Located only 35 mi/56 km northwest of Denver and pressed right up against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder has been attracting tourists for a century, ever since the first hotel opened in 1909 (the Hotel Boulderado is still operating). On the Pearl Street Pedestrian Mall, the city hums with a constant flow of locals, students and tourists.
Boulder is frequently rated the healthiest, smartest and most athletic city in the country. There is plenty to do there—just follow the Boulderites as they enjoy the outdoors, partaking in activities such as hiking, bicycling, climbing, fishing and white-water rafting throughout the year.
Boulder has a reputation as a laid-back, nature-crazy place with a youthful image. (Having 29,000 or so University of Colorado students and faculty doesn't hurt.)
Considered the epicenter for the U.S.'s organic- and natural-food movements, Boulder is also home to esteemed yogis and spiritual teachers from around the world, as well as one of the biggest Buddhist communities (and one of the only Buddhist universities) in the country. The city is so unique, happy and vibrant, residents jokingly refer to it as 25 sq mi/65 sq km "surrounded by reality."
Boulder's beauty, however, is also its curse: Before he died, Arapaho Chief Niwot declared that all those who set eyes on the Flatiron Mountains, which tower over the city, would be so struck by the splendor that they would not want to leave. Some would argue that too many people have already stayed, that Boulder's low-budget hippie roots have been lost. They're the ones streaking through downtown in the annual naked pumpkin run and placing "Keep Boulder Weird" bumper stickers on their cars.
Spread across the broad bottom of a football-shaped basin beneath Flagstaff Mountain, Boulder rises 5,340 ft /1,655 m above sea level. Boulder is built right up against the "hogback" foothills that mark the transition from Great Plains to Rocky Mountains.
The jagged-peaked Continental Divide lies not far to the west and has a huge impact on Boulder's general climate, which is generally dry, sunny and pleasant (more than 300 sunny days annually).
The most obvious geological features are the flatiron formations that tower above Chautauqua Park—massive slabs of sedimentary, rust-colored rock, tilted back toward the mountains.
A clean, glacier-fed creek runs through the middle of town. The city has a few man-made reservoirs, the biggest of which is the Boulder Reservoir, maintained by the city with a public beach.
Boulder's roots are rather typical for an American West boomtown. The Arapahos first lived in Boulder Valley, before the miners came in 1858 and set up camp among the red rocks known today as Settler's Park. From there, things grew.
The town was incorporated in 1871. Old Main, the University of Colorado's central building, was erected in 1877, and electricity arrived in 1887, followed by the railroad a few years later. By the turn of the century, Boulder was a city of roughly 6,000 with a sophisticated reputation that earned it the nickname "Athens of the West."
It was also at this time that the Chautauqua organization chose Boulder for its mountain retreat, which helped establish open space protection and tourism as a focus of Boulder's economy. To that effect, Boulder's first high-class hotel—the Hotel Boulderado—opened in 1909.
More than a century later, tourism still thrives as Boulder continues to develop and reinvent itself. Big businesses have been building low-key office campuses for decades (the first were IBM and Ball Aerospace in the 1970s), and today, the city's economy is quite diversified. A number of major federal government labs and agencies are based in Boulder, as is a Buddhist university (Naropa), a number of book and magazine publishers, and numerous high-tech company offices, including Google and Sun Microsystems.
Today, the city lives up to its reputation as a uniquely progressive, fun and green city. Boulder has done an admirable job at controlling growth and keeping its open spaces open, maintaining huge buffer tracts of land between the city and the continuous suburban developments that blanket the Front Range north and south of Denver.
In fact, since Boulder's beginning, preserving the surrounding mountains and foothills has been a top priority. Today, the Boulder County Open Space program has acquired and maintains an astounding 45,000 acres/21,853 hectares of parkland and protected space.
Boulder is famous for its open spaces, parks and trails, and most visitors make visiting or using these a priority. But there are indoor attractions as well, from unique museums to government labs to local breweries and wineries.
Of course, just walking through downtown Boulder is enough activity for most, sampling cafes, restaurants and shops. There are also a handful of wonderful day trips available, most up into the mountains. Start with a visit to the town of Nederland or to Rocky Mountain National Park, which is less than an hour's drive to the northwest.
Boulder has always had a comfortable brew-pub college scene, with scores of low-key bars and rooftop patios. Until recently, you had to look in Denver for anything more sophisticated. Now, however, there are a handful of upscale lounges, a few cigar bars and a couple of reliable dance places in town.
At last count there were more than 300 places to eat in Boulder, so there is no shortage of options. Just walking down Pearl Street will present you with more dining choices than you'll have time to sample.
The biggest trend in the Boulder dining scene is eating naturally and locally, the farm-to-table movement. Boulder, the birthplace of Whole Foods market, has some of the best organic and natural food in the country. Many Boulder organizations—including farms, dairies, ranches, markets and restaurants—embrace the idea of local, seasonal and artisanal cooking. Many vegetables, fruits, gourmet cheeses, wines and meat (free-range, naturally raised chicken, lamb, buffalo and beef) are found fresh in the Boulder area—and are available at the twice-weekly farmers market (Wednesday and Saturday).
Numerous nationally renowned chefs have chosen Boulder, so the dining scene remains lively and delicious. Boulder's finest restaurants cater to sophisticated, smart palates, and a few of the town's restaurants have made waves on the national culinary scene.
Don't miss First Bite Boulder: A Local Celebration of World-Class Dining, an annual week-long event in November that lets you taste all of Boulder's best.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one (excluding drinks, tax and tip): $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$15; $$$ = US$16-$20; $$$$ = more than US$20.
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