Colorado is the heart and soul of adventurous north America. With a place for every type of inland outdoor activity you could dream of, the state was built for adventure. The incredible Rocky Mountains are easily Colorado’s biggest draw-card; home to some of the world’s top ski resorts and hundreds of small mining towns.
However, there is also a ton of fun, offbeat things to do to keep you busy in Denver. Other than outdoor adventure and natural beauty, the city is famous for its world-class breweries and the youthful atmosphere that comes with them, incredible museums, and a diverse cultural scene.
Just 30 miles from downtown Denver on the city’s northern outskirts, Boulder is a smaller city with a huge heart. Set at the base of the Rockies, Boulder oozes a small-town atmosphere and is known for being home to the University of Colorado Boulder, along with a vibrant hippy community.
Even though they’re just around the corner, Denver and Boulder have a very different feel from one another. One city offers a vibrant city center, while the other prides itself on small-town charm.
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Denver vs Boulder
While it’s entirely possible (and common) to visit both cities in one trip, a big question we get asked is whether it is better to base yourself in Denver or Boulder when visiting Colorado. My answer? It all depends on what type of vacation you’re after.
- Located just east of the Rocky Mountains, stretching across 154 square miles.
- Known for having an incredible collection of world-class museums, breweries, and historical landmarks and for being the gateway to the Rocky Mountains.
- The easiest way to get to Denver is to fly into Denver International Airport (DIA), located just on the eastern outskirts of the city. The city also has an Amtrak station that operates two east-to-west routes – the California Zephyr and the Southwest Chief.
- Denver is a walkable city with a public transport system that operates rail and buses. The city has lots of pedestrian streets and cycling lanes that make it easy to get around without a car, although most locals do own their own vehicles.
- The city is home to many hotels, boutique hotels, and social hostels. Self-catering vacation rentals are also available via Airbnb.
- Boulder is much smaller than Denver, reaching around 17 square miles at the base of the Rocky Mountains.
- Famous for its university-feel small-town hippie charm, and incredible breweries. Also well known for its mountain biking trails and thriving cycling culture.
- If you’re traveling to Boulder, you’ll need to fly into Denver International Airport and then drive the 30 miles via the US-36 W/ Denver Boulder Turnpike. There are also public buses that run between DIA and Denver city to Boulder.
- The easiest way to get around Boulder is by bike and bus. There are tons of bike paths and trails snaking throughout the city, and bike rentals are cheap. Walking is also possible within the city center. Renting a car is a good idea if you want to explore the Rockies or visit both Denver and Boulder.
- Boulder is known for its bed and breakfast accommodation and youth hostels. Self-catering vacation rentals like cabins and inner-city condos are also available.
Is Denver or Boulder Better
Anyone traveling to Colorado’s Front Mountain Range will likely have to decide whether to visit Denver or Boulder. So, the question remains; which city is better for your vacation needs: Denver or Boulder?
For Things to Do
As the state capital of Colorado, it’s no surprise that you’ll find more museums, historical landmarks, and cultural attractions in Denver. From the Denver Art Museum to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Arts, this city has a museum for all tastes and interests.
Both Denver and Boulder are famous for their closeness to the Rocky Mountains and the outdoor activities and adventures that come with this prestigious setting. There are plenty of cycling trails, mountain biking, hiking routes, and rivers and lakes to kayak on around both cities. However, since Boulder is set at the foothills of the mountains, this city is closer to the action.
Shopaholics will fare best in Denver, with its 16th Street Mall, Denver Pavilions, and Cherry Creek Shopping Center selling everything you could dream of. Shops are more local and low-key in Boulder, with high streets and boutique shops dominating the retail scene.
As a much bigger city, Denver is better known for its incredible food scene and high-end restaurants. With popular rooftop eateries and Michelin Star restaurants, it’s even worth driving to some Denver restaurants if you’re staying in Boulder.
For natural scenery, Boulder takes the cake. The city is famous for the slanting red sandstone formations known as The Flatirons. These stunning 300 million-year-old natural features are also a top place to hike and mountain bike.
Architecture is unique between the cities. Denver offers a blend of urban high-rise infrastructure with residential homes. On the other hand, Boulder has an old-town American aesthetic (think low-rise saloons and grocers) with many log cabins surrounding the city in the forests and mountains.
For Budget Travelers
Even though the cities sit right beside one another, living costs in Boulder tend to be 13% higher than in Denver. You could even think of Boulder as a large, expensive suburb of Denver, where prices are higher than in the city center.
- Accommodation is urban in Denver and semi-urban in Boulder. A night at an average hotel for one visitor costs about $75 per day in Denver or $80 in Boulder. If you’re sharing a double room, prices in Denver average $150, while Boulders hotels are slightly more expensive, at about $160. Hostels are a cheaper alternative and could cost about $35 per bed in a shared dormitory.
- Public transport is super affordable in both cities, and it’s also possible to walk and cycle. On a busy day using taxis and public transport, expect to pay around $30 on transport per day in Denver or $20 in Boulder.
- An average meal costs around $15 per head in Denver or $17 per head in Boulder, depending on the type of restaurant you head for. Expect to budget about $35 for food per day in Denver or $45 in Boulder.
- A beer costs around $6 in both Denver and Boulder. Local breweries might offer specials and discounts for craft brews.
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Where to Stay in Denver: Hostel Fish
It doesn’t matter that there are limited hostel options in the city when you have Hostel Fish to check into. The three-star hostel is just a short walk from the heart of the city in a great location. It features a 24-hour reception and a games room on site. Head to the bar for cocktail hour to meet some like-minded budget travelers – you might just meet your new best friend!
While Denver isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis comparable to Los Angeles or New York City, it sure is a lot busier compared with Boulder. Boulder might be the better option for your romantic trip if you’re looking for a relaxing retreat in a slow-paced, low-key environment.
On the other side of the coin, couples with a passion for art and culture might prefer the hustle of the big city, with tons of art museums and galleries to visit year-round. The art and culture scene here is much more exciting than in Boulder, which offers a more grounding outdoor atmosphere.
If you prefer to spend your days outdoors in nature, Boulder is the place to base yourself. The city is flanked by mountains, forests, and alpine lakes and is just a short drive from some of the state’s most impressive rock formations for climbers, mountain biking trails, and rushing rivers for kayakers.
On the same note, if you’re after a relaxing and pampering experience, spend some time at one of the incredible spas in Boulder. In fact, the town even has a hot springs hotel and spa listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Where to Stay in Boulder: Boulder Guest House
For the ultimate romantic getaway in Boulder, book yourself into the Boulder Guest House for a bit of relaxation and rejuvenation. Right in the heart of town, yet out of the bustle of the main street, this property offers king-sized rooms with garden views and a delicious breakfast to get you ready for the day ahead.
For Getting Around
Both Denver and Boulder are relatively easy cities to get around. Denver’s city center is compact, with most major attractions within walking distance from one another. Those that aren’t are easily reachable by car or public transport.
Known as the RTD (Regional Transportation District), Denver’s public transport is more developed than Boulder’s, but only since the city is much more prominent in size.
The system operates airport rail, light rail, and buses across town, connecting the inner city to all major attractions, the airport, the central train station, and surrounding residential suburbs.
The system even includes free shuttle buses through the main tourist areas. It’s so good that it has been consistently ranked as one of the best public transport systems in the country.
As a city almost nine times smaller than Denver, Boulder is even easier to get around by foot. The town is flanked by footpaths for pedestrians and cycling lanes and is scattered with bikes for rent for an affordable price.
If you don’t feel like being active in your transit, the city also has an excellent public transport network that operates buses.
For a Weekend Trip
If we had to pick whether traveling to Denver or Boulder is better for a weekend trip, a weekend in Boulder is the perfect amount of time to explore the inner city and indulge in a few outdoor adventures. In two or three days, you’ll have enough time to hit the main attractions, enjoy the local cuisine and explore the incredible mountains without tiring yourself out too much.
Being small and easy to explore by foot, it’s one of the most accessible places to explore without having to spend time in traffic, parking, or waiting for transport.
I advise you to begin your trip in the historic main town. Lined with boutique shops, eateries, quirky street performers, and local breweries, this town center has that classical American small-town feel that we love so much. Most of the hotels in town are clustered around this small area, which only expands around five blocks. Stroll along Pearl Street and pop into the cozy bookstores, mountaineering stores, and art galleries.
Boulder boasts an incredible 155 miles of hiking trails, which makes it one of the best towns to visit for outdoor enthusiasts. For a short but beautiful hike, the Chautauqua Trailhead is set on a beautiful shaded trail along the incredible Flatiron sandstone slabs. If you’re prepared for a more strenuous hike, the Flatirons Loop will have you gawking at the views of the city and its surroundings.
The Boulder Farmers Market is another favorite destination that will offer visitors a taste of local life in the city. Head to University Hill for a slice of the Boulder student experience. With funky bars, trendy hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and endless breweries, you could spend a whole day eating your way through this area.
For a Week-Long Trip
While there is plenty to explore in either Denver or Boulder, there is no doubt more to do in Denver. With 300 days of sunshine and incredible blue skies to match, you can always guarantee decent weather in Colorado’s state capital. From shopping to brewery hopping to hiking, there is more than enough to do and see in Denver to keep you busy for a week.
Spend some time exploring the city’s arts and history. The 16th Street Mall downtown is a mile-long pedestrian walking street with some of the state’s best delis, cafes, and retail shops, well worth a browse.
Head to the Denver Performing Arts Complex, which is the cultural hub of the city, before exploring lower downtown by Union Station and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA). The Golden Triangle is home to the Denver Art Museum, Clyfford Still Museum, and Colorado State Capitol. End your day with dinner in Larimer Square, the historic heart of Denver, and an urban shopping hub.
On a separate day, head to Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater and enjoy a day around the base of the Rocky Mountains. This natural amphitheater is an icon of Denver, and if your trip coincides with a performance, you’d be silly not to get tickets right away.
Another day calls for another adventure in nature. Spend day three exploring the Denver Botanic Gardens and various city parks before heading to the Denver Beer Trail for a local draught.
Other areas worth checking out include the River North Art District (known as RiNo), Denver Central Market, and the Source – an urban food hall packed with the best of the best of Denver cuisine.
Visiting Denver and Boulder
Let’s get one thing straight. Whether you visit Denver or Boulder, the cities are super close to one another – a 35-minute drive, to be precise. They are so nearby that some see Boulder as an extended suburb of Denver. Many locals choose to live in Boulder, even if they work in Denver.
Visiting both cities is highly recommended. Even though they’re just a hop and a skip away from one another, the cities have a unique vibe and atmosphere that can only be experienced in person.
Because of this, it is very easy and affordable to visit both cities during the same trip. Boulder is located just north of Denver, a half-hour drive away via the US-36 W/ Denver Bounder Turnpike.
The easiest way to get from Denver to Boulder is to drive this short distance. However, if you’re on vacation and don’t have access to a car, there are plenty of buses that run the route for a low price. The RTD bus is a direct bus that runs from Denver International Airport to Downtown Boulder Station, Boulder Junction, and Depot Square Station, where the service ends and turns around.
FAQs About Denver vs Boulder
Although only a few miles from one another, Denver and Boulder each have a unique atmosphere and offerings worth exploring.
Boulder is a small college town home to the famous University of Colorado campus. With a burgeoning youth population, the city blends small-town charm with a vibrant nightlife scene particularly well-known for its breweries and local craft beers.
Denver is a busy state capital with an urban population. However, unlike other state capitals, Denver has a low-key, relaxed feel, even in the heart of the sprawling city. It’s famously known as the gateway into the Rocky Mountains and the incredible ski resorts within these ranges.
Comparing Denver and Boulder can be tricky since many see one as an extension of the other. One thing that both cities have in common is that they are both surrounded by snow-capped mountains, alpine lakes, and rushing rivers. They’re a hotspot for outdoor adventure, with plenty of hiking trails, cycling routes, and places to enjoy the great outdoors.
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