Fort Collins vs Boulder: An Honest Comparison To Help You Choose

Last Updated: April 12th, 2024

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Fort Collins and Boulder, Colorado are two of the most popular cities in the state. Both offer a college town feel, with fun bars, plenty of activities, and cultural events galore. When considering Fort Collins vs Boulder, I think it is important to understand the amenities that each city offers. You should also think about the vibe that you are wanting to enjoy while vacationing in Colorado.

Boulder is a short 30-minute drive from Denver International Airport. This mid-sized community is home to the University of Colorado which plays a big part in the vibe and activities that you’ll find in Boulder. Boulder’s residents are known around the state for their love of outdoor activities and passion for social and environmental causes.

However, despite Boulder’s reputation as a city full of Earth lovers and “hippies”, this city has some of the best restaurants, upscale shopping, and unique bars in the Denver metro area.

Fort Collins is a bit further from Denver International Airport. You’ll have approximately 1.5 hours of drive time to get to Fort Collins. This rapidly growing community was once a sleepy town with the state’s land grant university, Colorado State University, and a focus on supporting the surrounding agricultural economy. That all changed in the 1990s when a small craft brewery called New Belgian started distributing its flagship beer, Fat Tire across the country. This one beer put Fort Collins on the map, and today it is home to more craft breweries per capita than any other city in Colorado.

Fort Collins is known to Colorado locals as the more relaxed college town. You won’t find a lot of fancy cars or luxury shopping in Fort Collins. The locals are just as passionate about their outdoor activities as Boulder residents. In Fort Collins you will find some of the best-connected biking trails and public transit in Colorado.

Fort Collins and Boulder are decidedly different communities in Colorado. And each draws a different type of visitor. If you are traveling to the Colorado Front Range and want to have a uniquely Colorado experience, Fort Collins and Boulder are two communities that will give you just that.

In this article, I will share with you some of the things you need to know about Fort Collins and Boulder. I will give you some fun places to visit, unique activities, and restaurants you cannot miss.

A Quick Overview & Comparison: Fort Collins vs Boulder

Fort Collins

Fort-Collins-Downtown

  • Relaxed “hometown” feel
  • Central downtown area with lots of restaurants and bars
  • Hiking, biking and whitewater sports start in town
  • Good public transit

When you are planning a trip to Colorado, the Front Range offers so many different communities to explore. Each has its own vibe, and locals that make the city unique. Fort Collins and Boulder are no exception. Knowing which fits your idea of a great city to visit will make your time in Colorado amazing.

If you don’t mind the drive to Fort Collins, then choose this city for its versatility. Sure, this is still a college town, and yes, agriculture is still big business, but Fort Collins is quickly becoming one of the most popular places to live in Colorado. You will quickly see why, when you visit and can have a locally raised burger for lunch, and then dine in one of the best restaurants in the Front Range for dinner. Fort Collins is the craft beer hub of Colorado, but they aren’t just about beer. The local bars are home to some amazing mixologists that can show you what a great cocktail looks like.

One of the great things about Fort Collins is that you can jump on mountain biking trails from downtown, or try your hand at kayaking in the city’s whitewater park that runs along the edge of downtown Fort Collins. After you’ve finished your outdoor activities, tidy up a bit and head to one of the city’s theaters for great local music, theater productions and even nationally known artists.

Boulder

Pearl-Street-Mall-Boulder-Colorado

  • Offers a more upscale experience
  • Very close to Denver and DIA
  • University offers year round cultural events
  • Home to world-class mountain biking trails

If you are in the Denver area for just a short time and want a truly Colorado experience, choose Boulder for its convenience. From the airport, Boulder is a 30 to 40-minute drive, depending on traffic. If you do not want to drive, Uber or Lyft cars can also be hired at the airport and can take you to Boulder for a reasonable fare. When you get to Boulder, you will be impressed with how easy it is to get around. The city has its own bus system that runs all year round. You can also walk to many places in Boulder with ease.

Boulder is also a great place if you love a relaxed vibe, but also want to enjoy upscale restaurants, luxury hotels, and trendy cocktail bars. You’ll find that unlike some of the other upscale communities in the Denver metro area, Boulder is much more approachable and the locals are super friendly.

Suggested ReadingDenver vs Boulder: An Honest Comparison

Fort Collins vs Boulder: A Quick Guide to Choosing

Fort-Collins-Quick-Guide

Now you know a little about Fort Collins and Boulder and generally what they offer for visitors.  In the next section, I will give you more specific details about what makes Fort Collins and Boulder great places to visit in the Colorado Front Range.

Fort Collins Mini Guide

  • Location Size – 58.47 square miles
  • Population – 168,538
  • Rainy Season – May-July
  • High Season – June-August
  • Top Sights – Old Town Fort Collins, Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, New Belgium Brewing
  • Major Airports – Denver International Airport and Northern Colorado Regional Airport

Fort Collins is one of my favorite places to visit in the Colorado Front Range. For me, it is all of the things that make Colorado a great place to live.

One thing that will stand out to you as soon as you step foot in Fort Collins is the friendly people. Even though it is one of the fastest-growing cities in Colorado, it still hangs on to its small-town, friendly feeling.

Fort Collins was once a major railroad hub where agricultural products like corn, wheat, sugar beets, hay, beef, and sheep began their journey across the country. Today, agriculture is still important to the community, restaurants in Fort Collins have menus that feature locally grown meats and produce. Breweries and distilleries also use locally grown ingredients to give their beverages a taste of Colorado.

Besides the food scene, Fort Collins has some great music venues that attract nationally known acts, and some of the best homegrown acts in Colorado. You will also find that access to great outdoor activities like golf, mountain biking, kayaking, fishing, and hiking are available in easy proximity to downtown Fort Collins.

Boulder-City-Quick-Guide

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

For many people, Boulder is what they think of when they imagine Colorado. It is perhaps one of the most iconic cities in the state. Set below the Flatiron rock formation, Boulder is a must-visit location if you love all things outdoors.

Boulder is home to dozens of professional athletes who come to train in the Colorado altitude. In the Boulder community, you’ll find professional marathoners, road bikers, mountain bikers, and some of the most famous rock climbers in the world. Their influence has made Boulder one of the best places in the world to enjoy outdoor activities.

With just a short drive from the center of Boulder, you can be on expert-level mountain biking trails. Boulder Creek that runs through town has amazing fly-fishing. The trail network in town and around the University of Colorado campus is perfect for a leisurely stroll or morning run.

The University is one of the central features of Boulder. It offers visitors a range of cultural events. However, if you step off campus, you’ll find some of the Denver area’s finest concert venues.

Foodies will love Boulder. The University and the international students that come to Boulder to study have certainly influenced the cuisine in Boulder. You will find typical American, Mexican, and Italian offerings in Boulder. But, you should not miss the chance to try Ethiopian, Pho, Moroccan, Indian, or one of the many other ethnic restaurants in town.

Like Fort Collins, craft breweries are a thing in Boulder as well. Boulder is home to local favorites like Upslope, Left Hand, and Avery brewing companies.

The 7 Key Differences Between Fort Collins and Boulder

Downtown-In-Fort-Collins

To really help you key in on the best things about Fort Collins and Boulder, in this section, I give you some of the differences between the two cities. By offering this comparison of the two communities, I hope to help you further narrow your choice between Fort Collins and Boulder.

Which Is Better for Activities?

I love Fort Collins for the variety of activities it offers. Yes, you can spend days enjoying outdoor activities around Fort Collins. However, it really offers much more than just recreational activities.

Start your exploration of Fort Collins by wandering through Old Town. Once the center of the community, Old Town today is filled with great restaurants, breweries, art galleries, boutique shops and hotels. If you want to learn more about the history of Fort Collins, try a guided tour around Old Town. One of the most popular tours in Fort Collins is the Old Town Food Tour. This fun tour takes you to some of the best restaurants in town where you can try some of the best food Fort Collins offers.

If tours are not your thing, Fort Collins has some other great things to see and do. The Discovery Museum is a great spot for adults and kids. This science museum offers hands-on displays teaching about science, engineering and technology. One of the more unique experiences in Fort Collins is The Farm at Lee Martinez Park. While this urban farm was intended for kids, as an adult I love having the opportunity to interact with animals and learn a bit about how agriculture impacts our lives.

Colorado State University offers visitors to Fort Collins activities like music performances, theater, art exhibits, and sporting events. It also has one of the most colorful spots in Fort Collins, the CSU trial gardens. For a low-key activity in Fort Collins, take your coffee and wander through the gardens enjoying the colors and the variety of flowering plants.

While I think that Fort Collins is better for activities, Boulder does have some great things to experience as well. Many of the activities that you will experience in Boulder are focused on the outdoors. One of my favorites is a hike around Chautauqua Park. This historic landmark has family friendly hiking trails, an amphitheater with a great summer concert series and some of the best views of the Flatirons in the valley.

If your time in Boulder is short, a great way to see the community is by bike. Since the altitude in Colorado can be challenging for some people, try a guided e-bike tour around town. On this tour, you’ll learn about the history of Boulder and see some of the more unique locations in town.

Which Is More Family Friendly?

Woman-Walking-With-A-Kid

Unless your kids are high school aged or older, I would pick Fort Collins as the more family-friendly city. Fort Collins really has done a great job of creating a community that is ideal for families. Around town, you’ll find lots of hidden parks with fun playgrounds. The city has a small water park that is a great spot for families on hot summer days. If you want free activities, check out the swimming hole at the Fort Collins whitewater park.

I mentioned a few great family friendly places to visit in Fort Collins including the Discovery Museum and the Farm at Lee Martinez Park. But these aren’t the only fun spots for families. Check out the city’s historic trolleys that once shuttled residents around downtown Fort Collins. For more hands-on activities visit the Bee Family Centennial Farm Museum. This cultural spot offers kids interactive ways to learn about farming in Colorado.

Restaurants in Fort Collins range from upscale to really affordable. Check out the 80’s Pizza and Museum for a fun, family-friendly dinner experience. When it comes to finding places to stay in Fort Collins, you will have an easy time finding family-friendly hotels that fit any budget.

Which Has Better Nightlife?

One of the things that locals know about Boulder is that it is the place to go for a great night out. Made famous (or maybe infamous) by the raucous University of Colorado students, The Hill offers visitors to Boulder the best nightlife outside of downtown Denver. On The Hill you will find dive bars, restaurants and nightclubs. Spots that are popular with locals include The Sink and Illegal Petes.

Pearl Street offers another side of the Boulder nightlife with upscale restaurants and bars lining the open-air pedestrian mall. Some of the best spots for nighttime entertainment include The West End Tavern and the Bitter Bar.

Which Is Cheaper?

Old-Town-In-Fort-Collins
Old Town in Fort Collins Image by: Elly Blue / Flickr

If you are traveling to Colorado, you will quickly discover that staying here is not as affordable as it once was. However, smart travelers can find some great places to stay that won’t cost an arm and a leg.

If you are deciding between Fort Collins and Boulder, the more affordable option is definitely Fort Collins. I like to stay as close to Old Town as possible when visiting Fort Collins. My go-to spot that is affordable and family-friendly is the Hilton Garden Inn. If you are looking for a hotel for a romantic getaway in Fort Collins that is reasonable, but better suited for adults, check out the Armstrong Hotel. This neat spot has been a Fort Collins hotel since the 1920s. The rooms are comfortable, and don’t miss the speakeasy in the basement.

In Fort Collins, it is easy to find boutique-style hotels at a reasonable price. You can also find just about every hotel chain in close proximity to downtown Fort Collins and the University.

In Boulder, if you are looking for affordable places to stay, your best options are chain hotels. Most are located near the University of Colorado campus. Good, affordable lodging options in Boulder include the Boulder Twin Lakes Inn and the Boulder University Inn.

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

Both Fort Collins and Boulder have tons of options when it comes to great restaurants. I think that you have to really consider who is eating and what kind of food you are looking for when you decide between these fun cities.

I like Fort Collins best for traditional American foods, and family-friendly dining. For a great steak, Austin’s American Grill in Old Town is a local favorite. I also love a great breakfast spot, and Fort Collins has lots of options for a great breakfast. For great breakfast tacos, french toast and bacon that is life-changing hit Snooze. This Colorado original should not be missed.

Boulder on the other hand is a great spot for upscale dining and specialty foods. If you want the best that Boulder has to offer, reserve a table at Frasca Food and Wine. This restaurant is one of just a handful in Colorado that have won a James Beard award. Sushi cannot be missed in Boulder. For a great night of sushi head to Izakaya Amu.

Which Is Easier to Get To?

United-Regional-Jet-Denver-Airport

There really is not much to talk about when it comes to proximity to Denver International Airport. Boulder is located directly west of DIA. You can travel to Boulder in about 30 to 40 minutes, depending on traffic. You can also travel to Boulder from DIA using public transportation, taxi or hire an Uber.

Which Is Easier to Get Around Town?

Both Fort Collins and Boulder have really convenient public transportation and plenty of trails for walking or biking from place to place. However, Boulder is much smaller in area than Fort Collins. With all of the things you need in closer proximity, you can easily walk, bike or take an Uber with ease in Boulder.

6 Questions to Help You Decided to Travel to Fort Collins or Boulder

Snow-Covered-Field-And-Trees-In-Fort-Collins

To close out my comparison of Fort Collins vs Boulder, I offer answers to five questions that I hope will help you decide for yourself which community is the best place for you to visit.

Is Fort Collins or Boulder Better for Hotels?

While Fort Collins may be a more affordable spot for lodging, Boulder really has some great hotels. Certainly, you will pay more for some of the options that Boulder offers, but if you want a luxury hotel or a spa experience, Boulder offers a number of options. The St. Julian is by far the best hotel in Boulder. Not only does it provide a beautiful room to stay in, but you’ll also have access to their spa and restaurant. Both of which are exceptional experiences.

Boulder also offers most of the major hotel chains. It also has some unique lodging experiences like Basecamp Boulder, which is a little hostel, a little camping, and a little hotel. It is also the highest rated hotel in Boulder.

When Should You Visit Fort Collins or Boulder?

The best time to visit Fort Collins and Boulder is in the summer. Since both communities are home to universities, I would recommend visiting between the spring and fall semesters. Both cities are quieter and offer a more relaxed experience when the students have gone home for the summer.

Mid-May through early August are the best times to explore Fort Collins and Boulder. This is also the best time to take advantage of the numerous outdoor recreation opportunities that both communities offer.

Is Fort Collins or Boulder Better for Outdoors?

When comparing Fort Collins and Boulder and being outdoors, it is really hard to pick just one. They both offer plenty of outdoor activities. They also both are just a short distance from great trails, camping, fishing, and even Rocky Mountain National Park. You really cannot go wrong with either city when it comes to being in the great outdoors.

Is Fort Collins or Boulder Better for Remote Work?

One of the things we learned during Covid was that working from home is a really great benefit. If you are coming to Colorado in search of career opportunities that allow you to work from home, Boulder is the best choice. Approximately 15% of businesses in Boulder offer some level of remote working opportunities. One thing to consider when thinking about remote work in Colorado is the affordability of housing. When it comes to being able to find a great home or apartment to work remotely in, Fort Collins is more affordable than Boulder.

Is Fort Collins or Boulder Better for Sports?

Boulder is certainly the better city for sports. Not only can you play just about any sport you want thanks to Boulder’s amazing recreation department. But, you can also attend sporting events at the University of Colorado. If you are into professional sports, Boulder is just a short drive from Denver, so you can enjoy professional football, hockey, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, and baseball.

Fort Collins also has plenty of opportunities to watch and play sports. Colorado State University has a full schedule of collegiate sports. You can also attend semi-professional hockey just down the road in Loveland, CO.

Fort Collins or Boulder: Which Is the Better Choice?

So, to sum things up – Fort Collins is a great city for families that are looking for lots of activities, affordable lodging and tasty meals. Here you can enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking, and golf. There are lots of family friendly activities and things to see in Fort Collins.

Boulder offers you a more upscale Colorado experience, but without the stuffy atmosphere. It has a wealth of restaurants, access to cultural events, and some of the best luxury lodging in the Colorado front range. Boulder is home to world-class athletes because there are so many opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Both cities are really amazing and should be visited. However, in my opinion the overall better choice between Fort Collins vs Boulder, is Fort Collins. Though it is a bit of a drive from Denver, you get all of the best that Colorado has to offer from Fort Collins. It’s a great college town, with a hometown feel and there is no shortage of things to do for both adults and kids. You’ll instantly feel welcome in Fort Collins, which is the best part of visiting this great front range community.

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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