Denver has shed any remaining flyover notions and grown from a regional hub into a major destination for arts and culture over the past few decades. The city is the Rocky Mountain region’s core for music and art of all types — you’d be hard-pressed to walk more than a few blocks in the city center without passing Insta-worthy public art, and museums and galleries are tucked in neighborhoods and parks throughout town. Here’s a primer on where you need to spend time during your visit to catch the best art and culture in the city.
First Friday Arts Walk — First Friday is a monthly arts walk taking place on the first Friday evening of each month. It is a Denver staple that draws thousands of people to the Art District on Santa Fe Drive to check out the art — and do a bit of partying. Santa Fe Drive remains the beating heart of the city’s arts scene and, on First Friday, the district opens up with free gallery showings, food trucks, live music, and plenty of free wine.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science — DMNS is a massive natural history museum that hosts resident and traveling exhibits. You’re greeted by a giant T-Rex skeleton as you walk in the main entrance, an impressive welcome that sets the tone for a larger-than-life museum experience. Wildlife, Gems & Minerals, and Prehistoric Journey are among the permanent galleries, and the museum’s curators bring a steady tour of top-notch historical shows to the museum.
Denver Art Museum — The DAM has exhibits showcasing everything from Spanish Colonial art to American Indian art, Asian and African works, and highlights from contemporary artists. As a bonus, your ticket to the DAM includes admission to the Clyfford Still Museum on the same campus, an engaging — and thorough — collection of the late painter’s most intriguing work.
Denver Botanic Gardens — The Denver Botanic Gardens is one of the coolest things to do in the city. This oasis of perfectly tailored gardens and flora in the urban core has internationally inspired gardens, including a Japanese Zen Garden. Visit during the week if you can or show up early because it does tend to get crowded during many of Denver’s 300 days of sunshine each year.
Red Rocks Park & Amphitheater — There isn’t a concert experience anywhere in the world that rivals the absolute awesomeness that is Red Rocks. The views of the Denver skyline sit atop the stage, itself in a near-surreal setting. Not only does this gorgeous outcropping of hills and rocks host an unforgettable amphitheatre, but you can also take in a bit of high altitude bliss on the many hiking trails both in Red Rocks proper and at the adjacent Matthews/Winters Park. On-site is the Colorado Music Hall of Fame where you can learn up on the musical legends born in Denver over the years, and just across Hog Back Road, you can have a look at the fossils of Dinosaur Ridge. Plan to spend most of a day exploring Red Rocks Park and the town of Morrison, where you’ll find a number of restaurants and shops. If you’re not attending a concert, the amphitheater is open during the day to tour and is a popular spot for yoga and stair runners.
Colorado Convention Center — You don’t actually need to go inside the Colorado Convention Center to enjoy what’s best about it — the attraction of note is outside the building, looking in. The Big Blue Bear, Denver’s most popular piece of street art, stands 40 feet tall and has been perched on 14th Avenue peering into the convention center’s main hall since 2005 — you’ll see him from blocks away. This iconic piece of public art is a great photo opportunity and free to access.
Union Station — Denver’s transportation hub is also one of the city’s best architectural pieces. Originally opened in 1881, Union Station underwent a major renovation in 2012 to accommodate the city’s growing public transit system and long-running Amtrak Lines. The Great Hall and wings are designed in the Beaux-Arts style with massive chandeliers, a barrel vault, and terrazzo floors. Tours are offered Friday to Sunday at 1:00 PM and cost $20, but you can take in much of the splendor on your own by walking through the main hall, down its wings lined with shops and restaurants, and outside across the back of the property.