I’m an SF Bay Area Girl in my heart or hearts, but Denver is a town that keeps pulling me back. My first venture away from home as a young adult was to move to Denver with a good friend. Later, after living for a time in Phoenix and eventually moving back home to the Bay, it was my career that kept bringing me back to Denver. Now I have more time to spend with friends and family. When I’m up for new things to do, Denver, a thriving world-class city, is an exciting and fun “Getaway.”
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The state capital of Colorado, Denver, is a metropolis that dates back to the Old West era of United States history. Located on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, Denver’s nickname is the Mile-High City. It got this nickname based on its elevation (officially 5,280 ft).
Home to a vibrant live music scene, among the many things to do in Denver, is attending one of the music festivals the City hosts each year. Country, Indie, Jazz … you can find a club in town and listen to your choice.
Also, don’t miss a chance to hear a concert at the famous Red Rocks, an outdoor amphitheater, surrounded by incredible natural rock formations that make for the best acoustics anywhere.
With all the things to do in Denver, you can plan a staycation, a long weekend getaway, or a full-on vacation holiday.
This post is part of a series on travel close to home. You can find more posts from this series on my page Getaways Near Me (or You)
Top Things to Do in Denver
Denver is chock full of attractions from art museums to sporting events. Major-league teams in each of the top three US sporting events (Baseball, Football, and Basketball) call Denver home.
Museum’s – Denver has Great Ones
- The Denver Art Museum – located in the heart of the City, has a bit of everything. You’ll find European Art, including the Masters like Degas, Monet, and Picasso; American artists such as Rockwell, Calder, and Pollock. Along with these famous painters, you will find significant collections of Architecture, Latin American Art, and Photography from around the globe.
- Clyfford Still Museum – One of Denver’s newer museums came into being shortly after August 2004 when Patricia Still announced that the City would receive the artworks contained in Clyfford Still’s Estate. Completed in 2011, the building, designed by Allied Works Architecture with Brad Cloepfil heading the team, is a beautiful addition of contemporary architecture and an icon for the City.
- Museo de las Americas – Located in the heart of the Art District on Santa Fe. Museo de las Americas is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the arts of the diverse cultures of the Americas from ancient times to contemporary.
Less Traditional, but Museum’s Nonetheless
- Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum – Located at the now decommissioned Lowry Air Force Base, Wings over the Rockies has over 182,000 square feet of iconic aircraft, space vehicles, military artifacts, and much more. Don’t forget to experience the thrill of flying for yourself by hoping in the flight simulator!
- Molly Brown House Museum – Built in the 1880s in Capitol Hill neighborhood, this home is in the Queen Ann style so loved by the newly rich silver and gold miners. The house has stood the test of time probably because it was purchased in 1894 by James Joseph and Margaret Brown. Margaret “Molly” Brown is best remembered today for surviving the sinking of the Titanic, earning her the nickname posthumously of the Unsinkable Molly Brown. The home is now a museum of Mrs. Brown’s life, style, adventures, and philanthropy.
- Four Mile Historic Park – A living history museum on the site of Denver’s oldest standing structure. Here you can pan for gold, visit with farm animals, and learn about life as a pioneer.
Flora and Fauna
- Denver Zoo – All great cities have great Zoo’s, and Denver’s is fantastic. Covering more than 84 acres in Denver’s City Park, the Zoo has animals from nearly every continent. The Denver Zoo has a long commitment to conservation and sustainability.
- Denver Museum of Science & Nature – Located in City Park adjacent to the Denver Zoo, the Museum of Science and Nature houses several permanent exhibits. Here you will find Egyptian Mummies, Wildlife Halls with animal dioramas, and “Prehistoric Journey,” an exhibition that traces the evolution of life on Earth.
- Denver Botanic Gardens – If you are looking for a good place to spend some meditative time, the Botanic Gardens are for you. Walking through the various landscapes may even give you ideas for your own space.
- Downtown Aquarium – Maybe it’s raining, or maybe it’s hot (Denver has an average daytime temperature of 92 in July), and you are looking for something fun to do inside. Try out the Downtown Aquarium. Featuring Nine aquatic exhibits, a 4-D theater, mermaids, a restaurant with views of the fish swimming around, and last but not least, the Dive Lounge in case you just need a drink.
Get Your Culture On
- Denver Performing Arts Complex – DPAC, as it’s known for short, has 13 venues for the performing arts. Starting with the small 200 seat Jones Theater up to the Buell Theater that hosts Broadway shows such as Hamilton, there is something for everyone here.
- Colorado Ballet – Located at the Denver Performing Arts Complex (DPAC) in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, the Ballet begins its season in the late Fall (October) and continues through April. Performances are both classical, think Gissell, and contemporary, how about the Wizard of OZ. And of course, the Holiday season classic “The Nutcracker.”
- Opera Colorado – Alternately, if Ballet is not for you, maybe a night at the Opera? Afraid that you won’t understand the Opera, many are in languages other than English. No worries, at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, each seatback has a personal subtitling system!
- Colorado Symphony – The Symphony performs in the Boettcher Concert Hall at DPAC. The Boettcher is the US’s first symphony hall in the round. 80% of the seats are within 65 feet of the stage, bringing the audience closer to the music than ever.
Miscellaneous and Cool
- Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater – Red Rocks Park is known for music. However, even if there are no concerts at the amphitheater scheduled while you’re visiting the area, there are other reasons to visit the park.
- The Colorado Music Hall of Fame – Learn about Colorado’s music scene and all the great performers who have graced Red Rocks (ps: it’s free!)
- Exercise in the high mountain air: hiking, biking, and running the steps of the amphitheater are all great ways to enjoy the majestic scenery.
- Larimer Square – Not a square, really just a street, but the oldest street in Denver. In 1861 when Colorado become a Territory of the US and Denver was officially chartered, Larimer Street became the City’s “main street.” Today Larimer Square is a premier shopping and dining location. Great for a late afternoon stroll for window shopping and then dinner and drinks.
- Elitch Gardens – Are you a fan of theme parks? I am! And Elitch Gardens is tried and true for 130 years. A trip to the park is a fantastic way to spend your day. Your ticket price is good for all the water park and amusement park rides. If you’re a fan of wooden roller coasters, you know there aren’t many left. Elitch Gardens has the Twister II. From the top of the Twister, you can view the entire park and Downtown Denver, but only for a moment, before you drop!
Best Restaurants in Denver
I know we all love food, and in Denver, you can eat to your heart’s content. That’s why whenever you see a list of the top things to do in Denver, you can bet many of them involve eating. Below are a few chef-driven restaurants that make for fantastic dining. Choose from upscale Steak Houses to family-style Pizzeria’s; you won’t be disappointed.
(Restaurants are in the downtown area unless otherwise noted.)
Fine Dining ($$$ – $$$$)
- The Capital Grille (American Steak House) – Close to the Performing Arts Complex, this is an excellent choice for a spectacular Steak House experience.
- Izakaya Den (Japanese, Sushi Bar) – Looking for something lighter? Izakaya Den serves up “tapas plates” of the freshest sushi you can find in an award-winning dining room. You can also sign up for a Sushi Making Class and then dine on your creations!
- Barolo Grill (Upscale Northern Italian) (Cherry Creek) – At Barolo Grill, you will find excellent modern Piemontese cuisine, a wine cellar you can dine in, and the most attentive staff.
- Rioja (International) – Right in Larimer Square, Rioja features cuisine inspired by Mediterranean ingredients using fresh, local products. This dinner house serves classic dishes with a contemporary flair in a sleek modern dining room.
- Ocean Prime (Seafood) – Looking for a great seafood dinner, this is your place. A Cameron Mitchell Restaurant, Ocean Prime offers up the freshest seafood, great steaks, and hand-crafted cocktails for your dining pleasure.
Casual Dining ($$ – $$$)
- Hops & Pie (American, Bar, Pizza) – A little outside of Downtown towards the NW side of town, Hops & Pie is an excellent choice for Craft Beer and Pizza with a loyal following. Casual dining for sure, but tasty as it comes.
- El Five (Mediterranean, Spanish) – Seated on the 5th floor of an otherwise typical office building in LoHi, El Five offers up a fantastic view of Downtown Denver along with tasty Tapas plates with Mediterranean influences. Don’t miss out on the must-have cocktails!
- Tacos Tequila Whiskey ( Mexican, Southwestern) – With three locations around Downtown, Tacos Tequila Whiskey makes it easy and delicious to satisfy your cravings for Tacos and Tequila. TTW’s is one of the most creative “Street Taco” menus around. You won’t be disappointed.
- Snooze an AM Eatery (Breakfast, Brunch) – Looking for just the right spot for Breakfast or Brunch; you must hit Snooze. Wholesome breakfast classics made fresh and new. A tangy Bloody and tasty Benedict is a great way to start the day.
- Angelo’s Taverna (Italian, Pizza) – Looking for great Italian food, but your wallet is a little thin? Angelo’s Taverna is the spot. Stop in for happy hour and stay for dinner
Looking to Indulge in some Local Libations?
Vineyards, wineries, taprooms, breweries, distillers… Denver does them all well.
- Balistreri Vineyards – Family owned and operated, Balistreri Vineyards produces award-winning wines without the addition of sulfites. The tasting room and vineyard are located just 10 minutes from downtown Denver.
- Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey – Ranking in the top ten on many lists, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey is a good stop for a tour. Participate in a Guided Whiskey Tasting, take a Cocktail Class or a Top Shelf Tour, and enjoy a fine single-malt.
- The Great Divide – Stop into the BallPark Brewery & Taproom to taste some distinctly Colorado ales, lagers, and the Great Divide’s unique Yeti Clan. Or head over to the Barrel Bar in the River North neighborhood (RiNo) and enjoy some excellent Barrel-Aged beers or a limited release. (Psst, you can do a tour of the brewery at either location.)
Let’s Play Ball!
Denver is a town known for the great outdoors, and locals love sports of all types. Home to major teams in the top three sports, many people travel to Denver each year to watch their teams. All three sporting venues are located near the Downtown area, adding to the already vibrant scene.
- Starting April with the Colorado Rockies home opener, Coors Field fills to capacity (over 50K) with fans enjoying the Boys of Summer. The stadium, located right in Downtown Denver, combines the feel of a 1920s ballpark with 21st-century technology and conveniences. When the team is away or the season is over, Coors Field plays host to big-name bands and other private events.
- The Pepsi Center is home to the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Denver Nuggets. But the Center also plays a key role in providing an arena for all types of entertainment from the Cirque Du Soleil to Harry Styles.
- In the Fall when sports enthusiast turns their sights on Football, it’s the Denver Broncos everyone is rooting for in this town. Empower Field at Mile High opened in 2001 and sits precisely 5,280 feet above sea level. This impressive home for the Broncos also hosts many other events throughout the year, from Soccor matches to BBQ Festivals and concerts.
Annual Festivals in Denver
We all love a great festival. When looking for things to do, we naturally head out to our favorite festivals. Here I chose my favorite Denver festivals, one from each month of the year.
Jan – March
- National Western Stock Show – (January) The National Western Stock Show has been an exciting event since 1906! Today the festival brings nearly three-quarters of a million people to Denver over two-weeks time in January each year. This grand celebration of premier live-stock, horsemanship, and of course, rodeo is not to be missed.
- Denver Restaurant Week – (February) Celebrate all the fantastic food Denver has to offer by visiting during Restaurant Week. During this festival week (more like ten days), top Denver restaurants offer up multi-course dinners at three very affordable price points ($25, $35 & $45). There isn’t a better way to enjoy the great chefs of Denver.
- Collaboration Fest – (March) Hosted by the Colorado Brewer Guild, Collaboration Fest brings together 100+ beer projects from over 200 local breweries. If you love craft beer, this is your festival!
April – June
- Rodeo All-Star Weekend – (April) For One long weekend, Rodeo All-Stars from all over North America come together to demonstrate their skills and compete in the finals for the title of Rodeo All-Star Champion. Fans can meet their favorites, enjoy some great Rodeo, and listen to the best country music around.
- Five Points Jazz Festival – (May) The Five Points neighborhood in Denver was once called the Harlem of the West, and its several music clubs have hosted Jazz legends such as Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk. The annual Jazz Festival held here each year is a glorious celebration of music.
- Denver Pride Fest – (June) PrideFest is the largest celebration of LGBTQ pride in the Rocky Mountain region. This weekend-long festival features live entertainment, a Pride 5K run, and of course, the Pride Parade.
July – September
- Underground Music Showcase – (July) This indie music festival held each year in Denver is your chance to explore and discover the local music scene. Spend four good vibe filled days listening to music and partying with your friends.
- Colorado Classic – (August) Are you into cycling? The Colorado Classic is the premier professional women’s cycling race in North America. Nearly 100 of the world’s best racers from 16 teams will compete in the four-stage race covering both mountain and urban terrain.
- Denver Food and Wine Festival – (September) Benefiting three nonprofit community foundations, this annual multi-day extravaganza of food and wine is held each September. The festival features the best in Colorado’s restaurants paired with the finest in wines and spirits.
October – December
- Denver Film Festival – (October) For over 40 years, Denver Film has been producing the Denver Film Festival. Held at venues throughout the Greater Denver Area, the festival features films from around the world, including all genres and subjects.
- Blossoms of Light at Denver Botanic Gardens or Zoo Lights – (November) To usher in the Holiday Season, the Denver Botanic Garden and the Denver Zoo light up the parks. Strolling through the Gardens or Zoo with literally millions of lights gracing your way is a unique way to share some Holiday cheer.
- Denver Parade of Lights – (December) If you can’t get into the Gardens or the Zoo, you can still get a great view of Holiday Lights in the Denver Parade of Lights. The parade features illuminated floats, giant helium-filled balloons, marching bands, and equestrian units. This event is guaranteed to be a fun time for all ages.
Fun and Free Things to do in Denver
If you are looking for things to do that won’t break the bank, check out these places that offer free or nearly free admissions.
- Colorado State Capitol – The State Capitol has been available to the public since it opened its doors in 1894. The Capitol is adorned with Colorado Rose Onyx and White Yule Marble. The dome is Colorado white granite, covered with copper panels gilded with gold leaf from a Colorado mine. Free public tours are offered hourly 10:00 – 3:00 Monday – Friday (Holidays excluded).
- Denver Free Walking Tours – This group offers a free tour every day starting at the Capitol building. You wind your way through the City, ending at Union Station. Each tour is led by a knowledgeable guide ready to share the history of Denver. The tour is an excellent way to get your bearings in the Mile High City. The tour is “free,” but donations (tips) are gladly accepted.
- The Denver Mint – Want to learn how money is made? You can find that and more at the Denver Mint. The Mint is a Federal building, and all visitors are subject to security screening, plan accordingly. For a fun souvenir, pick up a bag of shredded money before you leave!
- Denver Union Station – Trains have been arriving and departing from Union Station for a century. Today there is a wide variety of dining, shopping, and drinking establishments available for weary travelers and tourists alike.
- Free Mall Ride – RTD-Denver provides free transit from Union Station to the Civic Center Station along the 16th Street Mall daily, starting at 5:00 am. The free ride on electric busses is a great way to shop the mall till you drop.
Speaking of Tours
Several notable businesses operating in and around Denver offer up free walkthroughs of their sites. You might even end up with a tasty tidbit for visiting
- Hammonds Candy Factory – Ever wonder how they make lollipops and candy canes? You can learn all about candy making here.
- Coors Brewery – Golden, Colorado, just west of Denver, has a fun downtown to walk through, and you can tour the Coors Brewery while you’re there for free! Adolph Coors set up shop here in 1873, and today it is the largest single-site brewery in the world.
- Celestial Seasonings – If you are looking for a slightly less “potent” potable, you may want to check out the tour at Celestial Seasonings in Boulder, Colorado. Find out the secrets to fine tea making and enjoy your favorite cup. Reservations are required for groups of 8 or more.
- First Friday Art Walks – On Santa Fe, you will find Denver’s Arts District. The first Friday each month, the District comes alive as the street becomes a pedestrian walkway, and the galleries open their doors welcoming the public.
Day Trips From Denver
Even with all the great things to do in Denver, you may find yourself looking to get out of town for a day to change things up a bit. Here are a few fun tips, just a short drive away.
- Central City – Looking for a walk through the Old West? Central City, just 40 miles west of Denver, is the place for you. This town has maintained the historic ambiance of the late 1800s. Visit the Gilpin County Museum, stroll through art galleries, and see the Central City Opera House. You can tour old cemeteries and closed mines. If luck is on your side, you can also try your hand in any of the eight gaming establishments in town.
- Estes Park – About 70 miles NNW of Denver, a little higher up in the mountains Estes Park sits at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park. Hiking trails provide stunning vistas and wildlife abounds. If you are looking for views, don’t miss the Estes Park Aerial Tramway. The tram takes you to the summit of Prospect Mountain (8,700 ft above sea level), providing panoramic views of Longs Peak, the Continental Divide, and Estes Park itself.
- Colorado Springs – Most know that Colorado Springs is the home to the US AirForce Academy. But this town around 70 miles south of Denver has so much more to offer. You will find an abundance of Hiking and Biking trails, including the famous Garden of the Gods park. You can even climb above the timberline to the top of Pikes Peak on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway (expected to reopen in May 2021)
Probably the most popular thing to do on a day trip from Denver is Skiing. With some of the best snow found in North America, you can enjoy everything from the bunny slopes to Black Diamond runs. Ski Resorts are not far, but keep in mind that weather can change suddenly, and the road conditions may make a short 50-mile distance into an all-day drive.
- Eldora Mountain Resort – Only 48 miles from Denver Eldora offers both Alpine and Nordic trails for all skiing enthusiasts.
- Loveland Ski Area – 55 miles from town, Loveland Ski Area, offers free snowcat skiing on the continental divide.
- Winter Park Resort – Colorado’s longest continually operated ski resort features over 3,000 acres of award-winning terrain.
- Copper Mountain Resort – A little further out (about 75 miles from Denver) and a bit further up. Copper Mountain Resort offers all the amenities you are looking for, whether you are staying for a day or a long weekend.
- Vail Ski Resort –. You will have to travel nearly 100 miles from Denver to get here, but Vail is the ultimate Colorado ski resort.
With All These Things to Do in Denver – Are You Ready?
All of this sophisticated urban action combines with outdoor adventure making Denver an exciting place to visit. Now that you’ve read through my suggestions of some of the best things to do, see, and eat in the Mile High City, it’s time to plan your Getaway!