Denver's history may be short, but it is certainly colorful. In 1857, not a single person was living in the Colorado Territory at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. Then gold was discovered. In just three years, more than 100,000 men and women passed through the boom town called Denver, seeking their fortune in the great "Pikes Peak or Bust" gold rush.
The railroads came next. In the 2,000 miles of wilderness between St. Louis and California, the two most opulent railroad stops became Denver and San Francisco.
In this golden age, Denver was a city of dreams filled with cattle barons and overnight gold-rich millionaires – the "Queen City of the Plains." The wealth of the mountains was poured into parks filled with lakes and flower gardens and linked by 17 tree-lined boulevards. Colorado marble and granite was used to construct banks, hotels, and mansions and Denver boasted the highest building and the first elevator west of the Mississippi River.
Today, at nearly the same pace of the gold rush, these wonderful old structures are being restored or transformed into hip breweries, chef-owned restaurants, bakeries, cafes, museums, and trendy boutiques.
Here's where to take a new look at the Old West in Denver.
Where to Taste the Old West
The Buckhorn Exchange has been serving Old West fare since 1893 and is the oldest saloon in Colorado. The walls are covered with some 575 taxidermy specimens, including big horn sheep, moose, buffalo, jackalope and even a two-headed calf. Hanging beside them are 125 historic guns and Western mementoes, including a sword once owned by George Armstrong Custer that was presented to the restaurant by Chief Sitting Bull.
The historic dining spot was founded by Henry H. "Shorty Scout" Zietz, a lifelong friend of Buffalo Bill Cody. The menu includes buffalo prime rib, elk, salmon, quail hen, and baby-back pork ribs, and of course has appetizers like alligator tips and Rocky Mountain Oysters.
Over the years, five presidents and countless Hollywood legends have dined on the red-checkered table clothes or had a drink at the bar that was built in 1857 and imported from Germany. The restaurant is easily reached from downtown by taking light rail to the Osage stop.
The Fort is an authentic re-creation of Bent's Old Fort on the Santa Fe Trail and is made with more than 80,000 adobe bricks of mud and straw, each brick weighing 40 pounds. The original fort was an important fur trading post in 1833. The new fort opened in 1963 and today serves more than 80,000 buffalo entrees a year.
Diners enter through the fort's gates into a courtyard, to be greeted by a roaring fire, mountain men and a trading post in a tipi. The menu features a selection of new and early West dishes including beef, buffalo, game and seafood. Try roasted buffalo marrow bones (Julia Child's favorite), braised bison tongue or wild boar sausage.
The "Hailstorm" was the first Colorado cocktail when it was served in 1833 and is still The Fort's signature drink. President Bill Clinton selected The Fort for dinner for the world's top leaders when the Summit of the Eight met in Denver in 1997.
Where to Sleep in the Old West
The Brown Palace Hotel opened on Aug. 12, 1892 and has remained open and welcomed guests every minute since. The doors have never been locked. Every U.S. president has visited The Brown Palace since Teddy Roosevelt (1905), with the exception of Calvin Coolidge.
When the Brown Palace opened, every room had a fireplace and none of the rooms had bathrooms. Today, it is one of the most luxurious hotels in the West. High tea is offered every day in the spectacular eight-story atrium, which is topped with a stained-glass ceiling.
The walls contain 12,400 surface feet of onyx, a semiprecious variety of quartz. At the time the hotel was constructed, it was the most onyx ever used in a single building.
The hotel's original artesian well is located 720 feet deep beneath the Ship Tavern floor and still provides water to every faucet in the hotel. President Eisenhower often stayed at the hotel for extended periods, making it the "The Western White House." Historic tours of the hotel include a visit to the Eisenhower Suite.
The Oxford Hotel is Denver's oldest grand hotel and was originally constructed in 1891 across the street from Union Station. Colorado's leading architect, Frank E. Edbrooke, designed this five-story brick structure the year before he designed the Brown Palace.
Antique oak furniture, marble and carpet floors, frescoed walls, silver chandeliers and stained glass decorated the hotel, which had its own dining rooms, barber shop, stables and a splendid saloon.
Another novelty, a "vertical railway" or elevator, carried guests to the upper stories. Notorious Western gunslingers Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday knew the hotel well. With the decline of the railroads, the hotel fell into disuse. But in 1983, after a $12 million restoration, it reopened as one of Denver's historic gems.
Highlights today include the plush lobby filled with Western paintings and a wood-burning fireplace; and the famous Art Deco Cruise Room bar, which is on the National Historic Register.
The Crawford Hotel will be a brand new hotel when it opens in July 2014, but it will be built in Denver's historic Union Station. This high-end, independent 112-room hotel will be affiliated with the existing 80-room Oxford Hotel, located across the street.
The hotel is named after local developer and preservationist Dana Crawford, who in 1969 was responsible for preserving Larimer Square and transforming the block of brick and stone Victorian buildings into one of the city's hippest shopping, dining and entertainment centers.
Union Station, designed in the Beaux Arts style, was completed in 1914. The restored Union Station will incorporate dozens of details from the "Golden Age" of railroading and have eight new restaurants and retail shopping.
The old waiting room will be re-christened "The Great Hall". With its soaring arched windows and architectural details, this grand room will be open to the public 24-7. The old ticket windows are being turned into The Terminal Bar, which will feature more than 30 Colorado craft beers.
The hotel will come with three styles of rooms. The "Pullman" rooms on the second floor are modeled after the luxury private sleeping cars of old. The "Classic" rooms on the third floor come with tall ceilings and large windows. The former attic area will host "Loft" rooms, featuring exposed wood timbers and vaulted ceilings.
Marriott Renaissance in the Colorado National Bank Building is another new 230-room hotel being constructed in a historic building and is scheduled to open in May 2014.
The original Colorado National Bank was constructed in 1915 with an interior and exterior of white marble that came from the same quarry as the marble used in the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The spectacular lobby is surrounded by huge, wall-size murals painted by local artist Allen Tupper True. Considered one of Colorado's premier native-born artists, True focused his work on Western subjects. The murals in the bank building depict the lives of American Indians on the Plains before white people arrived. A lounge will overlook the lobby, which will also feature a signature restaurant and meeting rooms constructed in the old bank vaults.
The Capitol Hill Mansion Bed & Breakfast Inn is a historic 1891 ruby sandstone mansion built in the historic neighborhood of Capitol Hill. This area was once known as "Millionaires Row" because of the elaborate mansions built here by Denver notables, many of whom struck it rich gold mining, such as "Unsinkable Molly Brown," who lived a block away. The mansion is a Denver and National Landmark and has been given historic designation from the Landmark Preservation Commission. Eight elegantly appointed rooms and suites offer turn-of-the-century opulence with modern day flair. Some rooms feature private balconies, gas fireplaces, and whirlpool tubs. It is short walk to the Colorado State Capitol and downtown.