Denver is an expanding metropolis that manages to retain a compact feel, thanks to its increasingly hips neighborhoods with names like LoDo (Lower Downtown) and LoHi (Lower Highlands). Getting around on foot or public transportation is easy, and the buses that run along the 16th Street Mall (a pedestrian shopping strip) are free. • Although some people view Denver mostly as a jumping off point for skiing, hiking and biking in Red Rocks Park and the mountains, the truth is there's plenty to do indoors, and out, right in the city. When the politicians, delegates and media clear out after the Democratic National Convention that begins Monday, the city will be all yours. Here are 10 possibilities for what to do and see:
Denver Art Museum
Daniel Libeskind designed the dramatic, titanium-clad Frederic C. Hamilton Building, which opened in 2006 and connects to Gio Ponti's 1971 North Building via a glassed-in second-floor bridge with good views of what's called the "Golden Triangle Museum District." More than 50,000 square feet of new gallery space — with nary a straight wall and plenty of mazelike layouts — showcase modern and contemporary, Oceanic, and Western American art, as well as temporary exhibits, among them "Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism" (through Sept. 7) and "Clyfford Still Unveiled" (through Nov. 16), an informal preview for the museum dedicated to the early abstract impressionist that's opening next door in 2010. Head to the older building for everything from American Indian art to the design and textile collections.
Museum of Contemporary Art
Opened with great fanfare in October, this striking glass box designed by architect David Adjaye deserves kudos for taking advantage of natural light. Exhibits in galleries devoted to such disciplines as photography and new media are temporary. August attractions include Jane Hammond's photos (opened Aug. 19) and a 24-hour outdoor sculpture installation by Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese starting at noon Tuesday titled "The State of Things."
Best bet: Hang out at the MCA's rooftop cafe and enjoy the garden and people-watching.
Colorado state capitol
The white granite, gold leaf-domed Colorado State Capitol designed by Elijah E. Myers and built in the 1890s with mostly local materials (including lots of gorgeous rose marble) is worth seeing, whether you take a free 45-minute tour or wander around by yourself. Don't miss Denverite Alan True's murals depicting Colorado water use (with commentary written in 1940 by Colorado poet laureate Thomas Hornsby Ferrill) surrounding the grand staircase; bronze elevator doors chronicling the state's history with bison, teepees and other symbols; stained-glass windows; and the council chambers. Make an appointment to visit the dome for panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains. A tip: Stand on the 13th step on the west side of the building, and you're exactly 1 mile above sea level.
Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art
Denver's quirkiest museum feels more like a classy antique shop, thanks to the organized jumble of decorative arts, regional art (with an emphasis on Colorado Modernism) and Vance Kirkland paintings. Kirkland used the original 1910-11 arts and crafts building as his art school/studio, surrounding himself with works by his contemporaries, as well as art nouveau, art deco and other beautifully designed objects. His heir, Hugh Grant, kept adding to the furniture, ceramics, glassware, etc., eventually expanding the building and opening to the public in 2003. Be sure to check out the charming sculpture garden.
Afterward walk up the street to Liks Ice Cream Parlor for creamy house-made ice creams in myriad flavors, quite a few of them invented by customers.
Big Blue Bear
More than 300 public artworks dot the city, and part of the fun is coming upon them by surprise. One of my favorites — and everybody's, I suspect — is the 40-foot-high, vibrant blue bear peeking in the windows of the Colorado Convention Center. Its real title is I See What You Mean, and artist Lawrence Argent created it in 2005 out of steel encased in a cement/fiberglass composite. He has called it his "stylized representation of native fauna."
Saved from destruction in the 1960s and renovated as the first urban renewal project of its kind, Denver's oldest block is lined with Victorian brick buildings housing trendy stores, restaurants and night spots. Shop for Western- and Asian-influenced clothing, collectibles and home accessories at Cry Baby Ranch; designer duds and gifts for infants and kids (up to age 8) at Cute as a Button; and women's fashions and accessories at several boutiques. Then stop in at Corridor 44, the city's first Champagne bar, for a glass of bubbly before savoring plump mussels with frites and other French classics at Bistro Vendome or fresh bacon with curry-scented chickpea puree, grilled Colorado lamb with braised organic greens and a bevy of Mediterranean-influenced creations at Rioja.
Rockmount Ranch Wear
No enterprise epitomizes Denver's pioneer spirit more than Rockmount, started in 1946 and known for making the first Western shirts with snaps. Worn in dozens of films by stars ranging from Elvis Presley to Meg Ryan, the signature "diamond" snap, "sawtooth" pocket designs in more than 100 fabrics fill the racks on the spacious first floor of the five-story, 1908 brick building, complemented by skirts, boots, hats, belts and everything else a cowboy or girl needs. Most amazing is that founder Jack A. "Papa" Weil, who also was the first to produce bolo ties commercially, came to work every weekday morning until his death earlier this month at age 107.
Walk or bike across Millennium Bridge, one of three pedestrian bridges (you'll know it by the ship's mast public sculpture) from the Riverfront area. That will put you in LoHi, the newly hip gateway to the Highlands, Denver's largest neighborhood, just northwest of downtown. Highlands Square and the Tennyson Street Cultural District (at 10, the city's oldest art district) are the neighborhood's other main commercial strips, and the many family-owned ethnic restaurants reflect waves of immigrants, especially Hispanic and Italian. Nowadays, loft developments are sprinkled among the bungalows. Three parks, all with lakes, include Sloan's Park with motor boats and jet skis, and Berkeley Park across the street from the old-fashioned Lakeside Amusement Park, which, along with its carousel, turns 100 this year.
Dazzle Restaurant & Lounge
Denver has plenty of great places to hear live music, but Dazzle (930 Lincoln St.) stands out because the comfortable setting appeals to such a wide audience. Local, national and international jazz artists perform seven nights a week in both the lounge and the restaurant. The menu goes beyond bar food, brunch is a big favorite and the happy hour is one of the best in town with $4 premium drinks and $5 small plates. No wonder a dazzled Downbeat magazine dubbed it one of the 100 best clubs in the world.
Denver performing arts complex
Ten venues make up the country's second largest performing arts complex, so on any given night you can see Broadway musicals on tour, Tony Award-winning shows, offbeat theater, opera, the symphony and maybe a ballet after entering through the blocklong, 80-foot-high glass atrium. The Ellie Caulkins Opera House, which opened in 2005 as the state-of-the-art home of Opera Colorado, is in the building that originally was the multipurpose Municipal Auditorium, where the 1908 Democratic National Convention took place. Hot chef Kevin Taylor has a restaurant in the basement.
Anne Spiselman is a freelance writer based in Chicago.