The idea of taking on Denver in just 24 hours is a little absurd – after all, this is a city with easy access to some of the most beautiful natural views in America, vibrant craft beer and cannabis culture, not to mention incredible nightlife. In an ideal world, you’d have at least a few days to pack it all in. But if you’re short on time or long on a layover, that doesn’t mean you can’t make a valiant effort and major memories along the way.
If you have just 24 hours in Denver, here’s how to make the most of your time in the Mile High City.
8am: Your Denver adventure starts the moment you land at the Denver International Airport, one of the strangest airports in America. This $4.8 billion facility is the largest in the country and has been the source of conspiracy theories for decades. From the Masonic symbols in its dedication plaque to the massive, bizarre murals that dot its walls to the menacing "Blue Mustang" statue outside (affectionately known to locals as Blucifer), the Denver airport is an experience all its own.
8:23am: While you can easily rent a car, parking in Denver can be a pain. Since you probably won’t have time to go hiking, we suggest taking in nature on your way into town on Denver’s light rail system. For just $10.50 each way, the airport train will take you directly into the heart of downtown Denver, dropping you off at Union Station. The 37-minute, 23-mile ride is cheaper than an Uber and features beautiful views of the rolling prairie landscape.
9am: From Union Station jump in a Uber and head over to 20th Street Cafe for breakfast. For over 73 years this Denver institution has been serving up breakfast and lunch classics with mouth-watering fresh ingredients. Unlike some dinners that overwhelm you with options, 20th Street Cafe keeps its menu down to one page. Whether you settle in for chicken fried steak or a plate of eggs and bacon, make sure someone orders the pancakes. The golden stacks will haunt your dreams (even more than Blucifer) in the best possible way. Even better, when the check arrives you realize you’d pay twice this much for the same meal anywhere else.
10am: With your belly full, head over to Sante Fe Drive and the Denver Arts District. Overflowing with galleries, shops, restaurants, breweries and stunning murals, there’s no way to walk off a heavy breakfast like strolling by the many galleries and shops. While it can feel a little touristy at times, the sheer amount of love the community has poured into the area shines through.
Noon: Jump in an Uber and visit the International Church of Cannabis. You don’t have to be a marijuia aficionado to appreciate the charms and art of the Church of Cannabis. Founded in 2017, but housed inside a church that’s over 100 years old, the Church of Cannabis is part religious institution, part art exhibit.
Its sanctuary features stunning ceiling murals from world-famous artist Okuda San Miguel and the entire building is full of art and literature about the Church’s belief system Elevationism. Visitors experience the psychedelic majesty of the church’s sanctuary during daily guided meditations/laser light shows that play with the existing art for a mind-bending experience.
Don’t worry about leaving smelling like pot afterwards, either. Denver laws don’t allow the consumption of cannabis in public spaces or at public events, so stick around after the laser show to see the art on display and talk to the wonderful staff. Even sober visitors will find something to enjoy at this colorful, one-of-a-kind space.
1pm: Now that your mind is rested, it’s time to explore the natural world. With only one day in Denver you won’t have time to hike, but you’re only a few miles away from the Denver Zoo. Founded in 1896, the Denver Zoo is a year-round educational and entertainment wonderland.
Home to over 4,000 animals spanning 615 species, the zoo is an internationally respected conservation center, along with being incredibly fun. Wander its 80-acres of campus, take in a 4D movie experience, and know your money is going to keep animals safe the whole time. Tickets start at $20 for adults.
3pm: Travel back downtown for a quick lunch. There’s a host of incredible lunch options in downtown Denver. Our favorites are Illegal Pete’s burritos and The Market at Larimer Square. Illegal Pete’s cheap yet filling burritos and tacos are a local sensation, putting national chains to shame and bringing to mind the hefty portions and flavor of San Francisco’s beloved Mission burritos. The Market offers lighter deli fair, including a host of veggie options, alongside fresh bakery goods and gourmet coffee.
4pm: With fuel in your tank it’s time to soak in some culture. Just around the corner is hidden one of the finest museums in the country. While the Denver Art Museum might show you a Monet, the local focus of the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art was a welcome surprise. This affordable (just $10) four-story walk through the finest creative minds to come out of Denver. On the fourth floor you’ll also find a stunning view and lovely coffee shop in case you need a pick-me-up.
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6:30pm: Your six o’clock hour will depend on if you ate a light snack or had a full late lunch. Visitors who aren’t hungry should take in the sunset by exploring the Confluence Park river walk. Featuring beautiful architecture, stunning murals, and a gorgeous view of the city, the Confluence Park walk is a lovely way to welcome the evening.
6:30pm: If you only had a light snack for lunch you’ll want to have a nice early dinner. Thankfully downtown Denver’s dinner options are overflowing with delicious choices. Cuba Cuba Cafe and Bar serves up seafood so fresh you’ll never believe you’re in the city a mile above the sea and a thousand miles inland. 16th Street Mall’s The Kitchen offers a host of organic and delicious dinner items from steaks to salads. If you don’t mind dropping some money, Rioja is one of the best restaurants in town, delivering high end Mediterranean food and a wonderful wine list.
8pm: Denver’s best kept secret might be its comedy scene, and there’s no better way to soak it in than Comedy Works Downtown. This legendary club has hosted live album recordings from Greg Giraldo, Ron Funches, Joe Rogan, Dave Attell, Natasha Leggero, and more. But often the star of the show is the local talent, loving curated from the exploding local scene.
If the show you want to see at Comedy Works is sold out, you’ll still be able to find something great to laugh at. Just check out the 5280, Denver’s alt weekly, to discover what local shows are happening. Often you’ll find just as many big-name comedians at the indie shows as you will at Comedy Works proper.
10pm: After your comedy adventure, take in one of the city’s best kept secrets – the Nocturne jazz club. Enjoy some of the best live music you’ll ever experience. Shows run Tuesday through Saturday night every week.
Door fees range from $5 to $20 depending on who is performing on any given night, but the experience is well worth the investment. In fact, this destination is so popular we suggest making a reservation in advance of your visit. You don’t want to be left waiting when the room fills up.
Midnight: The day is winding down, but there’s still time for one last drink before bed. In the spirit of adventure, visit one of Denver’s wonderful speakeasies. These hidden little treasures are a fun way to wind down after a busy day. There’s Green Russell, located down a set of stairs inside Russell’s Smokehouse. Beware, cell phone use is explicitly forbidden outside of its phonebooth.
Williams & Graham may look like a bookstore but behind its bookshelf entrance lays a 60-seat bar with drinks and small plates. Then there’s Retrograde, hidden inside the cooler of Frozen Matter Uptown. Once you arrive, just walk past the counter and head towards the freezer. Hit the light switch and wait for a staff member to let you in. Seating can be limited, but the handcrafted cocktails and atmosphere can’t be beaten.
2am: Bars are closing and everyone is going to bed. If you need something to fill your stomach after all those drinks drop by Pete’s Kitchen off Colfax Ave. This 24-hour diner is a family-owned establishment offering everything from breakfast food to shockingly great gyros without ever closing its doors. Best of all, it’s incredibly cheap.
3am: Go to bed already! If you need a place to lay your head that is full of character, inexpensive, and has nice extras like a hot tub and a 420-friendly attitude, book a room at Ember Hostel in the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood. Located in a sprawling stone mansion from Denver's boomtown days, this budget boutique lodging is within walking distance or a cheap ride-share from the Santa Fe Arts District where you spent the morning. The bunks are clean and comfortable, and you can fall asleep dreaming of what to do next time you're in the Mile High City.