During our trip to the Colorado Front Range, we used Denver as a home base. Denver is a beautiful city with a major airport, easy transit options, a great food scene, and lots of things to do! We spent the first and last days of our trip exploring Denver, as well as some evenings when we got back from our day trips. Instead of listing things chronologically, we’ve organized this post by type of activity. Also, although these attractions are awesome anytime, visiting Denver during the first weekend of the month offers many advantages, including free museum admissions and community events like the First Friday Art Walk.
Getting Into, Around, and Out of Denver
Denver Airport is a major hub for many airlines so it’s very easy to get to! We arrived on July 4th, and so rental cars at the airport were crazy expensive! As a result, we decided to take the A-Line train to downtown and explore the city on our first day. This turned out to be a very hassle-free process! The train costs $9 per person (you pay on the platform) and drops you off at the very hip Union Station. Traveling by train gives you a prelude to the beautiful architecture in the city: the new Westin Hotel at the airport and the platform at Union Station are both beautiful! The trip on the train takes just under 40 minutes each way.
To get around town, you can walk, rent bikes, grab an Uber or Lyft, or take transit, like the free Mall Ride shuttle that runs up and down the 16th St Promenade (the shuttle can get busy and very muggy at times). And if you need to go further afield and only need a car for a few hours, you can always use ZipCar. Note that to use ZipCar, you need to a be approved for membership and have your ZipCard well in advance of your trip. We found that the ZipCars were very underutilized, even on July 4th, and so we used one to go visit a friend who lived outside of town on the day we arrived.
We rented a car from a local Enterprise Rent-a-Car downtown the day after we arrived so we’d have a vehicle to get to Colorado Springs, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Boulder. Around the holiday, the price was about 50% lower to rent and return downtown than it was to rent at the airport; however, you should note that you need to be in Denver for at least 24 hours before picking up a car from a local car rental agency to avoid the airport taxes. Enterprise was also super nice about giving us and our luggage a ride back to the train station after we dropped off the car so we could take the A-line train back to the airport.
There was plenty of street parking in downtown Denver – we never had to use the expensive valet parking at our hotel during our stay, and therefore paid on average $12 a night to park our car instead of close to $40. Denver has some complicated parking rules: the parking time limits and enforcement vary depending on the hour and the day, you need to move your car at least 100 feet after you have parked for the maximum amount of time in a given space, and you can’t park at certain times because of street cleaning. You should consult the Denver city parking meter website for all the details.
When departing from Denver, don’t worry if you get to the airport early: there is a seasonal Pop-Up Park outside the terminal with lawn games and chairs.
Actually, it’s a good idea to get to the airport early since the security lines can look pretty daunting during busy travel times. Our Enterprise agent gave us a great tip: there are three security lines, so you can often minimize your wait by checking the live wait times here. She mentioned that the bridge security line is often the least busy. It is up on the second level and allows you to walk on a pedestrian bridge and watch airplanes taxi beneath you (one of the few such bridges in the world)! Like the rest of the city, the airport has interesting artwork both outside and in while you wait for your flight to depart.
We scoped prices early to get a great deal at the Homewood Suites in downtown Denver – under $100/night! Our hotel, located in the same building as a Hampton Inn, was very modern and comfortable, with a large room including a full kitchen for making lunches and storing and reheating leftovers, a good free breakfast each morning, fast WiFi, and a well-equipped gym. The staff was also top-notch, giving us complimentary soda water when the nearby grocery store was closed, helping us with the business center when we had trouble printing our boarding passes, and even giving us an extra-early to go breakfast when we took off for Rocky Mountain National Park at the crack of dawn!
There are many hotels in this part of downtown, and it’s a super convenient place to stay! We were right next to the 16th Street Promenade and the Pavilions Shopping Center, an easy walk to the Civic Center, the Denver Art Museum, and the Denver Convention Center area. Even Coors Field was only a half hour walk from the hotel!
Denver has plenty of food options for all tastes. Here are a few of our personal highlights:
- Coffee. Novo coffee, down the street from Denver Pavilions, serves two different types of espresso each day. Both had very distinct characteristics, and so it’s worth going more than once! As another added bonus, Novo is open pretty early in the morning.
- Ice cream. The dairy dessert scene in Colorado is out of control, and Denver is no exception. We loved Little Man Ice Cream, which delivered giant ice cream desserts out of a giant milk can in the LoHi neighborhood. The line for the main window was super long, but if you’re interested in a simple cone, you can visit the little ice cream stand around the corner, which serves the same bold ice cream flavors with a much shorter line! The pop tart ice cream sandwich at Ice Cream Riot was also amazing – the fruity pebbles ice cream in a cinnamon sugar pop tart was a delicious homage to the sugary breakfasts I craved in my younger days.
- Indian Food. If you are looking for good flavor, value, and fast and friendly service, check out Zaika Indian Express. We visited after a long day in Rocky Mountain National Park, and the food sure hit the spot. Our korma and chana masala were both very good, and the portion sizes were so generous that we had plenty left over for lunch the next day.
- Fancy toast. If you are keen to try Top Chef contestant Carrie Baird’s fancy toast, stop by Bar Dough in the cute LoHi neighborhood. The service was a little off on the evening we visited, but the chef delivered on her flavors, including the roasted carrot salad, fancy toast with local cherries and soft cheese, and margherita pizza.
- Food hall. We read that Denver Central Market, one of Denver’s most popular food halls, will soon be opening an outpost in the airport. Since it wasn’t open yet, we decided to check out the original on our way back to Denver airport to grab some food for dinner! The pizza, carbonated vinegar, and ice cream we tasted were all quite good, and the ambiance was super hip!
- Late-night/early-morning options. If you are desperate for coffee or a sandwich and nothing else is open, try Choice Market. They sell basic groceries and serve relatively cosmopolitan options (jackfruit sandwiches, for example) any time, day or night.
Watching a Rockies Game and Fireworks
At home games close to July 4th, the Colorado Rockies launch fireworks from just behind the big screen after the game has concluded, which sounded like a super cool (and American) way to celebrate Independence Day.
All in all, it was a fun and unique experience, but a little extra information would have helped our evening go much more smoothly! Here are some tips if you plan to watch fireworks at a Rockies Game:
- The tickets for these games are popular, so you should buy them in advance. We signed up to be notified when individual tickets would go on sale and bought them as soon as they were available.
- The game was late enough that sunlight wasn’t a problem when we went. In fact, the views of the sunset from the upper terraces was pretty spectacular! If you’re worried about the light, we’d recommend facing east to avoid looking into the sun.
- We had a great view of the field! It also seemed most seats provided great views of the fireworks. People seated close to the big screen had to be relocated onto the field to watch the fireworks: if being on the turf of a baseball field is also up your alley, these could be the seats for you! Just bring a blanket :).
- The line to get into the park is crazy long… We showed up about a half hour before the first pitch and didn’t make it through security until the end of the second inning! We’d recommend getting to the park at least an hour and half early on popular game days like fireworks days, if not more.
- Even though the fireworks game runs pretty late, most of the eateries in the park were out of food by the middle of the 7th inning. Therefore, even if the lines look long, we’d recommend grabbing food as soon as you get into the park, perhaps even before getting to your seat.
- Because of the need to relocate fans onto the field, the fireworks don’t start until about 30-45 minutes after the conclusion of the game, so you should plan for a late night. On the evening we visited, the show was further delayed because of a thunderstorm cell moving through the area.
- If you don’t feel like going to a game (or want to spend a little less money for your evening), but you still want to catch the fireworks, much of the show is visible from the streets to the south of the stadium. The views from the inside and outside the park were different but equally impressive (we left a few minutes early to avoid the mass exodus of fans from the stadium, and so we caught the fireworks finale from the outside of the park).
Public Spaces, Museums, and Community Events
One thing that really struck us about Denver was how it brims with interesting architecture, wonderful parks, public artwork, and top-notch museums (many of which have free days or participate in Bank of America’s museums on us program).
When we first arrived in Denver, we walked down the 16th Street Promenade, Denver’s famous pedestrian shopping mall. In addition to the shops, there was lots of interesting stuff to check out as you walked along the street, including public pianos that are free for anyone to play and the D+F Clocktower, designed after St. Mark’s Campanille in Venice.
One evening after returning from a day trip, we wandered a couple of blocks west of the Promenade to the Performing Arts Complex. At sunset, the “dancers” outside the Performing Arts Complex have a lovely orange glow, and the sky beautifully frames St Elizabeth’s church, a beautiful German catholic church that we didn’t know about from reading the tour books. After it gets dark, the modern lines of the Convention Center were quite striking.
We encountered the highest density of interesting buildings in Civic Center Park, Just south of the 16th Street Promenade. The first sight you encounter as you enter the park is the fountain. When we visited, the traveling Ai WeiWei exhibit “Zodiac Heads” was on display.
Further south, the main part of the park is framed by the golden dome of the State Capitol and the columns and clock-face of the City and County Building.
In between the two is a lovely garden, and, as we found out, a working kettle-bell piano!
At the south end of the park is the Denver Public Library as well as the Denver Art Museum, a very striking building that looks like a giant paper airplane.
We happened to be visiting the area on the first Sunday of the month, so we took advantage of the free admission offered to Bank of America customers. The Denver Art Museum featured many wonderful exhibits when we visited, including one of the oldest known statues of Ganesha, landscape photographs created using a unique mirror configuration, and whimsical sculptures outside the building. You could spend a couple of hours or a whole day exploring the vast (and rotating) collection.
Across town is another worthy park-museum combination: Denver City Park and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Inside the museum (which also takes part in Bank of America free admissions), we found lots of cool fossils and interactive exhibits about nature in Colorado.
From the terrace, we got a nice view of the park itself, with a beautiful lake and boathouse. We decided to explore a bit more when we got outside, and perhaps the only downside to having a stroll through this massive green space was having to avoid Canada geese and their droppings :).
Though not a “public space” per se, the Santa Fe Art District was another highlight of our trip. The street features galleries, museums, and boutiques that cater to many different artistic tastes. We were lucky enough to be visiting during the First Friday Art Walk, which features live art events, interactive exhibits, and food trucks up and down several blocks in this area. During our visit, we checked out a live demonstration of an artist creating a painting of Frida Kahlo at the Museo De Las Americas. And a violin concert by a youth orchestra in the courtyard of one of the many galleries. The street was super crowded – there was barely any room to walk! But this led us to discover cool side streets with murals and live music galore.
Even though we explored a lot, this was only the tip of the iceberg in this beautiful city. What are some of your favorite things to do when you’re in Denver? Please comment below!
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Fruity pebble ice cream?! You had me there, but then the cinnamon sugar pop tart sucked me in even more! I have to check out these food places next time I’m in Denver!
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