As everyone heads off to skiing vacations this winter, it's only natural to be driving through Denver along the way. It has one of the busiest airports in the nation (even if the airport is well outside the city), and is at the gateway to some of the best winter sports action in the world, in the Rocky Mountains.

Denver International Airport
Photo: Chris Carter/Denver
Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau

But this city, once just thought of as a cow town, or maybe a stop on a cross-country road trip, has blossomed into a destination all its own. Whether you're looking to enjoy some of the new restaurants that have sprouted up thanks to Denver's burgeoning taste for upscale cuisine, seeking fitness inspiration from the thinnest state or just hoping to catch some snow, the Mile High City is sure to have something to suit your tastes.

Where to Eat

There are two places in the Denver area that have a combination of great food and atmosphere of the Old West.

The first is The Fort , which lies in the foothills west of Denver. The Summit of Eight (Group of Seven plus Russia) leaders dined here in 1997. The restaurant's menu is filled with foods similar to what people were eating in the region in the 19th century -- but it's still upscale and is sure to wow you when you step into the courtyard and see the burning campfire, and again as you see the incredible views down into the city. Anything on the menu is likely to be spectacular, but the roast bison marrow bones and "historian's platter" make great appetizers; for entrees, the Colorado Territory beef selections are pretty sure bets, as is the game plate.

The other place to try for that Western appeal is the Buckhorn Exchange , which is in Denver itself. Go early and have a drink while you listen to Roz Brown and Bill Barwick sing songs that hark back to an earlier era -- and be prepared for a ribbing if they find out you're from the East Coast. The menu is both unique and tantalizing -- in addition to items such as buffalo prime rib and elk, you can order appetizers containing rattlesnake meat, or even the "house specialty," Rocky Mountain Oysters. (Memo to the uninitiated: Rocky Mountain Oysters taste good, but they aren't really oysters .)

If it's just breakfast or lunch you want, look for a Le Peep restaurant -- it's a small chain, and those folks make mean omelets and waffles. Try the "Seafarer," if they have it on special -- it's an omelet with seafood, spinach, cream cheese and mushrooms with a few dollops of Hollandaise sauce on top.

Other notable eateries include Elway's , which bears the name of the great Denver Broncos quarterback, Restaurant Kevin Taylor or The Broker . All three are fairly upscale, and located in the downtown area.

Where to Stay

The Brown Palace Hotel is one of the major historic sites of Denver -- it opened in 1892, which makes it pretty old for that part of the country. It has hosted almost every U.S. president since Teddy Roosevelt, and is noted for in-house tea and brunch.

If you're in the mood for something with a more modern feel, try the Hotel Teatro , located across the street from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

A bit farther out, there's the Sheraton Denver West Hotel , which is in the suburb of Lakewood, and on one side offers a view of all those skyscrapers downtown.

Downtown Denver
Photo: Chris Carter/Denver
Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau

What to Do

Take a stroll along the 16th Street Mall downtown, which features lots of shops and restaurants. Drive out to see a show at the Red Rocks open-air amphitheater, a gorgeous natural venue. While you're at it, take in a tour at Molson Coors' ( TAP) Coors Brewery.

Red Rocks Amphitheatre
Photo: Chris Carter/Denver
Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau

If you're feeling lucky, gamble in the casinos in some of Colorado's historic mining towns. There are a number of small casinos, but you'll find offerings from Isle of Capri Casinos ( ISLE) and Penn National Gaming ( PENN), among others. Take a bus to those places, as the roads can be hard to navigate, and traffic is often bad.

If you're in more of a scientific mindset, go on a tour of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory -- not too far from Coors in Golden -- or visit the Denver Museum of Nature & Science downtown. Sign up for a look inside one of only two mints in the country.

No matter what time of year it is, there will be a lot of outdoor activities you should be able to do. Colorado brags about "300 days of sunshine" a year, so try hiking, biking, golf or anything else that suits your fancy. There are lots of biking and jogging trails around the city, and you don't have to venture very far west to start running into the hiking trails.

Those heading into the mountains should keep in mind that the weather is often much colder in the peaks than on the plains; dress warmly, and take along extra clothing just in case. Also, drink lots of water (the climate is very dry) and watch for signs of altitude sickness .

With so much to do in Denver, there are lots of excuses to make a stop in the city on the way to that skiing vacation at Vail Resorts ( MTN), Aspen or Breckenridge. Just make sure to leave enough time for that long journey back to the airport at the end.