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CNN reporter shares top Denver spots

By Jim Spellman, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some of the greatest skiing, hiking and camping are just a few hours away from Denver
  • Little Man Ice Cream in the Highlands neighborhood offers a nice view of the city
  • The 16th Street pedestrian mall in downtown Denver is great for people-watching
  • Don't leave Denver without a cowboy shirt from Rockmount Ranch Wear
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Editor's note: Jim Spellman is a CNN all-platform journalist in Denver. He moved there about two years ago from Washington, D.C. Read his tips and share yours in the comments area below.

Denver (CNN) -- Denver couldn't be more different from my old hometown of Washington, D.C., where politics and power set the tone for the bustling capital. In Denver, the great outdoors is king.

Some of the greatest skiing, hiking and camping are just a few hours away in the Rocky Mountains.

But hang around downtown, and you'll find a lot of great stuff to do in one of the classic American cities. After dark, Denver is a surprisingly hip city with great music, restaurants and bars.

Where can you get the best view of the city?

Head over to Little Man Ice Cream in the Highlands neighborhood -- you can't miss it, it's housed in a giant milk jug -- and grab a cone around sunset. Walk across the street to Hirshorn Park, plunk down on a swing set and watch the sun set on the shiny downtown high-rises framed by a soaring pedestrian bridge that spans the Platte River.

Which restaurant would you take your loved one to for an anniversary or other special occasion?

My wife is a vegetarian, so we look for restaurants that can please her diet and my own meat-loving appetites. Root Down is simply amazing. Grilled Heritage Berkshire pork tenderloin for me, country-fried organic tofu for her. They focus on locally sourced, organic ingredients and stress sustainability in the kitchen and even in the dining room, which has been assembled mostly from reclaimed and recycled materials.

Where is the best place to people-watch?

The 16th Street pedestrian mall in downtown Denver. Jump on the free trolley that goes from Union Station to the state Capitol and jump off just about anywhere. You'll find everything from businesspeople in suits to old men playing chess. I once came across a homeless teenager playing a piano and belting out an amazing version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." I'm still not sure where the piano came from.

CNN's Jim Spellman on assignment in Haiti
CNN's Jim Spellman on assignment in Haiti

What is your favorite neighborhood?

I live in a neighborhood called Highlands that has a genuine neighborhood feel. Great little cafes, boutiques and a good used bookstore. It's everything I need!

How do tourists stick out, and what's the best way to blend in?

If you want to stick out here, wear a cowboy hat. The only people who do are tourists and politicians. To fit in, swing by the giant REI store near Confluence Park and pick up some hiking boots and a fleece jacket. That's the uniform locals call "Colorado casual."

Where do you go to relax?

I jump on my motorcycle and head to the mountains. My favorite road is the Peak to Peak Highway from Black Hawk to Estes Park. There are amazing views in every direction. Stop for lunch in at the New Moon Bakery in Nederland and soak up the mountain town ambience.

To chill out a bit closer to home, I head over to Red Rocks, the soaring park and amphitheater nestled in the foothills of the Rockies. Everyone from the Beatles to U2 have played in this awe-inspiring venue, and if there isn't a show that night, you are free to walk onto the stage or stretch out and soak up the sun in the bleacher seats.

What's the biggest tourist trap? Is there a "tourist trap" that's actually worth seeing?

Without doubt, the biggest tourist trap for miles around is Casa Bonita. It's a kitschy Mexican restaurant built around an indoor cliff diving pool. This is the classic place to come for birthdays or to bring your out-of-town guests. There is even an entire "South Park" episode devoted to it.

The divers put on a great show, and it is nearly always packed. Plan on waiting an hour or more for a table on a Saturday night, and also plan on eating before you arrive. Casa Bonita is notorious for having truly awful food, but the kids will love it.

Where's your favorite place to spend a night out on the town?

I love seeing live bands, and my favorite venue is the Hi-Dive on Broadway. This is the spot to catch great touring bands before they get big. Then head across the street to shoot some pool at 3 Kings and wind up the night with a late-night snack at City, O' City.

This is a taste of the Denver that Sal Paradise found in Jack Kerouac's "On The Road." Vibrant, exciting, gritty and real.

What is a good local souvenir?

Don't leave Denver without stopping by Rockmount Ranch Wear in Lower Downtown. It is home to some of the greatest cowboy gear in the world.

Everyone from Elvis Presley to Ronald Reagan to Bruce Springsteen has worn their iconic pearl snap shirts. Cowboy shirt = good, cowboy hat = bad.

Much more unique than a Broncos jersey!

Reader picks

What do you think? Share your recommendations for Denver visitors in the comments section below. What should visitors do with one day in Denver?

Check CNN.com/Travel later this week for some of your best tips.