I visited Aspen, the most expensive ski town in America, for the first time. Here are 12 things that surprised me.

·8 min read
  • Just before prime ski season, I visited Aspen, Colorado, known as the US' most expensive ski town.

  • Each year, the rich and famous flock to the resort town, where the average home costs $11.4 million.

  • Aspen is known as a luxury playground, but I was surprised to see just what that looked like.

A view of the Aspen Mountain from the town's center.
A view of the Aspen Mountain from the town's center.Monica Humphries/Insider

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When I visited, I was surprised to find some unique elements — like champagne in coffee shops and water fountain covers — added to the luxury and charm of Aspen. And I also found some surprisingly affordable things, too.

The author in Aspen, Colorado.
The author in Aspen, Colorado.Monica Humphries/Insider

By the end of my trip, I learned that luxury is all in the details, like when your hotel room has real plants instead of fake ones, and how every restaurant opts for cloth over paper napkins.

I thought those tiny elements cast a surprising spotlight on how Aspen's become such an expensive place to live and vacation.

It's might just be my Florida roots showing, but I didn't expect people to be walking around the town in ski boots with skis perched on their shoulders.

People walking to a gondola in Aspen, Colorado.
People walking to a gondola in Aspen, Colorado.Monica Humphries/Insider

As I booked my trip, I noticed that hotels advertised themselves as ski-in/ski-out. I've never skied before, so I hadn't realized how literal that term was until I visited Aspen.

From my hotel room, I could walk just a few hundred feet and be at the base of Aspen Mountain, where I'd have access to the mountain's 87 ski trails.

But even if people weren't staying in a ski-in/ski-out accommodation, they still trekked across the town in their ski gear. Everywhere you looked in Aspen, people were heading to the lifts in their ski boots or just off the slopes and biking home with their snowboard in tow.

Most of my waiters and waitresses could casually list off all the celebrities they've met.

Emma Grede, Kelly Sawyer Patricof, Jamie Schneider Mizrahi, Nina Dobrev, Jennifer Meyer, Erin Foster, Rachel Zoe and Sara Foster attend a party in Aspen, Colorado, in 2019.
Execs and celebrities Emma Grede, Kelly Sawyer Patricof, Jamie Schneider Mizrahi, Nina Dobrev, Jennifer Meyer, Erin Foster, Rachel Zoe, and Sara Foster attend a party in Aspen, Colorado, in 2019.Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images/Frame Denim

Each winter, celebrities flock to Aspen, but I was surprised at how willing and eager servers were to share their celebrity sightings.

At the White House Tavern, one waitress told me that she sent musician Leon Bridges to the bar and mentioned Dua Lipa had recently stopped by for a meal.

At Ajax Tavern, our waiter counted off all the A-listers he's seen, including Neil Patrick Harris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Katy Perry, to name a few.

"In the winter, you're going to see celebrities every day," my waitress at the sushi restaurant Matsuhisa casually mentioned.

I was shocked to find a coffee shop's fridge stocked with champagne.

An arrow points to champagne in a coffee shop's fridge.
An arrow points to champagne in a coffee shop's fridge.Monica Humphries/Insider

I was surprised to see miniature bottles of the bubbly next to cold-brew cans and coconut water in a coffee shop.

The shop also stocked orange juice, so, in theory, customers could make their own mimosas before the café closed at 2 p.m.

Overall it seemed like Aspen took special care with its outdoor amenities. Water fountains and bicycle stations were covered for the winter season, which I'd never seen before.

Water fountain cover
An arrow points to the cover on a water fountain in Aspen.Monica Humphries/Insider

I have never seen a town protect its water fountains and bicycle stations like Aspen does in the winter.

I'm more familiar with NYC's winter, where you can rent Citi Bikes year-round, and Central Park's water fountains end up covered in snow.

In Aspen, the bicycle rideshares close, the bikes are stored away, and plastic covers are placed on the docking stations.

The same goes for the water fountains. Each water station in Aspen had a snug cover protecting it from the colder temps.

The town also took care in protecting its brick sidewalks.

A sign encouraging bikers to dismount in the town center.
A sign encouraging bikers to dismount in the town center.Monica Humphries/Insider

In the town's main square, over 300,000 bricks were laid in 1976, according to the Aspen Times.

Decades later, signs can be spotted all over the town highlighting the efforts to preserve those bricks. Signs tell people not to bike over the bricks, and for the most part, everyone I saw followed the rules.

Even the tiny, free libraries dotting the town felt like an upgrade, with hard-to-find New York Times bestsellers there for the taking.

A free little library in Aspen
A Free Little Library in Aspen, Colorado.Monica Humphries/Insider

I'm used to seeing Free Little Libraries, which are like mailboxes filled with free books, across my neighborhood in Denver. But I'm not used to them being filled with books that have sat on my Goodreads wish list for months.

After peeking inside the free library, I grabbed a copy of "The Vanishing Half," a book that's topped the New York Times bestseller list.

Any book that popular would be gone in a free library in Denver in minutes, so I was thrilled to get my hands on such a popular title.

Art galleries filled near every street in the town.

An art gallery in Aspen, Colorado.
An art gallery in Aspen, Colorado.Monica Humphries/Insider

After talking to a few Aspen locals, they gushed about how their town is known for so much more than skiing.

They bragged about the Aspen Art Museum's new exhibit on Andy Warhol and listed off the small galleries that fill practically every town block.

While Aspen is known for its nature, I was surprised to discover an equally strong emphasis on the arts.

I hadn't expected there to be so much focus on food in Aspen, but my list of restaurant recommendations was long enough to last an entire season.

Matsuhisa was a restaurant constantly recommended to me during my trip.
Matsuhisa was a restaurant constantly recommended to me during my trip.Monica Humphries/Insider

Everyone knew every restaurant in Aspen, no matter who I spoke to — whether it was a luxury real estate agent or a bellhop.

And almost every local I spoke with had their favorite.

I was urged to go to Clark's for seafood and told Steak House No. 316 served the best steak. A trip to Aspen wouldn't be complete without tasting sushi from Matsuhisa or having the Wagyu burger at Ajax Tavern, I was told.

Food was clearly a significant part of the Aspen experience.

While I wasn't surprised to see dogs in designer outfits walking the brick streets of Aspen, I was shocked to find dog food on a hotel menu.

Dog food was included on The Little Nell hotel's menu.
Dog food was included on The Little Nell hotel's menu.Monica Humphries/Insider

As my stomach growled on my first night in Aspen, I eyed the room-service menu at The Little Nell hotel.

A $21 French toast and a $25 Cobb salad were as expected, but there was also food for your four-legged friend. The menu advertised "Canine Delights Daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m."

The meals, which were served in dog-friendly bowls, included carrots, brown rice, scrambled eggs, and the owner's choice of protein. They cost $19.

Though I expected pricey meals, I also discovered some affordable eats.

Pizza in Aspen
A $6 slice of pizza.Monica Humphries/Insider

Within minutes of stepping foot into Aspen, a sign advertising $8 burgers lured me into Aspen Pie Shop, a restaurant selling pizza, burgers, and sandwiches.

Knowing that Aspen isn't just home to $25 entreés and $20 cocktails was a relief. For the next few days, I continued to find affordable eats like a $9 sub or an $8 shot and beer drink deal.

And groceries also seemed to be reasonably priced.

The prices of produce in Aspen's grocery store were similar to Denver's prices.
The prices of produce in Aspen's grocery store were similar to Denver's prices.Monica Humphries/Insider

My friend tagged along for the trip, and on our first night, we walked over to City Market, a part of the Kroger grocery-store chain, to grab a few snacks and breakfast items for the week.

We expected Aspen's groceries to be pricier than we were used to in Denver. But the prices were surprisingly comparable.

After a day in Aspen, I realized why the town felt so quaint. No building was higher than six stories, making way for some stunning views.

Aspen, Colorado
Holiday lights in Aspen, Colorado.Monica Humphries/Insider

I spent my first day in Aspen debating whether the snowy slopes or brick sidewalks gave the town its charming appeal.

Then I realized it was the lack of skyscrapers — or really any tall building for that matter. The vast majority of buildings were just two or three stories high, and I had unobstructed views of the sky and mountains.

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