Live in Colorado and want a “staycation”? Have a couple days in Denver to acclimate before hitting the higher elevations? The Mile-High City offers a walkable visit in this quintessentially Western metropolis.
On a recent trip to Denver, my friend and I built our visit around a couple of themes: women’s history and western art. Turns out, this was a great way to focus our attention. Choose a “theme” for your getaway to give it more meaning.
Arrival in Denver, check in at downtown hotel.
Spend your afternoon exploring downtown on your own, perhaps using a walking tour from Visit Denver or a travel app like GPSMyCity. If you get into town early enough, you could do a morning guided walking tour with Historic Denver. Orient yourself to the Denver street grid and learn how the pedestrian street crossing signals work (hint – for many intersections you wait until the pedestrian light signals, and then all traffic stops while all pedestrians can cross the streets). Familiarize yourself with the 16th Street buses, also known as the Civic Center Mall Loop. The bus ride is free and will take you from one end of the 16th Street Mall to the other. You can catch it at any corner along the 16th Street Mall.
End up at Union Station for the late day light and explore the train station for photography opportunities. The lights and the colors of the sky can provide great shots. Union Station is also worth strolling through and choosing a restaurant for dinner. Depending on when you are visiting, you may need to make reservations – it can be busy on weekends and during tourist seasons like summer and holidays.
After breakfast, head to the Molly Brown House. It’s just over a half-mile walk from the RTD Civic Center Mall Loop Station at 16th and Broadway to the Molly Brown House at 1340 Pennsylvania Street, so if your hotel or breakfast restaurant is downtown, it’s an easy and pleasant walk.
Be sure to make a reservation at the Molly Brown House in advance. In the past they offered guided tours but have moved to self-guided tours. In any case, the story of Molly Brown is more than just her role on the Titanic and the tour is worthwhile. Margaret Brown wasn’t just another rich lady with a fancy house you can now visit – she was a progressive (in the meaning of the Progressive Era) who had a commitment to women’s and children’s issues. She was an international traveler and the home demonstrates her commitment to understanding the world’s cultures. Margaret was independent and came from a humble childhood, providing inspiration and a better understanding of women’s history and the history of Colorado.
On your walk back to downtown, stop in the Colorado State Capitol where you can either join a guided tour or wander the building yourself. There’s a small museum called Mr. Brown’s Attic up several flights of stairs, that is worth browsing (and free). If the State House or Senate are in session, feel free to take a seat in the gallery above the floor of the chamber and watch democracy in action. Make sure to check out the “Women’s Gold” wall hanging on the first floor on the northeast rotunda wall. The embroidered art honors several women who made an impact on Colorado history, including my favorite, Colorado State Rep. Elizabeth Pellet. Read more about the art and memorials of the Capitol here. If you are on my tour of women’s history, look for the stained glass commemorating the memory of Emily Griffith by the Old Supreme Court , and take a peak in the Colorado State Senate Chambers where you’ll find stained glass at the front of the room depicting State Sen. Ruth Stockton and State Treasurer Virginian Neal Blue, the first females elected to statewide executive office. Cafeteria and bathrooms in the basement.
If you especially enjoy hidden architectural gems, leave the Capitol from the basement floor to the south and cross 14th Avenue to enter the Legislative Services Building at 200 E. 14th. This is a public office building, so don’t be shy about quietly taking a look around. Climb the stairs to find a legislative meeting room. Here you’ll also find bathrooms, one of which has mid-twentieth-century pink tile work that’s nostalgic. Both the Capitol and Legislative Services buildings are places where the work of the people takes place, so there are times when you’ll find them bustling with legislators, lobbyists, staff and citizens, and times when the legislature is adjourned when they’ll be peaceful. Either way, you are welcome to wander the buildings and observe whatever is happening when you are there.
Lunch: There are plenty of places to have lunch between the Capitol and our next stop, but I’d recommend Ship Tavern in the Brown Palace Hotel for a sit-down lunch, or a less expensive fast-casual spot on the 16th Street Mall – maybe PokeWorld, Noodles & Co., The Corner Bakery, or head up Court Pl. to Pizzeria Colore.
Across Tremont Pl. from the Brown Palace, you’ll find the American Museum of Western Art – The Anschutz Collection. This small but rewarding museum is only open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so plan accordingly. Entry is a bargain at $5-$10, depending on age and whether you choose a self-guided or a guided tour. This gem holds a rich variety of art well worth the hour or two it will take to soak it all in.
If you have developed museum feet from this busy day, take a rest before dinner. But if you are the kind of person who enjoys three museums in one day, you might be able to squeeze in a visit to the more typical and well-known sites like the Denver Art Museum, History Colorado, the Clifford-Still Museum, or the Museum of Contemporary Art. A more off-the-beaten-path spot is the Denver Public Library, Central Library, which often has small exhibits on the fifth floor, and their Western History and Genealogy Collection can be fun to wander through, looking for whatever inspires you.
Dinner: Make a reservation for a jazz set at Dazzle, where you can enjoy dinner along with your entertainment. Other options for dinner and the evening include El Chapultepec, Lannie’s Clocktower, or check Yelp for one of Denver’s finer dining experiences.
One of my favorite places to have a drink at sunset or later in the evening is the 54Thirty Rooftop on the top floor of Le Méridien Downtown Denver. The views here are striking and their drinks, small plates and desserts are solid.
Start your day diving into women’s history in Denver by visiting the Byers-Evans House Museum. This museum houses the Center for Colorado Women’s History, which usually has a themed exhibit at the entrance to the museum, where you pay the nominal fee and can find the gift shop. The tour of the House focuses on the interior design and history of the Byers and Evans families. Your visit will only take about an hour.
The nearby Kirkland Museum is a delight. This collection of interior design includes Vance Kirkland’s art. His studio, at the back of the museum, was moved to this location and gives you a sense of his aesthetic. The rest of the museum is a well-designed jumble of art, mostly from the twentieth century. I was amazed at the caliber of Colorado art.
Somewhere along the way, you can catch lunch near these museums at Mad Greens (across the plaza from the Denver Art Museum), Leven Deli, or Pint’s Pub. But don’t have too big a lunch, because you’ll also be headed to the Brown Palace for high tea in the mid-afternoon.
You’ll need to have a reservation at the Brown Palace – high tea is popular and it can be especially difficult to get a reservation during the weekend or holiday season. Plan ahead! Depending on when your reservation is, you may have time to also visit the Denver Art Museum, wander through the Denver Public Library, or stop at the Clyfford Still museum. Leave plenty of time for the walk from the museum district to the Brown Palace.
High tea at the Brown Palace can be as simple or extravagant as your budget allows. I’ve only had the most basic service, but it was plenty of food for a mid-afternoon treat, and they are generous with the tea. You’ll be most comfortable if you are a little dressed up – wear a skirt instead of shorts in the summer. But Denver is casual overall, so don’t worry too much about the elegance and treat yourself to the perfect ending to your city break in Denver!
Where to stay:
Whenever researching where to stay in a city, I value suggestions of specific hotels less than exactly how to find those hotels. Denver is one of those cities where you can find everything from luxury hotels (usually historical spots or modern high-end), to moderate chain hotels, to budget hotels and hostels. I looked for an inexpensive hotel in downtown – true downtown where the streets are on an angle to the city’s overall street grid. That way the hotel is within walking distance of the sites I want to explore. For me, affordability is possible by using frequent stayer points through Hilton brands (check out the Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn & Suites, or Homewood Suites – all on Welton Street between 14th and 15th), or accumulating points with these stays. Remember to factor in parking, which is seldom free at downtown Denver hotels.
When to go:
Denver is a great city to visit at any time of year but, since this is a visit built around walking, I’d recommend avoiding the coldest of winter (December-February) and the heat of the summer (June-August). That said, we can have 50 degree days in January and 65 degree days anytime in the summer (and it’s a dry heat, as we say), so don’t worry too much about it.
If you can visit on weekdays, it really is the best way to do this visit. A weekend visit will work, but you’ll find fewer people on weekdays (the Anschutz Museum is only open Monday, Wednesday and Friday) and reservations are much easier to come by on weekdays.
What to plan ahead:
Make sure the sites will be open on the days you are visiting. Make reservations at the Molly Brown House, your dinner and evening entertainment options, and at the Brown Palace for high tea.
Elevation can be an issue so bring a water bottle with you.
Note: Due to the COVID19 pandemic, some museums are temporarily closed. Call to check whether the sites you want to see are open. Mask-wearing is encouraged in Colorado and has become part of the culture and expectation in public places. Whether you are wearing a mask or not, please give other people space, staying 6 feet apart from anyone not in your party.