Denver’s crisp night air whips at our faces as we zip through the city’s historic LoDo neighborhood in a pedicab. Our deceptively strong cabbie makes pulling five people seem effortless, cracking jokes with our three giggling children as he pumps and pedals us toward our hotel. It’s a memorable ending to our first night in the Mile High City (yes, at 5,280 feet, Denver is 1 mile above sea level) but just the beginning of a strand of delightful experiences we collect during our short stint here before spending Spring Break in snow-covered Winter Park.
As soon as we booked our flights into Denver I was making plans to stay and play for a day before moving on to the mountains. Combining 300 days of annual sunshine, a colorful Wild West past, a thriving arts and cultural scene, farm-to-table cuisine, a walkable downtown, hundreds of parks and a slew of family-friendly attractions, Colorado’s cosmopolitan capital puts forth some pretty convincing reasons to visit. With just under 36 hours to dabble in Denver before boarding the newly relaunched Winter Park Express ski train that transports passengers directly from Denver Union Station to the slopes of Winter Park Resort, the most difficult part was deciding what to do. Here’s how our family filled 36 hours in Denver en route to the Rockies last month.
Since we were traveling by train to Winter Park, we had resolved to make our entire trip rental-car-free. Fortunately, Denver is a city that makes it easy with its cheap and convenient public rail and bus transportation, vast ride-hailing options and friendly downtown pedal cabbies who make transporting tired little legs from point A to point B both efficient and entertaining. After arriving at Denver International Airport, there are myriad options for getting downtown. Take Denver’s Train to the Plane, the new rail service known as the A Line that opened a year ago and whisks travelers downtown with a trafficless, 37-minute ride for $9. Since our family of five had a week’s worth of ski-trip luggage in tow, it only cost us a few dollars more to get an Uber to drop us off directly at the Westin Denver Downtown (westindenverdowntown.com). The modern hotel is nestled in the city’s historic LoDo district near the famous 16th Street Mall, a mile-long, pedestrian-friendly stretch of shops, restaurants and attractions, and sits just blocks away from the recently renovated Denver Union Station where we would depart Saturday morning. It scores bonus points for family-friendly perks like an on-site restaurant and bar where kids eat free and a heated indoor/outdoor rooftop pool that eyeballs the Rockies. Also check out the Crawford Hotel (thecrawfordhotel.com), downtown’s hip new luxury boutique hotel housed within Denver’s Union Station, for upscale accommodations that blend elegance and history.
Traveling from balmy Austin to Denver in March, we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted with the same cloudless skies and temperate weather we’d been enjoying in Texas. My husband and I sipped Colorado crafts before watching our kids work off their pent-up plane energy at the adjacent Skyline Park — a three-block green space hemmed in by downtown high-rises where free events occur year-round, ranging from miniature golf and concerts during the summer to holiday movies and outdoor skating in winter. If you don’t want to walk, take the free 16th Street MallRide shuttle that lets riders jump on and off. We opted to take a brief stroll through the hip and historic Larimer Square, where Victorian buildings house trendy upscale boutiques and chef-driven restaurants and outdoor lights are strung like strands of glowing beads above, arriving at the doors of Osteria Marco (osteriamarco.com) by 6 p.m. Robust Italian smells and boisterous sounds rise from the restaurant’s cozy basement setting, so even if you have little ones at your table, they’ll blend right into the bustle. Order a specialty cocktail handcrafted with the restaurants’ own homemade mixers or peruse the extensive wine list before delving into creamy house-made burrata, fresh ricotta and spice-rubbed coppa from the formaggi and salumi bar. Our kids ordered a couple of the famous brick-oven fired pizzas, but the true showstopper was the heaping bowl of PEI mussels swimming in a steaming tomato, sausage and fennel broth.
For a post-dinner sweet treat, duck into Milkbox Creamery (milkboxicecream.com), which is tucked in Denver Union Station and serves sumptuous scoops of creative flavors for the littles (think cupcake and French toast) and boozy shakes for big kids like the 1881, concocted with butterscotch and bourbon.
A blissful breakfast capable of fueling a whirlwind day in Denver can be found at Snooze (snoozeeatery.com/locations/union-station). This breakfast-lover’s dream come true has spread to various locations including Austin, but the concept was created in Denver more than a decade ago by two brothers on a quest to evolve the morning dining experience. You’ll find dishes like the breakfast pot pie, a flaky puff pastry topped with homemade rosemary sausage gravy and a sunny side up egg, and sweeter options like fluffy buttermilk pancake flights. Indecisive brunchers can opt for the Benny duo, choosing half an order of their two favorite Benedicts like the Bella! Bella! Benny topped with prosciutto, Taleggio cheese and perfectly poached eggs on toasted ciabatta layered with cream cheese hollandaise and arugula. Want to make breakfast boozy? The mimosas here are made with bubbles on tap, and several a.m. cocktails are concocted with bacon-infused liquor.
We watched as two elephants playfully wrestled, tangling up their trunks before using them like water guns to spray each other. Dobby, the adorable baby male reticulated giraffe born just days before our visit, was frolicking between the legs of his taller, older and less-energetic companions. And we got a first glimpse of the Edge — the bigger and better nearly 1-acre habitat unveiled last month that allows visitors to get closer than ever to the zoo’s Amur tigers as they strut past viewing windows an arm’s length away and stride 12 feet above your head on elevated lofts. In total, the Denver Zoo (denverzoo.org) is home to 4,000 animals representing more than 600 species.
Also within City Park and a stone’s throw from the zoo, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (dmns.org) is a logical next stop. It’s remained at the heart of Denver’s cultural experience for the past century, and there’s good reason why — visitors of all ages and interests can discover cosmos in its planetarium, watch an IMAX show or travel through time. Marvel beneath prehistoric fossils like the towering T-Rex, learn fun facts about duckbilled dinos or explore the current myth-busting exhibit, Vikings: Beyond the Legend (now through Aug. 13), which dispels stereotypes and sheds light on a culture of surprising refinement.
Refuel between museums at the D Bar Denver (dbardenver.com). The D in this Uptown culinary hot spot originally stood for dessert, but now it’s expanded to include drinks and dining as well. Sip a famous house-made vanilla bean lemonade, or, if you’re feeling funky, try the Uptown Funk You Up crafted with Four Roses Bourbon, blood orange and mint. Nibble light fare like the grilled avocado and quinoa salad, or dig into the Southern fried Belgian Sandwich made with buttermilk fried chicken and cheesy chive waffles followed by a cake & shake, a divine dessert duo of three-layer chocolate cake and a milkshake.
When our “Star Wars”-obsessed family happened to be in Denver during the last few weeks of the “Star Wars and the Power of Costume” exhibit at the Denver Art Museum (denverartmuseum.org), marveling at the 70 original Star Wars costumes worn by iconic characters in all seven films, ranging from Queen Amidala to Darth Vader, was mandatory. But the Frederic C. Hamilton Building, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is an architectural work of art in itself, housing more than 70,000 works of art. It’s a great place for kids, too — admission is always free for those 18 and under, and there are fun areas geared toward families and creative corners made for imaginative play where little ones can try on costumes or create their own masterpieces.
Less than 3 miles from the Denver Art Museum in either direction, choose from two top-notch attractions based on age and interest. Not all children’s museums are capable of enamoring the imaginations of varying age groups, but our 8-year-old, 5-year-old and 2-year-old would have played at the Children’s Museum of Denver (mychildsmuseum.org) all day if they could (check closing times, which range from 4 to 7:30 p.m.). At this 9-acre imagination wonderland, kids can get a bird’s-eye view of the city by climbing more than three stories up the Altitude Climber, drive a fire truck with real lights and sirens, play veterinarian to an array of stuffed animals, create a DIY project using real hardware and tools, zip line, build forts in its one-of-a-kind outdoor Joy Park and make their own vapor-filled bubbles. If you don’t have young children, swap the above stop for a flora- and fauna-fringed stroll through Denver Botanic Gardens (botanicgardens.org). You can escape the concrete jungle without ever leaving the city at this stunning 24-acre urban oasis just north of Cherry Creek, widely considered one of the top botanical gardens in the country.
On an average day in the Denver metro area, more than 200 different beers are brewed. Let that sink in, then select a spot to sip along the Denver Beer Trail (denver.org/denver-beer-fest/denver-beer-trail). There are 65 breweries in the city to choose from, but you can’t go wrong with sipping a pint at one of the country’s largest brewpubs. Wynkoop Brewing Company’s ever-rotating tap featuring 30-plus beers — it was the first brewpub in historic downtown Denver since Prohibition and has been brewing handcrafted beer in its basement brewery for nearly three decades.
After a fun-filled whirlwind day in Denver, sink your teeth into chef-crafted, out-of-the-box burgers made with local ingredients and sandwiched between homemade buns at the family-friendly 5280 Burger Bar (5280burgerbar.com). Wash them down with your pick of a dozen Colorado craft beers on tap and follow it up with a sweet finale at the adjoining 5280 Ice Cream, a from-scratch creamery with its own ice cream chef churning eight flavors in house daily. While there, say howdy to partner Clay McPhail, a University of Texas grad and former longtime owner of El Arroyo.
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Purchase a Mile High Culture Pass (three-day pass $30; five-day pass $52.80), which includes admission to Denver’s top attractions including the Denver Art Museum, Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Denver Zoo and more. denver.org/things-to-do/denver-attractions/mile-high-culture-pass