This post is dedicated to helping travelers decide between Denver and Boulder, two Colorado cities located along the Front Range. The cities share stunning views of the Rocky Mountains, tasty local breweries, and lots of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors – but they’re fundamentally different places.
I am from Lakewood, Colorado, a suburb outside of Denver, and thus spent time visiting the city. Later, I moved to Boulder for about four years, during which time I worked at companies based in Denver, often commuting between the two cities several times a week. Given my experience with both cities, I wanted to share my thoughts on which city is better to visit if you’ll have a limited amount of time in my home state.
I’ll do my best to share my honest, straightforward opinion so that you can make the best possible choice for your trip.
Denver vs Boulder: Which City Is Better To Visit?
So, which city is better to visit? To quote one of my former housemates, “The answer is as clear as mud.” Truthfully, either city could be a better place for you to visit, based on your travel preferences and what you’re hoping to get out of your trip.
For the best city experience, access to ski resorts, and most overall options, head to Denver. The Mile High city has all of the state’s major sporting arenas, theaters, museums, and other large attractions. When locals in Boulder want to attend a large event (aside from a CU Buff’s game), they usually catch the bus to Denver.
However, if you enjoy nature, quirkiness, and organic foods, Boulder may be perfect for you. When I lived in Boulder, I used to describe it as, “Whole Foods, but a city.” Locals are thoughtful, opinionated, and discerning, often choosing to play chess into the evening or attend a book signing over a sports ball game.
Denver is a metropolitan city of about 700,000 people living in the city proper. It is surrounded on most sides by suburbs, including Lakewood, Colorado – my hometown. When you combine the populations of Denver and the surrounding areas, the population swells to about 3 million people. Breweries, farm-to-table style restaurants, and large upscale food halls are very popular in Denver, especially near the downtown area.
Boulder is a small and affluent city of about 104,000 people, set at the base of the Flatirons about 40 minutes from Denver. It routinely makes lists of the most educated cities in the US per capita, coming in third place in a 2019 ranking. Many locals work at the University of Colorado Boulder, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or for one of the number tech companies based locally. Google has a campus in Boulder, and their highly paid workers live in the city or in the nearby and fairly affluent cities of Louisville and Lafayette.
Locals in Boulder love to spend time outdoors, visit the area breweries, and dine at quirky area restaurants. During the summer, the Saturday farmers market is a bustling affair, where you’re likely to run into your coworkers, favorite barista, and neighbor as you shop for produce.
Denver vs Boulder: Costs
Boulder is often accused of being significantly more expensive to visit than Denver, which I believe to be exaggerated. Transportation costs, groceries, and mid range restaurants should be roughly equal between the two cities, but you will see some differences in accommodation options and prices.
This isn’t to say that Denver is cheap, but instead to highlight that both cities are expensive.
Travel in Colorado almost always better if you can drive or rent a car. If you’re staying in a hotel in downtown Denver, expect to pay for parking or plan to walk many blocks. Beware that Denver has strict rules for street sweeping – carefully read the signs because the city is rather zealous in issuing parking tickets.
You’ll see the biggest price gaps between Boulder and Denver when you look into hotels and accommodations (here are my hotel picks for Denver and Boulder). Denver, by virtue of being a larger city with more options and greater demand, will generally be cheaper. There will also be more luxury options in Denver, like the Ramble Hotel in the River North Arts District.
For the lowest prices in either city, search for hotels or short term rentals both in the city and in the nearby towns and suburbs.
For mid range restaurants and groceries, you can expect to see similar prices in both Denver and Boulder. If you’re grocery shopping on a budget in Boulder, try to avoid the centrally located Alfalfa’s grocery store. You’ll find similar produce at lower prices if you drive 10 minutes to Whole Foods, and cheaper products if you visit Sprouts or King Soopers.
You’ll see the biggest differences in food costs when you compare the cheapest restaurants in both cities. Denver has wonderful, cheap family restaurants like Taqueria La Familia or the Butcher Block Cafe. Boulder, unfortunately, has very few options for affordable, family-friendly restaurants.
If you stay somewhere with an oven in Boulder, you can grab pizzas from Nick-n-Willys and bake them at home. The Mediterranean is always popular.
Denver vs Boulder: Outdoor Adventures
Although Denverites are people who love outdoor adventures, there aren’t many activities that you can enjoy from the city proper. Most people love to live in Denver because the mountains are easily accessible, choosing instead to head to Golden or the Rocky Mountains.
Boulder, by contrast, is set right up against a mountain range. When I lived in Boulder, I used to walk out my front door and complete a hike, walk down to Pearl Street for a meal or to explore, then walk home afterwards. So long as you’re staying downtown, there are lots of ways to enjoy the outdoors without even stepping into your car.
Outdoor adventures: Best Things To Do In Denver
When people picture the Great Outdoors of Colorado, they’re usually not picturing the city of Denver. While the mountains are visible from most parts of the city, most outdoor activities are at least a 45 minute drive. Thus, Denver is a great jumping off point for visiting the Rocky Mountains without paying ski resort prices or committing to a week in the mountains.
If you want to get some fresh air while you’re visiting Denver, head to the 16th Street Mall. This area of downtown Denver has been converted into a large outdoor mall, with shopping, restaurants, and a movie theater. Summer visits would be incomplete without a visit to Red Rocks Amphitheater, a beautiful natural amphitheater made of vibrant red sandstone that looks out over the Denver area.
✅ Wander up and down the 16th Street Mall
The large pedestrian mall along 16th Street stretches from Union Station to the Colorado Capitol Building. There is a free shuttle that runs along the route, but it’s also very walkable. Most of the best restaurants are located at either end of the mall, near the train station or in Capitol Hill.
If you need to grab a quick and cheap lunch near the 16th Street Mall, try Heidi’s Brooklyn Deli at 17th and Lawrence or Sliceworks on 17th and Blake. For a nicer meal, try City O’ City in Capitol Hill for wonderful vegetarian fare, or Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar for – you guessed it – seafood. The seafood at Jax is certified by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.
✅ See a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater
Every year, many popular bands come to play at Red Rocks. You can see bands like Trampled by Turtles, the Arctic Monkeys, and Jackson Browne play. The schedule is continuously updated, so keep an eye on it ahead of your trip to Denver. If you’re not able to see a concert, you can often attend special events like Yoga on the Rocks or Films on the Rocks during the summer months.
✅ Head into the mountains for hiking and skiing
Truthfully, the best outdoor activities in the city aren’t in Denver at all – they’re in the mountains. People love Denver for its proximity to the great outdoors, so you’ll definitely want to hop in a car to see the top sites. You can make your way to Rocky Mountain National Park (Boulder is closer to the park, but it’s still accessible from Denver), or drive up I-70 to one of the many ski resorts.
Outdoor adventures: Best Things To Do In Boulder
Boulder is beloved by locals for its access to natural spaces, there are plenty of things to do outside in the city throughout the year. You’ll see locals hiking or walking in all but the most inclement weather, with some locals preferring to cross country ski along the sidewalks after snowstorms. Bring appropriate gear for the time of year, and watch for ice and/or mud if you’ll be visiting outside of the summer months.
✅ Tube down Boulder Creek in the summertime
One of the great joys of visiting Boulder is purchasing an inner tube and riding down the Boulder Creek. On a hot summer day when the water is low, you can ride the current in a black inner tube from Eben G. Fine Park to 55th Street. You can rent a tube from a number of local retailers, including Foot of the Mountain Motel and McGuckin Hardware.
Always take any and all precautions, including wearing a life jacket and helmet. Know that there are inherent risks to entering the water. For more information and safety tips, please read this page.
✅ Stroll along Pearl Street
Pearl Street is the heart of Boulder – a pedestrian mall full of shops, restaurants, and street performers. You can spend a few hours exploring Pearl Street in most any weather, though it’s the nicest in the warm summer months.
A few of my favorite Pearl spots include: Piece, Love and Chocolate, a local chocolatier; Liberty Puzzles, a handmade wooden jigsaw puzzle shop; Lucile’s Creole Cafe, famous for their southern style biscuits with homemade jam; and Mountain Sun, a brewery with great food and a fun atmosphere.
✅ Go for a walk or hike in Chautauqua at the base of the Flatirons
There are hikes for most difficulty levels accessible from Chautauqua, the park at the base of the Flatirons. You can stroll through Chautauqua Park for an easy hike, or climb Bear Mountain if you’re looking for more of a challenge. Royal Arch is a very popular but moderately strenuous trail, which leads to a natural arch at the top of one of the flatirons.
Where to Stay in Denver
Denver is a large city with a few popular areas that tend to attract visitors. My two favorite parts of the city – and the spots I’d choose, if possible – are the Highlands and the River North Arts District. These two neighborhoods aren’t terribly far apart, maybe a 5-10 minute drive, but they do have very different appeals.
Home to my favorite yoga studio, Big Power Yoga, and the wonderful coffee shops Crema and Portside, is the River North Arts District. This vibrant Denver neighborhood is popular for its street art, fabulous food, and numerous breweries. The Catbird Hotel is a charming RiNo area hotel that was designed to feel like home, and some rooms are outfitted with kitchens.
The Highlands are located next to I-25, right along the corridor. The central area isn’t particularly large, but you can find some of my favorite restaurants, like Linger and Taqueria La Familia. You can stay at the Hampton Inn & Suites Denver-Speer Boulevard for a laid back, family friendly, and central experience, or nearby in the Berkeley Hotel for something more artful and off the beaten path.
If you’d like more information about the best hotels and areas in Denver, you can check out this guide I made for visiting the National Western Stock Show.
Where to Stay in Boulder
Boulder is a much smaller city, so it is much easier to choose a centrally located hotel. If you can afford it, I recommend choosing an accommodation near Pearl Street, the central pedestrian mall. The most well known and best located accommodation along Pearl Street is the Hotel Boulderado, a Victorian style hotel modeled after a train station and complete with a few quirky antiques. Another great choice is the Bradley Boulder Inn, a traditional Bed and Breakfast with a few more amenities than the Boulderado.
If you prefer to cook your own meals while traveling, the Chautauqua Cottages on the southern side of the city could be a good fit, though you’ll need to walk or drive to Pearl Street. Instead of a central hotel, the cottages are small houses set at the base of the Flatirons, about a 20 minute walk downhill from Pearl Street.
There are only a handful of budget accommodations in Boulder. If a central hotel is out of reach for your trip, I’d recommend looking in other parts of the city or in the nearby areas, where prices are not quite as high. You can read my Boulder hotel guide for more information and a few more recommendations.
Denver or Boulder: FAQs
Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about visiting Denver and Boulder, Colorado. I’m including my perspective as a former local who has lived and worked in the area.
Which is more walkable?
Of the two cities, Boulder is definitely the more walkable destination. The center of the city is a pedestrian mall, Pearl Street, and from it you can access other areas of interest and even go for a few hikes. You’ll see people wandering around Boulder on foot at basically all times of the day, though cycling is also very popular.
Which is better for families?
Although both cities have attractions for families, Denver is the more accessible location for families. Denver has a Six Flags location, which I frequented several times a week as a child. There’s also the Denver Zoo, an aquarium, and the Children’s Museum of Denver. For a unique activity, families love to attend the National Western Stock Show, which takes place every January.
An important caveat: if your family is very active and enjoys hiking and walking, Boulder might be a better fit. Pearl Street has plenty of kid-friendly activities, from a Boulder-shaped playground to special events on the weekend. During the summer, kids can splash in the Boulder Creek or even ride down it in a tube, provided the water isn’t moving too quickly.
Which is better for nightlife?
By most any measure, Denver has a more varied and vibrant nightlife scene. There are some great happy hours at some of the most popular restaurants in the city, including Linger, a locally famous spot built on an old mortuary. Downtown also has plenty of nightclubs, bars, and breweries, all of which are usually lively on the weekends.
Boulder’s nightlife is quieter in comparison, though conveniently most restaurants of note are located along Pearl Street.
Which is better for skiing?
Neither city is close enough to the mountains to have its own ski resort, but both would be accessible jumping off points for a ski trip. Between the two, Denver is more centrally located to access the largest resorts, though the traffic along I-70 can be grindingly slow. If you’re headed to Winter Park and can’t stand the idea of sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, consider taking the Winter Park Express, a train that departs from Union Station in Denver.
Which is better for a remote work trip?
Both cities would make great destinations for a remote work trip, given their abundance of coffee shops. If I had to choose one, I would prefer Denver because of its numerous options for fitting in a quick video call. For a quick day of work, swing by Imperial City, Crema, or Thump. If you’re downtown and just need a free spot to fire off a few emails, you can always head to Union Station, where there are desks and furniture to make things a little more welcoming.
Boulder, by contrast, is full of students and tech workers, both of whom you’ll find typing away on a given workday. There aren’t as many options here, but I love to work from Alpine Modern, Rapha, and Boxcar Coffee Roasters.
Which city is safer?
Boulder is a much safer city than Denver, due in part to its relative affluence. Although most people visit these Colorado cities without incident, be especially careful when locking up bikes and take care to hide valuables from sight when you park your car. Take normal precautions and avoid walking alone at night and leaving belongings or drinks unattended. Always remain vigilant when in busy public places.
For the most part, Denver is devoid of dangerous wildlife encounters, given that it is a 30 minute or so drive from the foothills. Boulder, on the other hand, is home to black bears and the occasional mountain lion. It’s not uncommon to wake up in the morning and see trash cans that have been knocked over by bears in the alleyways, often with accompanying scat to prove they were there. If you look closely, you’ll see that there are bear-proof latches on most of the trash cans in the city of Boulder.
Which city is better to live in?
I lived in Denver when I was very young, until my family moved to the suburb of Lakewood, Colorado. Between the two cities, I found Boulder to be a much nicer place to live because it has more access to the outdoors, is safer, and is more walkable. I particularly loved being able to walk from my doorstep to the top of a nearby mountain and then down to Pearl Street for a coffee, all without stepping foot in a car.
Although neither city is cheap, the cost of living is much higher in Boulder than in Denver, due in large part to strict zoning laws that have restricted the city’s size. Accordingly, you’ll pay higher rents for similar accommodations in Boulder. Denver also has far more options in the way of nightlife, restaurants, neighborhoods, and events.
If you’re considering moving to Colorado and are deciding between Denver and Boulder, I would suggest that you visit both cities. There are many people who love living in Denver and would never consider moving to Boulder (and vice versa), so personal preference varies.
Is there a rivalry between Denver and Boulder?
Yes, there is a bit of a one-way rivalry between Denver and Boulder. To put it simply, people in Denver find Boulder to be pretentious and far away, and Denverites rarely make the trek to spend time in Boulder. There are exceptions, to be sure, but overall it’s rare you’ll hear positive things about Boulder from people living in Denver.
Boulderites, by contrast, think of Denver as the big city nearby and visit often. When I lived in Boulder, I commuted to Denver several days a week and have spent plenty of time in both cities. The animosity, in my experience, is fairly strong but only runs one direction; luckily, Boulderites don’t seem to mind too much.
Conclusion: Denver vs Boulder
Denver is the perfect destination for people who love active cities, lots of options, and don’t mind driving between locations when needed. There are loads of hidden gems in Denver, like the Landmark Mayan Theater, which is nearly 100 years old and shows both contemporary and classic films. If you can, try to catch a concert or other event at Red Rocks Amphitheater, or just swing by for a quick walk on the nearby trails.
Boulder, on the other hand, is a little weird, a little eccentric, and fully enamored with the outdoors. Locals in Boulder spend Monday morning discussing which hikes they completed over the weekend, how far they cycled, or which new climbing route they discovered. If you visit during the summer months, don’t miss the Boulder Farmers Market and a walk along the Boulder Creek.