Denver’s first permanent structure was a saloon – a fitting start for a city that has more than 92 breweries within its city limits. It’s easy to see why it’s a great place to spend a weekend.
But beers and brewery tours won’t satisfy your young family members. They’ll want something a bit more fun (and probably less hoppy.) Sure, you can head to the typical tourist attractions like the Denver Nature and Science Museum and Elitch Gardens or walk the streets of the 16th Street Mall, but wouldn’t you rather visit Denver like a real local?
If you’re keen to avoid the crowds of families and impress your kids with some fun activities, check out these must-do items for any family visiting the Mile-High City.
1. Check Out Lions, Tigers, and Bears (oh my!)
The Denver Zoo is more than just lions, tigers, and bears, although it did start with just one bear as a gift to the mayor of Denver. Since its inception in 1918, the Denver Zoo has grown to immense heights over the years. With over 4,000 animals and 550 species represented in the 80-acre facility, your kids are all but guaranteed to see their favorite animal.
Local tip: If you can, go first thing in the morning on a week day for the smallest crowds.
The newly opened Stingray Cove gets you up close and personal with the winged creatures of the sea, and daily programs like the sea lion or elephant shows will wow even the most cynical of kids. You’ll feel good about heading to this particular zoo as its sustainability mission and humane breeding programs work to keep zoo and wild animal populations healthy and secure.
2. Walk Through Time with Dinosaurs
Regardless of whether there’s a paleontology or geology nerd in your family, Dinosaur Ridge should satisfy everyone in your crew. It’s technically in the town of Morrison, just a few miles southwest of Denver, and most definitely worth the drive.
Walk by ancient beaches and see the footprints left behind from the dinosaurs that once walked the shores. You can set the pace yourselves by walking the two-mile trail from the Visitor Center or take one of the guided bus tours (especially if you have wee ones that can’t walk far).
3. Play on A Rooftop Playground
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For real – your kids will be blown away with the Adventure Forest at the Children’s Museum of Denver. The play area is on the roof and winds its way through bridges and tunnels and looks out to the city skyline.
While you’re there, check out the other exhibits including Box Canyon, a grocery market, a bubble station, a dentist office, a baby-friendly area, and even a fire station. Don’t forget to reserve your tickets in advance. Go just after lunch time during the week. Most families will be heading home for naptime, but the museum gets quiet on weekday afternoons.
4. Got a Picky Eater? Head to Denver Central Market
Let’s face it, come mealtime, kids are…..well, sometimes terrible. It seems like there’s always something that makes them not want to eat what’s put in front of them. But look no further than Denver Central Market to find something to satisfy even the most frustrating of palettes. There’s pizza, pasta, fish, sandwiches, good ol’ meat-and-cheese concoctions, and even a chocolaterie.
Bonus: this is also where you’ll find High Point Creamery, which many people think is the best ice cream in town. If you taste their “cookies and cream” flavor, you’ll understand why it’s so beloved. (Hint: they smush their homemade chocolate wafer, sugar, and chocolate chip cookies into the ice cream. Yum!)
5. Visit the Wild Wild West
This requires a bit of an adventure outside of town, but it’s worth the trek. Due west of Denver is a quaint little town called Golden. You can take the G-Line and catch the free shuttle to downtown or drive yourself. A huge banner across Washington Ave states “Howdy Folks! Welcome to the West,” and it couldn’t be more fitting.
Golden has something for the kids and adults: breweries (take the Coors Brewery Tour to learn about the history of the town), a speakeasy, toy stores, tubing down Clear Creek, and even a dinosaur-themed playground. There are some nice hikes and mountain bike trails around Golden if you want to make a full day of it (or introduce kids to biking.)
6. Become a Train Conductor for a Day
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If you’ve got a kiddo who’s obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, head on out to the Colorado Railroad Museum. If you’re spending the day in Golden already, good news: the museum is just down the road from downtown.
It houses over 100 narrow- and standard-gauge steam and diesel locomotives, passenger cars, and cabooses on the 15-acre property. Be careful and keep an eye on the clock or else you’ll lose track (see what I did there?) of time.
7. Willy Wonka? Nah – Carl Hammond
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Just over 100 years ago, Carl T. Hammond opened a candy factory in Denver. It’s now an iconic brand in the heart of the city. And while kids are always going to love visiting a candy store, what may be even cooler is visiting a candy factory.
Specializing in nostalgia, Hammond’s Candies range from licorice to nuts and brittle to big, round lollipop swirls. Kids will love seeing how everything is made. It’s seriously every kid’s (and, let’s face it, adult’s) dream to run around in a candy factory, and when you’re done, you can pick up plenty of treats for the car ride back home.
8. Take a Risk on the Cyclone
Local tip: Bring a picnic so you don’t have to buy food in the park. It’s healthier and cheaper!
Why spend $65 for admission to Elitch Gardens when you can get into another amusement park for only $3.50? That’s right: Lakeside Amusement Park has a minimal fee to get in – you just buy tickets for the individual rides.
It’s perfect for parents who have small children that can only go on a handful of rides, or need to trade on and off with which parent stays with little kids. And while there are dozens of rides to choose from, you’ll want to be sure to make time to ride the famous “Cyclone” wooden roller coaster.
9. See the High-Flying Cliff Divers
“South Park” fans already know about this gem located on the longest contiguous street in the United States (Colfax Avenue.) Casa Bonita may have been made famous by the kids from South Park, but locals consider visiting the well-loved restaurant to rite of passage when exploring the city.
And yes, there really are cliff divers in the dive show, which is held every 90 minutes. There are also gunfights, pirate shows, and a massive gift shop kids will have a hard time leaving. The entertainment is probably better than the food, but kids won’t care about that. You and the kids will get a kick out of this true Denver gem.
10. Find Your Inner Canadian and Try Your Hand at Curling
Curling has a rich history in Colorado dating back to 1965. The Denver Curling facility recently opened in 2014 after many decades of zero participation due to lack a dwindling curling community. But thanks to the media coverage of curling after the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, the sport became popular again and the center opened with an active membership.
The center hosts open houses throughout the week and anyone can come and try curling out for themselves. Be warned, though: it’s quite the work out on your upper body if you choose to be a sweeper. But the good news is kids will have a ton of fun, even if they don’t really know the rules.
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