LoDo & Larimer Square; Denver’s Historic Lower Downtown District

Denver, Colorado is the “Mile High City” with a spooky blue stallion guarding its airport, namesake of the Denver omelet, inspiration for the Shining hotel, one of the original Wild West towns, and has an underground tunnel system below the city that is shrouded in conspiracy theories… you know this place is going to be interesting.

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The lower downtown district of Denver, cleverly called LoDo, is credited as the Birthplace of Denver. It is located south of the South Platte River between Speer Boulevard and Coors Field, extending southward to Larimer Square.

This land was home to the Arapahoe and Cheyenne Native Americans and a few smaller tribes until the repulsive Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 where they were murdered by white settlers and had their heads paraded around in triumph. There is a mural in the Kettle Arcade that acknowledges Native Americans in Denver’s history.

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What became known as Denver first took root as a gold mining settlement after gold was discovered in 1858. Denver, especially this part of Denver, was known as the “Unofficial Capital of the Swashbuckling Wild West” and as a precursor 19th century Las Vegas.

Cowboys, miners, and other people from all over the country flocked here to make money and blow it on the area’s finest vices and brothels like Mattie’s.

Within two decades, the population had grown to over 35,000. General Larimer and his boys started building some log structures to live in, which makes LoDo the original city of AND the oldest neighbourhood in Denver.

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Most of the buildings there are original, historic landmarks, which makes it one of the largest collections of 19th and 20th century commercial buildings in the country.

Larimer Street’s 1400 Block was designated Denver’s first Historic District in 1973, and the official Lower Downtown Historic District was formed in 1988. The LoDo District, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) Registered Neighborhood Organization.

Denver Library has an incredible collection of info about some of the more prominent, well-known historic buildings and some businesses that opened pre-LoDo revitalization and are still operating.

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Until the mid-1990s and early 2000s, most people steered clear of this part of town. LoDo is a bop now, with over 100 restaurants and bars/clubs, two dozen art galleries, and lots of other businesses. Main attractions include Coors Field, Denver Union Station, and Larimer Square.

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LARIMER SQUARE
Larimer Square, on Larimer Street between 14th & 15th Streets, stands out with festive Colorado flags and sparkling light strands that form a canopy across the open space.

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We had a few cocktails and appetizers at Tamayo and enjoyed the colourful interior. Tamayo is known for its patio but we were looking for a break from the heat that day.

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Ice cold tequila drinks and fresh guacamole definitely hit the spot.

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We stopped by Hidden Gems Ice Cream & Coffee for more treats later on and I was entranced by this cryptic alphabet in a language of their own.

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Each treat comes with decoders so you can clue into the motivational messages and quotes painted all around the walls, floors, and ceilings of the café.

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I was hoping for some dark confessions or something but motivational quotes are cool too.

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Drunken Bakery co-shares the space, and they specialize in French macarons and donuts.

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My favourite thing about this space was that everything was upside down and set out in extreme detail.

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Other places that caught our attention include coffee shops like Ink! Coffee Cadence, Ghost Donkey, Kaffe Landskap, Little Owl Coffee, and restaurants like Denver Milk Market, The Pig & The Sprout, Sunday Vinyl, and Tavernett. We hope to also get drinks at The Cruise Room, Run For the Roses, The Wild, or any of the local spots you can read about in the Denver Eater’s restaurant/bar guide.

Shopping options in Larimer Square are endless, and even though I’m not really one for shopping or wearing shoes if I don’t have to, I lit up when I discovered a John Fluevog location. Those funky heels are so dreamy!

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KETTLE ARCADE
Not far from Larimer Square, pop by the Kettle Arcade for more unique shops. Kettle Arcade was once the storefront for merchant George Kettle, constructed in 1873 then converted to a walk-through type mall in 1990.

I could not find an official website, likely because it is a free-standing open structure in Larimer Square and each business inside it has its own respective website.

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The Kettle Arcade mural I shared above is a point of interest for tourists. It was commissioned in the 1980s to pay tribute to the Arapahoe Native Americans as well as William Larimer, Annie Oakley, Robert Speer, Soapy Smith and other key players in Denver history.

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We enjoyed a visit to Victoriana Antiques & Fine Jewelry and Qinti Boutique. I recognized the name and asked the owner if he has a second location in Blue Ridge, Georgia, and sure enough he does! He was just as amused as I was that I had only been to the Blue Ridge shop one week prior.

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French Restaurant Bistro Vendome now runs the courtyard at the back of the walk-through. For more open air shopping and snacking, visit the 16th Street Mall a short walk from Kettle.

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Union Station
Further north into LoDo, the Denver Union Station is a modern food hall and shopping center with restaurants and cafés like The Cooper Lounge, Ultreia, Snooze AM Eatery, Terminal Bar, Stoic & Genuine, ND Streetbar, Pigtrain Coffee Company, Milkbox Ice Creamery, ACME Deli & Pizzeria, Mercantile Dining, and shops like Bloom, Tattered Cover Bookstore, Five Green Boxes, and Pickletown Flower Company.

Union Station was built in the 1800s and became the city’s main train hub to streamline all the smaller stations that had popped up during the time of the railroad. The massive, attractive building has been completely renovated and restored.

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(Above: Photo shared from Tryba Architects. Not my photo!)

While you’re in LoDo, check out the Oxford Hotel, the oldest operating hotel in Denver, the Daniels & Fisher Tower, the Denver Selfie MuseumMuseum of Contemporary Art, the National Ballpark Museum, cruise along the Denver Millennial Bridge, take a stroll through Confluence Park or Commons Park, or add some yeehaw to your wardrobe with a visit to Rockmount Ranch Wear, creator of the famous snap button “Western Shirt.”

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(Above, the Daniels & Fisher Tower)

While in LoDo, do not miss out on dinner at Linger inside an old mortuary, a little north of LoDo, or a chance to experience the International Church of Cannabis just a short hop south of LoDo.

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Settled into a converted Lutheran church, the International Church of Cannabis is a community center, art gallery, wedding chapel, live music and event venue, and meditation center with an arcade/board game lounge, snack and cocktail bar.

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You do not have to even be remotely interested in cannabis or the Elevationist dogma to enjoy this place. It is open to everyone and did not even have a trace of weed smell. From floor to ceiling, it is splashed with vibrant murals, unique furniture, and funky art.

We attended the Guided Meditation Light Show where participants are invited to sit or lie wherever they please and enjoy the show. Our group made a beeline to stretch out on the floor in the center of the room and looked upward, taking it all in.

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In the area for a while? Follow me to some of Denver’s other cool neighbourhoods like RiNo and Berkeley, or venture out to Red Rocks, Alma, Boulder, and Breckenridge.

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