As far as winter destinations go, they don’t get more pristine or posh than Aspen, whose shimmering slopes attract skiers and snowboarders from around the globe. Winter sports not on your two-day agenda? That’s no problem in this snowy mecca filled with world-class shopping, incredible restaurants, sizzling nightlife and some of Colorado’s best art galleries.
Aspen offers four mountains for skiing, which are all a part of White River National Forest, the largest forest in Colorado. Buttermilk, Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands are in Aspen proper, while the adjacent Snowmass, just a short drive from town, boasts as many lifts as the other three combined.
More advanced skiers flock toward Aspen Mountain, which rises up from the center of downtown. This was the first Aspen mountain to open nearly 70 years ago, boasting the longest chairlift in the world. And it’s still just as popular as ever, drawing throngs of visitors from around the globe to ski and board the same moderate-to-expert runs that have hosted World Cup races.
Before you hit the slopes, though, you’ll need to check your bags. The Little Nell sits at the bottom of Aspen Mountain and it offers luxurious rooms and suites with picturesque views of the sparkling landscape. The Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel also features ski concierges who take care of everything from arranging lessons and storing equipment to setting up intermountain transfers, boot warming and private snowcat tours.
Non-skiers can enjoy morning yoga on Little Nell’s Sundeck at 11,212 feet. And, while others are off doing their finest Lindsey Vonn impersonations, there is plenty to do without skis in downtown Aspen. Aspen Art Museum opened its doors in summer 2014 with an impressive collection of contemporary art. The boxy, latticed museum itself is a work of art that was designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. It features a rooftop sculpture garden with gorgeous mountain vistas. Other carefully curated galleries in town include Galerie Maximillian, which highlights works of modern and contemporary masters such as Picasso, Matisse and Hirst, and Harvey/Meadows Gallery, Inc., which specializes in pieces crafted in ceramics, wood and paper.
After perusing the galleries, pick up some wearable art. The boutiques dotting the quaint streets of Aspen are on par with what you might find on Milan’s Via Montenapoleone: Prada, Burberry, Gucci, Fendi, Valentino, Louis Vuitton.
Ajax Tavern is the perfect place for groups to meet for lunch. The Little Nell eatery that’s located right next to the Silver Queen Gondola is known both for its views of the Aspen Mountain slopes and its incredible food, which includes a raw bar, fondue and one of the juiciest grass-fed burgers in town.
If you manage not to stuff yourself at the table, opt for a snowshoeing tour of Aspen Mountain, led twice daily by naturalists from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. Or, for a faster change of pace, T-Lazy-7 Ranch spearheads exciting snowmobiling adventures through the aspen groves of White River National Forest, ending at the base of the breathtaking Maroon Bells — while still somehow getting you back to town in time for après-ski.
Be sure to secure dinner reservations early for Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Chef’s Club by Food & Wine, where the menu is a constant collaboration between some of the country’s most revered toques. The innovative restaurant is located inside Four-Star The St. Regis Aspen Resort, also situated at the base of Aspen Mountain. Winter offerings include cauliflower a la plancha and duck confit by chef Matthew Gaudet (from West Bridge, Cambridge) and smoked steelhead salmon with caraway spaetzle, braised red cabbage and caviar cream created by chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman (Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Memphis).
After dinner, head to Justice Snow’s for some of the best cocktails in town. Located in the historic Wheeler Opera House building, it features a gorgeous antique bar stocked with vintage glassware and a leather-bound cocktail menu filled with more than 95 original recipes like the Bobby Burns (Pig’s Nose blended scotch, sweet vermouth and Drambuie). Another great spot for socializing is J-Bar, found inside the historic Four-Star Hotel Jerome. Once a favorite hangout of late-19th-century silver miners, the iconic bar was also a regular watering hole for Hunter S. Thompson, John Wayne and other celebrities. Stop by for a drink and a splash of saloon ambience and you’ll see that the tradition only continues today.
Though best known for hosting the Winter X Games (which concluded on January 25), Buttermilk is actually the most versatile mountain in Aspen — and some even say it’s the best in the world for beginners to find their footing. However, there are certainly challenging trails as well, which makes it ideal for families and groups of varied skill levels. Additionally, The Hideout, a newly redesigned children’s center operated by the ski school at the base of the mountain, gives parents a breather while kids enjoy imaginative, nature-focused programming.
After you’ve tamed the trails, a celebratory drink will be in order. The après-ski scene around these parts is often just as anticipated as the hills themselves. The after-party begins at newly renovated Inn at Aspen (a hotel property professionally managed by Wyndham Vacation Rentals), Buttermilk’s only ski-in, ski-out property, in its lobby (24-foot ceilings, sleek, glass-encased fireplace) and its on-site restaurant McKenney’s at the Inn, which often features live music, drink specials and tasty snacks like smoked duck quesadillas and lamb tzatziki sliders.
To enjoy Aspen’s nightlife, head downtown. Hops Culture, located on the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall, should be your first stop. The craft beer mecca provides 30 choices on tap and more than 200 by the bottle, all served with smoky-sweet popcorn in silver buckets. A reclaimed oak bar and an exposed brick wall give a rustic touch to the interior, which is otherwise Scandinavian in its clean, minimal design.
When it’s time for dinner, make your way to the newly opened Meat & Cheese, a place already garnering attention for its upscale farmhouse cuisine and to-go market pedaling cured meats, cheeses and handcrafted pantry items. Its menu ranges from boards highlighting rotisserie chicken or porchetta to globally influenced dishes, like rice dumplings with shredded pork and Korean chili sauce, and lamb korma with scallion pancakes, chai-pickled grapes, yogurt and mint.
Where better to head with a full belly than Belly Up? Aspen’s premier music venue has hosted musical legends like B.B. King, Snoop Dogg, Lynyrd Skynyrd and many more. Upcoming shows include Lyle Lovett (February 28) and Robert Randolph and the Family Band (March 6), but even smaller shows, like sets by local DJ Berkel Beats, promise a great time as well.
If you’d rather ditch the bar line for bottle service, David Arquette’s club Bootsy Bellows might be more your style. Much like the original West Hollywood location, the Art Deco lair showcases lush couches, dark corners, burlesque performances, dancing puppets and magnum bottles of just about anything your heart desires. After all, you are in Aspen.