Denver sits in a picturesque valley on Colorado’s High Plains, just east of the Rocky Mountain foothills. Its stunningly beautiful setting belies a cosmopolitan culture and a strong, diverse economy that supports major energy producers, big financial firms, and innovative technology companies. Also, thanks to a great park system and proximity to incredible natural assets, Denver is also among the healthiest, most active U.S. cities.
Even with such enviable attributes, Denver is affordable relative to many other major American cities. That makes it a great place to stretch your vacation budget further. Thanks to a huge, centrally located air hub at Denver International Airport, it’s easy to find affordable airline tickets and direct air connections from most sizable North American cities.
Next time you’re in the Mile-High City, make time to see some of these budget-friendly attractions. Also, be sure to sign up for Denver Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Denver Deals, which offers permanent and time-limited discounts at many of these sites.
Denver was founded in the 1850s and grew rapidly during the second half of the 19th century, thanks mostly to the mineral bounty of the mountains to the west and the booming livestock economy of the High Plains to the east. Although Denver lacks the historic infrastructure of colonial cities like Boston or Philadelphia, it still boasts numerous vestiges of the Old West.
1. Colorado State Capitol
The Colorado State Capitol is the heart of Colorado’s state government. You can stand on the building’s 13th step, exactly one mile above sea level, and look out over the city to the mountains beyond. Free tours of the building’s interior, including legislative chambers, are available daily from 9am to 3pm, usually on the hour. To ensure a spot on your chosen day, schedule at least a month in advance.
2. Molly Brown House
Margaret “Molly” Brown, the famously brash heroine of the Titanic, was originally from Denver. Brown was also a noted women’s rights activist and heiress to a prominent Denver family. Her home is immaculately preserved and available for guided tours most days between 10am and 4pm. Tours cost $8 per adult and $7 for students.
3. Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave
Located in nearby Golden, the Buffalo Bill Museum recounts the life and times of William F. Cody, whose traveling Wild West shows awed audiences with tales and artifacts from the Old West. Artifacts on display include antique firearms, clothing items, and artwork. Buffalo Bill’s grave is located in picturesque Lookout Mountain Park, not far from the museum. Museum admission is $5 for adults.
4. Denver Story Trek
Denver Story Trek offers preplanned and customized walking tours, all self-guided, of various Denver landmarks and neighborhoods. Tours generally have themes, such as “Settling the Frontier” and “Women of the West.” You can download the necessary audio files on Denver Story Trek’s website or call a local number for an interactive readout. All tours are free.
5. Sacred Landmarks
If you’re an architecture fan, make time for Historic Denver’s Sacred Landmarks. The expansive Sacred Landmarks program provides financial support and restoration services to more than 50 endangered churches, synagogues, mosques, and other sites of religious importance throughout Denver. Many are architecturally significant in some way, and most are open to the public.
6. Byers-Evans House
Built in the 1880s and home to two of Denver’s founding families, the Byers-Evans House is among Colorado’s oldest, grandest houses. Today, the immaculately preserved structure doubles as an historic museum and cultural event hub. Admission is $6 for adults and $5 for students.
7. Denver Mint
Colorado’s mining legacy is on display at the Denver Mint, which was built to tap the Rockies’ vast mineral reserves. Learn about the U.S. Mint’s origins and history, see real examples of old coins, and view a working coin mint here.
Free tours are available Monday through Thursday, from 8am to 3:30pm. A reservation several weeks in advance is recommended.
Urban Parks and Natural Areas
Although the truly stunning scenery lies to the west, Denver and its nearby suburbs share a wonderful urban park system. Unless otherwise noted, the natural areas within Denver and surrounding towns are free to enter and use, though specific attractions within them may require an admission fee.
8. Cherry Creek Trail
Cherry Creek Trail is a 40-mile, mostly paved trail that winds along a beautiful creek in Denver and its southeastern suburbs. Though the urban parts aren’t particularly park-like, the entire length is great for biking, jogging, and just being outside. Much of the outlying section actually passes through parkland.
9. Cherry Creek State Park
Cherry Creek State Park is the largest and most popular park on Cherry Creek Trail. Located about 10 miles southeast of downtown Denver, it’s extremely popular on warm summer afternoons, particularly around Cherry Creek Reservoir and nearby Hobie Hill.
The park is also a great place to view fall color without heading into the mountains. You can bike, walk, jog, ride horses, and even visit a shooting range here.
10. City Park
City Park is a large urban park with great views of the Denver skyline, the foothills, and the high peaks beyond. Come in May and June, when the snow-capped Front Range provides a stunning backdrop for a city in full spring bloom.
11. Cheesman Park and Denver Botanic Gardens
Cheesman Park is a pleasant expanse that mixes well-maintained lawns with natural meadows and groves. One of Denver’s original cemeteries, it was repurposed as a park in the 1890s. As many of the interred were vagrants, the city paid a local undertaker $1.90 per casket to move unclaimed bodies to a new location. Not surprisingly, Cheesman Park ghost stories – many expounding on the unscrupulous undertaker’s alleged desecration of the bodies during transfer – abound here in Denver. Cheesman Park is free to enter – if you dare.
Denver Botanic Gardens lies directly east of Cheesman Park. It’s a collection of several distinct gardens and natural areas that boast hundreds of native and climate-appropriate plant species. Admission is $12.50 for adults and $9 for students.
12. Civic Center Park
Civic Center Park lies near the geographical center of Denver, just steps from the state capitol building and other famous landmarks. The majestic trees and well-maintained lawns are nice in any season, but the real draws are the massive flowerbeds that bloom each summer.
13. Weir Gulch Trail
Weir Gulch Trail follows the South Platte River upstream from Barnum Park, just west of downtown Denver. It passes through a range of landscapes, from shady riparian tree groves, to pleasant residential areas and gritty industrial parks. Despite the variable setting, it’s a great place for a long-distance jog during your fitness vacation.
14. Boulder Mountain Parks/Chautauqua Park
Tucked into a foothill valley about 30 miles northwest of Denver, Boulder is a beautiful college town with stunning open spaces. All told, Boulder Mountain Parks – with Chautauqua Park and the famed Flatiron rock formations as the centerpiece – cover 45,000 acres and boast 145 miles of trails. Countless lookout points offer views of higher peaks or the seemingly endless High Plains. It’s definitely worth devoting a day of your Denver trip to hiking or rock climbing here.
Nearby Hikes and Outdoor Adventures
As the crow flies, Denver is just 30 to 40 miles from the high peaks of the Front Range, the nearest major mountain range. The region is riven with long-distance hiking trails that appeal to serious backpackers, as well as numerous day-hiking and sightseeing opportunities that don’t require special equipment or extraordinary athleticism.
Most of these hikes and outdoor activities are located in the mountains, anywhere from 7,000 to 14,300 feet above sea level. High-altitude activity requires special care, even if you’re in good shape and aren’t staying overnight. Bring plenty of water, dress for cool temperatures, and wear plenty of sun protection (a hat and sunscreen are essential).
15. North Table Mountain Park
North Table Mountain, the flat-topped remnants of an ancient lava flow, is 10 miles west of downtown Denver. The park that encompasses it has about 15 miles of hiking trails, including the scenic and relatively easy North Table Mountain Trail. For stunning views of downtown Denver, the High Plains, and the foothills, ascend Lincoln Peak via the trail of the same name. Entry is free.
16. Brainard Lake Recreation Area
Brainard Lake Recreation Area is a fantastic place for hiking and picnicking. The area is typically open to vehicle traffic from mid-June through mid-October, weather permitting.
For a less strenuous experience, walk the relatively level sections around Brainard Lake and Long Lake. For a tougher climb, head up the glacial valley beyond Lake Isabelle, passing the treeline, until you reach the source of the South St. Vrain River at Isabelle Glacier. There’s a $10-per-car entrance fee, good for three days.
17. William Frederick Hayden Park
A bit south of North Table Mountain Park, William Frederick Hayden Park is a similar foothills environment. At nearly 7,000 feet, the summits here offer expansive views of Denver, the foothills, and the high Front Range peaks. Entry is free.
18. Denver Mountain Parks
The City of Denver owns and maintains more than 14,000 acres of parkland, much of which is outside the city limits in the foothills or high country. This non-urban land is collectively known as Denver Mountain Parks.
Due to its ecological sensitivity, some mountain parkland is off-limits to the public, but hiking and photography opportunities abound in open-access areas. Popular individual parks include Genesee Park, which has a thriving bison herd, and Lookout Mountain Park, a popular hiking destination.
19. Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses 415 square miles of pristine high country, including many of the Front Range’s highest peaks, about 90 minutes from central Denver. Trail Ridge Road, which crosses the Continental Divide above 12,000 feet, is a must-see. So is Longs Peak, the park’s highest point, though the climb is quite technical and can be dangerous for inexperienced mountaineers. Lawn Lake Trail, which follows the Roaring River up to Lawn Lake and offers great views of Longs and other peaks, is less strenuous.
Rocky Mountain National Park’s $20-per-car entrance fee is a bit steep. However, it’s good for seven days, so you can camp in the park or return multiple times in the same week to get your money’s worth.
20. Mount Bierstadt
Located about 45 miles from Denver, Mount Bierstadt is one of Colorado’s most accessible “Fourteeners,” as 14,000-plus-foot peaks are known locally. With no technical segments and no special equipment required, it’s also one of the easiest for non-experts to ascend.
If you’re in good shape, have adequate footwear, and acclimate properly to the altitude, you can hike Mount Bierstadt. The quickest out-and-back route begins at the Guanella Pass parking area and covers just under seven miles round-trip.
21. Mount Evans
If you’re not up for a strenuous hike that gains nearly 3,000 feet of elevation, skip Mount Bierstadt and take your car to nearby Mount Evans, which is a few hundred feet taller. The Mount Evans Road and Scenic Byway (Colorado Highway 5), the highest paved road in the United States, stops just short of the summit.
The lower portion of the road, which stretches from Highway 103 at Echo Lake to Summit Lake on the slopes of Mount Evans, is typically open from Memorial Day through the first week of October. The top portion, from Summit Lake to a parking lot just below Mount Evans’ summit, is open from June until Labor Day.
The Mount Evans Road costs $10 per passenger car when both sections are open, and $5 when only the lower portion is passable. The trail from the summit lot to the summit itself is navigable with appropriate footwear, and the views from the top are amazing.
Neighborhoods and Local Sights
Denver is a spread-out city with lots of interesting enclaves and local points of interest. Although it’s always fun to get off the beaten path, these are among the more popular neighborhoods and towns.
Uptown is a youthful neighborhood with a nice mix of historic homes and repurposed storefronts. It’s densely populated and walkable, with easy access to Civic Center Park and City Park. Though many local businesses are upscale, so-called Restaurant Row (17th Avenue from Broadway to City Park) has some affordable eateries hidden amid the more exclusive joints.
Once an overlooked industrial area adjacent to Denver’s central business district, LoDo (Lower Downtown) is now one of the city’s busiest and most exciting neighborhoods. If you’re not a sports fan, avoid the area when MLB’s Rockies are in town, as Coors Field supplies thousands of revelers on game days.
Overall, LoDo is a great place to check out well-preserved brick architecture, peruse shops, grab a bite from dozens of ethnic eateries, and catch up with old or new friends over locally made craft beverages. Attractions include the picture-perfect Larimer Square historic district and My Brother’s Bar, a favorite hangout of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac.
24. Five Points
One of Denver’s original neighborhoods, Five Points, has a largely intact Victorian building stock and a booming economy driven by locally owned shops. Five Points remains the historic heart of Denver’s African-American community and was once the most influential hub for jazz musicians west of the Mississippi. Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Billie Holiday all played here early in their careers.
Highlands is a hip neighborhood with a mix of pricey and affordable enclaves. Highlands Square can feel exclusive, though the Victorian streetscape is undeniably quaint. Lower Highlands is a bit grittier and more affordable, with a top-notch collection of galleries and craft stores along Navajo Street.
Short for River North and properly known as River North Art District, RiNo is one of Denver’s most creative neighborhoods. Galleries and studios abound, and on the first Friday of every month, many throw their doors open to the general public. Also worth checking out is The Source, an all-in-one sensory destination that features a farm-to-table restaurant, craft brewery, and locally owned distillery.
Located just beyond Denver’s urban sprawl, flush against the foothills, Boulder is an independent city that’s absolutely beautiful in any season. The University of Colorado’s main campus is definitely worth exploring, as is the walkable downtown core.
If you’re a homebrewer or craft beer fan, don’t leave without visiting Avery Brewing Company, Boulder Beer, or Sanitas Brewing Company. Boulder Creek Path is a great in-town trail for walking, biking, and swimming. Also, consider buying the Boulder passport (or the Denver or Ft. Collins counterparts) which gives you 2-1 alcoholic drinks at some of the top spots in the area.
Located about 12 miles southwest of central Denver, upscale Littleton is another independent city with a distinct vibe. More than 30 miles of trails and bikeways pass through the city, along with a handful of pretty waterways, including the Highline Canal. The downtown area features a decent amount of historic architecture, at least by suburban standards, and highly walkable shopping streets that mix name-brand boutiques with thrift stores. Don’t miss the farmers market, held every Wednesday during the growing season, or the 10-day Western Welcome Week street fair, typically held in August.
Arts, Culture, and Entertainment
Denver has a varied, vibrant cultural scene that encompasses virtually every genre of music, visual art, and live entertainment. Most of these options are free or very cheap, but even those with higher admission prices are well worth a visit.
29. Children’s Museum of Denver
Children’s Museum of Denver is a must-visit for parents with small children. Highlights include an interactive art studio, hands-on engineering station, climbing wall, and electricity demos. Admission is $10 for adults and children older than two.
30. Denver Museum of Nature and Science
Denver Museum of Nature and Science features an extensive fossil collection and modern wildlife dioramas. The museum also shares space with exhibits devoted to mythical creatures, such as unicorns, and poisonous substances. General admission is $14.95 for adults, and IMAX ($9.95) and planetarium ($19.95) tickets cost extra.
31. Denver Art Museum
Denver Art Museum boasts the city’s most comprehensive collection of classic and modern art. Exhibitions are offered on everything from the Old Masters to Native American sculptors, with frequent evening and weekend classes that dive into specific artistic niches.
Admission is $10 for adult Colorado residents and $13 for out-of-state adults. Students get in for $8 and $10, depending on residency.
32. Clyfford Still Museum
The Clyfford Still Museum is completely dedicated to the work of Clyfford Still, an early Abstract Expressionist whose artistic brethren included Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Rotating exhibits showcase specific periods or themes from Still’s life and career, allowing visitors to climb into his fascinating and, at times, troubled mind. Admission is $10 for adults and $6 for students.
33. Black American West Museum & Heritage Center
Located in a historic Denver house, the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center showcases the accomplishments and travails of the Old West’s vibrant African-American population. Prominent figures, including Dr. Justina L. Ford, Colorado’s first black female doctor, are profiled in depth. Artifacts from Buffalo Soldier units and African-American ranchers and cowboys abound as well. And the museum owns what’s left of a High Plains ghost town called Dearfield, which was once inhabited largely by African-American frontiersmen.
Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for students. Note that hours are extremely limited, just 10am to 2pm, Friday and Saturday.
34. Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre
Tucked amid the foothills due west of Denver, Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre offers a stunning natural area and a world-class concert venue. Some of the world’s biggest musical acts have performed at this natural stone amphitheater.
Tickets for A-listers’ shows can be extremely pricey, but cheaper events abound. Plus, it’s free to explore the space on off-days. Many hiking trails pass through or near the park as well.
35. Denver Zoo
Founded in the 1890s, the Denver Zoo features large mammals like gorillas, lions, and tigers, extensive aquatic habitats, birds, reptiles, and invertebrates. Frequent events, such as photo safaris and life-sized LEGO animal replicas, add to the experience. Admission is $17 for adults.
36. Art District on Santa Fe
Art District on Santa Fe is a coalition of art galleries, individual artists, and local cafes centered on a multi-block stretch of Denver’s Santa Fe Drive. The district’s undisputed highlight is the free, twice-monthly Art Walk, held on the first and third Fridays. Each Art Walk attracts thousands of visitors and features a free shuttle around the area. Smaller-scale free events, many featuring member artists or visiting creatives, are held frequently throughout the year.
When to Visit Denver and What to Bring
Denver has a semi-arid, four-season climate that’s characterized by sharp temperature changes from morning to night and from day to day. Though January highs average in the mid-40s, subzero lows are an annual occurrence. It can snow as early as late September or as late as mid-May, and the mercury can easily break 100 during the summer.
If you like warm weather, the best months to visit Denver are June and September. Late September is peak foliage season in the mountains. If you prefer cold weather or enjoy winter sports, non-holiday winter weekends can be cheaper and less crowded.
Here’s a basic packing guide for your affordable Denver vacation:
- Temperature-Appropriate Clothing. In the summer, bring breathable clothing for daytime use and light jackets or sweaters for chilly evenings. In the winter, particularly if you plan to travel into the mountains, hats, gloves, and layers are key.
- Rain, Wind, and Sun Protection. Bring an umbrella and raincoat to ward off summer thunderstorms, and waterproof boots or shoes for wintertime snowbanks and puddles. Neck and face protection is strongly recommended during the winter, when Denver’s near-constant winds turn bitter. Sunscreen and hats are a must at any time of year, as the region’s high altitude and plentiful sunshine make for a dangerous combination.
- Sturdy Footwear and Other Hiking Gear. Depending on your itinerary, you may or may not walk extensively in Denver proper. However, if you venture into the foothills or mountains for a day hike, wear hiking boots and appropriate socks. Bring a comfortable backpack to carry clothing layers, sunscreen, and water.
- Hydration. Denver’s generally dry climate and high altitude draw water from the body faster than humid, low-altitude conditions. Bring an empty water bottle or two in your luggage. Once you arrive, sip regularly, even if you’re not working up a sweat. Keep in mind that alcohol affects the body faster and more noticeably at higher altitudes, so stay hydrated if you plan to imbibe.
How to Get Around Denver
Denver has a densely populated core, but the greater Denver area sprawls over hundreds of square miles. Many exciting attractions lie on the fringes of the city limits and beyond. Accordingly, your budget-friendly Denver trip could include several different types of transportation.
Thanks to its central location within the continental United States and proximity to the Rocky Mountains, Denver is a popular road trip destination. With a comprehensive, grid-oriented road system, getting around the city by car isn’t particularly difficult, though weekday mornings and afternoons produce predictable traffic on major thoroughfares.
Outside of busy commercial areas and core neighborhoods around downtown Denver, parking is generally free or very inexpensive. If you’re staying at an Airbnb or VRBO house rental in a residential neighborhood, it’s unlikely that you need to pay for parking. If you do get a ticket, expect to pay $25 for an expired meter and up to $100 for other violations.
Public Transportation (RTD)
Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) manages public transportation in and around the city. As of mid-2015, the RTD network consists of six light rail lines and several dozen bus lines serving Denver and nearby suburbs. Visitors arriving at Denver International Airport should look for the SkyRide bus, which costs $9 to $13 one way, depending on where you stop.
RTD has four geographical fare zones, which are concentric circles radiating outward from the main hub at downtown Denver’s Union Station. Within Zones A and B, covering Denver proper and parts of the inner suburbs, one-way bus and rail fares are $2.25. Within Zone C, covering farther-out suburbs, one-way fares are $4. In Zone D, the farthest-flung locations on the network, one-way fares are $5.
In many cases, there’s a further distinction between local and express transit services. Generally, local services operate in Zones A and B, while express services operate in Zones C and D. The same transit lines often have both local and express services, so take an extra moment to make sure you’re boarding the right vehicle.
Tickets and Passes
If you’re in Denver for a short visit or plan to use other transit modes for most trips, buy one-way fares as needed. Otherwise, opt for a bulk option:
- 10-Ticket Book: $20 for Zones A and B; $36 for Zones A, B, and C; $45 for Zones A through D. Tickets expire at the end of the calendar year of purchase.
- One-Day Unlimited Ride Pass: $6.75 for Zones A and B; $11.50 for Zones A, B, and C; $14 for Zones A through D
- Five-Day Unlimited Ride Pass: $51.25 for all zones
- Monthly Unlimited Ride Pass: $79 for Zones A and B; $140 for Zones A, B, and C; $176 for Zones A through D
Tickets and passes are available at rail stations and major bus hubs.
Biking and Bikesharing
Denver is one of the country’s top communities for bike commuting. Despite its proximity to the Rockies, it doesn’t have impossibly steep hills that can leave even seasoned bikers huffing and puffing. That makes it a great place to take advantage of bikesharing.
Usage fees are reasonable relative to other bikeshare networks. A 24-hour pass costs $9, and the first 30 minutes of every ride are free. You can avoid $1 to $4 charges for each subsequent half hour by planning routes that hit fresh stations every 30 minutes. Avoid the temptation to purchase a $15 monthly pass, which requires a six-month commitment at sign-up.
Ridesharing, Carsharing, and Taxis
Denver has ample ridesharing coverage. Both Uber and Lyft operate in the city and suburbs. Though subject to change based on demand, Uber’s regular fares include a $1 base charge, $1.10 per mile, and $0.16 per minute. Lyft’s are slightly cheaper and also subject to change. It’s definitely worth downloading both apps prior to your trip.
Carsharing is also an option in Denver. In Denver proper and nearby suburbs, Car2Go has several hundred vehicles available for on-demand hire. Most are parked on the street or in busy parking lots when not in use. The per-minute rate is $0.41, with an hourly maximum of $14.99 and daily maximum of $84.99. If you already have a Car2Go membership, Denver is a great place to use it.
Zipcar also has hubs throughout central Denver. Daily rates range from $66 to $74, depending on your plan. For longer trips, Zipcar is generally cheaper than Car2Go.
If you’re active and outdoorsy, it’s hard to do better than the Centennial State, and Denver is the heart of it all. Where else can you hike a world-class above-the-treeline trail, eat a world-class meal, visit a top-notch museum, and see a classic musical performance, all in the same day? It’s no wonder that so many of the city’s erstwhile visitors, initially attracted by its affordable sights and sounds, end up putting down roots and becoming Denverites themselves.
What’s your favorite free or cheap thing to do in Denver?