If you only have one day, grab a rental car at the airport and hustle into town on I-70. This itinerary shows you the ropes of downtown and the nearby Museum District, keeping you close but busy for a one-day jaunt through the city. If you opt to not rent a car, Uber and public transit service every place here, so you’ll be able to hit the ground running.
Whether you land in the morning or wake up downtown, breakfast is easy. Union Station’s Snooze may be a small chain, but its menu is as iconically Denver as it gets. Keep it straightforward with Juan’s Breakfast Tacos or the hipsterized BRAVOcado Toast, and fill up because the day is packed.
Next up is Denver’s most iconic stop, the 16th Street Mall. As you walk down the pedestrian-only plaza, duck into the Denver Pavilions for a dose of shopping, but don’t spend too much time indoors — the main thing to do on 16th St. is people watch. Buskers, jugglers, and various artists perform for the constant flow of tourists and locals walking through the mall and it’s a scene to behold. Take it in over a patio cocktail at Rialto Cafe or by planting yourself on one of the benches or seating areas along the strip. Other highlights include the Tabor Center, which houses a shopping mall and dining options at the base of a skyscraper, and Skyline Park, a skinny stretch of greenery and park space spanning multiple blocks downtown.
If street food is your jam, you’re in luck. The 16th Street Mall is lined with cheap, semi-permanent food stands, a few of which have become local legends. Shondiz, a cart on the upper side of the mall, serves amazing gyros, or you can grab tasty tacos from Asada Rico a few blocks down.
South of downtown is Denver’s recently christened Museum District. Here you can walk through a number of museums in one go, with the Denver Art Museum’s collections of both classic and contemporary art. The Clyfford Still Museum, the largest collection of work by the renowned Abstract Expressionist, is accessible with the same ticket. The History Colorado Center is worth a stop, and a tour through the Denver Public Library is recommended even if you aren’t a big reader. Its towering spires and dominating presence make it visible from blocks away, and the massive structure houses an impressive collection.
You have one big meal in town, so choose wisely. Denver does high-end Mexican and Latin cuisine particularly well, with Tamayo and Work & Class as standout options. The Rio Grande serves the best margarita in the city and is a popular local meeting spot before a night out downtown. If you’re not feeling Mexico tonight, Panzano, inside Hotel Monaco, presents the awarded Italian cuisine of Chef Nic Lebas, while Mercantile Dining & Provision, inside Union Station, is an exciting ode to Denver’s rise as a gastro-destination. No matter which you choose, Colorado’s contempo-casual approach to dress shines through the restaurant and nightlife scene. So leave the fancy outfits at home — a flannel and boots will do just fine here.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. The big, green, stinky elephant that brings thousands of visitors to Denver each month: legal cannabis. Coloradans are overtly proud of being the first US state to legalize marijuana for recreational use and, after a continually successful run, the lifestyle is all but woven into the city’s culture. Pot shops, known as dispensaries, can be found anywhere in the city and are open until 10:00 PM. They work much like liquor stores — you must be 21 years old with a valid, state-issued photo ID to enter and purchase. Colorado Harvest Company is the cream of the crop — you can pick up everything from traditional buds to lotions and tinctures to infused sodas, foods, and candies. Their locations south of downtown are popular with locals because they typically offer special deals, and the staff is incredibly helpful to newbies.
Note that public smoking of marijuana is illegal. Spots for visitors to partake can be hard to come by, though some hotels permit in-room use. Licensed public cafes and clubs are slowly gaining permits and popping up around town. Designated smoking areas and private property are generally okay as long as you have permission from management or the property owner. If you’re unsure of where to consume, consider purchasing cannabis in a non-smokeable form.