Content produced in partnership with the Boulder Convention and Visitors Bureau
“That’s so Boulder” is a phrase you’ll commonly hear wandering the streets of Boulder as interesting characters and WTF moments abound. In fact, I can’t think of another destination that’s as much an adjective as it is a place. Whether you take that synonym to mean quirky, eccentric, endearing, or a million other adjectives, one thing’s for sure — it’s unlike anywhere else on Earth.
Racking up accolade after accolade, Boulder has been called the “Dream Town” by Outside magazine, the “Happiest City in the County” by National Geographic, “America’s Foodiest City” by Bon Appetit, and the “Place You Dream of Living” by Backpacker. After just a few days, it had me convinced to pick up and move cross country to a state I knew nothing about beyond the bluebird skies and the beautiful people.
And my instincts were right — Boulder immediately felt like home despite how weird and wacky it may be. Brimming with charm, questionable fashion choices, and leftover counterculture, you simply have to smile about place that officially calls itself “the People’s Republic of Boulder” and has a “tube to work day.”
If you’re planning a trip to Boulder, here’s how to score some of that coveted mountain magic.
Must-Have Boulder Experiences
Get Your Hike On
Located at the base of the Foothills, the mountains shield Boulder from the elements and reality. Flanked by the Flatirons, the five massive rock formations are said to resemble clothes irons, making them the town’s iconic image especially after a fresh dusting of snow. In fact, they have a city-wide building height ordinance to ensure the stoic peaks are always in sight.
Plenty of trails can help you ascend the glorious peaks, most originating from Chautauqua Park. One of the last remaining examples of the Chautauqua movement, the facility was a popular adult educational retreat and summer camp in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and is the only site West of the Mississippi still operating its original structures for its intended purpose. Today, you can actually stay at one of the original cabins, catch a concert at the auditorium, grab a snack at the dining hall, or just hike around the spectacular scenery.
Have a Tea-riffic Time
While most cities tout their coffee culture, Boulder is a haven for tea connoisseurs. Home to Celestial Seasonings, one of the largest tea manufacturers in the world, you can take a free, 45-minute guided tour of their headquarters. Founded by a group of friends picking herbs and spices in their backyard of the Rockies, the herbal infusions were sewn by hand and marketed for their health benefits (cue “that’s so Boulder”). Some even claim this was Boulder’s entrance into the lucrative natural food products industry.
Fast forward and Celestial Seasonings has evolved into one of the best companies to work for in the U.S. with the most robust industrial facility in the industry. They offer 105 varieties of teas and fuel America with 1.6 billion cups served a year. 15 new flavors are introduced every year with exotic ingredients coming from as far away as Egypt and Indonesia. Technically, 80% of their teas still aren’t classified as teas (no leaves), but herbal infusions just didn’t have the same ring. Either way, their factory is therapy for your nose and soul — until you get to the mint room, which is memorable in its own right.
Another must-see stop for tea lovers is the Dushanbe Tea House. A gift from Boulder’s sister city, Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, it took forty artisans over two years to handcraft the architectural marvel. Deconstructed and shipped to the U.S. in pieces, the gorgeous tiling, oil paintings, and carvings were lovingly reconstructed in Boulder where it resides as a symbol of peace and friendship. Their afternoon tea service is a relaxed (and tasty) break from the day.
Explore the Pearl of Boulder
A four-block pedestrian mall that can be seen on foot or bike, Pearl St. has been the heart and soul of Boulder for 40+ years. Breathe in the incense, bask in the bizarre street performers (the guy who bends himself into a box and the zip code dude are always crowd pleasers), puzzle over the sculptures, and enjoy endless people watching. Fair trade, tie-dye, hemp, crystals, and 100% organic are all buzzwords in a place that’s been likened to San Francisco in its hippie heyday. It’s the spot to observe the many paradoxes of Boulder illuminated under twinkling lights.
Pop by Rocket Fizz for old-timey candy and soda, indulge in a gelato at Fior De Latte, and peruse Art Mart for uniquely Coloradical gifts. There are dozens of independent boutiques and jewelry shops interspersed with high-end outdoor retailers, 80% that are locally owned.
Chill Out at the Rayback Collective
“Boulder’s backyard,” the Rayback is as much a lounge as it is a place of productivity. What set out to be an innovative event venue and permanent food truck park has evolved into a co-working space offering young professionals a place to fuel their day with coffee, kombucha, and alcohol on tap. Business in the front, party in the back, the porch and yard are outfitted with fire pits, corn hole, and a rotating selection of food trucks. They also regularly host live music, trivia nights, and other events.
One of their specialty vendors, Rowdy Mermaid bills themselves as kombucha for people who don’t like kombucha (including yours truly). Light and floral, there’s no harsh afterbite and all of their flavors have been known to pair well with vodka (not saying, just saying).
Hit the Slopes
I’ve never told anyone this, but the first time I skied in Colorado, I cried. It was a tough pill to swallow learning that ratings aren’t consistent across the country and black diamonds in Wisconsin are not equivalent to black diamonds in Colorado. Basically, my ego was as bruised as my backside.
Eldora is Colorado-lite, a nice way to ease yourself into the Rocky Mountain scene and build up your confidence before heading to some of the bigger resorts. One of just a handful of mountains that have direct bus access from downtown and VIP carpool parking, it’s one of those family-friendly, locally loved ski slopes that doesn’t require a whole day of commuting to play outside.
They also have one of the most robust Nordic ski systems in the country. If you’re heading to the slopes purely for exercise (and yes, it is a workout), they have 40 km of lift-accessible trails for skate skiing (which requires a different kind of groomed track), cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.
With more breweries per capita than any other city in the nation, Boulder and beer are more or less synonymous. Household names include Avery, Upslope, and Boulder Beer Co., Colorado’s very first craft microbrewery. A few offer tours and all offer flights and tasters. Frothy IPAs reign supreme in this neck of the woods, but if you’re not into that (I don’t blame you, neither am I), there are plenty of light, sippable pours like White Rascal (Avery) and Buffalo Gold (Boulder Beer).
Head to Shine for a completely different kind of Boulder beverage. A potion bar with formulas designed to make you “shine” from within; the venue has a distinct Harry Potter vibe especially during “magic hour” (their version of happy hour). The menu pairings include floral equivalents, sound frequencies, and gemstone essences, and while the potions are all non-alcoholic, they also happen to make great mixers. Food options are completely gluten-free with all produce sourced from within a five-mile radius (you know the phrase by now).
Imbibe and Indulge
Back in the day, Boulder restaurants really catered to a college crowd. Thanks to an influx of startups and a more sophisticated clientele, the already good dining scene exploded. Whether you’re looking for a quick grab and go lunch or a four-star dining experience, there are culinary choices for every palate and budget that can easily be seen on a self-guided or guided food tour. Just don’t ask my favorite.
Top Chef-Worthy – Blackbelly / Santo
Top Chef Season 5 winner Hosea Rosenberg’s empire is rooted in Boulder. His first restaurant, Blackbelly is still going strong with an upscale butchery and meat-centric menu. His newest venture, though, is a tribute to his New Mexican roots. Santo is a normal sit-down dinner and brunch restaurant but has really gained notoriety for its morning breakfast burritos. Monday through Friday, people line up in the Whole Foods parking lot for grab and go handhelds stuffed with egg, Tender Belly bacon, and tater tots served Christmas-style (with red and green chile).
Splurge Meals – Flagstaff House / Frasca Food & Wine / Oak at Fourteenth / Corrida
Set high up in the mountains with floor to ceiling windows, Flagstaff House is the signature white tablecloth, special occasion restaurant that’s been around forever. Think 40th consecutive Forbes Travel Guide four-star rating and 29th consecutive AAA Four Diamond status. The other restaurants I named are more approachable for a nice dinner out, albeit still pricey.
Frasca has been called “The French Laundry of Colorado,” earning two James Beard Awards and cementing itself on the national Eater list multiple times. The OAK team is more known for their cocktail program with Chef Steven Redzikowski also a James Beard nominee. Corrida is the newest venture from the OAK folks. Think massive meat platters and Spanish tapas paired with clean-drinking G&Ts prepared tableside.
The Trusty Staples – The Sink / The Med / The Rio / The Kitchen
While the Rio’s Mexican food isn’t anything to write home about, if you don’t come for their (limit two, very strong) margaritas to start the night, you’re doing it wrong. The Sink is Boulder’s oldest restaurant and the place to get the best burger in town. Visitors have lovingly scrawled their names on the ceiling since 1923 (including President Obama himself). The Med offers consistently good crowd-pleasing tapas and flatbreads, while The Kitchen was one of the first pioneers to really put farm-to-table food on the map.
Quickie Breakfast and Lunch Options – Illegal Pete’s / Salvaggio’s Deli / Ruthie’s Boardwalk Social
Burrito bowls, breakfast sammies, and gourmet grilled cheese, oh my. So good they should be illegal, the original Illegal Pete’s on the Hill has expanded to become not just a Boulder icon, but a Colorado staple for their Mission-style tacos and burritos.
Drawing inspiration from the other side of the country, Salvaggio’s is an east coast deli known for their fresh baked rolls, Boar’s Head meats, and cheeses aplenty. Speaking of cheese, Ruthie’s Pearl St. kiosk is a gem all on its own. Pair any of their toasty, cheesy sandwiches with homemade tomato soup or twice cooked Belgium fries for the ultimate comfort and convenience food.
Brunch Bunch – The Buff / Lucille’s Creole Cafe / Tangerine
Boulder’s gathering place for 20+ years, the Buff is beloved for it’s Southwestern-inspired breakfast menu as much as their $.99 Bloody Marys, Mimosas, and Tequila Sunrises on tap. For southern flair, Lucille’s has served homestyle Creole and Cajun cuisine for 35+ years. While both definitely have waits upwards of an hour, one of the lesser-known, new kids on the block is Tangerine, which has no less of an egg-ceptional menu and latte art to boot. In short? Boulder’s brunch game is strong.
International Flair – Sushi Zanmai / Il Pastaio / A Cup of Peace
I’ve been sake bombing at Zanmai for over a decade, and fully attest their sushi is some of the best in our landlocked state. Hidden in a strip mall, Il Pastaio offers the most authentic; fresh off the boat handmade pasta you’ll eat outside of Italy. They’re closed on weekends and only offer their full-menu at dinner time, but I guess if you’re a mom and pop shop with a cult following you can play by your own rules. A Cup of Peace is also in a non-descript strip mall. Mainly a teahouse (sensing a trend yet?), they serve organic Korean purple rice bowls and boba tea perfect for a healthy, guilt-free lunch.
The very definition of “if walls could talk,” the Boulderado is one of the Historic Hotels of America and has seen the town through the decades. Opened in 1908, all the tiles and wood are original. The stained glass ceiling a replica of what’s been called the “jewel box of Boulder.” The elevator is one of just five Otis models in the country still requiring an actual operator and there’s something extra charming about having to call a bellman. The historic side of the hotel is classically Victorian, but if you’re more into contemporary furnishings, the modern wing has been updated with traditional decor.
Home to the longest operating restaurant space in Boulder (currently Spruce Farm & Fish), there’s only one property in town that’s been around longer (Chautauqua). The basement speakeasy is an ode to the prohibition area, lovingly named License No. 1, since they were granted the very first liquor license in Boulder. There is skeeball, darts, pool, Jenga, and often live music and comedy stylings to imbibe in style.
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