We recently spent a sunny three days in Denver, Colorado, and I’m excited to share the experience with you. Denver is a great destination any time of year, but given the city’s temperate climate, it’s great for winter family vacations.
Disclosure: Part of our stay was hosted by Visit Denver and The Curtis, though I also purchased tickets and meals for my family. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.
Note: Colorado had a mandatory mask rule for indoor places during our visit. Be sure to look up local regulations before visiting.
A big reason we went to Denver when did was the recent opening of Meow Wolf’s Convergence Station. Did it live up to the hype and the expense? YES. I’ll get into details later.
Depending on your interests, and that of your kids, the other highlights are probably interchangeable. Looking for art? Looking for hands-on science caner fun? Looking for animals? It’s all here.
The other highlight was getting into the Christmas spirit early. For several weeks, Denver is aglow with lights and festive performances and activities. November and December are great months to plan a trip if you love holiday lights.
And if you’re one to plan a trip just for great restaurants, you’ll want to look over this list of Denver restaurants we enjoyed.
Where to Stay in Denver
Denver is sprawling with a head-spinning amount of interesting neighborhoods to choose from for hotels. We stuck mostly to the downtown area, with hotels.
We spent two nights at the newer Hilton Garden Inn at Union Station. Tip: It’s not really at Union Station. We learned the hard way not to mention Union Station to the Uber Driver.
The cost was just right and there was a pool, so I can’t complain too much. And if you’re a baseball fan, it’s pretty close to Coors Stadium.
The parking situation isn’t great, with valet parking being $38 a night. We opted to seek street parking and lucked out most of the time finding a spot near the hotel. Parking was free on Sunday, so that helped too.
The hotel does have rooms with a view of the mountains in the distance. They’re pretty in the early morning sunrise light. But if you look down, the view is a little less than charming with a power generators dotting the ground.
Our other hotel was The Curtis by DoubleTree, which hosted us for the stay at a media rate. The location was great for walking to restaurants and to get to the 16th Street bus route (it’s free!).
The hotel is an art fan’s dream (it’s ranked among the Top 10 Art Hotels in the U.S.) Each floor has a different theme and the lobby is pretty Instagrammable. My kids loved looking for the themes and had a tough time deciding on which floor to stay on (we ended up on Floor 6, “fun and games,” so there was a Pac Man game on the walls as well as Super Mario Bros.
No pool, so that was a thumbs down from the kids. Read my complete review of the hotel!
Getting Around Denver With Kids
We tried out just about every kind of mode of transportation you can find in Denver. The 16th Street Mall has a free bus service that’s definitely helpful, and I recommend it with kids. Though, side story: My kids head some very colorful stories on the morning bus.
We also took Uber rides and walked and drove our car depending on where we were going.
Parking is expensive, so if you can find one place to leave your car and get around another way, I recommend it.
There are plenty of scooters to rent, if that’s your thing, too.
3-Day Denver itinerary
I seemed to plan three different types of days for our trip: A chill, take-your-time day; a good balance day; and a jam-packed day. Take your pick from what suits your travel style!
Day 1 – Art & Sweets Day
This was a weekend day, so made reservations at D Bar for an early brunch right when it opened (which at 11:30 was still “late” for us). Treat yourself to something sweet. They’re known for desserts, but at brunch, I recommend either the hot chocolate or get decadent with a mimosa (they have a variety of flavors but blood orange is a favorite).
We walked off our brunch by heading south to Colfax Avenue where we did the requisite pose on the Colorado State Capitol’s 13th step, which is apparently exactly 1 mile above sea level. There are free tours at the Capitol Building if you time your visit well (we didn’t).
It was then a short walk to the Denver Christkindlmarket at Civic Park. There were vendors of all sorts, from jewelry and alpaca knits, to ornaments and cuckoo clocks.
And sweets of course. And spiked warm drinks…like every good holiday market should have.
It’s free to stroll the ChristkindlMarket, and it’s open daily until Dec. 23, 2021.
There are several museums near the ChristkindlMarket for a variety of interests, so if shopping isn’t your thing, you have options.
We decided to visit the huge Denver Art Museum. I only got to spend an hour there since one kid was feeling cranky and needed a nap back at the hotel. My husband spent about three hours with our 12-year-old there and they still didn’t see most of it.
One thing to point out is the Denver Art Museum has A LOT for families, so be sure to grab a family brochure to locate the activities. My daughter particularly loved the scavenger hunt in the 19th Century in European and American Art gallery with Rip the dog. Did she bypass looking at some stunning masterpieces? Yes. But did she like her time at the museum? Also yes.
Related post: More things to see in Denver for art-loving kids
Tip: If you plan on visiting three or more museums or attractions, you may want to look into the Denver CityPASS, which can save you money!
After a little nap, we had reservations at The Inventing Room Dessert Shop. It was an educational and tasty experience that’s great for a small group. We samples many frozen concoctions and glow-in-the-dark cotton candy.
Tip: Get there on time because the 45-minute demonstration starts right on time.
Tip: Take it from me, it’s not the wisest to do this dessert experience before dinner.
So, about dinner… we went to The Source Market Hall after The Inventing Room, which is a really cool concept like a dining hall but better. We wanted to try something new-to-us so we went to Safta, an Israeli restaurant. It turns out, a five-time nominated James Beard Award nominee opened the restaurant, so this would’ve been a much better experience with just the husband and I (and not our stuffed-full-of-sweets kids).
Tip: If unique dining experiences appeal to you, I strongly encourage booking a guided foodie tour. There’s a food tour for Downtown Denver!
Day 2 – All about MeowWolf Day
We got a really late start to the day because…hotel pools, amiright? We can’t leave a hotel for the day without stopping by the pool.
Anyway. Breakfast flew by before we were ready to leave the hotel, so we started looking for brunch or lunch options, walking toward the Union Station area. There are a lot of restaurants, and all were pretty busy since. We walked a few block to The Original, a great funky restaurant for lunch near at McGregor Square near Coors Stadium.
The peg board walls kept the kids occupied for a bit while we waited for our food. Ask about kid’s meals because while they’re not mentioned on the menu, they exist. My daughter loved her chicken fingers.
Sufficiently fed, it was time to head to MeowWolf Convergence Station. As best as I can describe it, it’s an immersive art installation in an entire building, with several floors and rooms designed by 100+ artists. The simplest story is that Convergence Station is four alien worlds, and there’s an underlying mystery you can solve if you (somehow) get bored with all the magnificent scenery and interactive pieces.
Note: You will need to arrive early to get in line, even with pre-purchased tickets. Also, expect to pay for parking.
There is no time limit for your stay at Convergence Station, and with a cafe, you could make it last a whole afternoon. With two kids ages 10 and 11, we spent three hours and were beat by the end. It’s a huge space to explore with stairs, winding ramps, mystery rooms, and just a mind-blowing assortment of things to see.
It’s exhausting, and we needed a brain break and snack at Hellofood on the first floor of Convergence Station.
It’s totally worth planning a visit, though. There are only three MeowWolf installations in the world, and this is their newest (and the closest one to Omaha).
We were in no mood to do go out after our afternoon at MeowWolf. So, it was take-out pizza for the kids again (this time, Brooklyn style pizza from a shop on 16th Street) and cocktails & appetizers at the restaurant connected to our hotel, The Corner Office Restaurant & Martini Bar, for my husband and I.
Day 3 – The-See-Everything Day In Denver
The City Park area is fabulous since it has major city attractions all near each other, with a few others about a mile away. So, naturally, my mind goes straight to assuming we should do IT ALL since it’s all right there. Don’t be like me, friends. Be pickier.
We started out in the morning at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. This large, three-story building could be a full day itself with all the permanent and special exhibits (not to mention the hidden gnomes I mentioned in this post).
The four of us split into pairs so each kid could go see what he or she wanted to see. Highlights for my son: The gems and mining exhibit, the dinosaurs, and the space exhibit.
Tip: Check ahead about tickets. When we visited in November, they were still requiring reservations to limit crowds. If you have a membership to an ASTC museum like Omaha Children’s Museum, there is a way to reserve your free reciprocal tickets online.
Related post: Learn all about reciprocal memberships and how to get into museum for free in this post!
My daughter liked seeing the gems, as well, in addition to the interactive exhibits in the health section and the taxidermies animals. The interactive exhibits will always win over my kids, but one thing to point out is that the museum does a good job adding kid-friendly touches to animal displays with spinners, sketch pads, and quiet games like giant Connect Four.
The museum is so large, it had two traveling exhibits on display there.
The Denver Zoo is very close to the museum, and makes an obvious next stop. However, we had tickets for the zoo’s Zoo Lights event at night, so we did not go directly there next.
Instead, we drove a few minutes south to the Denver Botanic Gardens. Winter is not the ideal time to visit, I’ll grant that. But it is decorated for the holidays by mid-November (and is aglow at night for a ticketed evening event, Blossoms of Light).
Tip: Check ahead before you visit. The Denver Botanic Garden was requiring advanced reservations when we visited.
If you’re wondering where to squeeze in lunch during the day, both the gardens and the museum have cafes. We dined at the Denver Botanic Gardens, which I liked for its fresh and healthy ingredients (and for that reason, my kids hated it).
Still, it’s a peaceful escape in the city. If it’s cold, the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory is great to stroll through. There’s a giant tree house-like structure that kids will like climbing inside there.
Tip: The gardens has augmented reality art exhibit called “Seeing the Invisible” through August 2022 that add a fascinating element to the gardens, and kids absolutely love the experience. You’ll need to download the app in order for you to experience it (it’s free to download).
The Zoo Lights event doesn’t start until 5 p.m., so we had about an hour to wander around the area. We visited my version of Zanadu, Tattered Cover Book Store, arguably one of the best independent book stores in the U.S. It’s bliss for bookworms. There’s a great kid’s section in the basement.
Finally, it was time to head back to the City Park for Zoo Lights.
Tip: You’ll want to reserve tickets to Zoo Lights in advance. And if you’re going with young kids, know that there is quiet a bit of temptations for glow-in-the-dark souvenirs throughout the park.
If you’re going to the zoo to see animals, you’re going to be disappointed since it’s, well, really dark at night. But if you love Christmas lights, you’ll be impressed with your stroll around the park.
We did see animals, mind you, just not a lot of them. We saw a hippo swimming, and got to listen to a keeper talk about their Amur tigers while one of them snacked on a blood popsicle. Mmm. In the shadows, we watched an elephant roam and a giraffe amble along.
It’s winter time in Denver, and while we loved the temperate weather (maybe 40s at night), it can be a little cold. Luckily, the zoo thought of everything and had plenty of stations of warm drinks, mini table-top bonfires, and tents. We had churros for a snack, and a few Great Divide zoo brews for us grown-ups.
The rides were going during Zoo Lights, for an extra fee. Rides were the carousel and mini train.
Even with snacks, we needed an actual meal after the Zoo Lights, so we went to SuperMegaBien, which is known for their Latin American cuisine served Dim Sum-style. It was delicious and such a cool place to relax on our last night.
Addresses in Denver to know
Want to visit any of the places I mentioned? Here are addresses to some of our favorite places in Denver:
“I See What You Did There” bear statue, 700 14th St. (really near The Curtis)
D Bar, 494 E. 19th Ave.
Denver State Capitol, 200 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver Christkindlmarket, 101 W. 14th Ave. (open through Dec. 23, 2021)
Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway
The Inventing Room Dessert Shop, 4433 W. 29th Ave., suite 101
The Source Market Hall, 3330 Brighton Blvd.
The Original, 1600 20th St.
Meow Wolf Convergence Station, 1338 First St.
The Corner Office Restaurant & Martini Bar, 1401 Curtis St.
Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2001 Colorado Blvd.
Denver Zoo, 2300 Steele St. (Zoo Lights runs through Jan. 2, 2022)
Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St. (Blossoms of Light runs through Jan. 8, 2022)
Tattered Cover, 2526 E. Colfax Ave. (as well as a few satellite locations)
SuperMegaBien, 1260 25th St.
Looking for pizza? My kids liked their slices from Pizza Pedal’r, 2907 Huron St. (and more locations) and Brooklyn’s Finest Pizza, 825 16th St. Mall.
Have an extra day in Denver?
We drove to Denver, so on our way in, we stopped at the Wild Animal Sanctuary, 2999 Co Road 53, Keenesburg, Colorado. As the world’s largest sanctuary for rescued carnivores, it’s not exactly a quick stop. The walkway over the animals’ spaces is over a mile long.
My daughter was most excited to see the wolves. My son was more fascinated reading about the animals’ rescue stories. Many large wild cats were rescued from apartments or malls.
It’s not too far outside of Denver, and if you have an animal lover in the family, it’s a great stop. It’s not, however, a zoo. You are far above the animals, so bring binoculars.