and the spectacular Denver Art Museum, which underwent a dramatic expansion and redesign in 2005. The Capitol Hill neighborhood, which extends east from the Capitol building, is where many of the city’s LGBT residents live. On sunny days, check out lovely Cheesman Park and the nearby the Denver Botanic Garden.

If you’re keen on shopping, head a few miles southeast of downtown to the Cherry Creek area, where you’ll find numerous opportunities for browsing and bargain-hunting at upscale Cherry Creek Shopping Center and Cherry Creek North. These two premier shopping destinations contain a mix of top chain and independent stores. In the evening, try out one of the neighborhood’s fine restaurants, such as trendy Ocean, a haute seafood eatery, or North, which serves exceptional modern Italian fare.

Dining is one area where Denver has truly come into its own in recent years. If you’re a serious foodie, sample one of the restaurants run by Denver’s acclaimed expert on innovative Mexican cuisine, Richard Sandoval. Best bets include Tamayo, near lively Larimer Square, and trendy Zengo, a boldly decorated space just north of LoDo, where Sandoval fuses the best of Asian and Latin cuisine, serving everything from sushi to ceviche.

A good bet for dining in LoDo is Vesta, which operates on a quirky premise: you choose three sauces (perhaps pistachio-mint or grilled onion jam) for dipping with whatever entree you choose, from grilled venison to harissa-roasted half chicken. You’ll find simpler fare at Dixon’s Downtown Grill, a nice choice for fish-and-chips and blue-cheese burgers, and the festive Wynkoop Brewing Company, which serves the best green chile stew in town, plus a wide range of handcrafted beers. Near Larimer Square, chic Rioja serves creative, world-beat cuisine, such as Dungeness crab-and-shiso spring rolls, and grilled maple-cured pork chops with Calvados sauce.

Favorite restaurants on Capitol Hill include Il Vicino, which turns out creative pizzas and salads along with microbrewed ales, and Sparrow, a convivial neighborhood spot serving such inventive regional American fare as pumpkin-chicken served with pancetta risotto, sage, and cider. The local java chain Diedrich’s Coffee has a particularly gay-popular branch in Capitol Hill, too.

The city has some great places for breakfast fare, including the gay fave Racine’s, which is open late and serves three meals daily. For amazingly tasty pancakes, head to Snooze, an offbeat storefront space near Coors Field where you might start the morning off with pineapple-upside-down pancakes or vanilla-almond oatmeal brulee. On weekend mornings, don’t miss the legendary drag brunch, called Petticoat Bruncheon, held at Bump & Grind, a colorful bakery and cafe.

One of city’s great strengths is its cultural scene, with many of the top events held at the esteemed, high-tech Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA), the second-largest such space in the nation (trailing only New York City’s Lincoln Center). It comprises several performance venues and hosts everything from nationally touring musicals to acclaimed opera. Before a performance, plan to have dinner at DCPA’s top restaurant, Kevin Taylor’s. In this elegant basement space, sample such creative fare as Black Angus carpaccio with white-truffle oil, or charbroiled Colorado lamb chops with braised lentils and black olive jus.

Denver has a friendly, eclectic gay nightlife, with a pleasing mix of hip cocktail lounges, pulsing dance clubs, and friendly neighborhood bars. One of the most popular hangouts is J.R.’s, an upscale, bi-level video bar in Capitol Hill that hosts such entertaining events as gong show karaoke and Broadway musical sing-alongs. Nearby Charlie’s is a famously fun country-western club with line-dancing and two-stepping, plus a restaurant serving decent American fare.

The Denver Detour is a mostly lesbian-oriented hangout that’s popular early in the evening for happy hour cocktails – it’s right by the State Capitol. Other good women’s options include tHERe Denver, a lesbian-owned coffeehouse and lounge, and Ms. C’s, a long-running lesbian dance club a 20-minute drive east of downtown.

Just south of Capitol Hill, the South Broadway area has several notable locals joints, including BJ’s Carousel, which has its own volleyball court and a casual restaurant. You’ll find a somewhat cruisy bunch at the Compound, a low-attitude dance club that’s popular with everyone from collegiate hipsters to middle-aged bears. The Triangle, for the serious leather crowd, has a big after-hours following and a notoriously frisky basement. And Boyztown is one of the better places in town to watch strippers strut their stuff.

Weekends are the best time to check out Denver’s most happening gay nightclub, the always-packed Tracks Denver, a massive warehouse disco with two pulsing dance floors, one spinning the latest club music, the other featuring classic tunes from the ’70s and ’80s.

Denver has a number of memorable gay-friendly hotels. The swanky, pet-friendly Hotel Monaco is a top choice for its hip, Parisian-inspired aesthetic and remarkably friendly and helpful service. Vibrant, stylish decor and quirky in-room touches, such as animal-print robes and pet goldfish, make this downtown boutique property a fan favorite. The on-site restaurant, Panzano, serves first-rate contemporary Italian fare.

Having earned praise for its stylish look as well as its location across from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, The Curtis looks like just another high-rise from the exterior. But inside you’ll discover a whimsical, retro-fabulous hotel that looks like something out of an Austin Powers movie. Each floor of guestrooms is themed differently – rooms on the eighth level have a sci-fi look, while those on the 12th are done with a get-your-groove-on dance-floor theme. Moderate rates, VW Bug-shaped alarm clocks, and a cool eatery called the Corner Office Restaurant and Martini Bar are among the Curtis’ many charms.

If you want to be close to the fabulous shopping of Cherry Creek, consider booking a room at the posh JW Marriott Denver, a contemporary 11-story hotel whose cushy accommodations have 32-inch flat-screen TVs, DVD/CD players, marble-and-granite bathrooms, and plush bedding with custom duvets and linens. The sterling service is another plus.

One of the most romantic options is the gay-owned Capitol Hill Mansion B&B, a stately Queen Anne Victorian on an attractive residential street. Owners Jay Hadley and Carl Schmidt serve a lavish full breakfast each morning as well as refreshments and snacks in the afternoon; guests enjoy such pleasing amenities as free Wi-Fi and fresh flowers in every room, and gas fireplaces, whirlpool tubs, and private balconies in the top units. In the same neighborhood, the gay-friendly Castle Marne B&B offers similarly cushy, antiques-filled rooms. The imposing 1889 building is one of Denver’s most distinctive houses, with its elaborate turrets and stonework.

Probably no Denver hotel is more famous than the prestigious Brown Palace Hotel & Spa, which has hosted such dignitaries as Teddy Roosevelt and Sun Yat-sen during its 115-year tenure. Even if you don’t have a chance to stay in one of the hotel’s lavish rooms, consider dropping by for the daily afternoon high tea or evening cocktails in the famed Atrium Lobby, or for the decadent Dom Perignon brunch held in Ellyngton’s Restaurant on Sunday mornings.

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