By Jessica Festa / Jessie on a Journey
When I travel, I love going beyond the guidebook and seeking out the quirkier offerings of a destination. And as you’d expect from a mile-high university town where pot is legal, Denver has a lot of quirk to offer.
After spending a month in this Colorado capital, I discovered quite a few atypical experiences worth trying out. Here’s how to plan an offbeat weekend getaway in Denver, Colorado:
1. Chase a Beer With a Dose of Nostalgia
Ready player one? The 1up makes for a fun and nostalgic night out. (Photo: The 1up - Colfax/Facebook)
Some of your may know about my obsession with Barcade, a local bar-meets-arcade in Brooklyn. Well, you can image my excitement when I discovered The 1up, a similar concept in Denver (there are locations in LoDo and North Capitol Hill). The space is filled with more than 45 classic and modern arcade games, including16 pinball machines, three lanes of Skee-Ball, and multiple giant Jenga sets — not to mention an extensive local beer selection and live music almost every night. Don’t miss the vintage can collection, a whimsical brew experience. Other fun places for games: Star Bar, an awesome dive with lots of Michael Jackson music in LoDo; Vesper Lounge in Capitol Hill, with a table featuring free games like Pac-Man; and Monkey Barrel Bar in Highland, which has local craft beer and video games (Mario Kart, anyone?) built into the booths.
2. Eat Exotic Meats
Biker Jim deliciousness. (Photo: Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs/Facebook)
Biker Jim’s is an unassuming hot dog restaurant serving up a unique menu of links: sustainably raised elk, duck, pheasant, buffalo, rattlesnake, wild boar, and reindeer, all infused with interesting ingredients ranging from cranberries to chilies. Hot dogs are $6.50, and toppings (made from organic vegetables and natural preservatives like celery powder and sea salt) are extra. And, we’re not just talking ketchup. My companion and I ordered the Alaskan reindeer (made from reindeer) and a Bat Dog (a bacon brat with avocado puree, tomato cream cheese, caramelized onions, bacon bits and tomato bacon powder.) While the reindeer was extremely plump and juicy with a very spicy flavor, the Bat was a lot sweeter with a smoky essence.
Related: Foodie Bucket List: 12 Iconic Restaurants Worth Traveling for
3. Score at Forbidden Bingo
Every Monday at 7 p.m. you can head over to Maloney’s Tavern in LoDo for Forbidden Bingo, a sexy take on the typical senior citizen–beloved game, with prizes donated by the local adult shop Romantix. Even better, all drinks are 50 percent off until 11 p.m., making it the perfect night out with friends on a budget or an interesting date idea.
4. Break German Beer Purity Laws
Boozing it up at Mockery Brewing. (Photo: @mockerybrewing/Instagram)
At Mockery Brewing in the artsy RiNo neighborhood the goal is to creative craft beers without guidelines or rules — and the team here proudly thwarts the Reinheitsgebot, or German Beer Purity Law, that limits beer ingredients to water, barley and hops. Sip a Peach Blonde Ale made with 400 pounds of fresh palisade peaches or a Southern Hemisphere Black Pale Ale, featuring Chilean malt and Aussie and Kiwi hops, at this dog-friendly establishment, which features indoor/outdoor seating and lots of board games to entertain. There’s also bicycle parking out front for those with their own wheels or using B-Cycle, the local bike-sharing program.
5. Nibble Psychedelic Candy
Psychedelic goodies provide more than a sugar high. (Photo: Ed Andrieski/AP/Corbis)
Now that you can legally purchase pot in Colorado, a trip to a local dispensary is a must when visiting Denver, even if just for the experience. The local “bud-tenders” are super knowledgeable, and you can tell them what kind of high you’re looking to have — for example, if you’d like more of a head than a body high — and they’ll tailor their recommendations. You can also get edibles like chocolate bars, mints and gummies — all of which deliver more of psychedelic effect rather than just a sugar rush. Warning: While edibles may taste just like candy, remember that they are not. Be careful, they can be strong.
6. Stay in a Share House With Awesome Strangers
For my month in Denver, I stayed at an Airbnb share house. Photo: Jessica Festa.
Instead of opting for a hotel in Denver, I chose an Airbnb that was actually more like a share house. Traveling solo, I wanted to make sure I’d be able to easily meet new people, and staying in the West Colfax neighborhood in this five-bedroom house meant that after a day’s exploration I always had people to hang out with. This was hands-down my favorite Airbnb I’ve ever stayed in. It was also a two-block walk from the light rail, and a ten-minute train ride to downtown.
7. Spend Some Time With 1,000 of Your Favorite Books
You could spend a whole day in the Tattered Cover Book Store. (Photo: Jessica Festa)
Denver is home to one of the greatest book shops I’ve ever come across in my travels: Tattered Cover Book Store. The space has an old, worn feel — sort of like your favorite book — with weathered wood, shabby leather chairs and a slight mustiness, with plenty of common spaces, free Wi-Fi, and even a separate study-like room for history and travel books. Grab some Vail Mountain Roasters coffee, single-origin chocolate, Colorado Nut Co. snacks, or a decadent pastry from the café and dive into staff picks, bargain books, classics, indie titles, and an impressive assortment from a variety of niches.
8. Sip Creative Craft Cocktails Behind a Library Wall
The best cocktail bar in America…is in Denver. (Photo: Williams & Graham)
I was actually introduced to Williams & Graham by a date who had very good taste. Not only was it named the Best Cocktail Bar in America at the 2015 Spirited Awards, but the head bartender here, Sean Kenyon, was dubbed the Best American Bartender in 2014.
So as you’d expect, the cocktails are high quality. The menu of seasonal and classic concoctions incorporates fresh fruits, herbs and spices, tinctures, infusions, and bitters — scan the menu and you’ll find everything from tarragon syrup to coffee-infused Rittenhouse rye and oolong tea syrup, all enhanced by beautiful glasswear and hand-cut ice.
But it’s not just the expertly prepared drinks (seriously, watching the bartenders prepare them is like viewing a Broadway show) and delicious food that make the experience worthwhile, but the cool speakeasy vibe. You enter a “bookstore,” give your name (I’d recommend making a reservation) and are led through a bookshelf that opens into a moody speakeasy, a dim room with a beautiful mahogany bar backed by high shelves of illuminated spirits. Whether you need to or not, be sure to go to the bathroom, where the wallpaper is made of hand-written love letters.
9. Check Out Off-The-Wall Improv
Make it up as you go along at the Voodoo Comedy Playhouse. (Photo: Voodoo Comedy Playhouse)
Denver has no shortage of venues offering knee-slapping comedy. Along with Comedy Works, which is probably the most popular and is focused on stand-up, I went to The Voodoo Comedy Playhouse, a dive bar with uber cheap drinks and more than 20 different improv events. They also have karaoke and an improv school — including some drop-in classes, if you’re looking to be a performer instead of a bystander.
10. Savor Unexpected Dishes
Transport yourself to New Orleans in Denver. (Photo: Sassafras American Eatery)
During my time spent in Denver I had the chance to savor a number of atypical dishes that pushed the boundaries of creative cuisine. For instance, at TAG | Continental Social Food the menu is influenced by Chef Troy Guard’s Hawaiian upbringing and his travels throughout Asia and Latin America — and it shows. Picture spicy flash-seared yellowtail covered with Pop Rocks, and crispy duck leg crusted in chicken sausage with a spicy tang glaze and tarragon vinaigrette.
Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox Denver should also be on your list. Try the “Brothel Burger,” an ostrich patty topped with miso-candied bacon, ponzu onions, and pickled veggies on a pretzel bun; or the wild boar in a blanket with a tangy calendula kraut and smoked cherry mostarda. The venue is a “gastro brothel” paying homage to the building’s seductive history as a former brothel, peep show parlor, and lit erotica shop, and the atmosphere is very Moulin Rouge.
And finally, make time for New Orleans-esque Sassafras American Eatery where the menu upgrades macaroni and cheese, adult and virgin milkshakes, grits, benedicts, po'boys and Bloody Marys. Some top picks: a chocolate-dipped bacon milkshake, a spicy buffalo chili-laced mac and cheese, a “Deep South Benedict” with pulled pork and collard greens, and the signature “Sassafras Bloody Mary” with a spicy house-made tomato base, bacon and pickled quail egg. Yum!
11. Mix Your Coffee and Booze
Start your morning — and end your night — the right way. (Photos: Jessica Festa and Black Eye Coffee Shop)
At Black Eye Coffee Shop single-origin coffees are served fresh as is, or in the form of drips, pour overs, espressos, cortaditos, and art-laden lattes. While the breakfast is highly recommended (get the confit fried chicken and biscuits or oxtail chilaquiles with an unusual Corn Dog Bloody Mary), it’s worth noting that at 5 p.m. the space transforms into a bar — as in, fresh baked pastries get put away and a secret shelf of liquor bottles appear. Poetry-inspired craft cocktails are a main highlight (a perfect pairing with the Emily Dickinson quote-adorned bathrooms). Even so, Black Eye doesn’t completely lose its java edge: The “Deconstructed Cup of Coffee” offers a food and drink pairing that mimics a coffee cupping, and the “Boozy Pourovers” feature small-batch American whisky on tap poured over their delicious coffee.
12. Join the Cabaret
Warning: open minded viewers only! Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret features burlesque shows fused with raunchy comedy as well as sexy ‘90s swing, student showcases, offbeat magic shows, sassy celebrity impersonators, and more. If you’re here for a month or more sign up for classes with Spankings & Martinis Burlesque Booty School for the chance to hone your craft and hit Lannie’s stage before a crowd.