Denver vs Boulder: An Honest Comparison To Help You Choose!

Last Updated: April 12th, 2024

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Traveling to Colorado means spending some time in the front range. This area of Colorado is home to Denver and Boulder. If you are flying to Colorado, you cannot miss the expanse that is Denver. It is the largest city in Colorado, as well as the capital. Boulder is a western suburb and is a popular city for outdoor recreation.

Both Denver and Boulder give you easy access to the mountains, recreational activities, museums, great restaurants and luxury lodging. But there are some distinct differences between the two cities.

First, Boulder is a smaller suburb of Denver. It sits at the base of the foothills and is a trendy, recreation-friendly community. In Boulder, you will find a gear shop on every corner. Residents in Boulder have easy access to some of the best mountain biking, hiking and rock climbing in the United States.

In Boulder, you will find an eclectic mix of college dive bars, James Beard-winning restaurants, and hostel-style lodging. It is a unique mix of people, cultures, and university students that make Boulder such an interesting place to visit.

Denver, as the largest city in Colorado offers a wealth of activities. This city is located centrally in the metropolitan area. It is surrounded by numerous small suburbs, giving you access to plenty of places to eat, explore and stay. Established in 1858, Denver was the center of the state’s gold and silver industry.

Successful mine owners came to Denver to sell their claims. Many, instead of returning to the rough mining towns in the mountains built homes in the growing city. Today, Denver has historic neighborhoods that are filled with beautiful homes, upscale restaurants, and fun boutique stores.

When you travel to Colorado, you will most certainly want to visit one or both of these great communities. But if you can only pick one, which do you choose? In this article, I will compare Denver vs Boulder. My evaluation of the two cities will show you some of the ways these places are different, and how each will suit a different type of visitor best.

A Quick Overview & Comparison: Denver vs Boulder

Denver

Union-Station-In-Denver

  • A wide variety of restaurant options
  • Lots of activities ranging from performing arts to amusement parks
  • Unique neighborhoods for fun exploration
  • Lodging that ranges from super affordable to ultra-luxury

If you are traveling to Colorado and don’t have a lot of time to drive around to other communities, choose Denver. Denver International Airport is located just on the outskirts of town. You can conveniently travel to downtown Denver using the city’s light rail system. Downtown offers a wealth of things to see and do. If you want to experience activities or locations outside of the downtown Denver area, you can easily travel to surrounding neighborhoods or suburbs by hopping on the light rail train or grabbing an Uber or Lyft.

Denver is also your best pick if you want to have plenty of activities to choose from. In the Colorado capitol, you can visit numerous museums, see a play, go to a concert, hang out at the amusement park, or see a sporting event. Denver is well known for its sports culture so if you are looking for a place to enjoy professional sports there may be no better place in the United States than Denver.

Because Boulder is so much smaller than Denver, it is a good pick if you are looking for a more relaxed, laid-back way of enjoying your trip to Colorado. Boulder was first established as a town in 1859. Like many Colorado towns, it was established as a mining town. As money from gold mining filtered into Boulder, it became a miniature version of Denver.

Boulder

Pearl-Street-Mall-In-Boulder-Colorado

  • Easy access to outdoor recreation activities
  • College town with a fun vibe
  • Lots of locally-owned restaurants
  • Less crowded, and more relaxed

Rich residents built large homes and a bustling downtown area was established. Tucked into the valley, Boulder has limited growth, so when the students leave for the summer, it is a quiet, upscale community with a chill vibe and plenty of patios to relax on.

The college has a large influence on the Boulder community. It is a very diverse community and offers a variety of cultural opportunities ranging from concerts, plays, and festivals, to ethnic restaurants and stores geared toward specific cultural groups. The college also supports the town’s very obvious outdoor recreation obsession.

If you are coming to Colorado to experience the best in outdoor recreation, this is your spot. Boulder is home to numerous professional athletes. Not the kind that plays football or baseball, but the kind that run mountain trails, free climb mountains, or bike some of the most extreme single-track trails.

Denver vs Boulder: A Quick Guide to Choosing

Downtown-Metro-City-Skyline-Denver

Now that I have a brief overview of what makes Denver and Boulder such interesting places to visit, I offer a snapshot into what makes each of these communities a desirable place to visit.

Denver Mini Guide

  • Location Size – 154.7 square miles
  • Population – 2,931,000
  • Rainy Season – May-July
  • High Season – July-August
  • Top Sights – Union Station, Larimer Square, Red Rocks, Denver Zoo
  • Major Airports – Broomfield Airport and Denver International Airport

As the capital city of Colorado, Denver is large enough to have all of the activities you would find in other large cities. It is home to a busy performing arts center where you can see a play, the opera, or even the ballet. If you aren’t into performing arts, Denver is well-known as a town that loves its professional sports teams. If you travel to Denver at just the right time, you can spend your weekend at sporting events, catching hockey, football, and basketball games.

Once upon a time, Denver was considered a low-class city without good restaurants and a boring food scene. Today, Denver is quickly making waves in the restaurant world with some of the best chefs around opening innovative and uniquely Colorado restaurants. Denver is also fully into the craft beverage scene. In Denver, you can enjoy craft beer, craft cocktails, craft spirits, and craft coffee. In Denver, people love to focus on quality not quantity.

Suggested Reading: Where to Stay in Denver, Colorado in 2023 – The 6 Best Areas

University-Of-Colorado-Boulder

Boulder Mini Guide

  • Location Size – 27.37 square miles
  • Population – 104,175
  • Rainy Season – May-July
  • High Season – June-August
  • Top Sights – Pearl Street, Boulder Theater, The Flatirons, NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory
  • Major Airports – Boulder Municipal Airport and Denver International Airport

Boulder could easily be considered the hub of outdoor recreation in Colorado. From this quaint community, you can enjoy the best that Colorado offers in both summer and winter sports. There isn’t a shopping area in Boulder that doesn’t have some sort of outdoor gear store. People in Boulder love to recreate outdoors and relax outdoors. In Boulder, you’ll find that most restaurants and bars have great patios, and the wait for patio seating in the summer can be long.

The University of Colorado attracts students from all over the world. So, it makes sense that the community also has lots of restaurants that cater to visiting students. A unique college part of town is called The Hill. Located across from campus this denver is filled with college dive bars, sandwich shops, and pizzerias. The students in Boulder demand a higher quality food experience, so these are not your run-of-the-mill college town sandwiches and pizzas.

In Boulder, you will also find award-winning restaurants, and craft breweries. Many of the restaurants in Boulder have an ethnic flair that highlights the diversity of the community.

The 7 Key Differences Between Denver and Boulder

Downtown-Denver-Area

Now that you have an idea of what Denver and Boulder have to offer visitors, I will show you some of the key differences between the two cities. In the section that follows, I will offer which city is better for specific features.

Which Is Better for Activities?

Really it is hard to put any community next to Denver when it comes to activities. Denver has so many things for visitors to experience. The city has an aquarium, a zoo, and a natural history museum. In Denver, in walking distance you can see a sporting event and hang out at the local amusement park. If these activities aren’t enough for you, there are lots of museums and historical sites to see in just the downtown Denver area.

Because Denver has so many things to see, I recommend a guided walking tour with a local who can show you the best things about Denver. Another fun activity that Denver has lots of are food and drink tours. With so many craft breweries and distilleries in the Denver area, it is fun to hang with a guide who will show you some of the best in craft beverages that Denver has to offer.

Some other activities that you won’t want to miss when you are visiting Denver include a tour of the historic Molly Brown House and afternoon tea at the historic Brown Palace. These are two very popular activities for locals, so they should be on your list as well.

Boulder also offers lots of activities. Most of the things you can do around Boulder are centered around the very active, outdoor lifestyle. However, if you are not into lots of outdoor recreation, check out a fun walking tour of Boulder that will show you some of the more unique and hidden gems in this historic community.

Which Is More Family Friendly?

Park-Near-High-Rise-Buildings-Denver

In my opinion, Denver is a more family-friendly community. However, Boulder is also great for families that love to spend their holidays being active outdoors.

Denver offers a number of spots that are ideal for kids and families. First, one of the standout features of the downtown area is the Denver Children’s Museum. This fun museum offers kids hands-on activities to help them learn about everything from money to science to music. This spot is best for younger children, if your kids are older, check out the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. This museum also has a number of exhibits that allow kids to get their hands in to science. Denver also has a really great zoo, which is always a winning activity for families.

The Denver food scene is pretty diverse so you can easily find great spots for families to enjoy a meal. A fun local spot is Ace Eat and Serve. This funky restaurant located between downtown and the zoo has great food and ping-pong tables. Parents can enjoy a great meal and kids are easily entertained with a round of ping-pong. Another family-friendly place to dine is the Aquarium Restaurant. Located in the Denver Aquarium, this spot sits you among the fish. Kids will love watching the sealife swim around them while they eat.

Boulder is good for families as well. However, since the city is smaller there just aren’t as many offerings. If you are visiting Boulder with your kids, check out the CU Natural History Museum or the Museum of Boulder. Both have plenty of hands-on activities for kids and some great things for parents to explore as well.

Which Has Better Nightlife?

Denver is definitely better for nightlife. One place that locals love going for a great night is Larimer Square. This is one of the most iconic spots in Denver. The single city block is home to buildings listed on the National Historic Register, and is a little peek into what Denver looked like when it was a mining town. Today, it has everything you need for a great night on the town. You’ll find award-winning restaurants like Osteria Marco and The Capital Grille. For cocktails, head to Bao Brewhouse. When you are ready for some fun, check out Comedy Works or Disco Pig.

If you want to explore Denver’s nightlife further, head to the LoDo section of Downtown. Here you’ll find an expanse of breweries, bars, fun restaurants, and the iconic Coors Field. In the summer, a great night starts with a baseball game and ends with dinner at Carmine’s and bar hopping along Blake Street.

Boulder’s nightlife is hopping when college students are in town. The Hill and Pearl Street Mall offer lots of great bars and restaurants that are perfect for a night of pub crawling. The West End Tavern and The Sink are two of Boulder’s most popular evening hangout spots.

Which Is Cheaper?

Pearl-Street-Boulder-Co

When it comes to where to find affordable lodging, I would recommend Boulder. Boulder has a nice variety of places to stay. Sure you can get a luxury hotel with ease in Boulder, but it is also easy to find a nice place to stay in Boulder that is affordable and gives you easy access to all of the fun things to do in town.

Centrally located in Boulder, and also one of the most affordable options is the Millenium Harvest House Hotel. This hotel is located near the University of Colorado campus, has easy access to Highway 36 to Denver, has great restaurants and shopping within walking distance, and is just a short Uber ride to downtown Boulder. Another affordable option in a great location in Boulder is the Boulder University Inn. It is also centrally located and is more affordable than many of the other lodging options in town.

Finding affordable lodging in Denver is not a problem. The problem is that Denver is so large that you may pick an affordable hotel, but it may not be centrally located to what you want to do in Denver. However, if you are looking to stay in the downtown area, I would recommend the Hilton Denver City Center is a great option. It isn’t the least expensive option, but it is much more affordable than most hotels in the downtown Denver area.

How Does the Food Compare? Or Which Is Better for Restaurants & Eating Out?

Denver and Boulder will both offer you great dining experiences. Both cities are filled with award-winning restaurants and restaurants that will easily satisfy families or adventurous eaters.

However, I think Boulder is the better spot for restaurants. First, the community is not as big, and you can find a wide variety of restaurant options in a small area. This makes decision-making easier. Some local favorites that you may want to check out are Salt, Oak, and River and Woods. For a really unique dining experience in Boulder head up the hill outside of town and enjoy an upscale meal at the Flagstaff House. This is a Boulder staple. This restaurant has been in operation for many years, and offers one of the most elegant dining experiences in Boulder. It also has a view of Denver that is hard to beat.

Denver is certainly a great place for food and you’ll easily find a great restaurant if you are willing to escape from the downtown area. Local favorites include Potager, a farm-to-table restaurant that features a changing menu that reflects the foods that are fresh and in-season. One of the best Italian restaurants in Denver is Firenze a Tavola. Located in the hip Berkley neighborhood, this is a not to be missed dining experience.

Which Is Easier to Get To?

Denver-International-Airport

Hands down, the easier of these two communities to get to is Denver. If you are flying into Denver International Airport, you are already in Denver. However, travel to downtown is hassle-free on the city’s light rail train. Take the A-line from the airport directly to downtown’s Union Station. From here you can walk, Uber or hop on the RTD Bus system to get anywhere in the metro area or downtown. The light rail trains can also take you to surrounding suburbs from Union Station.

It is also a fairly easy drive from Denver International Airport to downtown Denver. However, if you are not staying downtown at a hotel with parking, driving is not a great idea. Public parking in downtown Denver can be challenging to find and expensive.

Boulder is not difficult to get to from Denver International Airport. However, the only way to get to Boulder from here is by car. You will need to rent a car at the airport or hire an Uber or Lyft.

Which Is Easier to Get Around Town?

Both Denver and Boulder are easy to get around. However, I think that the size of the two cities makes Boulder the easiest to navigate. Boulder is a fairly compact-sized city. So, it is much easier to walk or drive around town. Boulder has made its community very accessible to bicycles and walking. The city has a very extensive trail system that you can utilize to travel around town. If you are visiting Boulder, you will quickly see that there are as many bikes traveling around town as there are cars, simply because it is super convenient.

Denver is really a city where you need to have a vehicle to get from place to place. The size of the city really makes it hard to travel by non-motorized means. If you are staying downtown, you can walk to many places, or rent a motorized scooter for a faster alternative.

6 Questions to Help You Decided to Travel to Denver or Boulder

Voorhies-Memorial-Downtown-Denver

Now that you have some more detailed information about Denver and Boulder, I would like to answer some of the more frequently asked questions about the two cities. I hope that this information will further assist you in deciding between Denver and Boulder for your next vacation.

Is Denver or Boulder Better for Hotels?

This is a complicated question to answer. In theory, Denver is better for hotels, simply because the city is so large and you can find just about any type of lodging. However, the size of Denver also makes it a bit overwhelming when it comes to picking a place to stay.

Boulder makes it easy to pick a hotel. Not only is the city smaller so you don’t have to wade through a ton of choices, but it also offers a range of lodging options. You can find rental houses, hostels, chain hotels, boutique hotels and luxury hotels.

I mentioned the Millenium Harvest House as an affordable option. However, for a great luxury option, located in the heart of Boulder, check out the St. Julien Hotel and Spa. Here you can enjoy a beautiful room, spa services and a great restaurant. It is also close to great shopping and restaurants on Pearl Street Mall.

When Should You Visit Denver or Boulder?

The Colorado climate is really a marvel to new visitors. There really isn’t a bad time of year to visit Denver or Boulder. With dry warm summers, and cold but overly cold winters, with the right accommodations, you get a great experience visiting the Colorado front range any time of year.

However, the best time of year to visit Denver and Boulder is May through October. During this window you can experience outdoor recreation, soak in the sun on a restaurant patio, and enjoy the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. This window also allows you to take advantage of things like professional sports and numerous festivals and activities in both cities.

Is Denver or Boulder Better for Outdoors?

You really cannot ask for a better city for outdoor activities than Boulder. The locals in Boulder are obsessed with being outdoors. You’ll find plenty of places to rent equipment for a day outdoors. Boulder is also located right at the base of the foothills.

In Boulder you will be able to jump on a mountain biking trail, or hook up with a rock climbing guide to scale some of the best rocks in the state. Boulder is also great for fishing, kayaking, and in the winter cross country skiing or snowshoeing.

Is Denver or Boulder Better for Remote Work?

Remote working is one of the best things that came from our time in Covid lockdown. Many businesses in both Denver and Boulder are now allowing their employees to work from home. Denver ranks 12th in the nation as an ideal remote work location. Approximately 33% of Denver’s residents work remotely at least a portion of their week. You’ll also find that Denver has lots of shared work spaces that are available if you need to host an in person meeting or need access to normal office features like copy machines, printers, or even small office spaces.

Is Denver or Boulder Better for Sports?

Denver has always been a town that loves its sports. Downtown Denver is home to Colorado Rockies baseball, Denver Broncos football, Colorado Avalanche ice hockey, Denver Nuggets basketball and Colorado Mammoth lacrosse. Denver sports fans are some of the most dedicated in the country. If you are coming to Denver to enjoy the professional sports scene you will not be disappointed.

Boulder offers sports fans a little something, thanks to the University of Colorado. This Division 1, Pac-12 school has a strong following for their football team. They also offer exciting men’s basketball, and women’s volleyball.

Denver or Boulder: Which Is the Better Choice?

Denver and Boulder are really quite different cities, so it can be hard to decide which is best for your Colorado vacation.

Denver offers you the amenities found in most large cities. In Denver you will have easy access to great dining, cultural events, family friendly activities, and sporting events. Lots of the fun stuff in Denver is centrally located around downtown, so you can easily walk, bike or utilize ride sharing services to get around.

Boulder is a smaller city that has fewer options for visitors. HOwever, though your choices are fewer, particularly when choosing a restaurant or hotel, Boulder offers more variety and a more relaxed vibe. Boulder is a great spot for visitors that love to spend time outdoors and is geared towards active individuals.

When it comes to Denver vs. Boulder, my pick for the better choice is Denver. I think Denver offers a more versatile experience for most travelers. However, both cities offer a great Colorado experience, and you can’t go wrong spending time in either city.

About The Author

Jason Gass is a Colorado based freelance writer and blogger whose goal is to share a good cup of coffee and great stories around a campfire with close friends. When he’s not working, he spends most of his time traveling, searching for the best breweries, and road-tripping in his teardrop trailer with his wife, daughter, and two dogs.

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Picture of Jason Gass

Jason Gass

Jason Gass is a Colorado based freelance writer and blogger whose goal is to share a good cup of coffee and great stories around a campfire with close friends.
When he’s not working, he spends most of his time traveling, searching for the best breweries, and road-tripping in his teardrop trailer with his wife, daughter, and two dogs.

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