If you’re looking for a unique day trip a short drive from Denver, head north. Fort Collins has everything you need for a memorable vacation in one city: amazing restaurants, breweries, distilleries and shopping, 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. That’s like the best of best-of honors.
Although it’s hard to narrow down, here are some of the best ways to experience Fort Collins.
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Explore Old Town: Real Life Disneyland
Fun fact: Old Town Fort Collins was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street USA. The charming, old buildings and stone-lined streets truly feel like a fantasyland, except the shops that line it are the real deal.
Downtown is full of specialty, artisan and local shops, such as the popular Welsh Rabbit Cheese Bistro. 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, 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.
It’s no surprise why FoCo has been named one of America’s best downtowns.
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Tour New Belgium Brewing Co.
Fort Collins is called Colorado's Craft Beer Capital.
It's home to some of the world’s best microbreweries, including New Belgium Brewing, Odell Brewing Co. and New Belgium.
When in Fort Collins, you absolutely must-must-must stop by New Belgium Brewing.
This is not your ordinary craft brew tour.
First, there are free tours every 30 minutes (from 11 a.m.-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. But you’ll also want to carve out plenty of time to chill on the lawn.
It feels like a festival here. 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. It's the coolest place in town to hang out.
New Belgium’s grew lawn hosts a Bike-in Movie series and Yoga at the Brewery classes.
There's also Zwei Brewing Co. Black Bottle Brewery, Coopersmith's Pub and Brewing, Three Four Beers Co. — yeah, FoCo loves its beer. Tour multiple breweries on quirky Magic Bus Tours. Take a bike, bus, limo or go by foot.
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Play in the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery
Even if you’re not the museum type, add this to your Colorado bucket list. The Fort Collins Museum of Discovery is the best place in town to take your kids.
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).
Bonus: On 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.
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Head South to Jessup Farm Artisan Village
Jessup Farm Artisan Village feels like traveling back in time, but with hip, updated offerings.
This old farmstead, home to one of the city’s earliest settlers, 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.
But the highlight of this unique village is the Farmhouse restaurant, located in the 130-year-old 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.
Look for the likes of a mouthwatering braised lamb shank, herb-brined pork chops or a skillet chicken pot pie. The pork belly slider appetizers are a must-try.
Have a dietary restriction? The... Farmhouse can easily accommodate gluten-free, dairy-free or any other specifications.Continue to 5 of 14 below.
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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, find hundreds of miles of biking and hiking paths and excellent bird-watching.
Bring your camera to see if you can spot the local herd of genetically pure bison (but don’t get too close).
Having trouble narrowing down the options? Zoe Shark, community relations manager for the Fort Collins Natural Areas, recommends these favorites:
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. Great for mountain biking.
Gateway: Excellent picnic spot in the canyon with short hikes nearby.
Riverbend Ponds: For a river and ponds close to town; fun for fishing.
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Enjoy the Foodie Scene
Fort Collins boasts more restaurants per capita than most U.S. cities of a similar size. This is a foodie heaven.
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. Find thick waffles (even gluten-free options) piled high with all kinds of unusual toppings. There’s the standard: Nutella, chocolate, fruit. Also find waffles wrapped in cheese, layered with bacon and avocado, topped with eggs. Anything you can put on a plate, put on a waffle.
For dinner, check out the farm-to-table restaurant, Locality, with a cool hydroponic grow wall that will produce vegetables and microgreens for dishes on the menu.
On a budget or short on time? Spoons is a local favorite. Find simple and yummy soups, salads and sandwiches with plenty of gluten-free options.
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Try Craft Coffee
Fort Collins doesn’t only have craft beer. It’s got craft coffee.
Much like craft beer, craft coffee emphasizes the quality, uniqueness and the story of the coffee and its beans.
Some say craft coffee is the next big craft trend.
Fort Collins’ craft community is growing and the popularity of third-wave coffee is growing with it. Head over to Harbinger Coffee for exotic, pure coffee from some of the nation’s best roasters.
Other craft coffee homes: 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. It often holds special events and live music.
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Taste a Flight of Chocolate
You've tried a flight of beer. Now try a flight of chocolate.
Nuance Chocolate, in downtown Fort Collins, makes small-batch chocolates from beans that it roasts and grinds on site. It takes about a week to go from beans to bar.
A fight of chocolate will walk you through tasting chocolate made from beans from different regions of the world. 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. That refers to beans that come straight from one specific region and are not blended with beans from other areas. It’s chocolate in its purest, natural form.
As a plus, all bean sources are vetted for being ethical, sustainable and direct or near direct fair trade.
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).
Warm up with thick sipping chocolate, made with no sugar or milk. 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 Gadds say they would sell wholesale or online, but they can’t keep up with demand as it is. Maybe someday. Until then, this tiny, cozy, brick storefront is the only place to get your Nuance chocolate fix.Continue to 9 of 14 below.
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Play the Banjo in Bed
One of Fort Collins' coolest, new hotels is the Elizabeth Hotel, the city's first and only four-star hotel. This whole hotel centers around music and art. You will find interesting, music-inspired murals, photos and sculptures throughout the hotel and your room, plus 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 (guitar, banjo, keyboard, oh yeah!) and check them out to bring to your room. 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.
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Enjoy Wine Differently
This is a unique concept. 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. And also like in a liquor store, these bottles are priced at market value, not marked up to restaurant prices. This means you can get a $15 bottle of wine to enjoy with your meal. (Or if you want to really splurge, find bottles up to $150 each.)
The selection spans local to international. Try a Cabernet from Crossbarn Winery with your Wagyu burger with egg, avocado, bacon and a Fresh Swiss-like cheese, which we guarantee will be one of the best burgers you've ever had.
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.
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Catch Live Music
As you would expect in a good college town, the live music scene in Fort Collins is hoppin'. There are the established venues, like the historic Aggie Theater, where you can catch national names. 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 here, you gotta indulge in the quirky drink menu. 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, uh, "mystery goodies." How can you not?
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Try a Flavor of the Past
OK, this one's not fancy. It's old-school FoCo and a local cult fave. If you want to try the best greasy spoon (and we say that with the utmost affection) in Fort Collins, venture over to Silver Grill Cafe. This casual diner has been running strong for more than 84 years. In fact, it's Northern Colorado's longest-operating cafe.
The Silver Grill is known for its monstrous, homemade cinnamon rolls, made fresh daily and oozing with naughty frosting deliciousness.
To solely peg Silver Grill as a greasy spoon wouldn't be entirely true, though. You can also find homemade soups, sandwiches, burgers (mmm, the brie burger with Angus) and innovative French toast. For example, imagine French toast made with homemade cranberry-orange-walnut bread, topped with spiced apple compote and cinnamon whipped cream. That's the perfect breakfast for fall.Continue to 13 of 14 below.
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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 be the focal point of a great getaway. If you're an experienced kayaker, these waters will challenge you. 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. Keep your camera at the ready.
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. Roads are paved and open year-round.
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Eat More Chocolate
Chocoholics: If the craft chocolate bars aren't enough to satiate your sweet tooth, head to our favorite dessert spot in Fort Collins, the Chocolate Cafe. This tiny, European-style cafe in the heart of downtown might be easy to miss, but add it to your must-taste list. Here, you can find dessert to eat and drink (i.e. dessert cocktails), everything made completely from scratch.
Indulge in a carrot cake with a chocolate martini. Or white chocolate croissant bread pudding, topped with Anglaise sauce. Or better yet, chocolate peanut butter pie. Or better than better yet: bacon stout cheesecake. That's cheesecake made with chocolate stout beer on a pretzel crust, topped with candied bacon and salted caramel. Oh, lawd!
You can even find plenty of gluten-free options, although let's be real: This is a place to splurge, not a health food restaurant. Everything here is pure sweetness in a hidden-gem spot that you will never forget.