Last month, following a snowy week of skiing at Winter Park Resort, we dethawed for a couple of days in Denver before returning to Austin.
It turns out our early morning return flight back to Austin gave us the perfect excuse to stretch our stay and play in the Mile High City (yes, at 5,280 feet, Denver is exactly one mile above sea level), where we discovered more family fun than we could fit into our brief visit.
Boasting over 300 days of annual sunshine, one of the country’s most walkable downtowns, hundreds of parks, a colorful Wild West past, distinctive neighborhoods and thriving arts, culinary and craft beer scenes, Denver is deserving of its own trip. But even if you detour to Denver before or after moving to the mountains like we did, you’ll find plenty of ways to entertain the whole crew in Colorado’s cosmopolitan capital. Here are 10 of our favorite kid-friendly must-do’s awaiting your family in Denver.
Get mesmerized by Meow Wolf
Meandering through Meow Wolf Denver –– the four-story, 90,000-square-foot immersive art experience dubbed Convergence Station that opened this past fall after more than three years in the making –– is a mind-blowing, hyper-stimulating, otherworldly experience for kids and adults alike. Featuring more than 70 surreal installations and art from 300 creatives (more than 110 who are from Colorado), touring Meow Wolf’s third permanent exhibition (the original Meow Wolf was born in Santa Fe and another opened in Las Vegas last year) is something like rolling around in a psychedelic bowl of neon Easter egg dye and then wandering through an endless series of cavernous spaces and secret corridors born from your wildest, most vivid three-dimensional dreams. I couldn’t help but imagine that this is probably what it feels like to be on hallucinogenic drugs –– in a very cool, colorful, and confusing sort of way.
We spent hours at this mega-sized multimedia mashup of art, exploring everything from futuristic forested landscapes stretched beyond linear time, street cars you can climb into, spaceships you can pilot, secret passages, sci-fi monsters, battle rats, a frozen tundra and a purification laundry room where washers spin everything from alien dolls to teeth. Purchase timed entry tickets online (4 and under are free); masks required. www.meowwolf.com/visit/denver
Visit the animals at Denver Zoo
The Denver Zoo is hands-down one of our favorite zoos in the country. The last time we visited the Denver Zoo, our kids were 2, 5 and 8. We spent a brisk spring morning watching with awe as two elephants tangled up their trunks before using them like water guns to hose one another down. We oohed and awed at Dobby, the adorable baby male reticulated giraffe born just days before our visit. And we caught a first glimpse of The Edge––the then brand-new habitat that allows guests to get up-close to the zoo’s Amur tigers as they strut past viewing windows an arm’s length away and stride above your head on elevated walkways.
Fast forward five years, and I was leery whether the Denver Zoo, home to more than 3,000 animals from all around the world, would hold the same level of captivation as it once did for our kids, who are now 7, 10 and 13. To my surprise, it did. We spent an entire afternoon wandering through the Denver Zoo until it closed, soaking in the sunshine that was melting the thinning blanket of snow still covering the ground. We were entertained for nearly a half hour by a couple of playful primates and witnessed –– a little too close for comfort –– an enormous river hippopotamus splash in and out of his murky reservoir and mark his territory in a rather animated defecation show known as “muck spreading” for his stunned audience. We revisited old friends like the Asian elephants and made new discoveries including an animal hospital where veterinary care is provided for animals as tiny as tree frogs to those as large as lions and features a viewing platform where visitors can watch as check-ups and surgeries are performed. Online reservations are currently required and those 2 and older must wear masks indoors. www.denverzoo.org
Dive into Nature and Science
Also within City Park and adjacent to the zoo, don’t miss an educational trip to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. We traveled through time with our kids on a prehistoric journey wandering past towering dinos like an Allosaurus, Stegosaurus and 80-foot-long Diplodocus. You can also discover black holes and volcanoes in the Gates Planetarium, ponder the mysteries of Egyptian mummies, enjoy interactive activities spanning archeological sandpits to fossils, catapult into the museum’s newly-renovated Space Odyssey and much more. Timed ticketed entries and masks are required. www.dmns.org
Dinner is served
If you’re a fan of authentic Asian food and fun, family-friendly dining experiences, Ace Eat Serve hits it out of the park. Sitting on the corner of 17th Avenue and Pennsylvania Street, this uber-cool restaurant features an expansive ping pong hall where we worked up our appetites playing a few pre-dinner rounds of ping pong while sipping cleverly-named cocktails like Thai Me Up made with green tea infused gin and Thai basil and zero-proof drinks for the kids like the T-Bird made with hibiscus-infused soda and muddled mint and cucumber.
The menu is full of delicious Pan-Asian dishes curated by executive chef Thach Tran, whose culinary foundation was inspired by his grandmother’s noodle shop and the vibrant food markets of Saigon before he went on to culinary school and worked in some of Denver’s most prestigious kitchens. A few of our family’s favorites were the dim sum trio of flavorful bao buns, a spicy Sichuan chili pork ramen and a unique signature dish known as scallop and shrimp X.O. rice pillows. Yum. www.aceeatserve.com
Rest your head at The Maven at Dairy Block
It’s easy to explore Denver without a car when you stay downtown, and while it’s not always easy to find a comfortable hotel room when you’re a family with more than two kids, we found that and more at The Maven at Dairy Block. Anchoring Denver’s historic Dairy Block, the lively micro-district in LoDo (Lower Downtown) chock-full of 15 shops and boutiques, nearly 20 restaurants and seven bars, The Maven is perfectly positioned to walkable Denver attractions and sits just two blocks from Denver Union Station. The boutique hotel features 172 modern guest rooms including 10 bunk rooms and 48 double queen rooms perfect for families with multiple kiddos. The Maven is rife with stylish design details –– elevator walls are wrapped in textured layers of leather belts, cozy swings dangle from the ceiling on various floors, local art fills the rooms, and there’s a fun and funky silver Airstream in the lobby serving up daily happy hour beverages to guests. www.themavenhotel.com
Mealtime at Denver’s Milk Market
A stay at The Maven means you’ve got every kind of food imaginable unfolding right beneath your hotel room. The Dairy Block serves as home to Denver Milk Market –– the 16-venue gourmet food hall helmed by Colorado chef Frank Bonanno. I’m especially obsessed with this concept because every member of my family was able to gather around one table and dig into their cuisine of choice at the same time: a prosciutto and arugula hand tossed pizza from Bonanno Brothers Pizzeria, a savory lobster roll from Albina by the Sea, golden fried chicken from Lou’s, a spicy ahi tuna poke bowl from Mopoke, and delicious handmade pappardelle Bolognese from Mano Pastaria. You simply take a seat anywhere within this culinary mecca and order anything you want from the various eateries using a single QR code (there are indoor and outdoor dining options, and all guests are required to show proof of vaccination). Milk Market also features a handful of micro bars serving everything from craft cocktails to cold Colorado drafts, but finishing your meal with fresh spun gelato at Cornicello is a must. www.denvermilkmarket.com.
Tour Denver Art Museum and leisurely lunch at The Ponti
Reopening just in time to celebrate its 50th anniversary at the end of last year, the Denver Art Museum’s Martin Building (formerly North Building) just completed an extensive, multi-year renovation including the new Anna and John J. Sie Welcome Center, two new dining spaces, the Bartlit Learning and Engagement Center and updated galleries. While the Denver Art Museum is one of the largest art museums between Chicago and the West Coast, with more than 70,000 works of art in 12 collections from cultures all around the world, it’s a great place for kids too (plus, admission is always free for those 18 and under). Throughout the museum, you’ll find creative corners, design studios and family-friendly activities designed for imaginative play where little ones can try on costumes, tap into their own creativity and make their own masterpieces. On one level, our kids made textiles representing who they are and learned how to make a button in the design studio on another level. Be sure to pick up a Family Guide Map when you enter. In the architecturally-inspiring Frederic C. Hamilton Building, designed by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, there’s a storytelling studio and Whistler to Cassatt youth audio guide that lets kids listen as they journey through the exhibition, interact with the art and learn artists’ stories (tickets required).
If your visit overlaps into lunch, reserve a table at The Ponti –– one of the museum’s new restaurants led by James Beard Award winner chef Jennifer Jasinski. Here we enjoyed locally-sourced, seasonally-inspired dishes such as a mouth-watering crispy-skinned seared king salmon served with Thai black rice and coconut green curry, a savory cavatelli with lamb sugo, and a gourmet burger blended with local farm-raised beef, cremini and porcini mushrooms, which our kids declared as “the best burger ever.” www.denverartmuseum.org, www.thepontidenver.com
Wow the kids at Children’s Museum of Denver
Less than three miles from the Denver Art Museum, the Children’s Museum of Denver is a 9-acre imagination wonderland and a not to miss stop if you’ve got little ones. While we didn’t make it to the Children’s Museum of Denver on our most recent trip (this museum is geared to children 8 and under), our kids still remember this as one of their favorite children’s museums from our last visit. Here kids can be a firefighting hero, driving a fire truck with real lights and sirens and sliding down a pole to save the day; play veterinarian to adorable stuffed animals; launch a geyser and trigger a thunderstorm in the water adventure exhibit; and make their own vapor-filled bubbles in a soapy science experiment. The museum is open by reservation only Wednesday through Sunday, and masks are required for ages 2 and older. www.mychildsmuseum.org
Stop to smell the blooms at Denver Botanic Gardens
Experience Denver’s outdoor beauty and breathe in the fresh Colorado air at this stunning 24-acre urban oasis. Take a flora- and fauna-fringed stroll through Denver Botanic Gardens, which is widely considered one of the top botanical gardens in the country. Visit now through Feb. 21 to explore hundreds of exotic blooms including rare orchids from the Gardens’ Collection in the garden’s Orchid Showcase. Tickets must be reserved and purchased online in advance. https://www.botanicgardens.org/
Beers and books
Denver is America’s number one beer city –– on an average day in the Denver metro area, more than 200 different beers are brewed. Let that brew for a minute, then pick a family-friendly spot to sip a local pint and grab a bite along the Denver Beer Trail. You’ll find a plethora of breweries to choose from, but you can’t go wrong with beers and bites on the expanded patio at one of the country’s largest brewpubs, Wynkoop Brewing Company. It was the first brewpub in historic downtown Denver since Prohibition and has been brewing handcrafted beer in its basement brewery beneath Denver’s largest pool hall for nearly three decades. If you have a few bookworms in your family like we do, duck into Tattered Cover, a not-to-miss bookstore just a few steps around the corner from the brewery. One of the country’s best independent bookstores, Tattered Cover brims with volumes to suit all ages and interests, and it’s a great place to buy a few great reads to entertain the kids on the trip back home. www.wynkoop.com, www.tatteredcover.com
If You Go
Several airlines including Southwest, United and Frontier offer direct flights from Austin to Denver and you can typically find roundtrip airfare for around $200.
The Maven at Dairy Block in downtown Denver is located two blocks from Denver Union Station, one block from Coors Field and is within walking distance to dozens of downtown attractions. The Maven is perfect for families, featuring 172 modern guest rooms including family rooms, bunk rooms and expansive suites. Room rates start at $189/night. www.themavenhotel.com
Eat & Drink:
Dive into diverse foodie cravings at Denver Milk Market which opens daily at 9 a.m. Lunch at The Ponti, tucked inside the Denver Art Museum and helmed by James Beard Award winner Chef Jennifer Jasinski. If you’re craving Asian food served with a side of fun, take a swing and seat at Ace Eat Serve. Dive into Denver’s local beer culture –– there are 100 brewpubs, breweries and tap rooms in the metro area. For a sweet treat duck into Milkbox Ice Creamery tucked in Denver Union Station, for hand-crafted, locally made creative flavors and boozy shakes for adults.
Don’t want to drive? Denver boasts one of the country’s most walkable downtowns and you can get there from the airport without ever riding in a car on the Denver airport rail, which has six stops between the airport and Denver Union Station. The 23-mile ride takes approximately 37 minutes and costs $10.50 one way to/from airport to Union Station.