Denver is on a rocket rise, and no wonder, with its revitalized downtown, outdoorsy ethos and alternative vibe attracting new arrivals from across the country. If you’re looking for a laid-back city hub with a great climate and outdoor adventures right on the doorstop, look no further.
Be aware though that prices in Denver are climbing as fast as the daredevils propelling themselves up the sheer rock faces of the Front Range. The Colorado capital has evolved from cowtown to hipster hub, and it’s easy to burn through your travel cash on even a fleeting visit, and not just on craft beer and designer puffer jackets…
But have no fear! Denver still has some real gems that don’t cost a thing – including street art, riverside parks and the world-famous Red Rocks concert venue, where you can channel your inner Denverite for free. Here’s our guide to the best free things to do in Denver.
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1. Tour the Colorado State Capitol
With a gleaming gold leaf-covered dome that’s impossible to miss, the Colorado State Capitol is a must-see for history and architecture buffs. This handsome structure is home to the Governor’s office as well as the Senate and House of Representatives, and free 45-minute tours lead visitors through its hallowed halls, with guides sharing facts and fun tidbits about the building. The tour includes 15 minutes to wander within the dome – the view is worth joining the tour for all by itself.
Planning tip: If you’re looking for a photo op, try the grand outer staircase, where the 13th step sits exactly one mile above sea level.
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Get close to a fortune on a US Mint Tour
The US Mint in Denver is the single largest producer of coins in the world – churning out about 7.5 billion coins a year – and free 45-minute guided tours of its facility run from Monday to Thursday. The experience is surprisingly engaging, as guides provide a detailed history of the mint and the manufacturing techniques behind the pennies in your pocket.
Planning tip: Tickets are usually released in the morning on the day of the tour at the premises, but you may be able to secure a ticket in advance using the request form on the website.
Union Station has a gorgeous interior that speaks of Denver’s golden age © jjwithers / Getty Images
3. Take a selfie at Union Station
Perhaps Denver’s most iconic landmark, the historic Union Station serves as the city’s main transportation hub, but there’s more to see than the Amtrak, light rail and bus stops. Drop by for a break from downtown’s hubbub in the sumptuous central lounge, with its leather couches and deep chairs and free wi-fi and shuffleboard tables. Drinks and eats can be purchased at various swanky eateries, coffee shops and bars.
Planning tip: During the warmer summer months, the outdoor plaza by the station fills with children running through the pop-up fountain. Come on Saturdays for the farmers’ market, which showcases local foods, flowers and finds.
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4. Seek out the street art in RiNo
RiNo (River North) is one of Denver’s hippest hoods, and the streets are adorned with all sorts of stop-you-in-your-tracks street art. A one-time industrial wasteland, RiNo is now the heart of cool Denver, with edgy galleries and boutiques, innovative eateries and plenty of craft breweries. Murals are everywhere – just stroll the streets and duck into alleys, doorways and parking lots to see what you can find.
The Denver Art Museum is one of the city’s most striking buildings © gnagel / Getty Images
5. Experience cutting edge art at the Denver Art Museum
The crown jewel of Denver’s art scene, the Denver Art Museum (DAM) houses an eclectic collection, from the masterpieces of Old Master painters to the greats of modern contemporary art. The museum is also home to a stunningly rich collection of Native American art, one of the largest in the world.
Special exhibitions keep the museum buzzing year-round, and interactive art stations will keep kids engaged as they tour the exhibits. Entry for children under 18 is always free, while adults can enjoy free admission on selected days almost every month – check the website for the current schedule.
Planning tip: With kids in tow, nearby Civic Center Park is a great place to retreat after a gallery visit for a bite. Food trucks gather here on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from May to early October.
6. Get more art for free on Denver’s First Fridays
A long-standing Denver tradition, First Friday sees Denverites head to the city’s art districts – Santa Fe, RiNo and Golden Triangle – on the first Friday of the month to wander through art galleries, private studios, and co-ops that keep their doors open late into the evenings. The event is free and lively, often including drinks, food trucks, live music and a general sense of revelry.
You can hang out, work out or pretend you’re a star all for free at Red Rocks © Capture Light / Shutterstock
7. Rock out at Red Rocks Amphitheater
One of the most impressive music venues in the world, Red Rocks is a rock-framed outdoor theater nestled between towering red sandstone monoliths. The venue is renowned for its natural acoustics, and summer nights bring big-name musicians and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at ticketed events. However, it’s free to visit during the day, and well worth the 15-mile trip out from downtown Denver. Explore the amphitheater, climb the 250 stairs to the top, check out the views, then hit the many miles of trails that wind through the red rock formations.
8. Tap a toe to City Park Jazz
Who doesn’t love a free concert? Every summer since 1986, City Park Jazz has staged jazz concerts on Lake Ferril in City Park, just east of downtown. Held on Sundays from 6pm to 8pm, the concerts feature well-known bands playing everything from traditional jazz and blues to R&B and salsa. The program attracts around 10,000 concert-goers each week, and many locals bring along picnic blankets and lawn chairs and dance in front of the bandstand.
Planning tip: To make the most of the concerts, bring your own food and drinks and come early to stake out a good spot.
9. Go behind the scenes of the candy business at Hammond’s Candy Factory
Sweet tooths will love this free tour that takes you behind the scenes at Hammond’s Candy, an old-school candy maker that has been pumping out lollipops, ribbon candy and candy canes since 1920. Having largely avoided the automation processes other candy manufacturers have adopted, Hammond’s specializes in handmade confectionery products – many of the machines here date from the late 1800s and early 1900s and you can watch workers stretch, cut and fold sugary treats on the factory floor.
See bison and other wild creatures at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge © Matt Dirksen / Getty Images/iStockphoto
10. Meet a bison at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge
Located on the outskirts of Denver, the 17,000-acre Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge is one of the largest urban refuges in the country. Formerly home to a US Army chemical weapons production facility, this green space is now home to some 330 species of wildlife, including bison and bald eagles, and it’s free to visit.
For walkers, 10 miles of hiking trails cross wetlands, woodlands and grasslands. Two lakes are popular weekend fishing spots, or you can take an 11-mile self-guided driving tour. Drop by the Visitor Center to pick up a map and check out its well-curated exhibit hall and hands-on “Discovery Room” for kids. Free guided tours of the refuge are offered too.
Planning tip: While the reserve includes walking and cycling trails, the bison area is only open to drivers, so bring wheels if you want to view the Arsenal’s biggest inhabitants.
11. Take a turn around the Great Divide Brewing Company
In a town known for its craft breweries, Great Divide Brewing Company is a powerhouse. Its exquisitely bold and balanced brews are among the country’s most celebrated, claiming 18 Great American Beer Festival medals. Family-friendly free tours of its downtown brewhouse are offered daily, on a first-come, first served basis (for visitors aged 12 and over only). It’s a worthwhile stop for a behind-the-scenes peek at how its magic sauces are made.
Confluence Park is a great place to unwind – or splash about – in central Denver © fdastudillo / Getty Images
12. Catch your breath in Confluence Park
With verdant fields, dramatic skyscraper views and two colliding waterways – Cherry Creek and the South Platte River – Confluence Park is where Denver’s urbanites come to recharge. This is the place to picnic, jog, play Frisbee, and feel like a part of everyday Denver life. There’s a small, shallow riverside beach where families to splash in the South Platte during the summer months, and a short white-water section invites tubers and kayakers.
Planning tip: Confluence Kayak and Ski is one of several local centers renting out kayaks, inner tubes and stand-up paddleboards.
13. Go behind the scenes a the Meier Ski Factory
Head over to Meier Ski Factory anytime they are open and you can take a seat at their bar overlooking the factory floor. The bartender will talk you through the process of ski making while you enjoy a local craft beer. Meier is a locally-owned ski manufacturer that creates custom as well as ready-to-slide wooden skis from locally sourced materials. These eco-conscious crafters make forest management and using Colorado wood a top priority and the results are pretty amazing.