Denver is my new favorite city for families. But not for the reasons most people would say. Sure, there’s a zoo and a kid’s museum, but those are just icing on the cake. Actually, what my family loves are the funky restaurants, quirky museums, and modern hotels that are as welcoming to millennials as they are to moms, making us feel cool even with children in tow.
My adult daughter, Juli, has lived in Denver for 6 years, since my son Aidan was 6, so we’ve had lots of opportunities to explore the ins and outs of the Mile High City. Below are a few of our favorite spots. Also, don’t miss Colorado Rockies baseball when it’s in season (such a family friendly stadium that there’s a playground and kids concession stand – everything below $2! – behind the outfield) and the two locations of Tattered Cover Bookstore — our family’s favorite bookstore — for their soaring spaces filled to the rafters with new and used titles.
What to do:
- History Colorado Center – The name does a good job of hiding what a fun, new, interactive museum this really is. Only open since 2012, the museum utilizes technology to tell the story of the pioneers who settled the state, as well as the Native Americans, miners, and other groups whose history is entwined in the growth of the state. A huge moving time machine can be pushed across a map of the state to hear stories and see videos about Colorado. A one room schoolhouse, grocery store, barn, and kitchen are kid magnets on the first floor. Upstairs, try a ski jump, take a mine tour, or check out rotating exhibits like the History of Toys.
- Clyfford Still Museum – Dedicated to the works of the abstract expressionist painter, this is a colorful, uncrowded, jewel of a modern museum; perfect for introducing children to modernist art if you haven’t already. While you’re here, be sure to check out all the fun public art in the neighborhood, like the 2-story broom and dustpan.
- 16th Street Mall and Larimer Square— The mile-long pedestrian stretch of 16th Street is traversed by free hop on/hop off shuttles. Some of it feels a little seedy, and some blocks are standard mall shops, but there’s still unique spots to eat and find trinkets (head north), plus there are free pianos on the street that anyone can play, and at night horse-drawn carriages trot down the I.M. Pei-designed strip. (There’s an outlet of Tattered Cover here as well). The strip of LoDo has better restaurants, really good bars, and boutique shops. Grown ups prefer it, but the kids will clamor for 16th.
- Geology Museum – Rocks and minerals are a topic of conversation in Colorado, where mining was once big business. If your kids love to collect anything from geodes to gems, take a quick trip outside Denver to The College of Mines (don’t laugh, students here go on to work for the top oil and gas companies in the world). Their free museum has some of the most impressive collections of rare and precious stones in the state, plus a moon rock! It’s free to visit; check out the “Mines” book store while you’re here, too.
- If you want to visit an old gold mine while you have your car out, the Argo Gold Mine & Mill is a top pick – walking through the dark tunnels and abandoned mine is probably best for 8 and up. Panning for gold, though, good for everyone. (On a side note: We finished up our visit with a stop at TommyKnocker Brewery, where the beer cheese soup was like drinking a bowl of fondue – in a good way. Beer and Colorado go to together like skiers and snow it turns out – we spend at lot of time sipping while we’re there).
Where to Eat
You could eat and drink all day and not make it through the innovative offerings that fill Denver. Here are a few of our all time faves::
Steuben’s – This is one of our favorite casual restaurants anywhere; it has decadent comfort food classics (fried chicken, meatloaf), funky cocktails, and a retro charm that extends to the kid’s meals served on 50s-style lunch trays, each compartment filled with something fun to eat from an extensive children’s menu (think homemade ranch dip for veggies, shelled edamame, classic mac & cheese).They even have separate “Allergy” menus, too, making it easy to eat here without worries. There’s a big outdoor area and inside there are vintage furniture and knickknacks.
Ace, Eat, Serve – Owned by the Steuben’s crew, this spot offers a hodgepodge of shareable Asian classics (dumplings, fried rice, pad Thai, bibimbop) AND Ping Pong. Not sure why this combo works, but it’s too fun to question. The kid’s menu features Bao Buns ranging from fried chicken to PB&J, and they have a juice bar (plus cocktails and beer.) Note: kids are welcome at the ping pong tables until 9pm, when the bar crowd starts amping up.
Linger – Called an “eatuary,” since its housed in an old mortuary (try not to think about it), this huge warehouse space is filled with a boisterous crowd that soaks up any noise your kids might make. All dishes are based on street food from around the world and built for sharing: we over ordered, but loved the pork buns, chicken b’stilla, and wagyu sliders, just to name a few. There’s also a kids menu with international tastes such as dosas, quesadillas, and corn dogs. There are some fun desserts here (cotton candy, donuts, shaved ice), but wander out to Little Man Ice Cream around the corner instead for some of the best ice cream in Denver (look for the building shaped like a milk canister).
Atomic Cowboy – What do you get when you add a pizzeria and a biscuit shop to a retro bar? This super cool (and yes, calorie laden) comfort food hangout. Pizzas are the size of the table and according to the NJ-born-and-raised Juli are pretty authentic, but it’s the biscuit sandwiches from Denver Biscuit Company that we’re crazy for: piled mile high with fillings such as fried chicken and honey butter or pulled pork and fried onions. And there’s cocktails and craft beer, too, because, well Denver.
Snooze – If you wake up hungry, head straight here. Be prepared to wait on line – there’s free coffee and chalk for the kids to draw on the sidewalk to pass the time. It’s worth the wait for favorites like the pineapple upside pancakes, breakfast pot pie, “The Banana Nutella Situation” French toast, or the Green Eggs and Hamwich. Plan on being in a carb coma for a while after you eat.
Voodoo Doughnut – What, you haven’t had enough calories to offset the hiking you’ve done? Step right up to this sweet spot for flavors such as Captain My Captain (covered with Captain Crunch), maple and bacon, OrangaTang, or good old-fashioned glazed or chocolate ganache covered.
Places to Stay:
Beware conventions in Denver — they fill the whole city and make rooms difficult to come by. On the other hand, hit the city on any other week and deals are yours to be had (we booked they Hyatt for $188 a night this summer — score!)
Hotel Monaco – The Monaco chain falls into the category I call: “Loves pets, also likes kids.” This funky outpost two blocks off the 16th Street Mall greets visiting dogs with their names on a board outside; kids, who can actually read, have to wait until they’re in the lobby for their welcome, but it includes a treasure chest full of treats (toys, art supplies, stickers) to choose from. The nightly complimentary happy hour is geared more at adults with wine and light bites, but when we stayed their was a Wii set up in the lounge and ice pops to beat the summer heat as well. Bonus: kid-sized animal print robes AND a temporary pet goldfish delivered to your room upon request.
Grand Hyatt – We’ve stayed here twice in the last year and it’s one of my favorite places for families in Denver. Rooms are relatively spacious and super comfortable, but it’s the large pool and the outdoor tennis courts and track that makes this a top pick for kids (it’s the only hotel with outdoor recreation space in the city). Spring for the business lounge access ($50 per room per night) and you’ll have access to an extensive continental breakfast (smoked salmon, eggs, pastries), plus make your own trail mix bar in the afternoon, appetizers at night, and snacks, drinks and coffee all day.
Embassy Suites – Located by the Convention Center (home of the Big Blue Bear), the neighborhood isn’t my favorite, but the hotel gets top marks on TripAdvisor, and with us too, for it’s full suite rooms, free cooked to order breakfast, evening happy hour, and indoor pool.