Traveling to the Mile High City on a budget? No worries! Sightseeing in this outdoor-centric, high-altitude city can be done in a very cost-conscious way with this handful of free things to do in Denver, from complimentary transportation around town to gratis museum admission. These are my suggestions for saving money on your next vacation in Denver.
Ride the 16th Street shuttle
There’s absolutely no reason to pay taxi or bus fares when making your way around Denver’s core downtown area. A free shuttle bus – the MallRide – makes its way up and down the mile-long 16th Street pedestrian mall lined with dozens of shops, restaurants, and bars. Just hop on and off as needed, any time between 5 a.m. and 1 a.m. For children, simply riding the free shuttle is an adventure in itself! While I’m also an advocate of walking along the pretty tree-lined promenade, I certainly see the benefits of resting weary legs on the comfortable, frequently running free ride. Note: Denver’s visitor information center is conveniently located on the corner of 16th and California streets.
Denver Art Museum (photo by Steve Crecelius, courtesy VISIT DENVER)
Visit the Denver Art Museum
If you happen to be in Denver on the first Saturday of every month, do not miss the complimentary admission to the fabulous Denver Art Museum. First, the exterior of the museum is a sight unto itself (and of course, just walking the grounds and admiring the outdoor art is totally free, as well): the older North building, with its castle-like “turrets,” is covered with more than 1 million, specially made, shimmering glass tiles, while the newer titanium-and-glass building is a geometric wonder, evocative of Colorado’s mountain peaks. Inside, the museum houses a permanent collection of more than 70,000 pieces of art spanning centuries, and is particularly known for its American Indian works. I’m fond of its Asian collection, as well as its display of early photographs of the American West. DAM welcomes children with family backpacks stuffed with art supplies that you can check out to carry through the museum and create your own art as you’re inspired.
Tour the U.S. Mint
While Denver’s U.S. Mint doesn’t print dollar bills, it does churn out more than 50 million coins a day. In fact, you can tell if your dime came from Denver if it has a little “D” stamped on the front. Tours of the downtown facility are totally free, offered Mondays to Thursdays, lasting about 45 minutes. Reservations are required; make those online (spots fill up fast).
Viewfinder Tip: Even on a (rare) cloudy day in Denver, it’s important to wear sunscreen to protect yourself from harmful UV rays at 5,280 feet in elevation.
Free shopping? Sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? Sure, shopping is usually equated with buying things, but there are a few stores in Denver that are worthy of a visit, even if you don’t have dollar bills burning a hole in your pocketbook. The REI mothership in LoDo (Lower Downtown) is a must-see for outdoor enthusiasts, if only to admire all the latest and greatest in camping, climbing, running, hiking, skiing, and kayaking gear. Located in a historic 1901 building, the store also features a 45-foot climbing wall and play areas for kids. The independent Tattered Cover bookstore has two locations in central Denver (one in LoDo, one south of City Park) and one in the ‘burbs (Highlands Ranch); the downtown location is particularly accessible to visitors (on the shuttle-served 16th Street Mall), with two stories of bookshelves, plenty of comfy chairs for curling up with a book, and free Wi-Fi.
Learn about the Denver State Capitol Building
Political and history junkies might appreciate the free tours of downtown’s gold-domed Capitol Building, where you’ll learn about the building’s history, admire several stained-glass windows, and peek into the legislative chambers. Don’t forget to snap a souvenir photo in front of the Capitol Building, where “One Mile Above Sea Level” is etched into a stone step.
City Park (photo by Ron Ruhoff, courtesy VISIT DENVER)
Get outside at a park
With more than 200 city parks in and around Denver, it’s hard not to stumble upon an oasis of green on your sightseeing excursions in the city. Home to the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, City Park is among Denver’s biggest and most popular parks; head here to stroll around the lakes or pack a picnic to enjoy under a shady tree. Pretty, flower-filled Washington Park is lined with stately homes and filled with joggers most mornings; there’s also a recreation center with an indoor pool (visitors can buy day passes). Outdoor play areas like the fenced-in Downtown Children’s Playground – along the paved Cherry Creek recreation trail near Speer Boulevard and Wynkoop Street – have entertaining climbing structures, slides, and swings for Denver’s youngest visitors.
How do you find free things to do when you’re vacationing in urban destinations?