Neide Bollinger hurried toward the Molly Brown House Museum on a sweltering weekday this month, worried that she may have missed the start of a mid-morning walking tour on Capitol Hill.
“I got lost,” she admitted after stopping in front of the mansion at 1340 Pennsylvania St., which looms large in Denver lore.
Bollinger, 58, is no tourist. A Brazilian native with dual citizenship, she has lived in the Mile High City with her Colorado-native husband for 13 years, but never explored Capitol Hill on foot.
“I learned about this from my students who took it and loved it,” she said after checking in with guide Leslie Wilson, who conducts the 2-mile “If These Walls Could Talk” walking tour on behalf on Historic Denver.
Tours aren’t just for tourists, Wilson said. More than half of the people she leads are from within the city, while half learn about it from flyers, websites and other marketing resources such as denver.org.
“I became a tour guide after taking one and being encouraged to start leading them,” Wilson, 58, said as she tucked a binder of laminated historical photos and talking points under her arm.
As Denver has grown in recent years — attracting not only new residents but a record $6.5 billion in tourism revenue last year, according to Visit Denver — the amount of cultural offerings has swollen. That includes the guided tours designed to take the guesswork (and, some would argue, adventure) out of exploring everything from public art, history and architecture to nature, food, craft beer and legal cannabis.
But even in the age of GPS and augmented reality, which allow for smartphone-driven solo tours of museums and neighborhoods, guided tours still play a vital role in building loyalty and understanding of the city, industry professionals say. And as they evolve to reflect the diverse, increasingly niche culture around them, Denver has rediscovered something more rich and complex about itself — other than the Old West tales of a fortune and lawlessness that form its historic identity.
“I spend a lot of time training docents to tailor tours to their guests’ interests,” said Alison Salutz, director of community programs at Historic Denver. “We want guests to feel like they got what they wanted in the end, whether they have a particular interest in art or architecture or whatever. And I think there’s something unique about having that live person in front of you. They’re your ambassador to the city.”
Historic Denver offers four tours of central Denver neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill, Lower Downtown, Larimer Street and the 16th Street Mall, as well as “specialty tours” of the Five Points and Quality Hill neighborhoods. Each are $15 per person and can last an hour to two hours.
While the city has recently cracked down on marijuana-bus tours, where participants openly consume cannabis while checking out grow operations and retail shops, others have sprouted up to compete for tourists’ time and attention.
Visit Denver, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, promotes unique and offbeat tours on its website that include urban scavenger hunts, graffiti tours, food and craft-beer crawls, and more, often on miniature forms of transportation that eschew hop-on/hop-off buses or luxury coaches for smaller, more trendy (and, yes, very tourist-looking) tuk-tuks, Segways, scooters and motorcycle sidecars.
Some of the most popular tours, including the Colorado State Capitol, Coors Brewery Tour (in Golden), Denver U.S. Mint and Hammond’s Candy Factory, are free. Also free are various public art and architecture tours offered by the city via Denver Arts & Venues, which manages marquee public art sculptures such as “the big blue bear” outside the Colorado Convention Center.
Outside of Denver, gold mines, caves, graves and kayaks all beckon. But if you’re looking for the Mile High City equivalent of New Orleans’ famous cemetery or voodoo-museum tours, stick to the urban core, professionals say.
“Visitors are always looking for the local side of their visit, and there’s a growing awareness that even if you are a local, there are always new things to explore,” said Jayne Buck, vice president of tourism for Visit Denver, which reported 31.7 million visitors to the city last year, the 12th consecutive year of record growth. “No one wants to go to the tired tourist places. They want to learn something about the history of the community.”
So what, exactly, can we learn through a traditional walking tour?
For one, the story of Denver is still the story of the West. Driven by opportunity, desperation and the pioneer spirit, people from all over the world came here in the mid-to-late 1800s to build families and fortunes, drawn in part by the discovery of gold at what’s now Denver’s Confluence Park, and in part by the resource-rich mountain territories and the legends they spurred.
“William Lang was actually a self-taught architect,” said Historic Denver’s Wilson, one of 20 volunteers who train for weeks at a time to work for the nonprofit organization. “The poor guy built this (the Molly Brown House) in 1889 but sold it five years later to J.J. and Margaret Brown — who wasn’t known as Molly until the (1964) Disney movie.”
Another lesson: Denver is a far different place than it used to be, but some things never change.
On the Capitol Hill walking tour, the twisting histories of the homes and their owners reflect subjects that could be ripped from today’s headlines: water shortages, push-button electric cars (the Fritchle, which was manufactured on Colfax Avenue and driven by Molly Brown), sanatoriums founded on “clean living” principals (fasting, exercise, etc.), high-society intrigue (murder, infidelity, heists), and social justice (naming buildings on Sherman Street’s art deco Poet’s Row after abolitionists) all get their due.
Why are downtown streets on a diagonal, while the rest of the city is on a north-south/east-west grid? Hint: It has something to do with where gold was discovered, but also how the owner and founder of the Brown Palace Hotel decided to donate his tracts of nearby land to form the surrounding neighborhoods.
Then, as now, Denver is a blend of influences and styles, some more apparent than others. From the original American Indian residents to Spanish Colonial settlers — descendants of whom still populate the region hundreds of years later — to European settlers, prospectors and entrepreneurs, Denver has always been more of beehive than a melting pot.
White male entrepreneurs and cowboys have always been celebrated for their accomplishments (good or ill), but it’s only been in recent years that the contributions of everyone else have been given anything like equal footing.
“Buffalo Bill Cody was rumored to have paid everyone in his show the same amount, except for Annie Oakley,” Wilson said as she stopped in front of what is now the Belmont Buckingham apartment complex at 11th Avenue and Sherman Street, a former dirt lot that hosted Bill’s Wild West entertainment shows. “A reporter asked him why he did that and he said, “Well, I have to pay everybody the same because they all have guns. I pay Annie more because she’s a better shot.’ “
The history of Denver now includes places like the Black American West Museum in Five Points and, as of March, the first Center for Colorado Women’s History, located inside the Golden Triangle’s Byers-Evans House Museum.
“We love to hear about other people and their stories, so any tour guide who can weave those authentic stories in brings both the buildings and the past to life,” said Historic Denver’s Salutz.
Historic Denver has only been offering its walking tours since 2014, when they attracted 435 people. Last year, the number increased to 1,711, a trend that officials would like to continue.
Brazilian native Bollinger is already planning on taking another one after the Capitol Hill tour.
“I’m so embarassed but … am I supposed to tip you?” she asked Wilson after the tour. (She would be forgiven for thinking so, since some free tours encourage it.)
“No,” Wilson said. “But feel free to donate to Historic Denver, and give us a good rating on TripAdvisor, where lots of other people hear about us.”
This article was originally featured on The Denver Post.