Wherein I risk flooding my favorite places with literally tens of people.
Most people should spend more time exploring their own backyard before venturing out too much. I may have an unfair advantage in this since I live in the Boulder-y part of the Colorado Front Range, which may be one of the nicest parts of the United States to live. When you can sit out back of a brewery munching on tacos in full view of where the Great Plains abruptly gives way to the Rocky Mountains for Beer:30 "after" work on a whim, it's easy to forget how lucky you have it. This is an article about how lucky I have it.
Boulder is famous for about four things: spectacular parks, a top notch restaurant scene, beer, and cannabis. I've ranked these in order from least- to most-irritating reason people come to Boulder to live or visit. Boulder's hippy-dippy New Age streak has recently mixed with new waves of California software developers into a very strange mix of money and interest in the crunchiest possible granola, with no expense spared.
In no particular order, here's where to eat, drink, and walk in nature.
The Kitchen, as a restaurant, takes relatively standard dishes (tagliatelle, a pork chop, stuff like that) and executes it flawlessly. Just last night I took my girlfriend and a friend from out of town there and I had the bolognese and it's something so simple but the flavors were perfect and the pasta was exactly properly cooked. I've been trying to get a Café Maria Theresia on the menu, so join me in the mission. The desserts are all great, but the sticky toffee pudding may be the best dessert I've ever had.
The food at Avery Brewing is nowhere near as good as the other entrants on this list, but they more than make up for it by having my favorite beer menu in town. Every flavor knob is turned to 11, until even their "mass market" Ellie's Brown Ale is dominated by strong chocolate notes. Half the menu is over 8% a.b.v. so pace yourself if you go. This is not to say that their food isn't very good. The fried chicken is top notch, properly drenched in buttermilk and fried so the skin is crunchy and the chicken proper is juicy and flavorful. Their crab cake sandwich, which creeps onto the menu and then back off like a Chesapeake fog, made me realize that I do, actually, like crab cakes.
The owner of Blackbelly, Hosea Rosenberg, started off slinging breakfast burritos from a food truck. He then won Season 5 of Top Chef, and Blackbelly, located in a commercial park on the eastern side of Boulder, now serves beautifully cooked meats that they age themselves, flavorful cured meats they cure themselves, and even have a neighboring sandwich shop that sells that meat from behind the counter. Blackbelly is an ode to what every part of an animal can taste like (except I don't recall them serving offel, which is a little disappointing, and if you're reading this please serve sweetbreads). The beef tartare, to be had on happy hour at a very reasonable price, has citrus and acid like I've not had with tartare before, and is really almost like a beef ceviche. I don't know what else to say about it -- Blackbelly is one of the best restaurants in Boulder.
There are a few other options for surprising eats off the standard tourist zone of Pearl Street Mall. In Niwot, just north of Boulder, is the Niwot Market, and in the Niwot Market is Sachi Sushi, a properly good sushi restaurant that sells excellent ramen on Sundays only. Tangerine, on Iris on the north end of town, is the personification of gentrified brunch, but their wide range of eggs benedict dishes are better than any I've had in Paris. Not far from Tangerine is Sancho's, probably the best option for Mexican food in town. Skip the cheese-slathered burritos and go for the lingua tacos instead.
I already mentioned Avery above, but there are over 150 breweries in Colorado, and the brewing industry accounts for more than $2.5 billion in tax revenue alone. So it's safe to say we drink a lot of beer.
There are a few breweries in the Boulder area that are worth your attention, aside from Avery. Ignore West Flanders, with their expensive restaurant space on Pearl Street Mall, or Boulder Brewing, the first and also one of the worst brewers in Boulder.
If you want imminently drinkable beer with very good tacos and a great deck with a view of the mountains, with the occassional train providing a discounted train beer for fifteen minutes after it passes, check out Sanitas Brewing, located in a bit of an office park on the south side of Pearl Parkway just west of Foothills. I really enjoy their lighter offerings in the summer, when the back porch is sunny and you can pound 5% lagers for hours and just bake in the sun.
Mountain Sun, and it's larger geographic brother Southern Sun, and Southern Sun's fancier-pants restaurant Under the Sun, can be found either on Pearl Street or further south by the University of Colorado campus. The various Suns brewery have about the best cheeseburgers and fries in Boulder -- a town tragically lacking in simple cheeseburger-and-fries places -- and their beer isn't half bad either. Note that these joints are cash only, and the on-site ATMs charge usurous transaction fees, so bring about thirty bucks a head.
North of Boulder, in Niwot just by the train tracks, is Powder Keg Brewing, a small brewery that doesn't distribute their own beer beyond their own tap room, and that always has some really great guest taps on. Powder Keg also hosts a lot of random events, from physicists talking about their research to an improvised bluegrass night. Powder Keg is an often-missed gem in the area and worthy of way more attention than they get.
There are many, many, many other options in the area, and a comprehensive list would be absurd. A partial list in the greater Boulder area would include Oskar Blues, Finkel & Garf, Vindication, Asher, Fate, Wibby, New Belgium (a stretch up to Fort Collins, but you're already in the Front Range so might as well go), the aforementioned West Flanders, Twisted Pine, Upslope, Gunbarrel Brewing Co., Cellar West, Bru, Left Hand, and why are you still reading you get the idea.
Go home. Nobody wants you here.
The Great Outdoors
I once flew two friends out to visit Boulder as a wedding gift. I asked if there was something in particular they wanted to make sure they did. One of them said "I'd like to see some mountains, if that isn't too much trouble." It was no trouble at all.
Every so often a moose will wander onto Pearl Street Mall and remind everyone that we're really not that far from where Teddy Roosevelt was when he decided it was time to create the national park service (Roosevelt National Forest isn't too far away from Boulder proper). If I had a dollar every time I got an email at work that said, basically, "Fresh powder, taking the day off to ski." I'd be retired by now. Colorado is as outdoorsy as outdoorsy gets, and Boulder county prides itself on the amount of open space it protects.
If you're up for a nearly vertical climb with a view of the Great Plains disappearing off the edge of the Earth waiting at the top, try out Mount Sanitas on the northwest edge of Boulder. Nearby, but not terribly far, is Rocky Mountain National Park, over half a million acres of trails and mountains and forests preserved since Woodrow Wilson dedicated the region as a national park in 1915. RMNP is a crown jewel of the United States, but be aware that you'll be hiking at over 9,000 feet the whole way, so bring lots of water and sunscreen and don't get caught above the tree line when the summer afternoon thunderstorms come along -- several people die every year due to lightning strikes from ignoring these guidelines.
Another requirement is the Colorado Chatauqua Association and the park therein. The Chatauqua was a New York-origin program that would bring education to rural areas in the late 1800s up until the Great Depression, a thing Teddy Roosevelt called "the most American thing in America" in his optimism. When people got more mobile and had access to radio and television -- known perveyors of high quality educational material -- the Chatauqua Movement lost steam, but not in Boulder. The Colorado Chatauqua is the only Chatauqua left west of the Mississippi River, and has been operating as such since about 1898. I saw B.B. King give a performance there literally months before he died, and they still use it for educational film, lectures, and concerts. Oh, and it looks like this:
I don't ski, but I am told that the nearby El Dora ski resort is a bit disappointing and more suited for families that don't want to drag their kids along to the more distant Aspen or Copper Mountain or Steamboat Springs ski areas. I do, however, snowshoe, and I absolutely love snowshoeing starting at the Bear Lake trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. Bear Lake is the sort of My First Mountain Hiking Trip trailhead in RMNP, and in the summer is jammed with tourists who go for a walk around the lake's mile-or-so circumference then go back to Estes Park (home of the Stanley Hotel, which will always remind you that it was the inspiration for the hotel in The Shining, and which is overpriced in many ways and the food isn't great by my god do they have a great brown liquor selection.) to eat some sub-par chicken wings or something and buy some geodes I guess. March past them to one of the half-dozen or so trailheads that branch off from the lake, bring water and proper hiking gear, and you'll be treated to some properly beautiful views of nature. Like this, taken after a hike to the Continental Divide damn near killed me (remember what I said about bringing enough calories for hiking)
So that's more or less the Front Range north of Denver but south of Wyoming and then parts closeby, or at least the highlights I try to draw people's attention to. There's a million other things you could do. You could visit town during the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. You could hang out for Tube to Work Day on Boulder Creek. You could check out the Boulder Public Library, a public library for a town of 100,000 that has a proper café, space for temporary art exhibits, and a spiral staircase over a fountain in the lobby. If you were really nice, you could even pester me, but I wouldn't recommend it. I'm probably already doing something else here.