AOL PICK from our Editors
Denver’s biggest attraction is Mother Nature. The metro puddles up against the Front Range, right where the purple mountains’ majesty meets the fruited plain, so bring your hiking boots and an appetite for adventure. They say the best things in life are free and some of the best things to do in Denver are free too. Exploring the city parks and open spaces of the foothills is free, and even the in-town attractions are very affordable. If you’re watching your travel dollars closely, Denver offers a lot of thrills per dollar. Most of these attractions are kid-friendly, so if you have little ones, bring them along. If hiking, mountain biking and skiing don't make your list, don't fret because some of the best things to do in Denver can be found indoors. From museums and historic buildings to bustling theme parks and splendid rock formations the Mile High City has something to offer everyone.
If you have tikes to entertain or you’re an adrenaline junkie looking to ride every coaster from coast-to-coast, Elitch Gardens is a good place to spend an afternoon. This historic theme park can trace its roots back to the 1890s. True to its name, it was once known for its beautiful gardens (at a previous location). Today, it's a full-scale amusement park, one of the top things to do in Denver for children and teens that enjoy the thrill of coasters and other rides . The Mind Eraser is aptly named: this suspension coaster climbs 10 stories and drops. Besides the gut-wrenching thrillers, the park has 13 pint-sized rides for the younger crowd. Elitch Gardens is a fun family outing, and it's located right in downtown Denver. The park is open from May to Labor Day, but hours vary by day (as do admission prices and parking rates) so check the website before planning your trip. Outside food and beverage aren't permitted, so plan on bringing some extra cash to eat onsite.
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Neighborhood: Federal Heights
For many Denver kids, summer means Water World. Just north of Denver, this 64-acre park has everything from gentle rivers to wild water rides. Water World is one of the best things to do in Denver in the summertime if you're traveling with kids and want a full day of entertainment. Wally World (yep, there really is a Wally World) is an area just for little kids, with tot-sized slides and gentle water features. Teens seem to flock to the Zoomerang, a half-pipe water slide, and the Screamin’ Mimi, where riders zoom down a 50-foot-track at high speeds. And everyone loves the wave pools and Lazy River. On-site food selections are limited to the standard burgers-pizza-chicken tenders so if you have picky eaters (or just want something different) bring your own picnic to enjoy on the grounds. Tots under 40” are free and full adult admission is roughly $35 for a whole day or $20 for a half day. Prices vary depending on the day so check out the Water World website for current ticket prices.
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Neighborhood: The ArtDistrict on Santa Fe
With the American Indian collections at the DAM temporarily shuttered, the little Museo de las Americas is Denver’s best place to see indigenous art—with a Latino accent. Temporary exhibitions from contemporary Latin artists are the highlight and the selections change frequently. The Museo focuses on interactive programs that engage visitors with artists and their art, including a free art party held the first Friday of each month and a Spanish happy hour ($5) held the third Friday of each month for visitors who want to mingle and converse about culture in Spanish.
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City of Golden
is an idyllic small town tucked into the foothills just a 20-minute drive from Denver—and it’s a charming place to to spend the day. A sign over Washington Avenue says, “Howdy, Folks! Welcome to Golden,” and that Mayberry attitude permeates the town. You can't get lost here. Just park the car (parking is free and plentiful) and go explore. Start by strolling the main street, Washington Avenue, which is lined with boutiques and shops. Have lunch at Old Capitol Grill (once home to the Territorial Capitol) or get some ice cream at one of the outdoor cafes. Clear Creek runs through town, and it’s relaxing to walk the river path and watch the kayakers in the kayak park. After that, walk over to the Coors Brewery, consistently one of the top things to do in Denver, for a free self-guided tour (with samples!). The friendly staff at the Golden Visitor's Center at 10th Street and Washington Avenue will answer all of your questions and give you more ideas about how to spend your day.
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Neighborhood: City Park
It may have been designed with kids in mind, but the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is just as fascinating for adults, making it a must see for everyone. Located near the zoo in City park it has timeless permanent collections (don’t miss the Gems and Minerals and Egyptian mummies) alongside temporary exhibits from around the world. When your feet get tired, take in an IMAX movie or one of the shows at the museum’s planetarium. After your visit, don’t forget to stop and savor the views from City Park. On a clear day, you can see more than 200 named peaks and 140 miles of mountain range.
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Denver Art Museum
Neighborhood: Central Business District
Even the building itself is a work of art: The striking (and controversial) angular lines of the Denver Art Museum's famous Hamilton Building were designed by Daniel Libeskind. It has an impressive array of European, African and contemporary art, but its unique feature is its 19,000-plus American Indian items—making it one of the largest collections of its kind in North America. The objects span the whole range of American Indian history from pre-European contact to contemporary masters. The Native American galleries are temporarily being remodeled and are expected to reopen in January 2011. Meantime, there’s a wealth of culture to explore. Temporary exhibits change frequently, making each visit a new experience and, while it may not be the best choice if you’re traveling with young children, older kids enjoy the hands-on interactive exhibits, like the “Art Tubes” program where kids can engage in activities like making making their own western boots (sign up at the Family Activity Cart, located on level two of the Hamilton Building).
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Nature is responsible for Denver's stunning outdoor park and concert venue. True to its name, the park is set among towering red rocks, which provide the natural acoustics for the world-famous amphitheatre. Check concert schedules before your arrivals, catching a live show at idyllic Red Rocks is one of the best things to do in Denver. Even when there’s no performance scheduled, residents like to walk down to the stage and test the acoustics by singing or talking to friends up top. You can also hike the trails that meander through the park. Don’t forget your camera—this is the perfect place to take that yearly family photo. Entrance is free, except during concerts and special events.
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At the Downtown Aquarium, the local joke is that you can "view 'em or chew 'em." Simply put, this is an excellent aquarium that kids love, as well as a fun restaurant where guests can view the fish and dine in an under-the-sea themed environment next to windows looking into the 150,000-gallon main tank. The restaurant is about the scenery: if you’re looking for a great meal, dine afterwards, but it’s a great place to have drinks and appetizers while watching the tank’s residents parade past the large windows. The aquarium details the aquatic journey from an Indonesian rainforest to the Pacific Ocean, as well as the journey from the Continental Divide to the Sea of Cortez. There are exhibits exploring terrestrial habits as well. For some reason, the Aquarium is also home to several Sumatran tigers; that seems to confuse a lot of other folks as well, but they’re still cool, even if misplaced among the fish tanks. If you’re feeling bold, you can arrange to snorkel ($75 per person) or scuba dive ($175 per person) inside the aquarium in the shipwreck exhibit. A company called A1 Scuba orchestrates the program—reserve at least one week in advance if you plan on swimming with the fish on the weekend; during the week you can walk in from 10AM-12PM. To sign up (303-789-2450; www.a1scuba.com
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Neighborhood: Central Business District
Ever wonder how our coins are made? If so, take the free tour at the United States Mint. Operating on the hour from 9AM to 2PM Monday through Friday, the tour lasts 30 minutes and takes visitors through every stage of the minting process, from design to the striking of the coins. The Mint produces a whopping 50 million coins a day and each has a tiny “D” stamped on it, showing it was made at the Denver Mint. Reservations are required, and can be made online at: www.usmint.gov
. If you’re visiting Denver between Memorial Day and Labor Day we recommend reserving your tour at least two months in advance. The rest of the year, you can usually get away with reserving two weeks ahead.
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Neighborhood: Capitol Hill
Does the Colorado State Capitol look familiar? It should: it was designed to look like the U.S. Capitol. The building was opened in 1894; to commemorate the anniversary of the 1859 gold rush that led to the founding of Denver the dome was covered with 200 ounces of gold in 1908. Free tours Monday through Friday take guests through all parts of the building, including the House and Senate chambers. The interior is faced with rose marble quarried in nearby Beulah, a stone so rare that the world’s entire known supply was used in this building, and there are portraits of all of the U.S. presidents and stained glass commemorating famous residents. Coloradans are especially proud of the small exhibit on former Gov. Ralph Carr, who defied a presidential order and refused to send Colorado Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II. Out on the Capitol steps, stop and take your photos on the step marked exactly one mile high (there are three markers; the one on the 13th step is exactly one mile above sea level). And check out the view: It’s against the law to construct anything that would block the view of the mountains from the Capitol, so you can see for miles.
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Dave Parsons, Denver Zoo
Neighborhood: City Park
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If you have kids (and quite frankly, even if you don’t), the Denver Zoo should be on your list. Set in City Park, the zoo is home to nearly 4,000 animals, from Komodo dragons to elephants and rhinos. Naturalistic habitats, such as the Primate Panorama, Predator Ridge and Tropical Discovery, create a rich experience for zoo visitors, as well as a beneficial environment for the animals. Don't miss the zoo nursery, which often houses baby animals. It has a special viewing window that lets you see the little guys up close. The zoo is one of the top things to do in Denver for families, and with over 300 days of sunshine here a year you can plan a visit nearly any time you vacation here. You can drop a couple of bucks on hot dogs from one of the food vendors in the park, but we like to take a picnic lunch to enjoy in the shade of one of the big trees scattered throughout the zoo.
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