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AARP’s City Guide to Denver

Old West heritage mixes with modern sensibility in this alpine metropolis

spinner image left the bronco buster sculpture in the civic center cultural complex left the skyline of denver colorado
The “Bronco Buster” statue; Denver skyline
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Colorado’s capital was born as a gold rush city in 1858. The 21st century version is a modern metropolis of more than 3 million people. Denver wears its Old West heritage proudly, reflected in the 19th century architecture of downtown buildings including the Brown Palace Hotel and Spa and in events such as the annual National Western Stock Show and rodeo every January. But with that history comes a contemporary personality, obvious in top-flight dining, a booming performing arts culture, first-class museums and boutique shopping. With the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, Denver attracts the outdoor-minded with miles of running, hiking and biking trails, public golf courses, large green spaces within the city and more. Yes, it is the gateway to the many ski towns and resorts dotted throughout the Colorado Rockies, but that’s another story. We’re talking about Denver, with tips to plan a great vacation in the city. 

When to go

Denver has four distinct seasons and a mostly mild, sunny climate, notwithstanding the occasional newsmaking winter storm. The best touring weather is April through October. However, it can be 75 degrees at New Year’s and snowing at Easter, so you never know. The city is blessed with low humidity in the summer when outdoor concerts, neighborhood art, food and craft festivals and regular farmers’ markets are at their peak. That said, if schedules allow for a shoulder season visit, early spring and early fall are likely to offer more affordable hotel and transportation options and crowds are more manageable.

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How to prepare for your trip

Pack for a casual city. Include layers to accommodate temperature variations (see above); comfortable shoes are a must for all the walking you are sure to do. Denver is not called the Mile High City for nothing. It is 5,280 feet high (the 13th step on the Colorado Capitol steps attests to its height), and it goes up from there. Take the altitude seriously. If you are not accustomed to spending periods of time at 5,000 feet above sea level and higher, you may experience altitude sickness. You may feel tired, light-headed or dizzy, develop a headache, loss of appetite or nausea all caused by a lack of oxygen in the altitude. Consider talking with your health care provider in advance about prevention and treatment. Remember that higher elevation exposes you to a higher percentage of UV rays from the sun than you get at sea level. Pack sunscreen.

How to get to Denver

Denver International Airport (DEN) is the third busiest in the U.S. (behind Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth). That makes it easy to find an airline that serves the city but requires traveler patience with lines for security, food and drink, baggage collection and, sometimes, for seats at your gate. Among the airlines that fly into Denver are American, United, Southwest and Delta, as well as Frontier, Spirit, JetBlue and international carriers such as British Airways and Air France. With approximately 35,000 employees, Denver’s airport is the size of a small city. The ongoing construction can make it confusing to navigate, so arrive early, check in online and pack snacks.

Drivers will find Denver on a crossroads of interstates, I-25 is the north-south route, I-70 goes east-west across Colorado. Denver is accessible by Amtrak on the California Zephyr route from San Francisco to Chicago.  

Getting around

Driving is an option (rush-hour traffic can be brutal), but you can get around the city without a car because Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) has a light rail system with 12 lines and 78 stations. It will get you from many areas of the city to the airport. RTD runs an expansive city bus line with the same fare structure as light rail: $5 for a local ride, $9 for regional and $20 to the airport. Free buses operate around the 16th Street Mall downtown — a big plus for shoppers. 

Where to stay 

The Brown Palace Hotel and Spa: For a unique high-end experience, stay downtown at the Brown Palace Hotel and Spa, which was designed and built starting in 1888 in Italian Renaissance style. You can’t help feeling as if you’ve stepped back in time when you arrive in the arched lobby. Public and private historical tours of the building can be booked by calling the hotel in advance. A room puts you close to some of Denver’s best boutique shopping at the 16th Street Mall and Larimer Square. 

The Jacquard: The Jacquard in Cherry Creek is more modern than the Brown Palace, but it has a similar welcoming vibe. It’s close to retail shopping, great restaurants and the Denver Botanic Gardens. The rooftop pool is a great place to relax with a cocktail and take in views of the mountains. More luxury hotels include the Four Seasons Hotel Denver, the Ritz-Carlton and Hotel Clio. 

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The River North Art District (RiNO) has colorful buildings and great restaurants. ​​
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The Source and the Thompson: For something a little different, there’s the Source Hotel in the River North Art District (RiNO) with interesting Japanese-Scandinavian décor and a market hall with local eateries, retail shopping, a brewery, barber and more. The Thompson Hotel in lower downtown (LoDo) has weekly well-being events such as Tincture Thursdays or Find Your Inner Rocker Wednesdays. 

Affordable options such as Hampton Inn & Suites, Hilton, Hyatt, LaQuinta, DoubleTree and Comfort Inn are scattered in city and suburban neighborhoods close to activities and attractions. Airbnb, Vrbo and other homestay platforms list everything from single rooms to freestanding homes in every neighborhood. If you’re traveling with a group, it’s worth looking at the prices and properties.  

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Where to eat 

Denver has become a foodie paradise with a wide range of restaurants to entice all palates. You will be spoiled with choices, but it won’t be hard to choose wisely. 

Redeemer Pizza: If it’s affordable, inventive pizza you want, head to Redeemer in RiNO for creations such as the Diavolo with Calabrian red sauce, soppressata, pepperoni, jalapeño, yellow peppers and a cheese blend. Locals say don’t skip the garlic knots, an appetizer of fresh mozzarella with garlic butter and chile honey.

Bellota: When in RiNO, find extraordinary Mexican food such as shrimp tacos with Chihuahua cheese, onion, tomato cream and flour tortillas or, better yet, a taco flight with one each of seven varieties. The drink menu is also long and includes fun frozen margaritas. 

Spuntino: For another spin on Italian fare, head to Spuntino in Highland where all the pasta is hand-rolled and the menu items are decidedly global. Try the Colorado striped bass served with harissa-roasted carrots, preserved lemon couscous, herb yogurt and fried chickpeas. 

Daughter Thai Kitchen & Bar: Also in Highland, find small plates with delights such as stewed Bangkok-style ribs with glazed honey, palm sugar, black soy sauce and wok-fried Angus grilled beef with basil, black pepper, garlic and red bell peppers. 

Steak houses: For a fresh take on your favorite cut, try A5 Steakhouse in LoDo, a modern interpretation of a traditional chophouse. In Cherry Creek, there are two traditional steak restaurants, 801 Chophouse and Elway’s (yes, co-owned by the former Bronco star quarterback John Elway.) 

spinner image football fans at the mile high stadium in denver colorado
Football fans pack the Mile High stadium during home games.
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What to do

See a game: Denver has five major professional sports teams, all with devoted fans — Broncos football, Nuggets basketball, Rockies baseball, Rapids soccer and Avalanche hockey. Check schedules and ticket availability on SeatGeek, Ticketmaster or the team websites.

Hear great music: Some of the biggest names in showbiz can be heard at large venues around Denver, which is a concert-loving town. This year, you’ll find George Strait at Empower Field at Mile High; Brandi Carlile at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre; Ed Sheeran at the Paramount Theatre; and Madonna at Ball Arena — just to name a few.   

At other venues, you will find more performers in genres from jazz and folk to rock and country. For classical music, the Colorado Symphony orchestra is at home in Boettcher Concert Hall, part of the Denver Performing Arts Complex (DPAC), with a creative and busy 2023/24 season. Buy tickets in advance. 

Enjoy a Broadway musical: The DPAC books some of the most popular touring musicals, and you can see them at a smidgen of what you’d pay in New York City. Shows change frequently, so check in as you plan your trip and purchase in advance. In 2023, shows include SIX: The Musical, Funny Girl, Mean Girls and Wicked

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The Denver Art Museum features world-class works inside and outside.​​
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Visit a first-class museum: The Denver Art Museum is beautiful to look at from the outside. Inside, visitors find a large collection of Indigenous art of North America, Western American art, contemporary exhibits and, on any given day, a visiting collection. Admission is $19; $16 for people 65 and older. 

At the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, find dinosaurs, gems and a planetarium. For the museum only, tickets cost $22.95; $19.95 for those 65 and older. 

Play outdoors: Say namaste to Yoga on the Rocks in Morrison (just outside Denver). Buy a ticket for the 7 a.m. summer Saturday classes online in advance. Visit one of the city’s parks — Cheesman, Washington or City Park — for easy biking, hiking or walking trails year-round. Take a stand-up paddleboarding lesson, or rent a board, kayak or canoe at Cherry Creek reservoir to paddle around. 

AARP picks

Chase ghosts of Denver past: Try a 90-minute walking tour of the city’s haunted spots with Ghost City Tours. It offers two tours each night — one for families and one for adults only (more mature language and themes). Prices are $34.99 for the adult tour; $24.99 per person over age 12 for the family tour.

Way to save: Do the family tour (even without kids) if you do not love macabre details of gory murders. 

Visit Unsinkable Molly Brown’s house: Molly Brown, famously “unsinkable” as a heroine of the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, was, with her husband, a resident of Denver at 1340 Pennsylvania St. The Victorian home is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Guided tours are $20; $18 for people 70 and older.  

Way to save: Explore the property on your own via audio tour for $16; $14 for those 70 and older.   

spinner image the denver capitol building in colorado
Tours of the Capitol are free. 
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See the seat of government: Denver’s Capitol is arresting — inside and out — and the showpiece of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. The building is open Monday through Friday for free 60-minute tours, but each group is limited to 30 people and entry is on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Way to save: Learn about one of the oldest agencies in the federal government and where your money is made without paying a cent: Billions of coins each year come from the Denver Mint, one of four coin-producing mints operating in the U.S. Tours are free Monday through Thursday. The ticket window opens at 7 a.m. Go early on the day you want the tour.

Browse a nationally known bookstore: The Tattered Cover Book Store has been a community resource and gem of a place for readers for more than 50 years. It has seven locations in and around Denver (and one in Colorado Springs), but its main spot is in a former theater on Colfax Avenue. Take time to browse the inventory, find a novel and have a snack or coffee at the in-store café.

Way to save: Most locations host author events for free. Check the event calendar for the latest information. 

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