Denver vs Boulder: Which Colorado City to Visit?


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Anyone planning a trip to Colorado’s Front Range is likely to end up weighing Denver vs Boulder as two of the cities with the most to offer in terms of activities, lodging, and affordable transit on the Eastern Slope of the Rockies.

These two primary Colorado cities are very close to each other—a short drive of about 30 minutes on US 36 is all that separates them—meaning many locals live in one and work in the other after making a daily commute.

Boulder is a smaller college town that’s home to the University of Colorado, whereas Denver is the state’s capital and its most densely populated urban area by far, so you can expect to find quite a few differences between them.

The best news is that whether you decide to spend more time in Boulder or Denver, you’re guaranteed to be in an excellent central location for branching out to explore this part of Colorado. Staying in either one is a great way to feel centrally located yet within striking distance of nearby cities and attractions such as Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Summit County, and Rocky Mountain National Park.

Denver

Anyone who appreciates classic American cities will enjoy Denver. Its Old West-era roots as a gateway to the newest, wildest parts of the US still contribute to its modern identity. An influx of new residents in recent decades and a thriving economy have cemented Denver as a cultural epicenter of Colorado.

Denver in the fall
Denver in the fall

Accessibility

Denver is generally an easy city to get a feel for as a traveler, though its traffic grid sometimes bears the burden of a twenty-first-century flow of cars that it still hasn’t quite caught up to.

Main arteries like Interstate 25 and Interstate 70 can get pretty clogged at peak transit times, so where you choose to stay in Denver can have a big impact on your chosen mode of transportation and the activities you plan.

If you make your way downtown from the airport or drive into Denver, parking can be a concern, so be aware of what your options are for parking a rental or personal car. You can find cars on Rentalcars.com if needed.

Choosing to utilize public transportation can work well in Denver, as the city’s RTD bus system has numerous routes and tends to be reliable; rideshare drivers are also around 24/7, as in any major city these days.

Keep in mind when comparing Denver vs Boulder in terms of accessibility that it can be a good option to look at staying somewhere located partway between the two cities.

Booking lodgings in an outlying city like Westminster, Louisville, or Lafayette can afford travelers convenient access to both Boulder and Denver, assuming they don’t mind renting a car or driving their own.

Union Station in Denver
Union Station in Denver

Affordability

Affordability is sure to be a key factor in a Denver or Boulder vacation, and anyone who is looking to stay within a certain budget will find a lot to like in a visit to the Mile High City.

For one thing, being a much bigger city, Denver simply has a wider range of options in the way of places to stay, restaurants and bars, retail stores, tourist attractions, and services in general.

Boulder tends to feel like a more tight-knit community that’s tied directly to the state university, whereas Denver is a bustling urban area with its own melting pot of cultural influences.

Food and beverage aficionados might lean toward Denver over Boulder in terms of ultimate variety and access to an ethnically diverse array of options. A “foodie” in Denver can find some of the most delicious and authentic Mexican food in the country served from any of the countless small stands that line parts of Federal Boulevard and Alameda Avenue.

If top-shelf sushi is more your thing, consider Uchi or Sushi Den, or try Mizu Izakaya if you’re staying over toward the LoHi district. Staying in Denver can also be an affordable way to explore the Rockies to the west via day trips, as mountain towns like Breckenridge or Vail are only an hour or two away on I-70. 

Downtown Breckenridge in winter
Downtown Breckenridge

Things to Do in Denver

Visit LoDo and Larimer Square

“LoDo,” which is local slang for Denver’s “Lower Downtown” district, is right near the historic Larimer Square. Taking a walk around these zones on foot is a fun way to get a sense of the city’s past and present.

The classic brick and stone architecture of Denver still stands even as trendy shops have filled in the storefronts. The many bars and restaurants in these two areas have patio seating areas where live musicians often play outdoors on spring and summer evenings.

Drive the Mount Evans Scenic Byway

For families and travelers who are generally looking for some incredible sightseeing from the comfort of the road, making the less than one-hour drive up I-70 to the Mount Evans area and the Mount Evans Scenic Byway is a great way to spend half of a day.

This drive—the highest paved road in North America—climbs to an altitude of 14,264 feet and offers some of the best views of the main Rocky Mountain peaks. You’ll also have a chance to spot alpine animals such as bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and pikas.

Keep in mind that this drive involves a significant amount of elevation gain, so be prepared to turn back if you experience symptoms of altitude sickness.

Summit Lake on the Mount Evans Byway
Summit Lake on the Mount Evans Byway

Take a Brewery Tour

Fans of craft beer won’t want to miss the chance to tour one of the many microbreweries that dot the landscape around Denver, and even non-beer-drinkers will appreciate a look at the inner workings and engineering it takes to run one of these breweries.

Among ubiquitous favorites that offer tours are Oskar Blues in Longmont, New Belgium in Fort Collins, and Odell Brewing in Denver. Many others in Denver, including smaller local gems like Denver Beer Co. and Ratio, are worth sampling and tend to also serve food or feature rotating food trucks.

If you prefer to go with a guide, it’s possible to book this craft beer tour in advance.

Walk Around Cheesman Park

An especially good option if you’re looking to get some outdoor time without having to drive too far in the city traffic, taking a walk around Cheesman Park and stopping in one of the surrounding coffee shops, bars, or restaurants is a great way to spend a few hours.

The Denver Botanic Gardens is also located just east of the park. Keep an eye out for live music in the outdoor amphitheater on summer nights.

Denver Botanic Gardens
Denver Botanic Gardens

Where to Stay in Denver

If you’ve decided to choose Denver over Boulder, here are some options for where to stay in the city.

Westin Denver Downton — This high-end hotel is an excellent option in the downtown part of the city. They offer a range of large rooms suitable for couples or families and are located within close proximity to the major attractions of Denver. Click here to see their availability

Holiday Inn Express Downtown Denver — This hotel is the perfect choice for those looking for a mid-range option with basic amenities. Offering a myriad of room options there is also a restaurant and gym on-site with breakfast included in the nightly rate. Click here to see their availability

Private Rental – If you want to experience Denver like a local, then a private vacation rental — like this centrally located farmhouse — is a good choice for you. There are several properties to choose from in the city. Click here to browse Denver private rentals

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Denver hotels!

Boulder

Boulder may have outgrown its roots as a funky little college town a long time ago, but that sense of unique identity still lives on with a thriving music scene, plenty of locally-owned bakeries, restaurants, and cafes, and the famous Pearl Street walking mall. Travelers will also find a lot of comfortable lodging options near downtown Boulder.

Boulder, Colorado
Boulder, Colorado

Accessibility

One of the main things to consider when choosing Denver or Boulder to visit is accessibility, as Boulder might well be the winner in this category. For starters, the city of Boulder itself covers a significantly smaller area than Denver—immensely smaller, even, if you count all of Denver’s satellite suburbs and smaller towns—so getting from place to place tends to be quicker.

Renting bikes or even walking is always an option here, depending on where you’re located for overnight lodgings and Colorado’s always unpredictable weather.

Renting a car is a good option for ultimate convenience, especially if you plan to make day trips outside of Boulder to explore other nearby cities like Estes Park, Morrison, or Golden.

If public transportation suits you better, then there is an easily navigable bus system, and Uber and Lyft drivers are always in good supply. For travelers who are getting to Boulder from Denver International Airport, options include taking an Uber or Lyft (this can be expensive), renting a car at the airport, or looking into other public transit options that will sometimes be on the slow side.

When you look at Boulder vs Denver where accessibility is concerned, the smaller college town of Boulder is certainly more compact in its location at the base of the Eastern Slope.

Walking in Chautauqua Park
Chautauqua Park in Boulder

Affordability

Nobody would argue that a stay in Boulder is as expensive as a visit to Los Angeles County, but it’s also not exactly a budget-friendly destination. This all depends, of course, on how you structure your trip, as lodging expenses can range from free to very inexpensive car camping up in the mountains to an indulgent stay at the St. Julien hotel downtown.

Dining options in Boulder can also be as frugal or as high-end as you want them to be. Cheap and delicious local favorites for tacos or Tibetan food are available (try La Choza and Tibet Kitchen, respectively), and some of the most authentic Italian food on the Front Range can be found locally at Il Pastaio.

Boulder has a well-deserved reputation as a city where bikes commonly share the road with cars and outdoor recreation generally has a big cultural presence.

Tourists come to Boulder to shop and prepare for their sightseeing ventures into Rocky Mountain National Park to the north, so you’ll find lots of affordable shops along the main Pearl Street strip that are geared toward outfitting travelers who are heading up into the mountains.

Among retailers, you’ll find outdoor brands like Patagonia, Prana, the North Face, and Helly Hansen, and you’ll also find boutique tea shops, sports bars, candy shops, and much more.

Dream Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park
Nearby Rocky Mountain National Park

Things to Do in Boulder

Explore Pearl Street

It’s hard not to start any discussion of Boulder activities with a mention of Pearl Street, as it represents Boulder’s economic and cultural lifeblood. On any given day, crowds of college kids, tourists, and locals pass up and down its pedestrian-only portions, and street performers beckon to crowds on weekend days.

Restaurants range from breakfast and brunch offerings like Lucille’s and Foolish Craig’s to dinner favorites such as the Rio Grande—the local staple for classic Mexican food and a rooftop margarita.

Live Music at Boulder Theater or The Fox

Pitting Boulder against Denver in the live music arena might seem unfair given Denver’s much wider selection of venues in such a big city. That said, Boulder holds its own when compared to any American college town in the way of nightlife and concerts.

Boulder Theater is located downtown near Pearl Street and tends to draw a bit of an older local crowd, whereas The Fox is the quintessential college venue located in The Hill district near campus.

Book a Guided Fly Fishing Trip

Travelers to Boulder or Denver should keep in mind that both are situated within a stone’s throw of some great Rocky Mountain trout fishing opportunities. Local outfitters in Boulder like Rocky Mountain Anglers and Front Range Anglers can give first-timers to the sport the tools they need to succeed at catching the wild brown and rainbow trout that populate local streams such as Boulder Creek.

Drive to Indian Peaks Wilderness

The Indian Peaks Wilderness is popular among locals, especially those who like to hike with their dogs, as Rocky Mountain National Park tends to get extremely crowded these days at certain peak times of the year.

If you get the chance to make the 45-minute drive west from Boulder to this area, you’ll find that trailheads like Hessie and East Portal are gateways to some of the most beautiful mountain hikes in the Rockies.

Hiking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness
Hiking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness

Where to Stay in Boulder

If you plan to pick Boulder over Denver, then these are some options for where to spend the night!

Hotel Boulderado – This historic Victorian hotel is a great choice if you’re after luxury accommodation and budget isn’t a consideration. Centrally located, they have a range of great rooms available including some with views of the Rocky Mountains! Click here to see their availability

Boulder Twin Lakes Inn – A mid-range hotel that is the perfect base for exploring Boulder. They have several different rooms to choose from and have great facilities including a hot tub to relax in after a day of exploring and a hearty breakfast each morning. Click here to see their availability

Private Rental – A private rental – such as this 1-bedroom house – is a great choice for those looking for a bit more privacy and the ability to cook their own meals. There are several options available in the city that can suit different travelers’ needs. Click here to browse more Boulder private rentals

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Boulder hotels!

Denver vs Boulder: The Verdict

Planning to travel to Denver vs Boulder is certainly not an easy decision since both have a lot to offer in the way of activities and come with their own unique personality.

A nice solution, as mentioned above, might be to book lodgings at a central location halfway between the two and plan to explore both, but this might not always be possible depending on timing. One thing to keep in mind is that if you’re looking for easy, convenient access to Interstate 70 as a means of getting up into the mountains quickly, then Denver is undoubtedly a better choice.

Boulder is located farther away from this main corridor to the northwest and affords better access to the Foothills and some northern destinations such as Rocky Mountain National Park.

Finally, any Denver or Boulder vacation should be planned based on your goals and transportation constraints. Navigating the Front Range of Colorado by car takes more logistical planning nowadays than it used to due to mounting traffic, so it makes sense to keep Boulder’s pedestrian- and bike-friendly nature in mind if you’re wanting to minimize time spent in the car.

16th Street Mall
16th Street Mall in Denver

No matter if you lean toward Denver’s big-city appeal or Boulder’s mountain-town charm, you’ll find plenty to keep you occupied in either of these Colorado destinations.

Are you trying to choose between Boulder or Denver? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Duncan is a writer for The World Was Here First. He lives in Colorado and also works as a fly fishing guide and instructor when not editing or writing. He has spent time in Costa Rica and has made numerous trips exploring the Western states of the Rocky Mountains. If he could teleport to anywhere on the planet, it would be the mountains of Patagonia in Chile.

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