Aspen versus Vail: It's one of the oldest destination rivalries of all time. And while fans of each will claim that their chosen locale far outshines the other in numerous ways, the two Colorado ski towns are most likely so often at odds with one another because they are actually quite similar. Both have amazing slopes. Both attract a celebrity clientele. Both are home to wonderful restaurants and shops. But we can't help but get in on the "which is best" debate ourselves, so we decided to stage a little face-off between Aspen and Vail in order to finally put this argument to rest (after all, we are the experts, so our opinion should count for something). In order to dub an overall winner, we matched the two ski destinations off in the following categories: skiing, history, price, celebrity status, getting there and around, dining, and nightlife. Let the games begin, and the victor be declared!!
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This is perhaps the most important category of all because, well, duh. Although certainly not the only reason visitors flock to Vail and Aspen (some avoid it altogether), skiing is the main attraction in both. So let’s take a look at the mountains, shall we? Vail and Aspen similarly call the Colorado Rocky Mountains home, but the common thread stops there. While Aspen boasts four mountains, Vail has but one. But as we all know, less is often more — and this proves to be true here. Because while Vail may have just one mountain, it is massive and the entirety of Aspen’s slopes could be crammed onto Vail’s sole mountain multiple times over. Plus, true skiers prefer Vail’s slopes to Aspen’s because they are decidedly more challenging (and that’s a fact). And the winner is…Vail.
Aspen will always win this battle because it actually has some history. While Vail was built as a ski resort in 1962, and became incorporated four years later, Aspen began as a mining camp in the 1880s. The Panic of 1893 prompted the town’s decline, but the development of nearby Aspen Mountain into a ski destination revitalized the area and turned Aspen into a ski resort of its own. History buffs can take a walking tour, catch a show at the historic Wheeler Opera House, or even book a stay in an historic hotel — like Hotel Jerome. And the winner is…Aspen.
If you’re looking for a budget ski vacation, don’t look at Aspen…and don’t look at Vail. Both are pricey destinations, whereas mountains in locales such as Vermont and Park City allow for a little more stretching of your dollar. But between the two, Vail offers the better deal. On average, hotel rooms in and near Vail are slightly less expensive than those found in Aspen, as are its restaurants and shops. Our favorite value hotels in Vail include Marriott’s Streamside and Austria Haus Hotel, which offers guests free access to The Lodge at Vail‘s numerous pools. And the winner is…Vail.
If you visit Aspen or Vail sometime during peak season (November through March), your chances of spotting a celeb are pretty high. While plenty of stars have homes in other ski destinations (Tom Cruise and Jerry Seinfeld in Telluride, Sandra Bullock in Jackson Hole), these two certainly take home the prize for the highest number of celebrity residents — with Aspen narrowly beating out Vail. Vail may be Jessica Biel’s hometown, where Lindsey Vonn trains, and the site of one of Michael Bloomberg’s many homes, but Aspen has slightly more star power; Jack Nicholson, Kevin Costner, Robert Wagner, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Antonio Banderas, and Charlie Sheen all own residences here. And the winner is…Aspen.
Getting There and Around
Heated. Sidewalks. No. Joke. Both Vail and Aspen have invested in snowmelt systems, which is great since they quickly clear snow and slippery ice from pedestrian pathways. Both ski towns also have relatively reliable and inexpensive transportation options. But Vail has our vote as being the more easily navigable city, as well as the one that’s easier to reach. Many travelers to Aspen and Vail choose to fly into Denver, as it’s the closest major airport and is often much cheaper. While it takes about three hours to reach Vail from Denver, it takes four or more from Aspen, and there are fewer public bus options from Denver to Aspen than to Vail. Plus, while Vail may be able one square mile larger than Aspen, it has about 2,000 fewer residences, many (slightly) fewer crowds and clogged sidewalks than what you’ll find in Aspen. And the winner is…Vail.
In order to cater to their well-heeled visitors’ refined palates, Vail and Aspen are chock-a-block with gourmet, fine-dining options — whether they be on the mountain for a delicious ski-in/ski-out lunch or on Main Street for a classy apres-ski, multi-course extravaganza. Craving Nobu? You’ll find an outpost in both destinations. And Top Chef and Iron Chef vet Kelly Liken runs her self-named restaurant in Vail, which has attracted national attention and garnered numerous awards. But Aspen is Colorado’s foodie mecca. Ajax Tavern is not only known for its use of fresh, local ingredients, but also its ability to draw a celeb chef clientele; Mario Batali is often spotted here. Plus, the famed Chefs Club, which features a rotation of renowned chefs, rolled out its (very successful) trial run in Aspen, and an outpost of David Burke Kitchen is opening there this winter. And the winner is…Aspen.
The Tie-Breaker: Nightlife
It’s neck-and-neck. Each destination has been dubbed champion of three categories, so it’s down to the nightlife to determine the victor of our Aspen versus Vail face-off. Both locales have plenty of spots to grab an apres-ski cocktail or dance the night away till the early hours, and this one is more subjective than the others, because it depends on your partying-it-up style. But we prefer the more low-key approach to the nightlife in Vail. While you can sip a fancy craft cocktail with the best of ’em in Aspen, fellow patrons may turn up their noses if you arrive fresh off the mountain, still in your ski boots. But in Vail, this is de rigueur and many skiers — tourists and locals alike — perfer to rock their ski gear all night rather than miss the hour or two at the bars that they’d need to spend changing. And the winner — and overall champion — is VAIL!