If you’re looking for a unique day trip a short drive from Denver, head north to Fort Collins, which has everything you need for a memorable vacation in one city: amazing restaurants, breweries, distilleries, shopping, and outdoor adventures—all with that special local flair.
Fort Collins is home to Colorado State University, and it’s always at the top of one best-of list or another. Buzzfeed even went as far to call Fort Collins the greatest city on Earth, and there are many great ways to experience this thriving college town. From exploring Old Town and touring brewing companies to catching a live music show and playing on the Poudre River, there's no limit to the experiences you can have in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Explore Old Town: Real Life Disneyland
Old Town Fort Collins was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street USA, and the charming, old buildings and stone-lined streets truly feel like a fantasyland.
Downtown is full of specialty, artisan, and local shops, such as the popular Welsh Rabbit Cheese Bistro. You can pop in here for a selection of charcuterie and artisan cheeses paired with wine and beer. Then, visit Revolution Artisan Pops, which sells handmade popsicles made with natural, pure, local ingredients. Instead of dyes and preservatives, you'll enjoy tasty cold treats made with fresh fruit and local spices.
You’ll also find colorful public art installations, water features, and fun, interactive displays that bring the community together on the bricks in Old Town. It will come as no surprise that this section of Fort Collins has been named one of America's best downtown areas.
Tour New Belgium Brewing Company
Fort Collins is called Colorado's Craft Beer Capital and is home to some of the world’s best microbreweries, including New Belgium Brewing and Odell Brewing Company. When in Fort Collins, you absolutely must stop by New Belgium Brewing, which offers a craft brew tour unlike any other.
At New Belgium Brewing, there are free tours every 30 minutes (from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) that take you into the guts of this monster brewhouse (the largest wood cellar beer production facility in the nation), complete with lots of free beer.
However, carve out plenty of time to chill on the lawn because it often feels like a festival here. On any given afternoon, especially weekends, you will find hundreds of people sitting around the huge yard lined with food trucks sipping beer, playing lawn games, and strumming instruments.
Other Brewing Companies
If you're looking for some lesser-known but worthy breweries, check out Intersect Brewing and Maxline Brewing, which hosts live music and special events, like chili cook-offs and popcorn and beer pairings.
There's also Zwei Brewing, Black Bottle Brewery, Coopersmith's Pub and Brewing, and the Three Four Beers Company as well as the massive Anheuser-Busch branch in Fort Collins. You can tour multiple breweries on quirky Magic Bus Tours, or take a bike, bus, limo, or go by foot.
Play in the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery
Even if you’re not the museum type, add the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery to your Colorado bucket list. It's the best place in town to take your kids and is fun for all ages.
Find hours of educational and fun entertainment in this expansive, interactive museum, and make sure you snag a ticket to the revolving special exhibits that hide in the back room. In the past, there's been a ticketed dinosaur event that included a movie about the ancient flying dino creatures, life-sized models, virtual games, and real fossils.
Another highlight is watching a movie in the Digital Dome (like an Imax movie screen that wraps all the way up the rounded ceiling), and as a bonus, the top floor of the museum is an observatory where you can look out over Fort Collins and beyond, panorama style. This is a great place to take photos and get familiarized with the layout of the city from above.
Head South to Jessup Farm Artisan Village
Jessup Farm Artisan Village feels like traveling back in time, but with hip, updated amenities.
This old farmstead, home to one of the city’s earliest settlements, has been converted into a coffee shop (in the 19th-century mechanics shop), a photography business (housed in the former loafing shed), a clothing and home shop (also in the old shed), a barbershop (in the old farm shop), and the Jessup Farm Barrel House, which features beer-blending and barrel-aging.
However, the highlight of the Jessup Farm Artisan Village is the Farmhouse restaurant, which is located in the 130-year-old Jessup House. As is fitting in a cozy, old-school building, the food here is comfort food (of course made from scratch), but with a sophisticated, upscale spin.
Produce comes from the village’s small farm and garden, and the rest comes from local sources. On the menu, find savory treats like a mouthwatering braised lamb shank, herb-brined pork chops, or a skillet chicken pot pie. The pork belly slider appetizers are a must-try., and if you have dietary restrictions, the Farmhouse can easily accommodate gluten-free, dairy-free, or any other specifications.
Explore Some of the 42 Natural Areas
There’s plenty to do outside in Fort Collins. Horsetooth Reservoir is a super busy place to go boating and swimming in the summer, and the city also has the Poudre River, the state’s only nationally designated Wild and Scenic River. Plus, you'll find hundreds of miles of biking and hiking paths and excellent bird-watching all across the region.
No matter where you decide to go, bring your camera to see if you can spot the local herd of genetically pure bison (but don’t get too close). If you're having trouble narrowing down the options though, the highlights near Fort Collins include:
- Pineridge Natural Area: Easier hiking with picnic tables and boating
- Reservoir Ridge Natural Area: For a more challenging activity in the foothills, yet still close to town
- Bobcat Ridge: For history buffs who want to dive a little deeper into the foothills, plus it's great for mountain biking
- Gateway: Excellent picnic spot in the canyon with short hikes nearby
- Riverbend Ponds: Features a river and ponds; it's close to town and fun for fishing
Enjoy the Foodie Scene
Fort Collins boasts more restaurants per capita than most U.S. cities of a similar size, which makes this town a foodie heaven. Whether you're on a budget or don't mind dropping a few dollars for a first-class meal, there are plenty of options all day long in Fort Collins.
For brunch, head to The Kitchen, a contemporary, sleek bistro in Old Town with locally inspired dishes—don't miss the Bloody Mary and mimosa bar. For a naughtier breakfast, The Waffle Lab is all indulgence and creativity and offers a menu of thick waffles (even gluten-free options) piled high with all kinds of unusual toppings.
For dinner, check out the farm-to-table restaurant, Locality, with a cool hydroponic grow wall that will produce vegetables and micro-greens for dishes on the menu. However, if you're on a budget or short on time, stop by Spoons, a local favorite offering simple and yummy soups, salads, and sandwiches with plenty of gluten-free options.
Try Craft Coffee
Fort Collins doesn’t only have craft beer, it also has craft coffee, and much like craft beer, craft coffee emphasizes the quality, uniqueness, and the story of the coffee and its beans.
Fort Collins’ craft community is growing and the popularity of third-wave coffee is growing with it. To experience this trend for yourself, head over to Harbinger Coffee for exotic, pure coffee from some of the nation’s best roasters.
Other craft coffee homes in Fort Collins include Farmers Brother Coffee, The Bean Cycle, The Human Bean, Bindle Coffee, and Everyday Joe’s. The latter is a giant coffee house with a stage that often holds special events and live music performances.
Taste a Flight of Chocolate
Another thing that Fort Collins artisans are quickly becoming known for is creating artisanal chocolates. Enjoy a whole flight of chocolate at Nuance Chocolate in downtown Fort Collins, which makes small-batch chocolates from beans that it roasts and grinds on site.
A fight of chocolate will walk you through tasting chocolate made from beans from different regions of the world, and you will be surprised by how many variations in flavor there are for pure, dark chocolate. Nuance claims to have the largest selection of “single-origin” chocolate in the world. It features more than 20 single-origin bars, which refers to beans that come straight from one specific region and are not blended with beans from other areas—chocolate in its purest, natural form.
For something indulgent, check out the decadent truffle selection, most made with local ingredients (like local honey from a beekeeper, local coffee roasters and lavender, and red chiles from a nearby farm). Also warm up with thick sipping chocolate, made with no sugar or milk, but it’s not like traditional hot chocolate—it’s a whole new experience.
The shop began as a hobby and is now one of the rare bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the nation. Owners Toby and Alix Gadd have lived in Fort Collins for nearly 30 years. The chocolate shop is the only place in the world to find Nuance Chocolate.; the Gaddis say they would sell wholesale or online, but they can’t keep up with demand as it is.
Play the Banjo in Bed
One of Fort Collins' coolest hotels is the Elizabeth Hotel, the city's first and only four-star-rated accommodation. However, what makes it really special is that the Elizabeth Hotel is centered around music and art.
No matter where you go inside the hotel, you'll find interesting, music-inspired murals, photos, and sculptures as well as records and record players in every room. In the lobby, there's a library of records to choose from, and best of all, you can browse the display of musical instruments and check them out to bring to your room to serenade your lover before bedtime.
Beyond that, the Elizabeth is a stunningly put-together, modern hotel ideally located in downtown, walking distance to all the action. Request a room on the west side with sweeping views of the mountain ranges and the city.
Enjoy Wine Differently
The Emporium Kitchen & Wine Market in Fort Collins is a farm-to-table-style restaurant with a wine market in the middle of it. So instead of ordering marked-up bottles and glasses of wine with dinner, you can order your meal, then get up and walk to the open-air wine shelves and pick out your bottle, just like you would in a liquor store.
Also, like in a liquor store, these bottles are priced at market value, not marked up to restaurant prices, which means you can find a $15 bottle of wine to enjoy with your meal.
The food here is supreme and the atmosphere is ultra cool: a bit retro but in the hippest way. It's ideal for a unique date night but it's also welcoming for a casual family dinner. The wine selection also spans local to international, so try a Cabernet from Crossbarn Winery with your Wagyu burger with egg, avocado, bacon, and fresh Swiss-like cheese, which will be one of the best burgers you've ever had.
Catch Live Music
As you would expect in a good college town, the live music scene in Fort Collins is top-notch. There are a number of established venues like the historic Aggie Theater where you can catch national names, but for something different, there are also smaller and newer venues like Magic Rat Live Music or the Sunset Lounge.
Magic Rat has a ton of character. It's a bit off-beat (located in Old Firehouse Alley) and far from pretentious while featuring local to bigger-named musicians. While there, indulge in the quirky drink menu. If you're feeling wild, try a Rat Tail, a dealer's choice shot and a bottle of Miller High Life, or order The Rider for your table: four cans of PBR, four mini bottles of Jack, a bowl of peanut M&Ms, beef jerky, and something known as "mystery goodies."
Try a Flavor of the Past
If you're looking for something to eat that is uniquely local and traditional to Fort Collins, look no further than the Silver Grill Cafe, which is known for its monstrous, homemade cinnamon rolls made fresh daily and oozing with naughty frosting deliciousness.
This casual diner has been running strong for more than 85 years, and in fact, it's Northern Colorado's longest-operating cafe. To solely peg Silver Grill as a greasy spoon wouldn't be entirely true, though. You'll also find homemade soups, sandwiches, burgers, and great breakfast items here. For example, enjoy French toast made with homemade cranberry-orange-walnut bread, topped with spiced apple compote and cinnamon whipped cream—the perfect breakfast for fall.
Play on the Poudre
No visit to Colorado would be complete without spending plenty of time outdoors. Fort Collins is home to an impressive river, the Poudre River, which can serve as the focal point of a great getaway. If you're an experienced kayaker, these waters will challenge you, but during calmer run-off (i.e. not in the springtime or early summer, when rapids can be wild), some people (especially college students) like to tube down the Poudre.
The Cache La Poudre Scenic and Historic Byway is another way to experience the region and immerse yourself in the views. This trip starts in Fort Collins up U.S. 287 northwest, until it turns up the canyon alongside the rushing river. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife along the way, especially bighorn sheep, which are prevalent in this area. All in all, the byway will take about three hours to drive (101 miles total) and will take you from Fort Collins into the small towns of Walden and Gould, but the roads are paved and open year-round.