During our West Coast road trip we decided to explore the state of Colorado for an entire month! Traveling between Colorado Springs, Aspen, and Denver, with lots of sightseeing in between.
Since we had an entire month to explore everything that Colorado had to offer we really got a sense of what were the best things to do in Denver, Colorado Springs and Aspen! Check out our guide for Colorado Springs; Weekend Getaways – The 10 Best Things to Do in Colorado Springs.
In this post I share some of the best things to do in Denver! You’ll never run out of fun things to do in Denver, but we’ll concentrate on a dozen that we think are worthy of your time in this mile high city!
About Denver, Colorado
Everyone knows Denver as the Mile High City, due to its elevation of exactly 5,280 feet above sea level. It’s also the capital of Colorado, as well as the most populous city in the state. We also found out it was named the best place to live in the United States by U.S. News and World Report.
We can see why it ranks so well amongst other cities in the nation. Denver is a thriving metropolis, with lots of open space and opportunities for an active lifestyle, a great downtown, a large offering of cultural activities, and a great food scene (they just filmed Top Chef Season 15 here).
That being said, the elevation of Denver does make it difficult for some people. People with asthma and other medical conditions might not fare so well here, and bakers have a heck of a time getting cakes to rise properly (it’s an art form!).
We do not suffer any serious medical conditions and have no intention of baking during our year-long sojourn around the world, so Denver was a great place for us to land and enjoy the outdoors and all the city has to offer.
Stay at the Brown Palace Hotel
Our home base during our stay in Denver was in downtown’s historic Brown Palace Hotel. The Brown Palace is Denver’s oldest continually operating hotel, and they were celebrating their 125th anniversary while we were there. If you’re wondering where to stay in Denver for the best access to lots of activities, The Brown Palace is it!
We found The Brown Palace Hotel unique for many reasons. The construction of the exterior was very modern for its day, built of stone in a flatiron or triangular shape. They’ve kept the façade with an intricate entrance that leads into a magnificent lobby, with its interior hallways, beautiful grillwork and archways, and unique lighting.
The Brown Palace Hotel also has a number of restaurants: Ship Tavern, Ellyingtons, the Palace Arms, as well as two cocktail lounges. They offer Afternoon Tea (a proper Brit would be impressed) and a Sunday Dom Perignon Champagne Brunch. We appreciate that the chefs endeavor to use local and sustainable ingredients while turning out some pretty impressive dishes.
Because The Brown Palace is located right downtown, it was a great starting point each day for our Denver explorations. Let’s check out some of the great things we found to do in Denver….
The Best Things to Do in Denver
Red Rocks Amphitheater
Jaw-droppingly beautiful, Red Rocks Amphitheater and its majestic, surreal, grand outdoor amphitheater, are set amongst deep red sandstone cliffs about 16 miles west of Denver. Geology buffs, hikers, bikers, and music lovers all head to Red Rocks…year round.
The park itself is 738 acres, located in a transitional zone between the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. It features some truly unique and interesting geological features, the remains of past residents (including dinosaurs), flora and fauna and some great trails for hiking and biking. Park admission is free and it’s open every day from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset.
The amphitheater, with a seating capacity for over 9,000, is a naturally formed basin tucked in between Ship Rock and Creation Rock, creating “acoustic perfection.” Concert and events are held year round, and span all music genres, from techno and hip-hop to rock and country, and everything in between. While it can be hard to get tickets—every concert gets sold out—if you can manage to snag a few, you won’t be disappointed in the experience. Sitting among the stars with giant monoliths flanking both sides of the stage, you’ll get lost in the music.
Red Rocks Amphitheater is also known for getting in a high-intensity workout! This stairs workout is no joke! Peter and I gave it a go and I was running out of breath mid-way up the stairs! This was for 3 reasons, Red Rocks Amphitheater sits at 6,000 feet in elevation, it has about 360 steps from the parking lot to the upper concession and we did our stair workout in the winter, it was cold!
Overall Red Rocks Amphitheater is a great place to visit for a workout, concert, event or just to admire the red sandstone and the view! This is one of the best outdoor activities in Denver.
Denver Botanic Gardens
The Botanic Gardens, located downtown in Cheesman Park, is definitely worth several hours (or more) of your time. With 41 gardens and over 15,000 species of plants set on 24 acres, you will see some spectacular floral displays, as well as sculptures and other art.
One great way to get acquainted with the Gardens is by docent-led tour. It makes everything more meaningful when it’s explained by someone who clearly loves the environment they are in.
During summer, you’ll find outdoor festivals held here, while the winter holidays bring the Blossoms of Light extravaganza.
Denver’s Union Station is so much more than just the city’s transportation hub. Built in the early Art Deco period, and still gorgeous today, this station is home to the city’s buses and rail lines, as well as Amtrak, The Crawford Hotel, boutiques and restaurants.
Located in what is now known as Lower Downtown, you’ll find that Union Station is a hive of activity most of the day and evening, with excellent vantage points for people-watching on the station’s couches and chairs. You can wander around the various boutiques and galleries, stop for a cup of coffee, cocktail or full meal, or visit the luxury hotel within the walls.
Best of all, you can get anywhere in the city from this one place, via 125 RTD bus routes, 9 light rail routes (with 53 stations), and free MetroRide and free MallRide services. This makes it very convenient for visitors who do not choose to have a car. You can also find transportation to Denver International Airport, as well as to many of the local ski and resort destinations.
While exploring the city we stumbled upon Union Station, we were just looking for something to eat and then when we walked through the restaurant we discovered so many little shops, bars, and an open square filled with people having a drink, working, and just hanging out with friends. This is a great location to hang out, enjoy a drink or a coffee depending on the time of day and relax.
Larimer Square is the historic district of Denver and currently houses, galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and clubs. Within walking distance of downtown (and Union Station), it’s a great place to spend some time, perusing the shops and stopping in for a bite.
Shoppers will delight in all the independent boutiques offering footwear, clothing, jewelry, antiques, home goods, beauty products, and more. You can get a shave and a haircut, a spa treatment for yourself (or your dog), or my personal favorite: a hat from Goorin Bros., a store run by four generations of craftsman, where they will help you find the perfect chapeau for your head. Their is also a Goorin Bros. hat shop in Austin, Texas and we bought two hats when we lived there. (If you’re traveling to Austin soon, make sure to check out my Ultimate Travel Guide – The Best Things to Do in Austin!)
If you get hungry, Larimer Square “boasts one of the nation’s most significant collections of regionally exclusive and chef-owned restaurants.” That means you’ll find some good eats, no matter the time of day. On the menu are French, pub food, seafood, Italian, Mediterranean, upscale BBQ, and more. Your palate will not be sorry.
Not hungry? How about some jazz and a cocktail at the Crimson Room? Or a few laughs at Comedy Works? Never a shortage of nightlife or good mixologists in Larimer Square.
Denver Art Museum
Each building of the Denver Art Museum is an art piece in and of itself. Before entering, you have to take in the 3 structures that make up what is the best museum in the Mountain Time zone.
The original building is a modern take on a castle and has over 1 million reflective glass tiles on the exterior, thanks to the vision of Gio Ponti. I was most impressed by the museum’s second structure, known as the Frederic C. Hamilton Building. I can’t decide if it looks like a futuristic spaceship out of a Star Wars movie (with its 9,000 titanium panels) or if it was just designed upside down. Either way, it is magnificent. The third and final building, which primary serves as staff headquarters, reminds me of Frank Lloyd Wright project, with its clean lines a emphasis on exterior windows.
The inside of the museum is just as impressive, with over 70,000 pieces of art, dating from pre-Columbian pottery to Georgia O’Keeffe. You’ll find Vincent van Gogh, Mary Cassatt, Salvador Dali, among others. Current exhibits include Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism. Stampede: Animals in Art, and a really lovely exhibit devoted to Ganesha. There’s a little something here for everyone, no matter your artistic tastes: African Art, Textiles & Fashion, European Art, Photography, Native American Art, and so much more.
Plan to dedicate at least a half a day here to really see what is on display; you won’t be sorry. This is really of the best things to do in Denver.
Colorado State Capitol
The Colorado State Capitol is a working building, housing the General Assembly, Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Treasurer. At the same time, it is open to visitors who can either wander around or take a tour.
A regal building, one of its best features is the gold dome that is really beautiful from the inside. It was recently restored and the public observation deck was reopened in October of this year, after having been closed for the last eight years. You can also visit the original Supreme Court chambers, get a glimpse in the Governor’s office, and learn more about the state up in Mr. Brown’s Attic.
Outside the capital is Lincoln Park where you can see one of 53 replicas cast of the Liberty Bell. Also located here is the old Colorado Historical Museum and it is the frequent site of festivals and rallies.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Denver has a very well-rounded Museum of Nature and Science with both permanent and rotating exhibitions. You can visit educational exhibits on the area’s Native American Indian Cultures or Gems & Minerals or take a Prehistoric Journey. There’s wildlife exhibits, Egyptian mummies, and, for a limited time, a pretty cool exhibit called “Ultimate Dinosaurs.”
The Discovery Zone is perfect for children, with hands-on learning, and an Explorer’s Playhouse to keep them entertained. Everyone will like the IMAX theater (which was screening The Polar Express during our visit), and the planetarium, where you can learn about our solar system, black holes or get a tour of space (for an additional fee).
TIP: Make a day of it and visit the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and then the Denver Zoo, which is just north of the museum and well within walking distance.
Book a Brewery Tour
Denver, and Colorado, has long been known for its Rocky Mountain brews, and is now home to both large and small brewers, microbreweries, gypsy breweries, and brewpubs. Adding them all up, there are about 70 or so within or near the city limits.
There are several breweries that offer a behind the scenes look at their facilities (along with a taste or two), as well as more formal tours that take you around to smaller craft brewers. You can even go on a walking tour of brewpubs (because driving would definitely not be a good idea!). For a list of tours and times, check out Denver’s listings here.
Should you want to explore other types of breweries (whiskey, vodka, gin, liqueurs, etc.), see Denver’s list of distilleries and tour times here.
Note: If you’d like to visit the biggest brewery in the world, you’ll have to make the short trek (about 15 miles) to Golden, where the Coors Brewery resides.
Booking a brewery tour is really one of the top things to do in Denver. When we told our friends we were going to spend some time in Denver, everyone mentioned the brewery scene. We didn’t get to book an actual tour but we did get to visit one of my favorite breweries, Blue Moon. And we also went to the famous Great Divide Brewing Company!
Top Christmas Activities in Denver
Because we explored Denver in December, we discovered that some of the best things to do in Denver are unique or perfect for the holiday season!
Tea at the Brown Palace Hotel
The Brown Palace Hotel offers an Afternoon Tea every day from 12 to 4 p.m. While it is a year-round activity, it’s the perfect place to celebrate the holidays, among the decorations and festive music. Get dressed up, call a friend, and enjoy a pot of tea (or champagne), along with tea sandwiches, scones, crumpets, and classic pastries. They do a full-on proper British tea, complete with clotted Devon cream, lemon curd and bone china.
Make sure you make a reservation and bring your appetite during the holiday season it does sell out well in advance.
Ice Skating in Denver
Known as an outdoor playground, the cold weather is the perfect time to lace up a pair of ice skates and burn some calories. Denver has two pop-up ice arenas each year:
- Downtown Denver Rink: Located at Skyline Park, this rink opens around Thanksgiving and runs into January. It’s free to skate here and you can even get a lesson Saturday morning or glide along to a live DJ on Friday nights. Skate rental is $8.
- Denver International Airport: The airport is good for more than just jetting to another destination during the holidays. From November 24-January 7th you can toodle around their pop-up rink for free, and rent skates for no charge.
Blossoms of Light
This annual holiday light show at the Denver Botanic Garden is a must-see event. You’ll get to tour the garden at night and witness all their interactive light displays. Oftentimes you’ll find carolers or musicians serenading you as you wander the exhibits.
Held every December at the Denver Zoo from 5:30 to 9 p.m. each day, you can visit the animals, see Santa, and view the amazing illuminated animal sculptures that actually swing through the trees, jump across lawns and pop up in unexpected places. Near the polar bears you will find the Northern Lights, the Asia exhibit features the Festival of Lanterns, near the monkeys is the Electric Jungle, plus you can visit the Sea of Light, Safari of Lights, Winter Wonderland, and the North Pole.
To go along with your evening walk, you’ll find treat locations with hot beverages, s’mores, holiday spirits and more.
Denver Travel Tips
Denver has a huge international airport outside of town, currently the 6th busiest in the U.S. It is a major airline hub and is serviced by most national and international carriers, with 1,500+ flights per day. To get to or from Denver to the airport, you have multiple options. There is the popular airport rail from downtown Denver Union Station, or you can rent a car, take a bus or use an airport shuttle.
Amtrak, based out of Union Station, allows you to enjoy a leisurely train ride to Denver from almost anywhere in the country. And once you land at Union Station, you won’t even need a car, given all the transportation options offered.
As noted above, Denver’s Union Station is a multi-modal transportation hub, housing local, regional and national bus services, the Free MallRide and Free MetroRide services, as well as 9 local rail lines. Plenty of ways to get around….
Driving to Denver is also an option, and the one that we opted for. There are multiple routes and you’ll get to see some absolutely beautiful scenery. Do beware that the Rocky Mountain roads can be a bit treacherous during winter. Drivers can face black ice, whiteouts, heavy snowfall, and other dangerous conditions, so make sure that you always check travel conditions before hitting the road.
Since we did have our car we were able to explore the Rocky Mountain National Park, and drive into the mountain towns of Aspen and Vail for some fun snow adventures.
While winter is a beautiful time to visit Denver, it can get mighty cold. Expect 17-20 degrees at night and in the 40s during the day. It will snow often during the winter months, with an average of about 64 inches a year here. On the bright side, you won’t see much rain; Denver gets an average of only 16 inches of rainfall per year, well under the U.S. average of 39 inches. Umbrellas not necessary; snow gear a must!
We were here for the entire month of December and in Denver, it only snowed less than a handful of times. We thought we would need snow chains for our car but we actually did fine without them. They were not required in any of the locations we traveled to. But just check the weather to make sure before you do travel to places at high elevations.
The weather starts to warm up a bit in March, with lows in the 20s and highs around 60 degrees. The warming trend continues into summer. The weather during summer is quite nice, with lows in the 50s and highs in the 80s. And, on average Denver actually gets 245 sunny days per year, meaning sunglasses and sunscreen are a necessity even in wintertime.
The Best Things to Do in Denver
During our exploration of this amazing city, these are the 12 things we deemed the best things to do in Denver! If you’re short on time select one or two things from the list and I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic time!
If there are some favorite things you like to do in Denver that I might have missed, please let me know if the comments so I can add them to the list or other readers can discover more of the best things to do in Denver from the comments!