Last month, my family visited Denver over Thanksgiving break (see my review of our hotel). While we have visited Denver many times, the big difference with this trip is that we visited Denver without a car.
Why would we do that? For starters, since we were staying in a hotel downtown, parking was $42 a day. Ouch! On top of that, rental car prices are expensive in Denver. I can never find good deals like in Florida and other popular tourist destinations. The lowest price we could find for that week was ~$50/day for the smallest car.
So, we decided to go outside our comfort zone and rely on public transportation. The new train that goes from the airport to downtown Denver made it easy for us to go car-less on this trip. See how we made it work, and check out the places we visited using Denver’s light rail system.
Getting from the Airport to Downtown
After we got our luggage, we walked indoors to the very end of the airport terminal. The signs were very straightforward.
Once we stepped outside, we went down a long escalator, and we were at the transit center.
We purchased our tickets and boarded a train.
This airport train line just opened in April 2016, so the trains are new and modern. After a few minutes, the entire train was full of people.
The ride to downtown took about 40 minutes with just a few stops on the way. Soon, we arrived at Union Station.
Union Station is very clean and easy to navigate, although there was some construction during our visit.
At Union Station, we boarded the Free Mall Ride bus that goes down the 16th Street Mall. We got off at Welton Street and walked one block to the Grand Hyatt Denver. So easy!
I think we got to our hotel faster on public transportation than if we would have rented a car. Renting a car would have meant hopping on a shuttle bus to the rental place, getting our car and driving in traffic.
16th Street Mall
Since we were staying one block from the 16th Street Mall, and the Free Mall Ride bus is free and stops at every corner, we had a world of possibilities at our doorstep.
This outdoor mall is full of shops and restaurants. The street is closed to all vehicles except for the Free Mall Ride bus, so it’s very safe and easy to walk around.
In the middle of the street, we saw chess and checkers tables as well as some xylophones for spectators and a piano player.
My kids enjoyed the Soundwalk, which has different noises coming from the sidewalk grates.
Public bathrooms are available in trailers. Good idea!
We took the Free Mall Ride bus a few stops north of our hotel to Skyline Park for outdoor ice skating. It’s only $2 to rent a pair of skates, and skate rentals are free for kids on Sundays. The rink is open through mid-February. Skyline park has different activities during the summer, like a beer garden, miniature golf course and outdoor movies at dusk.
We saw a German Christmas market on a side street, and we shopped in the biggest candy store I’ve ever seen!
We also saw a movie and ate at a few restaurants on the mall during our stay. There are so many hotels in downtown, which makes it an easy and convenient place to stay.
United States Mint
Just a few blocks away from the 16th Street Mall is the Denver branch of the United States Mint. We walked there from our hotel.
I booked a tour online 30 days prior to our visit. The tours are free but difficult to find availability. It appears that the Mint just changed its policy to only allow same-day reservations in person at the door (see this page).
The tour is recommended for people ages 7 and up, but my 6-year-old did fine. We got to see machinery producing both quarters and pennies. Photos were not allowed inside, so you will have to see it for yourself.
The building itself has a fascinating history as well. My kids were more interested in the tour than I could hope for. No complaints from them!
After the tour, we browsed the gift shop before walking back to the mall area.
The Money Museum
We took our kids to the Money Museum, which is also right off the 16th Street Mall and easily accessible by the Free Mall Ride. This is a small museum inside the Federal Reserve Bank, and it’s free!
Note: Adults need photo ID to enter this museum, and international visitors must show passports to enter.
Although small, this museum has a lot of hands-on exhibits, and several geared for kids. It also has an optional audio tour.
The museum gives out free bags of shredded money. Cha-ching!
It also has a section where you can design your own currency.
We were only in the museum for less than an hour, but it was a fun stop!
If you’re not from Denver, you may not have heard of Casa Bonita. Or, maybe you saw the famous Casa Bonita episode on the South Park cartoon.
My kids love this place! When we decided to visit Denver without a car, I assumed we would have to skip Casa Bonita for this visit. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there is a light rail station just two blocks from the restaurant!
We took the Free Mall Bus to Union Station. From there, we took the W light rail line to the Lamar stop. The ride was about 20 minutes. Very easy!
We spent several hours at Casa Bonita. With the exception of the sopapillas, the food isn’t outstanding, but the atmosphere and entertainment sure is!
Our cave table:
My kids love to watch the shows that happen every 15 minutes. We saw a gunfight show, a gorilla show and many cliff divers.
The restaurant has over 900 seats, and on a Saturday night over 5000 people cycle through. Wow! If you have some time, check out this video on Casa Bonita.
Other Attractions in Denver without a Car
There are many more attraction in and near Denver that are easy to get to on public transportation.
Elitch Gardens amusement park is one stop from Union Station. I’ve been going there since I was a kid, although originally it wasn’t located downtown. We took our kids there via the light rail a few years ago, and it’s very easy. If we go again in the summer, we will return to Elitch’s for sure.
Pepsi Center is also right on the light rail line. You can catch a Denver Nuggets game or a Colorado Avalanche hockey game. Sports Authority Field at Mile High is also a few stops from Union Station, where you can watch the Denver Broncos play.
Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies baseball team, is located within walking distance of Union Station. This area, known as LoDo or Lower Downtown, has many bars and restaurants.
Cost of Public Transportation
A regional day pass, which includes the train from the airport and all light rail and buses, is $9.00 for adults. Kids 6-19 are $4.50, and kids 5 and under are free. We bought these passes on two of the days we were in Denver, and it cost my family of five $31.50 for the entire day. Way less than renting a car and paying for parking at our hotel.
Local day passes are $5.20 for adults and $2.60 for kids 6-19. We bought these on the day we visited Casa Bonita, and the cost was $18.20 for the five of us. You can buy one-way tickets for less.
Unlike New York City and other places known for great public transportation, Denver is not a city that comes to mind to visit without renting a car. However, with the recent improvements and expansions to the rail lines, getting around Denver was a breeze.
Of course, if you are going to Denver to see family and have to stop at specific places in the suburbs, visiting Denver without a car will be more challenging. But, it’s not impossible. My parents live about 1.5 miles from a rail station, so we would still consider forgoing a rental car and just taking Uber from the nearest station to their place.
If my kids were younger and required a stroller, this trip would have been more difficult. The trains and buses accommodate strollers, but forgoing a car with younger kids would mean a lot more schlepping of equipment.
What do you think about going car-less on vacation? Relaxing and adventurous, or a pain in the neck? Denver folks, what other attractions am I missing that are easily accessible via public transportation?
Nancy lives near Dallas, Texas, with her husband and three kids. Her favorite vacations include the beach, cruising and everything Disney.