Editor’s note: This post was originally published in July 2012. It has been updated as of December 2019.
Fourteen years ago I moved to Denver to go to photography school and I never would’ve guessed that I’d still be living here. Turns out Denver has won my heart. Before I moved to Denver I thought that it was a city nestled in the base of the mountains (based on the pictures I had seen) and I also thought that it would be snowing year-round.
I was surprised to find out that Denver is surprisingly sunny and gets approximately 300 days of sun per year. Denver’s winters are also very mild, and we don’t get tons of snow like everyone thinks we do.
When our local personal finance blogger group met-up with Phillip Taylor aka PT Money who’s the organizer of the personal finance conference named FinCon which will be held here in Downtown Denver this September it was really funny listening to our group talk about Denver.
Denver’s Chamber of Commerce would be very proud of us. If you didn’t know better you might think we all had side-jobs working for the city’s tourism board and Visit Denver, or you might think we had each been slipped a $20 bill along with a wink in hopes that we would talk Denver up. We all sounded like proud parents going on and on about Denver’s finest attributes.
I started to come up with this list when I was thinking of all the fun things that the FinCon folks should do when they visit Denver and really, there’s so much to do that just a couple of days isn’t enough time to see everything you should.
If you’re coming out for FinCon (or for anything else) try to stay a couple of extra days so you can soak up all the city has to offer. Most of the things on this list are things that I tell friends to do when they come to visit or places that I take them to. Since I live a frugal life, most of the suggestions on this list lean to towards the inexpensive and cheaper activities but there is a full range of things to do so if you want to spend money you totally can. (The list starts after the jump.)
An insider’s guide to 23 fun and (mostly) cheap things you must see and do when you visit Denver, Colorado…
Helpful tips and info:
- Here is a link to a list of the Denver neighborhoods that I will mention in the list below.
- The mountains are West so everyone uses them as a reference point when figuring out where things are located (you can do it too and then you’ll practically be a local).
- Downtown Denver is on a diagonal and the rest of the city is not. You can see the layout in this map.
- We are at a mile-high above sea-level so learn about altitude sickness so you can recognize and treat it if you start to experience symptoms.
- Pick up a free Westword Newspaper from one of the red newspaper stands to get the low-down on events happening while you’re in town. Or, check them out online to find events before your visit.
- Pick up a 5280 magazine (Denver’s magazine, named after our altitude) to get a more in-depth look at stories and events happening in Denver.
1. Take the RTD SkyRide Bus To/From DIA Airport
Denver’s International Airport (DIA) is quite a way out from the city. It is a $40 cab-ride in or you can do the cheaper option and take the RTD SkyRide bus from the airport (an approx. 1 hour ride) and it will deliver you right into Downtown Denver.
How to: To be brought from DIA to Downtown Denver, take the AF bus (the fare is $9, $11, or $13- depending where you pick up the bus and they don’t give change so be sure to have exact amount). They will drop you off at Market Street Station. If you’re staying in a hotel Downtown you’ll then be able to pick up the 16th Street Mall Free Mall Ride to get closer to your hotel. If you’re not a usual bus-rider check out these bus-riding tips. To depart Denver you can take the AF bus right back to the airport. These buses run about every hour so be sure to plan accordingly.
Insider info: RTD is in the process of building a LightRail that will gos from the airport into Downtown. It will be quite awhile before it’s completed but we will all be thrilled when it’s done.
December 2019 Edit: The Light Rail is complete (and awesome! and fast!) that will take you directly from Denver International Airport to Union Station in Downtown Denver. It’s the “A” line. Be aware that they ALWAYS check tickets so don’t try to save money by hopping on without a ticket.
More insider info: Be sure to take a look at the controversial raging blue horse “Mustang” with glowing red eyes when you leave the airport grounds or when you head-out to depart Denver (you can actually get a better view when you are on the departing side). To say the Blue Mustang (right) is controversial would be a complete understatement, there’s actually a hate website dedicated solely to it called Bye Bye Blue Mustang!
Even more insider info: the 32-foot horse killed sculptor Luis Jimenez when it fell on him during the creation of the sculpture. While a lot of people like to hate this piece I really like it and think it’s a kitchy play-on Denver’s “cow-town” image. The blue mustang’s glowing red eyes, flaming nostrils, and it’s luscious mane that’s blowing in the wind seal the deal- I totally love it.
2. The 16th Street Mall
At 1.7 miles long (from Civic Center to Union Station- just recently expanded) the 16th Street Mall is the longest outdoor mall in the US. The 16th Street Mall is considered a pedestrian mall but if you don’t feel like walking you can hop on and off of the free shuttle that runs the entire length of the mall. Don’t miss Tattered Cover that is at the far-end of the mall and step off at the Larimer stop to check out Lari
mer Square (home of The Market coffee shop and an active night-life).
Insider tip: Catch the FREE Mall Ride (a shuttle) at the end of every block. There are also downtown city maps in most of the shuttle stop signs that list the stores and restaurants that run along the mall. I almost got run-over by one of these shuttles when I first moved to Denver so be aware of them. They’ll honk their bell (it’s a polite ding-ding but they mean business) if they see you wandering in the street in front of them but often, they cut it very close. The drivers also don’t wait for passengers so if you want to catch one that your friends are on you might have to run to it. The shuttle runs from 5:00am to 1:30am and the later it gets in the night the less frequent the shuttle runs.
More inside info: During the week (Monday – Friday) from 12:00pm – 1:00pm and again at 5:00pm the 16th Street Mall gets stormed with employees pouring out of the businesses.
3. The Denver Pavilions
The Denver Pavilions is considered the heart of the 16th Street Mall. There are tons of shops (H&M, a 2-story Forever 21 among them), there is a movie theater, and there is even a bowling alley. While in the Pavilions you’ve got to make a stop at Lucky Strike (on the 3rd floor, North-end) to have your photos taken in their sometimes finicky, but authentic photo booth for a mere $3. Then, be sure to stop into the I Heart Denver store (2nd floor, also North-end) to pick up non-cheesy souvenirs and Denver gear that are made by local Denver artists. Bonus: meet the cutest shop dog ever – Denver the corgi! His full name is Denver Picard Schmiek and he works most days. He was recently voted Best Shop Dog by Westword Newspaper.
Insider info: There are up and down escalators on either side of the Pavilions and there is only one set of public restrooms which are on the 2nd floor to the left of Bath and Body Works on the South-side.
4. The Blue Bear
Apparently, Denver has a love of huge blue animals. This piece of public art is titled “I See What You Mean”, and comes in at 40-feet high. It was created by sculptor Lawrence Argent. This bear is so adorable as he peers into the large front windows of the Denver Convention Center AKA The Colorado Convention Center. For FinCon visitors, he will be right around the corner from where the convention will be held so be sure to see his cuteness in person.
Insider info: The Ladies Fancywork Society girls knit a blue ball and chain out of 15 miles of yarn and attached it to the bear’s left leg. It was in place for only 2 hours before the city removed it and then the MCA took it off their hands. The next day the incident made the cover of The Denver Post.
Insider tip: Take a look at the 2 HUGE white naked dancing aliens that are right around the corner from the Denver Convention Center and right behind the Denver Performing Arts Complex. These two dancers were the most hated public art in town until the raging blue mustang came on the scence. Now, we don’t hear much about them.
5. The Money Museum
The Money Museum is located right off of the 16th Street Mall. It’s an up-close look of the nation’s financial system in action. It’s FREE and is open 8:30am to 4:30pm.
6. See the high-rise office building that was built around a church
Located at 19th and California in Downtown Denver. The high-rise serves as the ultimate background for this church. It’s a clever and unusual use of space.
Just walking into the lobby of The Brown Palace is a treat. Fancy wallpaper lines the walls and there is a very large circular staircase that
goes up to the ceiling with the opening in the center serving as the lobby of the hotel. The Brown Palace also serves high-tea in the lobby for the fancy folk. It’s right at 17th and Tremont in Downtown Denver.
Insider info: Former President Teddy Roosevelt loved The Brown Palace and visited it often.
More insider info: There is a building right across from The Brown Palace called the Navarre. Back in the day the underground tunnels linked The Brown Palace to the brothel so that “men of means” could visit the ladies without being seen. What’s up scandalous!
8. The US Mint
See coin money getting made.
Insider tip: Make a reservation online in advance of your trip to be sure you get a spot on a tour.
9. Denver Food Trucks in Civic Center Park
On Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:00am to 2:00pm food trucks park in Civic Center and serve up lunch. They are set-up through the end of September.
10. Ride the # 15 bus
Looking for an “urban adventure” and some active people-watching? Would you like to see some “real-life/grittier” Denver in action? Then this is just the thing you need. Catch the 15 right outside of Civic Center station. This bus runs up and down Colfax Avenue. You can get a seat on the bus for $2.25.
Insider info: The 15 is the most notorious bus route in Denver. Whenever the 15 is mentioned people knowingly say, “Ohhhh… the 15.” In the past few years Colfax has under gone some rejuvenation and growth in an effort to change it’s seedier image. It’s worked, a little bit.
11. See Denver’s Art Scene
- MCA Museum of Contemporary Art in LoDo. The MCA’s Mixed Taste events are unique and a ton of fun. They have two expert speakers talk about unrelated topics and then they are somehow magically merged at the end. Parallels between each seemingly un-related topic are made and while these events always sell-out it’s worth a shot to try to get a ticket.
- DAM The Denver Art Museum was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind (the same person who designed the Freedom Tower). Insider info: The new wing of the museum (there is a walk-way that connects the old and new buildings) got a lot of flak from the locals when the building had water leakage problems very soon after it’s completion. Also, the DAM was the only US art museum that displayed the Yves Saint Laurent Retrospective exhibit (other cities it was exhibited in were Paris and Milan). We all thought that was a pretty big deal, and that the person who got the YSL exhibit displayed here in Denver should probably get a raise if they haven’t already. Insider tip: While you’re over by the DAM be sure to take a look at the large red chair sculpture that has a little pony standing on it. Another one of my favorite pieces of public art in town.
- Clyfford Still Museum This museum is fairly new and is right next door/behind the DAM. Insider info: In January, a drunk girl was arrested for punching one of the $30 million-dollar paintings. After she punched it she slid down it and urinated on herself. Bad day.
- Art Districts There are 7 distinct art districts in town and each one has a different vibe. The closest one to Downtown Denver is the Santa Fe art district.
Pro tip: Another fun thing to check out that’s a little past Downtown Denver is the Downtown Aquarium
12. Eat breakfast
Denver LOVES breakfast.If you go out for breakfast in Denver you have to be prepared for a wait. Most of these places have learned that to keep everyone happy they need to have coffee ready and available for the waiting diners. To be sure to get a table without a super-long wait either go during the week or before 9:30am on the weekends.
Denver breakfast favorites:
- Snooze The MTV Real World Denver cast ate there all the time and that helped to rocket this place into local breakfast stardom.
- Jelly Right in Capitol Hill and has better food than Snooze (in my opinion).
- Waffle Bros This place started as a food cart on the 16th Street Mall and expanded into a real-live brick-and-mortar shop. They tell you (adamently) that you don’t need syrup on The Original, which is encrusted in sugar crystals (yummmm suuugggggaar), but you really do. Otherwise, it’s just too dry.
- Hi*Rise I haven’t had a chance to eat here yet but I love the humongous colorful mural of a ladies face that you can see from the street.
- Mercury Cafe This is a cute place with a hippie vibe and live musicians that play during breakfast. They only take cash and they have swing-dance classes during the week-day evenings in the space above their restaurant.
- Watercourse Restaurant This is my all-time favorite restaurant in Denver. I love this place. It’s all vegetarian and they can make any item on their menu vegan too. Their blue-plate special is a breakfast dish and is one of the least-expensive items on their menu. Three cheers for cheap!
13. Eat ice cream
Denver also LOVES ice cream.
Here are some Denver’s favorite ice cream spots:
- Sweet Action Ice Cream I love the ice cream related art on the walls and it’s also vegan friendly with at least two vegan ice cream options at most times. They also have great ice cream sandwiches in interesting flavor combos. Sweet Action is right in the middle of all the Broadway action.
- Little Man Ice Cream This place has a vintage vibe (they play doo-wop music and wear those little white envelope style hats that have poppy red piping along the edges). The shop is in the shape of a huge vintage milk can (see below) and it is right in Lower Highlands (LoHi) next to Linger Restaurant (see below). Insider tip: At Little Man they have these teeny tiny ice cream cones called the Itty Bitty. They measure about 3″, with the ice cream on top and cost just $1.
14. See the sun set from Linger Restaurant’s rooftop patio
Linger is an amazing place to see the sun set over Denver’s skyline and is in the super popular LoHi neighborhood which is just a short walk from Union Station over the Pedestrian Bridge. The meals at Linger can be on the pricier side but they have a reasonable Happy Hour food menu.
Insider info: Linger’s building used to be a mortuary. Not a single sole in town is weirded out by this fact. It was called Olinger Mortuaries so they dropped the “O” and capitalized the “L” to get the perfect restaurant name. They even cleverly turned the word “Mortuaries” into “Eateries” on the massive sign on their amazing roof-top patio. That worked out well.
15. Must Visit Restaurants & Bars in Denver
Hope you’re hungry.
- Steubens Old-school diner vibe in Uptown
- Cuba Cuba The owners merged these two small mint-colored homes in the Golden Triangle neighborhood to create this one-of-a-kind place. (can be pricey)
- Bistro Vendome Tucked into Larimer Square, it has a very European feel. (pricey)
- Tocabe Similar set-up to Chipotle. Be sure to save room for the powdered fry balls and drizzle them with honey.
- Casa Bonita Infamous. Was featured on South Park. Terrible food, cotton candy pink. It’s a must-see.
- Williams & Graham A modern-day speak-easy in LoHi.
- Double Daughters Everyone we’ve ever brought here remembers it. It’s set-up to look like a gypsy camp at night.
- Beatrice and Woodsley (same owners as Double Daughters – above). This place is gorgeous. There are Aspen trees running from the floor to the ceiling that create little alcoves of coziness. It is lit with (what seems like) candle-light. There are also chain-saws stuck into the shelves above the bar. It’s hard to explain it’s awesomeness. Just trust me on this one. (totally pricey)
- Denver Bicycle Cafe In the Uptown neighborhood. Bicycles and coffee.
- Crema A coffee house in the Five Points neighborhood.
- D Bar Desserts Keegan Gerhard from the Food Network owns this place and he is in there working most nights. The layered chocolate cake and mini-milkshake combo is crazy tasty and is enough for two people to share. (not too expensive for dessert if you share)
- My Brother’s Bar This is Denver’s oldest bar and it’s in the LoDo/River Front Park/LoHi Neighborhood. They have a tasty jalapeno cream cheese burger (from my pre-vegetarian memories) and there are Jack Kerouac ties.
- Biker Jim’s Gourmet Hotdogs Yes. Gourmet hot-dogs. They even have veggie versions. This place is in LoDo and it’s good for something different.
Tom’s Home Cookin’ Soul food in the Five Points neighborhood. They serve the food until it runs out and then they close. The peach cobbler is completely amazing.Note: since the original writing on this post, this place has closed.
- City O’ City This is probably the most recommended restaurant in Denver. It’s a vegetarian place (same owners as Watercourse Foods mentioned above) and it’s just cool. If you’re cool that’s where you go. Insider info: It used to be a little bar and was recently renovated to its current fancier style. It’s got a reputation for being a hipster place. They also make all their baked goods (which are all vegan) and their ho-ho cupcakes are awesome.
16. Shopping (and eating) on Broadway and South Broadway
Catch the 0 bus from Civic Center Station to check out:
- The Mayan Theater The style is described as “art-deco mayan revival”.
- Fancy Tiger Clothing and Fancy Tiger Crafts These two shops are side-by-side. The craft Fancy Tiger is fabric-lovers dream.
- Sweet Action ice cream (also mentioned above)
- Sewn Handmade goods
- Sputnik Take a picture in their photo booth or eat some of their late-night grub. Great sweet potato fries. (Lots of indie concerts happen next door at Hi-Dive)
- Ironwood When you walk in it feels like you’ve discovered something that no one else has. Air plants and other random and cool objects are arranged in a skilled but subtle way. I would like to live in there, or at least have the owners style my house. They know what they’re doing.
- Decade Stocked full of cute gift-items and some vintage furniture.
- Wishlist Vintage Upstairs from Bardo coffee shop (go up the stairs that are to the very right of the coffee shop). Light and airy and stocked full of completely amazing and inexpensive vintage pieces. I want to buy just about everything in there.
17. Walk (or ride) the Cherry Creek Bike Path
If you need a break from the city you can duck into the Cherry Creek Bike Path. Platte River runs along the path and there are always plenty of people down there walking, roller-blading, and biking during the day.
Insider tip: It’s totally safe during the day but don’t go down there at night.
More insider info: The Cherry Creek Bike Path is part of a massive network of 850 miles of paved paths that run through the city.
18. Ride a B-Cycle
There are B-cycle stations throughout the entire city. The B-Cycles are these bright red cruiser style bikes and you can ride the bikes for 0-30 minutes absolutely free (some set-up required, check out their site for specifics). Here is a PDF map of all of the b-cycle stations.
Insider info: You can’t ride any bikes on the 16th Street Mall.
19. SoBo (South Broadway) Farmers Market
This is an open-air 60k square foot seasonal urban market that is FREE and open through October. Here is their website for more info.
20. Colorado History Museum
Okay, so by now you’ve completely fallen in love with Colorado. Get all the facts at the Colorado History Museum.
Insider info: They just moved into their new location. They were previously located at the new Justice Center location across from the Denver Public Library (such a cool looking library by the way – shown below).
Denver has over 200 city and mountain parks.
Insider info: Washington Park (aka Wash Park) is a local favorite as well as Cheesman Park, which used to be a huge cemetary back in the day. The bodies were removed and re-located so the city could turn the space into a park where people now run and play frisbee. Cheesman Park is totally haunted and when you walk through there are these pockets of cold air that hit you, which obviously means there are lots of angry ghosts living there.
Pro tip: The Denver Botanic Gardens is right next to Cheesman Park and is definitely worth checking out.
22. Rockies Baseball Tickets
Get $4 Rockpile tickets to see the Rockies play. The seats are at the tippity-top of the stadium but are still close enough to kind of see what’s happening. This is a great family day-out.
Insider info: Most locals who live in the popular LoHi neighborhood cringe whenever a Rockies game is happening because it backs up traffic for miles surrounding the stadium.
More insider info: The Denver Zoo is also great for an inexpensive day-out. They recently expanded their elephant exhibit and they let you bring in your own food for lunch (maybe all zoos allow that? Either way, that’s an awesome money-saver.)
Pro tip: City Park (was designed to be like New York City’s Central Park) is right by the Denver Zoo! You can get a great look at the city skyline from behind the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (which is also worth checking out.)
23. Have more time? Don’t miss these great day-trips
- Red Rocks Ampitheatre Epic. You’ll need to drive there. Insider info: If you get a chance to see a concert there you will not regret it. I saw the Flight of the Conchords perform at Red Rocks and it was the best show I’ve ever seen. There is also a popular series called Film On The Rocks and on a completely random note, they hold a sunrise Easter Service there.
- Rocky Mountain National park Another must-see. You’ll also need a car for this one.
- Winter Park A cute mountain town that is busy in both the summer and the winter and is about 1 1/2 hours from Denver. The Alpine Slide is mind-blowingly fun.
- Take the “B” bus up to Boulder and check out Pearl Street Mall. Insider info: You can catch the “B” bus at Market Street Station. It’s an approximately 40 minute ride and then you can say you’ve been to Boulder.
Did I forget to add anything to the list? If you live in Denver where do you take your visitors? Have you visited Denver? What was your favorite place?
P.S. Looking for awesome hikes within an hour of Denver? CLICK HERE for the Denver Hikes and Trails Guide