The team at WalletHub, a data analysis company known for their scores of listacles, stirred up a tempest in Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman’s ever-brimming teapot last week when they deemed Aurora among the worst cities in the nation for staging a so-called staycation.
“Not true,” Coffman told a TV newscaster while refuting the city’s 178th place on the WalletHub list. “Absolutely not true.”
The ranking put Aurora in the bottom five cities in the nation to take a quick getaway after considering a bevy of metrics ranging from ice cream shops and public golf courses per capita to the average price of a local massage and rate of vaccinated residents.
Denver ranked 32nd on the list, and Colorado Springs clocked in at 138th. Honolulu came in at the top of the list.
In the report, WalletHub says it ranked 180 cities across “46 key metrics.” But as anybody who’s spent any time in Aurora knows, it’s always quality over quantity.
Coffman pointed to the city’s pair of public reservoirs, ample biking trails and, of course, the Gaylord Rockies Hotel and Convention Center, which local politicos fought for under the Gold Dome for years before the 1,500-room megalopolis opened in December 2018.
And while Aurora’s hulking hotel in the shadow of Denver International Airport is hard to miss from the city’s eastern peripheries, there are gaggles of additional offerings that make the city a fine place to inhabit — for a staycation or otherwise.
Here’s a quick tick list of places to check out the next time you put in for some paid time off but don’t want to leave the burbs along the E-470 beltway.
No vacation is complete without a sugar splurge. Luckily that’s no problem in A-Town. In the WalletHub list, Orlando and Las Vegas ranked highest for ice cream shops per capita, but we’re sure they don’t have anything on Aurora’s Ice Cream Las Mariposas — Nutella ice cream, anybody? — Korean ice cream favorite Snowl, Milkroll Creamery and the Aurora Sweet Cow location inside of Stanley Marketplace. The ice cream sammies at north Aurora eatery Annette are no joke either. Homemade mint ice cream between thick chocolate chip cookies is really the only way.
Something a little or a lot more exotic than another poi-pineapple pancake? How about real-deal Cuban turnovers with real-deal guava past, like you can get at Cuba Bakery and Cafe? Uh huh. Ever have a mochi-muffin? You have if you’ve lingered over one at Third Culture Bakery. And the French might have invented laminate pastries and cool things to fill them with, but it was the Vietnamese who perfected what they learned from the colonists and serve it up at Aurora at Yum Yum Cake and Pastries. Aurora knows where you can get ubiquitous macarons done right. And for real Paris this side of Paris? Daniels has religieuse that has a long following of worshipers.
Korean BBQ + More
There just isn’t any other place in the metro region quite like Aurora to get your Korean BBQ fix. Places like Seoul Korean BBQ & Hot Pot, Mr. Kim Korean BBQ and DAE GEE are go-to spots for anybody with a craving, but the Korean food scene in Aurora has exploded in the last few years and so places like Angry Chicken (rice fried chicken), Seoul Mandoo (Korean-style dumplings) and Thank Sool Pocha (Korean pub food and yes, lots of K-Pop playing in the background) have risen to must-eats regardless of your staycation status. A-town is K-town, folks. Save yourself a 14-hour plane ride and get the goods just about anywhere on or near Havana Street.
There are some cuisines you can only find in Aurora if you’re not willing to stamp your passport and travel abroad. Among them is Colorado’s first 100% Burmese restaurant, which offers dishes from noodles to curry to tea leaf salad, owner Siri Tan writes on the eatery’s website. Located inside Mango House, a “shared space for resettled refugees” on East Colfax Ave., Urban Burma has quickly become a highly sought after dining experience since opening in 2019. Afterall, you just can’t go wrong with an order of samosas.
European? No problem.
A recent Yelp review of Baba & Pop’s cuts right to the chase: “If you want a hearty, filling, & tasty meal, come here.” With offerings like the traditional pierogi (potato and cheese) and the Colorado (Chile Relleno pierogi topped with house green chile and sour cream), that has to be the most accurate internet review of a local eatery we’ve ever come across.
Katherine Yurek and her husband Jeremy opened the pierogi joint in March 2020, no easy feat given the pandemic. A survival story like that is about as comforting as the fact that many of the recipes were developed from Baba and Pop themselves. Jermey’s grandparents brought their love of pierogies from Poland when they immigrated about 100 years ago.
And real Ukranian borscht? With real Russian vareniki, the kings of potato dumplings? You gotta get to Masha and Bear, a famous Russian cartoon ripoff that is a long-standing Aurora original. And no bona fide carnivore should ever sleep on Solomon’s Grocery and European Deli on South Havana Street for their meat-eating needs.
Does Aurora have the best tacos in the metro region? We’re not hesitant to give a resounding “yes.” Tacos Selene, Tacos El Metate, Comidas, Tacos DF and so many more around town are serving up house made salsas, quenching margaritas and, of course, lots of tacos. You could quite literally spend a whole staycation eating street tacos, and that may be the best idea this publication has ever offered up.
Ramen & Beyond
More far-eastern fare to fill out your waist whilst you wait? How about exquisite vegetarian Indian delicacies at Masalaa? Potatoes like you’ve never had them. Curious about how great the broth chefs really are in Tokyo? Aurora has one perfecting the ramen broth daily at Ramen Katsu. Everything else in the region? Posers. And the pho? Please. This is where everyone else comes to get the good stuff.
Gaylord of the Rockies
The whole point of a staycation is that you don’t have to travel far to relax and reset. That’s not hard to do at the state’s biggest hotel, located on the city’s northeastern edge. While the Gaylord has been a destination almost exclusively for conferences and conventions prior to the pandemic, it’s currently the perfect place for locals to feel far away without actually having to travel. A handful of restaurants, giant pools and big open spaces are a good way to dip your toes back into post-pandemic vacationing if you’re not quite there yet.
Yes, Airbnb Rentals Exist Here
The thrill of finding a great home on Airbnb, or other home rental services, isn’t reserved for coastal cities or snowy mountain towns. If you refine your search enough, you’ll find all the comforts of home along the Colfax corridor, suburban guest suites fit for a weekend when you just need some peace and quiet and cozy stays near Cherry Creek State Park.
Looking for a sling to swing in for your stay-cation? Colfax on Aurora has for decades been home to the endlessly popular Mon Chalet Motel, a well-known and seriously popular haunt for swingers and those who plan on spending a lot of time in the room while here.
Wooley’s Classic Suites
If you’re looking for something centrally located, Wooley’s is the perfect choice. The hotel is a short complimentary shuttle ride away from Denver International Airport, and close to the amenities Aurora has to offer. It’s the airport hotel that feels unlike any airport hotel. Book the Romance package for champagne and premium chocolates or the Bed and Breakfast package if you just don’t feel like making your own pancakes. And if you want to explore the Mile High City it’s not far from there either, not that we can think of any reason for you to leave A-town.
Do You Like Beer?
Of course you do. It’s the Colorado way, and A-Town is no exception. Beer gardens per capita was among important staycation ranking criteria by WalletHub, and Aurora neither placed in the top five nor bottom five destinations for barley pop, so let’s take a second to review what makes this city a great beer destination: Dry Dock Brewing Co., Ursula Brewing, Launch Pad Brewery, Bent Barley Brewing Company, Lady Justice Brewing Company, Two22 Brew, Cheluna Brewing Co., and Six Capital Brewing.
From the Cuban Missile Crisis Cream Ale at Launch Pad to the Hardly Any Dignity (a tropical, fruity dry-hopped pale ale) at Lady Justice, you’d be hard pressed to end a staycation without knocking a few back that you didn’t truly enjoy.
Haykin Family Cider
We’re a long way from fall, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good cider. A small-batch brewery a short drive from Stanley Marketplace, Haykin serves up glasses and flights of cider in its tasting room as well as bottled cider to-go. Ciders are naturally gluten free and Haykin’s ciders are also certified kosher, so this is a great place to visit if you have dietary restrictions.
Want something a little more unique? Dragon Meadery has you covered. Made from fermenting honey with water, mead is a rich drink with a widely-ranging alcohol content. Dragon Meadery brews its mead with local honey and fruits to produce drinks in the 11-12% ABV range and a variety of flavors, including raspberry, apple and peach. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like you’re in an episode of Game of Thrones but without the risk of being beheaded, this is the place to go.
Cocktails at Bettola Bistro
So here’s the thing. Bettola Bistro, which has been serving up some of the best Italian dishes in the region for a few years now, is in the middle of restructuring its cocktail menu, according to the website. They promise it’ll be exciting and we honestly can’t wait. To-go sangria served in sealed Mason jars became a pandemic mainstay for some of us over the past year, and Bettola’s wine selection and previous cocktails have never disappointed. While we wait for a new menu: Order the housemade limoncello, it’s particularly good after a big bowl of pasta. But we bet you already knew that. Aurora is that chic? Ching, ching, goes the toast of those in the know.
Vin at Wine Experience Cafe
Ok, it’s well-known that you can get a halfway decent glass of wine at many an adobe-roofed roadhouse east of Yosemite Street, but there’s nary a better spot to stick your nose into a stemmed chalice than at the Wine Experience Cafe and World in the city’s Southlands shopping hub. Boasting a seasonally adjusted menu that currently features a wild boar wanton and barbeque pork belly, the haunt has been keeping Aurorans maudlin and fed on the city’s semi-official, but still pretty official main street since 2007. And with regular live music and special events, there’s always a little something for everyone at this bespoke watering hole tucked among a sea of retail Americana.
The Great Outdoors
A Lake Day
Yes, unlike WalletHub’s number one pick, Aurora is landlocked, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hit the boat ramp, strap on some water skis, and enjoy a day on the water. In fact, you have your choice of three nearby lakes that fit the description for an outdoorsy staycation. Camp at Cherry Creek State Park, fish the shores of Quincy Reservoir or splash around Aurora Reservoir, where kayak and standup paddle board rentals have already started for the season.
Plains Conservation Center
There’s much more to Aurora’s eastern edges than prairie dogs and grasslands. Now run through Denver Botanic Gardens, the Plains Conservation Center offers a chance to dive further into the flora and fauna that call the state’s third-largest city home. The facility offers a bevy of educational opportunities and tours for grown-ups and tots alike, from family-friendly prairie safaris to full moon hikes along the plains. In the past, the center has also hosted annual soirees complete with a full tasting menu and beer garden.
Star K Ranch
One of the great things about Aurora is that it contains multitudes. Sprawling suburban neighborhoods that all look mostly the same and yet some of the most diverse and unique dining experiences in the country. That idea kind of goes for the ecology here too. Find any high point and look east, it’s all plains. Flat, flat, flat. But if you venture to Morrison Nature Center that idea all but melts away amid the 250 acres of riparian woodland. It really is a hidden gem and worthy of an afternoon of your staycation.
Ninja Warrior Park in Southlands
The city has made a habit of erecting tricked-out recreational facilities in recent years, and one of its newest parks along the burg’s southern tip is no exception. City architects cut the ribbon on Tollgate Crossing Neighborhood Park earlier this year, a new greenspace replete with all manner of obstacles in the vein of the reality television competition “American Ninja Warrior.” The haunt also features even more tennis and pickleball courts for those into the world of lets and sets. What’s more, the new park is only a proverbial tennis ball’s bounce from the forthcoming Southeast Recreation Center, which is slated to be home to a pool, community classrooms and, yes, even more pickleball courts in the near future.
City Spraygrounds and Pools
Whether you’ve called Aurora home since the Norma Walker years or you’re merely passing through, be sure to snag your favorite towel and goggles if you’re going to be around town during this scorcher of a summer. The city boasts a bevy of aquatic amenities this time of year, including multiple spraygrounds for tykes and a bona fide waterslide — which is free on Fridays through Labor Day — at the Del Mar Aquatic Center in the middle of the city. And if you can’t get to town while it’s warm out, there are multiple indoor pools that stay open all year round at the Moorhead, Beck and Utah rec centers, just to name a few.
And the Great Indoors
If a great staycation for you is marked by the words “treat yo’ self” then your first stop is Stanley Marketplace in north Aurora for a cold brew at Logan House Coffee Company, a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich at Rosenberg’s, followed by a pedicure at Basecoat Nail Salon and some shopping at any of the boutiques scattered around the manufacturing-facility-turned-food-hall. It really is the simple things that make a good staycation great.
Wings Over the Rockies
Aurora is poised to be a great place for aerospace, especially with the recent space port designation. But until commercial flights into the great beyond are available, we recommend a visit to Wings Over the Rockies museum. The F-14 Tomcat, EA-6B Prowler and Douglas B-18 Bolo are all much, much cooler to marvel at up close and in person. The museum also features many immersive experiences, which is a great way to spend the day no matter where you fall on the spectrum of aviation-obsessed.
The Aurora History Museum
WalletHub thinks having lots of museums to choose from makes a city a great staycation spot, and while our neighbors to the west have art and science exhibits a plenty, there’s still something to be said about the hometown history museum. This is a staycation afterall, and a little brush up on local history fits the bill. Right now the Aurora History Museum is featuring an exhibit on the rise of the Aurora suburb. Betcha didn’t know the Cold War had a lot to do with the city’s growth.
Enjoy the Theater
The stretch of East Colfax Avenue between Dayton and Florence Street has accrued a bit of a reputation as a local theater hub in the past two decades, and the zone continues to live up to its artistic standing, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Aurora’s Fox Theater was one of just a handful of artistic institutions to stage live theater last winter with successful productions of “Tomfoolery” last fall and “Queens Girl in the World” earlier this year. Down the street, the Vintage Theatre ran a smattering of virtual cabaret performances, and an in-person staging of “Five Guys Named Moe” is set for the Dayton Street bar and theater this summer. Shows also continue to crop up at the Aurora Cultural Arts District studio building on Dallas Street and The People’s Building just down the way on Colfax. In just a few blocks, local artists manage to regularly magnetize a veritable gaggle of onstage talent for the city’s denizens to enjoy for more than reasonable prices.