How I got an immersive Denver crash course in just 24 hours
See a new side of The Mile High City with these urban tours
By Joshua Berman
This article first appeared in Roadtrippers in May, 2019.
live-action, 360-degree, 5D show of Denver surged past as my helmet-heavy head swiveled and tried to take it all in.
My 90-minute “Essential Denver” tour from City on the Side was just one of six city tours I was taking over the weekend. After living in Colorado for more than a dozen years, I’d been feeling guilty about not knowing as much as I should about Denver, and had decided it was finally time for a crash course. This is how I found myself cruising along only inches above the streets of Denver.
Denver Graffiti Tour
My first angle was street level, a two-hour walking tour of Denver’s RiNo (River North) Art District. I met my group on a brisk Saturday morning, in front of the “Love this City” muralpainted by Pat Milbery and the So Gnar Creative Division, near the intersection of Park and Broadway. There, guide CJ Willard was chatting with people as they arrived.
As home base for Denver’s CRUSH Walls, an urban art festival—which repaints many of these walls every September—RiNo is thick with murals, graffiti, and street art, both commissioned and non-sanctioned. Willard explained the differences between all these types of art as we walked the neighborhood, going up and down alleys and streets, stopping for mini-talks in parking lots and alcoves. He shared stories about individual artists, as well as details about specific works and citywide trends—from baby faces to pyramid people.
Willard also discussed some of the beefs within the art world, such as stencil-assisted versus hand-painted murals, and tension between struggling local artists and corporate-sponsored international crews.
But first and foremost, during the entire two hours, was the art, and Denver Graffiti Tour helped orient me to the neighborhood while showing me some of the main highlights to look for up on the walls and in the alleys.
If you go: Denvergraffititour.com, 719-491-4949; tours at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, private tours and custom times available, $30 per person.
City on the Side Motorcycle Sidecar Tour
City on the Side is one of the newer, more unique tour providers in Denver, founded by motorcycle enthusiast Scott Kirkwood, my driver and guide today. “I just love this view of the capitol building,” said Kirkwood over the Bluetooth-enabled communication system in the helmets.
Indeed, I had never seen the gold-capped Capitol from this angle before, pulled up and idling in front of the Denver Mayor’s Office. This was precisely why I’d planned this Denver quest in the first place—to see the city from as many new perspectives as possible. And that’s what I did.
As we sped away from the Denver Central Market, gaining speed and heading downtown, I was so immersed in the journey and visceral experience, I’d forgotten what a spectacle we were: two begoggled, scraggly dudes in a green Russian Ural motorcycle and sidecar named Anastasia.
“You would’ve had a machine gun mounted right there,” Kirkwood said when we first climbed into the vehicle, referencing the Ural’s common use on the Eastern Front during World War II (and on Hogan’s Heroes). Denverites in the cars around and above us pointed, waved, and took photos as we cruised through City Park, stopping to gawk at hundreds of nesting migratory double-crested cormorants in Duck Lake behind Denver Zoo—another entirely new perspective on the city.
On this day, I had no machine gun, but I was shooting plenty of photos—as rapidly as I could. Kirkwood named the neighborhoods as we drove through them, helping me to unify my vision of the city, which was another goal of mine. He also told me personal stories about his unique company, including how City on the Side donates three percent of all profits to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other important charities.
If you go: Cityontheside.com, 303-570-5965, 10511 E, Orchard Place Englewood. Tour times are flexible; there is a 90-minute “Essential Denver City Sidecar Motorcycle Tour”, two 4-hour Mountain Exploration Tours (North and South Routes), and, coming in May 2019, a 2.5-hour “Denver City Street Art Tour.” Tours start at $139 for one or two passengers.
Delicious Denver Food and Beer Tour of RiNo Arts District
Next, and just in the nick of time, a three-hour “Food and Beer Tour of RiNo.” Sure, I was thirsty to learn more about Denver, but after hours of motion, I was also just plain thirsty.
I found our group in the bustling Denver Central Market, where our guide, Lisa Friedman, had a “Delicious Denver” button on her jacket and was handing out cards that we were to exchange at the Curio Bar for a “house beer.”
We re-gathered with full pints of American Standard Ale, from Ratio Beerworks, in hand. Then our group of complete strangers formed a tight circle, raised our glasses, and with a loud “salud!” began our afternoon exploration. We kept sipping as we followed Friedman through the crowd to Vero Pizza for the first tasting: a wood-fired, arugula and prosciutto sprinkled pizza—you know, for a base layer of carbs to help with all that was to come.
We continued introducing ourselves, the food and drink warming the whole scenario. Vero was the first of four food-and-beer pairings that we would sample that afternoon—with an ice cream finale. We exited the market into an art-adorned alley, then walked up Larimer Street through the warming afternoon for a poke bowl.
The fish was delicious and it washed down nicely with an ice-cold beer—the only non-local brew of the tour, our guide pointed out.
My notes began deteriorating sometime during our next stop, the paper splashed with Los Locos lager by Epic Brewing and spattered with sauce that dripped out of my rattlesnake chorizo taco. Suffice to say, after this tour, I was replenished and charged for what was to come.
If you go: Deliciousdenverfoodtours.com, 720-575-3224, Downtown Denver Food Tour (Saturday from 12:30-3:30 p.m. or Sunday 1-4 p.m.), Food and Beer Tour of RiNo (Saturday from 2-5 p.m.), or Cocktails and Tastes Tour (Saturday from 4:15-6:30 p.m.), $59-$89/person.
RELATED ARTICLE: “Discover new restaurants in Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins with these walking food tours” (my article about a culinary and cocktail tour with Local Table Tours, which operates regular food tours in Boulder, Fort Collins, and Denver). I found my guide, Lesia M. Bankston, outside our first restaurant of the afternoon, LOW Country Kitchen. She gathered our small group and ushered us inside to a reserved table. Bankston, a former chef instructor turned food, wine and fashion enthusiast, addressed the five of us with a natural smile. “We’ll be visiting five places today,” she said, “and I never tell you where we’re going next till we’re there. I like surprises.” [READ THE REST…]
Dark Side of Denver Ghost Tours
“This is a storytelling experience,” began our guide, Brook Lee, as our group gathered, a little nervously, at the base of the flagpole in front of Denver Union Station. But the tour would also allow us to go inside, to “feel those stories,” in the very basements, hotel rooms, and underground tunnels where they took place.
There were about fifteen of us, ready to start the tour, as night settled in. Some of us, Lee said matter-of-factly, may have a paranormal experience. We then followed him down some stairs under Union Station and began our tour of the most haunted underground rooms and spaces in “a city shrouded in mystery since its early origin.”
I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say it added another level that our guide told his stories in dimly lit underground rooms and narrow hallways, piled with dusty brewing equipment or decorated with historical artifacts and photos. The stories were a dark mix of Denver history and lore—that is, tales of “murders, crimes of passion, and houses of ill repute”—but there were also stories of recent events on these tours, mysterious episodes involving “demonic growls, orbs, shadow faces,” and general feelings of ill ease.
One woman, Lee said, had mysterious scratches appear on her back while standing in a room beneath Union Station where, over a century ago, 23 prisoners once perished… but like I said, no spoilers.
If you go: Darksideofdenver.com, 720-594-4678, meet at the flagpole in front of Union Station at the intersection of 17th and Wynkoop Streets. Tours are Thursday–Saturday from 8-10 p.m., $20 per person, reservations required.
Mile High Bike Tours
The next morning, I had a full-on Denver city-tour hangover. I nursed a large, yellow ceramic mug of coffee at Snooze’s bar in Union Station, processing all the new information, factoids, and lessons I’d ingested the day before.
But I needed coffee and fresh air for the full cure, so I headed to Randy’s Recycled Cycles, where Monique Madison of Mile High Bike Tours was cheerfully sizing out cruiser bikes, shuffling waiver forms, and offering water bottles and sunscreen.
I hopped on a belt-driven Priority Glide bicycle, with a slick fluid shifting system. Not only had the temperature warmed up since the previous day, so that I was now riding in a T-shirt under a blue sky—but more importantly to our cluster of six easy-going bike cruisers, it was Sunday!
The streets were virtually empty of traffic as we pedaled past all the downtown hits—Colorado Convention Center, Denver Art Museum, Civic Center Park—then jumped on the Cherry Creek bike path and did a drive-by of Confluence Park, Broncos Stadium at Mile High, and Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park.
We stopped for a few photo ops and explanations along the way, or to admire hidden street art in the underpasses; but mostly, we just rode, devouring the streets and paths in front of us and drinking that fresh air remedy.
In two hours, our route had neatly tied together all of the other tours I’d done, completing a giant, odd-shaped 10-mile loop across the city grid.
If you go: Milehighbiketours.com, 2301 Champa St., 303-801-1766. From November–April, tours leave at 12 noon daily; from May–October, tours leave at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily. $50 per person.