What to do in Denver for a Weekend
Trying to hit all 50 states before I turn 25 means that I have to cut some trips shorter than others, especially because I have a full-time job that I can’t leave whenever I want. First world problems, right? In trying to visit all 50 states, I want to experience them all, not just visit them. I would say that my long weekend in Denver was a success, so here’s what I recommend for a long weekend in Denver. Try to squeeze in as much as you can!
Long Weekend in Denver
If you’re stuck with only a few days in Denver, my first recommendation is to stay as close to the city as possible. What you’ll learn is that the Denver airport is a solid 25 miles from the downtown area. To get the most of your long weekend in Denver, you’re better off spending the extra $20-$50 per night to stay closer to the city.
Posts about the other parts of our trip (Boulder, Colorado Springs, Cheyenne, WY) are coming soon!
Here’s what we did, and what I highly recommend you place at the top of your list if you only have a short amount of time to spend in Denver:
Denver Zoo Free Days
I have to be honest here. I NEVER recommend that you spend your time at a zoo if you have a short time in a city, and Denver is no exception – BUT, as someone who volunteers to protect elephants and loves most animals, I had to see why the Denver Zoo was rated so highly by so many conservationists and travelers alike.
In short, I get it. I get why it appeals to tourists because they have virtually every animal that anyone ever wants to see in a zoo and every exhibit is strategically organized so that the animals are almost always in close view. I get why it appeals to families because even if your kids don’t have the energy to go through a zoo that big, you can pick one area and see like 15 different exhibits, all with high excitement factors. I get why it appeals to conservationists because MOST of the exhibits appear to be better suited for wild animals than in most other zoos.
PLUS, there are several “Denver Zoo Free Days” throughout the year. SO, if you’re visiting Denver on a budget, and if you have kids with you, see if your visit happens to fall during one of the Denver Zoo Free Days. According to the Denver Post, they are January 11, 19, and 20, February 4 and 5, and November 9 and 12.
I tend to focus on elephants more than other animals because I’ve always loved them and I volunteer for The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennesee. So when we accidentally walked into the back half of the Denver Zoo’s elephant talk, I was immediately disappointed. At The Elephant Sanctuary, vets and specialists don’t even have physical contact with the elephants unless necessary, and there is always a large, heavy barrier between them. At the Denver Zoo, zookeepers were standing INSIDE the male elephant’s exhibit, within maybe 10 feet of the magnificent beast. Honestly, it doesn’t make too much of a difference than if they were outside since the only barrier appears to be a short plexiglass wall. If an elephant really wanted to break through there, he could. My guess is that they’re counting on the small body of water there to keep the bull from escaping, but it’s hardly easy to stop a male bull who really wants out.
The zookeeper giving the talk repeated a few times that they “only train natural behaviors.” Um, hello? If they were natural behaviors, you wouldn’t have to train them. I then watched the bull bow down on his knees and receive a treat for his actions. Sorry, that is not natural.
16th Street Mall Denver Experience
This is where we spent most of our time in Denver. The 16th Street Mall is a mile long stretch of blocks in downtown Denver which are closed to traffic. It is loaded with restaurants, shops, and street performers and it’s a great experience day or night. These are my favorite must-hits:
Take the 16th Street Mall Shuttle
You can walk the entire thing, but I think we did that five or six times during our long weekend in Denver and after awhile, your feet get tired. The 16th Street Mall Shuttle is a completely free service that can take you from one end of the mall to the other (and has stops throughout). You can also take the shuttle all the way down to the famous “13th step.”
As you may have heard, Denver is nicknamed the “Mile High City” because it is almost exactly a mile above sea level. If you want to be exactly a mile high, you can stand on the 13th step of the Capitol building downtown. It’s marked and everything, so you don’t have to count steps. Funnily enough, when we were there, a big anti-health care reform act protest was happening. They were friendly enough, just chanting things like “save health care” and waving around signs about pre-existing conditions. I wish I could’ve gotten better pictures of this 13th step thing, though.
Explore 16th Street Mall Stores
The 16th Street Mall Stores are a combination of interesting boutiques, adorable book stores, great restaurants, and touristy gift shops. Inside the gift shops, you’ll find a whole lot of marijuana paraphernalia, several Red Rocks references, and a lot of Denver Broncos and Colorado Rockies memorabilia. There are also vendors who line the streets selling handmade items and knock-off sunglasses. In a way, it’s like walking through NYC. In others, it’s nothing like that at all!
Tattered Cover Bookstore
If you’re a book nerd like me or have any slight interest in cool bookstores, you have to visit Tattered Cover on the 16th Street Mall. The store originated in Denver and only exists in Denver, with four separate downtown locations.
Tattered Cover is unique because even though there are only four locations and it is independently owned, the stores are quite large. You still feel like you’re in a small, indie bookstore, but you have thousands of books to sort through. I walked away with a paperback copy of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy for just $10 as well as a few gifts for people back home. ^LOOK AT HOW CUTE IT IS!
Dine at 16th Street Mall Restaurants
Similar to the array of stores, there are several different choices when it comes to dining at 16th Street Mall restaurants. There’s casual, fast eateries, fancy napkin-on-your-lap expensive restaurants, and there are dive bar environments. I wish I could have tried everything, but here are my suggestions based on what I was able to sample:
Rialto Cafe Denver
On our first night, we ate at Rialto Cafe, which proved to be amazing. I had Steak & Frites, and it was one of the better choices I made on this trip. I 10/10 recommend it. It’s sliced grilled sirloin over a plate of crispy french fries which are covered in bacon, red wine demi, and chimichurri. It was special. My brother went with a simple burger and my parents both loved the bison meatloaf. The cafe itself appears a bit fancier than some of the other restaurants in the area, but they have an outdoor patio and you can still dress casually.
Download the Rialto Cafe Menu
If you have picky eaters in your family like I do, you can click here to view the Rialto Cafe Menu ahead of time and make sure it’s a good fit for you and your travel companions!
Crave Real Burgers:
Crave has four locations in northeastern Colorado, and one is in downtown Denver. It’s technically not on the 16th street mall, but it’s close and I highly recommend it for one of your Denver meals. They’ve won several awards and were featured on The Today Show for their whimsical and unique burgers. You can stay simple and get a “Not Your Mothers,” which is basically a typical swiss/mushroom/onion burger except really really good, or you can go a little weird and get the Flaming Tiki which includes grilled pineapple, fried jalapenos, avocado, and more (do yourself a favor and order it). Their shakes are equally as whimsical and delicious.
P.S., the freshly brewed (at Coors Field) Blue Moon they served me was the best Blue Moon I’ve ever tasted.
See the Denver Convention Center Bear
If you’re an architecture nerd, you might enjoy just checking out the Denver Convention Center! The center opened in 1990 and is the 12th largest convention center in the country. Fun fact: the first event ever held at the Denver Convention Center was the NBA draft for the Denver Nuggets. The Center is 2,200,000 square feet and includes a 5,000 seat theater, a 5,000 seat ballroom, and 1000 parking spaces. It stands at 489 feet tall and features the famous Blue Bear that appears as though it is leaning against the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Denver Blue Bear
So apparently it’s a thing that you’re supposed to hug the Blue Bear? Whether you want to wrap your arms around its leg or not, it’s a 40-foot statue of a big, blue bear that looks as though it’s holding up the conference center. So if you have 20 minutes to kill one afternoon in Denver, head towards to conference center and you’ll find the Blue Bear.
Red Rocks Park & Amphitheater
Red Rocks Park and the Red Rocks Amphitheater are technically in the city of Morrison, closer to Golden, CO, but it’s only about a half hour drive from Denver.
Red Rocks was indescribable. My pictures, any pictures, do not do it any justice. The same goes for any of the Rockies area and Colorado nature. One minute we were on the interstate, surrounded by beautiful mountains but still on an interstate, and the next minute we were turning a corner and looking out at these beautiful, monstrous, natural red rock formations.
We parked at some random, tiny lot on the side of one of the mountains and started up a trail. Turning around and seeing nothing but mountains all around you is an unforgettable experience (especially if you’re like me and you’ve only ever lived in the beachy Northeast or the flatter part of the South). Red Rocks Park is a MUST for your Denver trip.
We also took a peek at Red Rocks Amphitheater – only the coolest music venue in the country. Our busy schedule for our trip did not allow us to see Red Rocks at night for a movie or concert, but I highly recommend that you do that if you can and then tell me all about it. During the day, the amphitheater is littered with fitness buffs running up and down the steps and tourists standing at the top to admire it and take pictures.
Red Rocks Park Hours
Red Rocks park is always open from an hour before sunrise to an hour after sunset. There is no admission fee for the trails, the Trading Post (gift shop), the amphitheater (as long as there is no concert or event happening), and the Colorado Music Hall of Fame.
Explore Red Rocks Park Trails
It’s relatively easy to navigate Red Rocks. No matter which way you enter the park, you’ll see small parking lots ascending up the rocks. Pick one and start your hike!
Download the Red Rocks Park Map
Check the Red Rocks Events Calendar
Once you book your long weekend in Denver, check the Red Rocks event calendar! It may be worth your while to check out a show even if the artist playing isn’t your favorite. Red Rocks concerts are uniquely awesome experiences!
Little Man Ice Cream Denver
Little Man is THAT ice cream place that has a line that stretches for blocks. The environment is fun & unique; it’s all outdoors and it’s perfect for a cold cone on a hot summer day. The flavors are fun, I tried banana pudding and enjoyed it. PRO TIP: You can save time by jumping in the shorter line (like a 20-minute wait instead of over an hour). The “express” line has fewer flavors to choose from but because of that it moves a lot faster, and you still get good ice cream. We took our ice cream and walked across the pedestrian bridge (that you can see from the shop) and around the cute little neighborhood across the road that eventually brings you back to the 16th street mall.
Little Man Ice Cream Flavors
Little Man Ice Cream has a wide variety of flavors, but they do change and may not all be available when you visit. You can view the full Little Man Ice Cream menu here. Some notable flavors include: Mexican Chocolate, Banana Pudding, Cheesecake Brownie, French Toast, and a variety of vegan options!
3 Days in Denver
I wish I had more time in Denver itself, but the time I spent around it (in Boulder, Colorado Springs, and even Cheyenne, WY) was incredible as well. Blogs about those other places are coming soon.
I am happy with our choices for the short time we had there. So, if you have a limited amount of time in Denver, I highly recommend spending a good bit of time shopping and eating around the 16th Street Mall and going to Red Rocks.
*Reminder – Though I only spent two days in Denver, my week long vacation included time in Boulder and Colorado Springs as well as Cheyenne, Wyoming. Check back soon for posts about those places.*
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