Must-see in Denver

A List of Breathtaking Sights In and Around Denver

Visitors to Denver can explore the city’s cultural sites and also get their steps in as they take advantage of the outdoor recreation that invites beginners and experts alike to be outside year-round.

Mindy Sink
May 30, 2023

What sets Denver apart from other American cities is its Western roots, commitment to culture, and how people here have fully embraced outdoor recreation as a lifestyle, which is partly inspired by the nearby Rocky Mountains. Consider the city’s nicknames: Queen City of the Plains, The Mile High City, or Paris on the Platte. Whether you are on the plains watching bison roam the land, in the city to visit a shiny modern museum, or riding a bike on a creek-side trail, you’ll have views to the west of the peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the west.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Pack sunscreen and a hat!

The Colorado Plains don’t have many trees and the sun can be intense at this altitude.

Northeast of downtown Denver is a most unusual area that has gone from a place where Native Americans once lived to farm country to wartime munitions manufacturing, before this land then became a haven for wildlife. These 15,988 acres are home to native animals, such as bald eagles and deer, and now through wildlife management it’s place to see long-ago displaced mammals, such as the American bison and black-footed ferrets. Visitors can use the 20 miles of trails for hiking or biking, go fishing in one of the ponds, or drive the 11-mile Wildlife Loop to see the bison (from safely inside a vehicle). It’s free to spend time at the refuge, where you can also learn more about the history of the visitor center.

Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre

Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre is usually my first stop with out-of-town guests who are visiting Denver for the first time and they are always impressed.

It’s not like Red Rocks Amphitheatre is a secret, since over the decades some of the planet’s most famous musicians have played and even recorded their concerts here – The Beatles, U2, and The Grateful Dead, to name just a few. However, what many people don’t realize is that this is also a park where hiking is allowed year-round. Inside the visitor center is a Performer’s Hall of Fame, the Ship Rock Grille, and information about the geology of these inspiring and acoustically sound rocks.

Meow Wolf Denver

Meow Wolf is Stimulating

Meow Wolf can be too stimulating for some people, so they’ve built in quiet spaces to get away from light and sound temporarily while exploring the story.

What on earth is Meow Wolf, I hear you ask. Truthfully, it is something that is best experienced rather than described. The original Meow Wolf is in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the one in Denver, called Convergence Station, is the third iteration (there is another version in Las Vegas, Nevada). Each one of these places has the Meow Wolf signature but is different from the others. At its most basic, Meow Wolf is an interactive art experience. Convergence Station is a fictitious story of a “people” who are going through a transformation in search of memories and a home planet. Slip on some walking shoes and expect to learn about four alien worlds (there is a café on the ground floor).

Mount Blue Sky (formerly Mount Evans)

Hiking up mountains that are over 14,000 feet above sea level is a “thing” in Colorado, but the good news for novice hikers is that there are two of them that you can drive up instead. Mount Blue Sky, which we choose to call the mountain out of respect, is the closest “14er” to Denver and visitors in summer can drive up the road to the top and experience the thin air up there – and will very likely see some of the mountain goats that live at this elevation.

This mountain was named after territorial governor John Evans, who was the governor during the Sand Creek massacre in 1864 where hundreds of Native Americans were killed by soldiers. Due to this macabre and tragic association, there was a push to change the name. The name “Mount Blue Sky” was approved in 2022, but as of early 2023, sadly, it has still not officially been changed.

The Big Blue Bear or “I See What You Mean”

Denver has a robust public art program, which means there are many sculptures on display all over the city, but there is one statue that merits a visit. Lawrence Argent’s depiction of a bear painted in blue peeking into the windows of the Colorado Convention Center stands at 40 feet and weighs thousands of pounds. Since it was unveiled in 2005, the bear has become a symbol of the city with miniature versions being sold at nearby gift shops, while its image appears on t-shirts, too. It’s tempting to grab a photo of the bear from inside the center, but the best pictures are from outside, near this giant’s soft feet.

Colorado State Capitol

Come for the marble floors and stained-glass portraits, but stay for the stunning view from the tippy-top at Colorado’s State Capitol building, which sits at an informal boundary between Downtown and the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The free guided tours on weekdays are worthwhile when it comes to learning the deep history of the materials used in making this building and the meaningful artwork that hangs here. Up, up, up you go to Mr. Brown’s Attic, a room that ushers visitors into the golden dome. From there, it’s one more staircase to the dome’s exterior vantage point. Back outside, don’t miss the famous “mile high” step that was measured at exactly 5,280 feet above sea level.

Also, this is currently the only state capitol building in the country with recognition for sustainability called LEED certification, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The building is now cooled with geothermal power.

The Clyfford Still Museum

The architecture is perfect to showcase these giant paintings at the Clyfford Still Museum.

Artist Clyfford Still was an abstract expressionist painter of the 20th century who left his thousands of paintings in the hands of his wife to determine the best American city to build a museum to show them. Then-mayor John Hickenlooper was able to best 20 other cities vying for this museum and the building was designed by architect Brad Cloepfil and Allied Work Architecture. The second floor of the museum has two indoor patios with lawns so you get an outdoor experience indoors. Set in the Golden Triangle neighborhood directly behind the Denver Art Museum, the Clyfford Still Museum opened to the public in 2011.

Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art

Be Aware of Age Restrictions

The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art is open only to those 13 and older, so plan accordingly with family.

Vance Kirkland was a painter who moved from Ohio to Denver in 1929 and became a teacher at the University of Denver’s School of Art. He continued his work as a painter and developed a signature style of hanging in a harness from the ceiling so he could make his “dot” paintings that evoke the cosmos. The first version of the museum was a few blocks away in the artist’s studio, which has since been moved into this much larger building. In addition, there is a larger and more eccentric arts and crafts collection of treasures from around the world on display. Highlights of these decorative arts include chairs, teapots, vases, tables, lamps, and much more.

Denver Art Museum

Perhaps the city’s cultural crown jewel, the Denver Art Museum has expanded, been redone, and continues to attract the most intriguing exhibits and artists. The original standing building, also referred to as the North Building, was designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti and opened in 1971. In addition, the Frederic C. Hamilton Building was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, who said he was inspired by the Rocky Mountains, and opened in 2016. The design includes a hotel and apartment building across a plaza. The North Building, also called the Martin Building was given a facelift in 2021.

Inside the museum, visitors will find photography, architecture, and collections representing cultures from around the world, as well as Western American art. The Ponti and Café Gio in the North Building make it easy to spend a whole day at the museum.

Black American West Museum & Heritage Center

Tiny and with limited hours, the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center is such a unique place that makes it worth the effort. The museum is in the relocated former home of Dr. Justina L. Ford, who was the first Black woman licensed to practice medicine in Colorado back in the early 1900s. The museum was founded in 1971 by Paul W. Stewart, who started by telling the stories of African American pioneers at local schools. Today, a museum docent shares the stories of Black cowboys and others who made a name for themselves as this part of the world was being transformed by primarily White people who were searching for riches in mining and other prospects.

Museo de las Americas

The Museo de las Americas is part of the Santa Fe Arts District just south of Downtown Denver and hosts colorful exhibitions featuring ancient and contemporary Latin American works of art. This is more of an art gallery than a museum with three galleries: one large and two smaller spaces displaying different exhibitions. Works displayed here include photography, painting, and sculpture. There are many programs at the museum to have more interactive and hands-on experiences beyond just looking at the artwork. The gift shop has a large selection of books, ornaments, jewelry, and other items to take home a little memento from this special place.

American Museum of Western Art – The Anschutz Collection

Be Aware of Age Restrictions

For those traveling with young children, be aware that children under the age of 8 are not allowed at the American Museum of Western Art.

The American Museum of Western ArtThe Anschutz Collection at the Navarre Building in Downtown Denver is a surprise because it’s not often on people’s radar. This was once a private art collection that can now be seen during the museum’s limited hours. The collection is made up of 600 artworks – paintings, sculptures, and drawings – by classic artists, such as Ernest Blumenschein, Birger Sandzen, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and others. These paintings sometimes depict a romantic view of the rugged Western landscape and sometimes outdated views of Native Americans.

Civic Center Park

It’s hard to miss Civic Center Park if your day out includes the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado State Capitol Building, or the Clyfford Still Museum. The park is anchored by a Greek-style amphitheater and a similar structure called the Voorhies Memorial, and in between there is a fountain and public art sculptures. In the ceilings of the Greek Amphitheatre are murals by artist Allen Tupper True. You’ll also notice the Greek Revival-style building that was once a Carnegie Library, now called the McNichols Building. This building is now an event space that is used during the Biennial of the Americas. In the summer months, the park is home to Civic Center EATS, where food trucks gather in the middle of the park for lunch.

Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Many of Denver’s must-see spots are walking distance from one another, so make a day of it by combining destinations on foot.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is part of City Park, where there are trails, lakes, and playgrounds. Inside the museum are some impressive collections of enormous dinosaurs, Egyptian mummies, gems and minerals, taxidermied North American animals, and changing exhibits related to science and the natural world. A planetarium offers regular shows and is connected to the Space Odyssey room. An IMAX theater has exciting shows featuring volcanoes, ocean creatures, and more. It’s easy to spend a whole day here! Personal favorites here include the Leprino Atrium with expansive views over City Park, the city’s skyline and the mountains, and the Crane Hall of North American Indian Cultures.

Expedition Health is an interactive space where people of all ages can test their own fitness by riding a stationary bike, running, and doing other fun tests that give you real-time results.

Denver Botanic Gardens

When there isn’t time to get up to the foothills or the mountains, the Denver Botanic Gardens is a delightful city escape to nature. Even in winter, the 23-acre garden is welcoming with a tropical conservatory and orchid pavilion indoors. Art galleries have changing exhibits of drawings, sculptures, or paintings that have some connection to the natural world with exhibits representing butterflies, trees, or flowers. During the winter holidays, a Blossoms of Light display is popular, even in the coldest temperatures and snow the colorful lights draped across the plants are a beautiful sight.

Coors Field

What’s more Colorado than baseball and beer? Coors Field is home to the Major League Baseball team, the Colorado Rockies, and the Coors Brewery got the naming rights when it was built in 1995. This part of the Lower Downtown neighborhood, now called the Ballpark District, is close to Coors Fields. Even if you’re not here during baseball season, there are guided tours available. Up near the top of the stands, the row of purple seats signifies the point where the stadium is 5,280 feet above sea level. Stop in the Blue Moon Brewery at The Sandlot for beer, whether you are here for a game or not.

Colorado Railroad Museum

Trains are an important part of the history of the West and Denver itself when early founders insisted on routing the tracks through the fledgling town to keep it on the map. The Colorado Railroad Museum is west of the city near Golden. There are very short train rides available here, as well as model trains on display, a historic train depot, and vintage train cars that are open to visitors. Check their website for special events with expanded rides.

Dinosaur Ridge

There is a rich geological history in Colorado and Dinosaur Ridge has real dinosaur footprints on display that are pretty thrilling. The impressions left in the rocks here are tangible proof that this arid land was once…a swamp. The dinosaur remnants were discovered when a road was being built and that changed how this road would be used. Check in at the gift shop/visitor center to pay the access fee to walk up this road, or sign up for the open-air vehicle ride that makes tops along the way with a guide providing detailed descriptions of the important sites. This is two miles roundtrip, and has a steep section.

Lookout Mountain Nature Center & Preserve

It’s a quirk of how Denver sits on the plains several miles from the Rocky Mountains that people either seek the view of said mountains or go up into the foothills of these mountains to look at the view of the plains. Lookout Mountain is a prime spot to see the breadth of the plains and the city below. On weekends, there is admission to the nature center, and each day between sunrise and sunset, visitors are welcome in the 100-acre preserve for short hikes on the 2.8 miles of trails. Deer sometimes wander by the picnic areas at the preserve and birds nest in the trees here. Boettcher Mansion is on this property but is typically open for special events only.

The drive up Lookout Mountain is quite scenic and you’ll likely share the road with cyclists and see paragliders winging their way down from the mountain too.

Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum

Not only is aerospace an important part of the Denver economy, but there is also a place to learn more about the history of air and space. The museum is enormous because there are several planes, helicopters, and other items on display here. You can also see a moon rock and an Apollo Command Module that went to the moon, or a B-52 or B-1 plane. If you’re just curious about planes, then you can stop in and wander around, but with limited-time exhibits mixed in with the permanent exhibits and collection, it might be better to visit the website and plan your visit. There are also special events with guest speakers and monthly breakfast fly-ins where visitors can watch pilots landing, eat breakfast, and explore interactive exhibits and flight simulations.

Activities & attractions in Denver

About the author

Mindy SinkGuidebook author and travel writer Mindy has lived in Denver most of her life and is the author of a few guidebooks about the city and other places in Colorado. She loves to travel with her husband and their daughter in places where they can explore on foot, including hiking. Mindy writes frequently for The Denver Post about finding adventures in your own backyard.