By Monica Parpal Stockbridge
There’s no denying that Fort Collins — the “other” college town in northern Colorado — is getting more attention lately. About 65 miles north of Denver, Fort Collins has been named one of the top 10 fastest- rising housing markets in the country.
It was Money Magazine’s No. 1 best place in the country to live in 2006, and is reportedly Time Magazine’s “most satisfied city,” as of 2014.
While word continues to spread, locals have long known that Fort Collins is something special. What began as a fur-trading outpost in the early 1800s became a thriving agricultural center with the arrival of the Colorado Central Railroad and Colorado Agriculture & Mining College — later renamed Colorado State University (CSU) — in the late 1870s.
Today, Fort Collins is the brewing and biking capital of the Front Range, a spirited college town and friendly community that offers something of a refuge from the breakneck growth and traffic of Colorado’s capital city.
“Fort Collins is home to a magical mix of urban vibrancy and natural beauty, so it’s a wonderful place to spend a weekend (or even a week!) and never get bored,” says Katy Schneider, director of marketing for Visit Fort Collins.
That said, here is our itinerary for a memorable weekend stay in Northern Colorado’s most up-and-coming city.
Day One: Dine, drink and discover
Get to Fort Collins by taking I-25 north about 75 miles from downtown Denver, or hop on I-470 from Denver International Airport. Enjoy the views of Mount Meeker and Longs Peak to the west as you arrive.
If you’re hungry, immediately head to Silver Grill Café for breakfast or lunch. This is Northern Colorado’s oldest restaurant (dating back to 1912), best known for its gloriously gooey, baked-fresh-daily cinnamon rolls. If you’re on a different kind of diet, take heart; a leisurely walk down College Avenue will take you to The Gold Leaf , the town’s first 100-percent vegan eatery, which serves comforting porridge bowls, savory tofu scrambles, and tasty baked goods. And just across the street, the longstanding Rainbow Restaurant serves vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and traditional fare for breakfast and lunch, with a heavy focus on local produce.
Once sated, it’s time to explore Downtown Fort Collins. Walk along Walnut until you arrive at Old Town Square, where locals can be found walking dogs, chatting in cafes, and chasing down their kids on the pedestrian- friendly streets. Peek in the independently owned Old Firehouse Books and pick up a guide to Colorado hiking trails or a primer on homebrewing, then sample a sip of tea from Happy Lucky Tea Shop on your way out. Pop culture and gaming fans can geek out in Halley’s Comics while browsing the impeccably organized selection of vintage comic books, then head to Pinball Jones for an afternoon at the arcade.
When you’re ready for another bite to eat, make your way to one of the city’s newest destinations, Ginger & Baker . This market, café, event space and restaurant grew out of the former Northern Colorado Feeders Supply store, and now feeds hungry locals, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, and their specialty, sweet and savory pies. Plan ahead and sign up for a cooking class to learn how to pair wines, fold a dumpling, or can your own pickles.
For a pre-dinner drink, do as the locals do (that is, the CSU students and grads) and head to Lucky Joe’s , a friendly dive where Irish bar meets old western saloon. With homecooked daily specials and live music several nights a week, it’s perfect for an inexpensive meal or a drink with your old college buddies. The Blind Pig Pub and Pour Brothers Community Tavern are equally welcoming, with laid-back vibes and late-night service.
Dinner at The Kitchen (which also has Boulder and Denver iterations) serves high-quality, farm-to-table cuisine, and offers prime people watching along the bustling pedestrian thoroughfare. Another local favorite is Cafe Vino, serving European-inspired tapas, pizzas and wine flights.
As the day draws to a close, check in to your weekend lodging at The Elizabeth Hotel , just opened in late 2017. Operated by Sage Hospitality, this Marriott Autograph Collection hotel is deeply rooted in the local music and nature scenes.
“The town has a vibe, a special friendliness from its people,” says the hotel’s general manager, Scott Sloan. “There’s a lot of pride in Fort Collins for what it is and how comfortable it is. From the craft beer, to the art, to the shops that aren’t chains or brands, it all comes together like a piece of music.”
With curated art, thoughtful design elements and inspired amenities that make it a welcome addition to Old Town Fort Collins, The Elizabeth is an ideal place to base your weekend explorations.
Day Two: Adventure, art and ale
Wake up rested and refreshed, and put a record on while you brush your teeth — after all, every room in The Elizabeth is outfitted with an old-school record player and a selection of vinyl. As the music plays, consider your day: Will you continue exploring Old Town? Plan a day of active adventure outdoors? Brush up on your knowledge of hops and barley? There are no wrong answers here.
First things first: get your caffeine fix at Little Bird Bakeshop around the corner. With house-made quiche and daily baked-from-scratch muffins, this is a place to linger for hours over the morning paper.
If adventure is calling, pick up a bike from one of the Fort Collins Bike Share stations around town (there’s one right on Walnut and Linden), and hop on the Poudre Trail or the Spring Creek Trail to see Fort Collins from two wheels. The more rugged among us may head to Lory State Park just beyond Horsetooth Reservoir, where 20-plus miles of hiking and biking trails make for a rewarding day outdoors. For fishing enthusiasts, the Cache la Poudre River is an ideal place to cast a line.
If your idea of adventure is more about sampling a new brew or two, you’re in luck. Fort Collins is home to 20 craft breweries, including renowned New Belgium Brewing (with a self-guided tour if you can’t make it into the popular weekend guided tours) and its popular neighbor, Odell Brewing Company, each within walking distance. On your way back, check out the beer garden at Equinox Brewing or try a Signa’s Green Chili beer at Coopersmith’s.
When you need a snack in between brewery tours, the Welsh Rabbit Cheese Bistro will transport you to a Rocky Mountain version of a European pub. Locally and internationally sourced cheeses include the truffled, slightly ashy Sottocenere cow’s milk cheese, or stinky, semi-hard Quadrello di Bufala. Pair it with an olive-oil drenched baguette and another beer (hey, you’re in Fort Collins!). If you’re packing a picnic, stop into the Welsh Rabbit Cheese Shop around the corner.
Feeling more cultured than fermented? Pay a visit to the Museum of Art Fort Collins. Luckily, even outdoors enthusiasts can enjoy art in alleyways and on street corners thanks to Fort Collins’ Art in Public Places program, which continues to curate murals, sculptures and other public art.
Or, simply return to The Elizabeth to get your art fix. Colorado- based NINE dot ARTS curated the hotel’s extensive collection of over 130 original artworks and over 800 unique styling objects and décor pieces that embrace themes of nature, music, and community which drive the town’s cultural identity.
“Purchasing local works became the embodiment of the soul of this hotel,” says Martha Weidmann, CEO of NINE dot ARTS (and herself a CSU grad), whose team “put together a complex, interesting and indepth collection of objects that pays homage to Fort Collins as a place.”
A prime example is artist Kevin Sloan’s whimsical and expressionistic Picnic, which welcomes guests from behind the concierge desk with a painting of woodland creatures, a faint musical score representing Colorado’s state song, and, of course, a ram peeking his head into the scene — a nod to Colorado State University’s much-loved mascot.
Also in the lobby, the hotel’s instrument lending library features guitars, keyboards and banjos for hotel guests to learn and play, including a grand auditorium-style Taylor and two locally designed Avian Songbirds. Just before dusk, ride the exclusive elevator to The Sunset Lounge on The Elizabeth’s fifth floor, and take in the horizon with a crafted cocktail. “It’s the most incredible view in all of Fort Collins,” Sloan says.
As the sun goes down, make your way to The Emporium Kitchen and Wine Bar for dinner. Ask your server to show you around the wine market, where you can hand pick your own bottle to be opened at your table. Then, it’s on to the meal. Begin with a creamy, savory Hazel Dell Mushroom Veloute and 7x Wagyu Beef Steak Tartare before deliberating over the selection of main dishes, such as Hunter’s Chicken, Bison Bourguignon, and Saturday’s daily special, Elk Wellington — tenderloin and mushroom duxelles enveloped in puff pastry served with creamed kale and Yukon gold mashed potatoes. Thanks to impeccable design, warm service and a salon-style wall showcasing curated art from the local community, The Emporium Kitchen and Bar already feels like a staple in Old Town Fort Collins.
After dinner, walk through the hotel to the inhouse concert venue, The Magic Rat. Here, local and national artists take the stage in an intimate setting with funky furniture, a dedicated bar, and its own interior marquee. Most shows are free of charge, making this a popular new addition to the town’s already thriving music scene. “When you walk in there, the marquee is on, the staff is buzzing, there’s popcorn popping,” Sloan says. “It’s a cool vibe.”
After the concert, you’ll be keen for some late-night bites. Take a walk in the moonlight to seek out “The Gyro Cart Guy,” a locals-only experience that will bring you back to your college days. Anchored on the southeast corner of Mountain and College, the gyro cart serves up piping-hot lamb pitas drenched in tzatziki sauce from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. most weekends.
Day Three: One for the road
Sleep in! Then, take one last tour of the hotel’s art-filled ground floor (don’t miss the “sound totem” installation near the elevators) as you make your way to Bowerbird Coffee. Grab a cappuccino and a few homemade pastries before checking out — but if you have time, don’t rush it. Sit down at a sunny table in The Emporium for a leisurely omelette or house-made kielbasa for brunch.
And since no visit is complete without a souvenir, walk over to nearby chocolate shop, Nuance Chocolate, before you depart. With a thoughtful selection of velvety chocolate bars and bags of roasted cacao nibs made by two local self-proclaimed chocoholics, you can be sure you’re getting the good stuff. As you leave town, keep an eye on the horizon. Those rocky peaks in the distance serve as still sentinels of how far Northern Colorado has come since those early frontier days, and continue to symbolize the promise of a good life in Fort Collins — even if only for a weekend.