Denver may be landlocked, but it's still home to more than 500 species of ocean-dwellers, thanks to the Downtown Aquarium, the largest aquarium between Chicago and California. Have close encounters with sharks, sea turtles, stingrays, rainbow fish and sea otters as they swim in more than a million gallons of water. Don't miss the exciting Shipwreck exhibit, where a replica of a sunken galleon has transformed into an underwater habitat teeming with aquatic life, or the Sumatran tigers who prowl majestically.
Just down the street from the aquarium, you'll discover the Children's Museum of Denver, a whimsical, imagination-stimulating adventure for kids 10 and under.
The exhibits here will entertain, as well as give an opportunity for exploration and learning. The museum features more than a dozen "playscapes," including a hands-on fire department, an assembly plant for interactive building activities and a tot-sized veterinary clinic.
If you've got a little daredevil on your hands, head directly to the 50,000-square-foot Denver Skate Park, one of the premier public skateboarding parks in the country. There, you'll see skaters of all ages navigating their way through bowls, rail-sliding and catching all kinds of air.
End your first day exploring the 16th Street Mall, a mile-long, tree-lined pedestrian promenade — and one of Denver's most visited attractions. The mall is easy to traverse, thanks to free shuttles that stop frequently at every corner. It's a great spot for dinner, with plenty of kid-pleasing choices. Every block boasts a landmark or a piece of fun public art; treat it like a scavenger hunt as you make your way around. Check out the herd of colorfully painted buffalo between Larimer and Market streets, the iconic Daniels and Fisher Clocktower on the corner of 16th and Arapahoe, or William Burgess' abstract sculpture at 16th and Wazee.
Go to where the wild things are in Denver: the Denver Zoo. One of the nation's most popular zoos, this one-of-a-kind wildlife adventure in City Park takes visitors on a globetrotting safari. You'll go nose to nose with a polar bear, trade funny faces with gorillas and orangutans and stretch necks with giraffes. Younger kids will love taking a ride on the Pioneer Train, which chugs past elephants, rhinos and hippos in Pachyderm Park, as well as the Endangered Species Carousel. Here, they can ride atop their choice of 48 hand-carved animals, and you can savor the memory by taking family photos next to their favorite zoo animal. The Toyota Elephant Passage lets kids get up-close-and-personal with elephants, rhinos and more in one of the world’s largest bull-elephant habitats. The Endangered Species Carousel offers a ride atop one of 48 hand-carved animals.
For lunch, pack a picnic and spread out in City Park, which surrounds the zoo with 330 acres of refreshing green space and an abundance of fresh-air activities. A perfect spot is the area surrounding Ferril Lake, where you'll take in one of the best views of the Denver skyline and the Front Range.
Another option is a visit to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, also located in City Park. You'll see enormous dinosaur skeletons, including T-Rex, Triceratops and Stegosaurus in the Prehistoric Journey exhibit, where you can also get a glimpse of real paleontologists preparing fossils for display. The IMAX Theater provides giant-screen thrills, and the state-of-the-art Gates Planetarium sends you through the cosmos. Don't miss the new, interactive Expedition Health exhibit, where you'll learn all about how your own body functions.
Or head west to the city of Golden’s Colorado Railroad Museum, where more than 100 locomotives, passenger cars, cabooses and HO model railroad attractions make the state’s rail history seem larger than life.
Dinner calls for a trip to Casa Bonita, which is not your average Mexican restaurant. This longtime Denver favorite is a great place for kids, and a great place to end your Denver adventure. Casa Bonita entertains little ones with cliff divers, mariachi bands, puppet shows, a pirate cave, magicians and much more. After this packed Denver weekend with the kids, you might consider treating yourself to one of Casa Bonita's famously large margaritas.
Other Family Attractions in Denver Area
Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park: Mind-blowing rides for those taller than 48 inches, plenty of slower family rides for those who aren’t, Island Kingdom Water Park, lots of places to eat and a summer concert series make the nation’s only downtown theme park a must visit.
Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum: Experience the rush of flight in the museum’s simulation center, climb into cockpits and wonder at the collection of military and civilian aircraft and the country’s only X-wing Starfighter.
Water World: This is one of the biggest and best water parks in the nation, with acres of refreshing summertime fun in Federal Heights. Water World’s 46 rides and adventures offer something for all ages.
The Wild Animal Sanctuary: This 720-acre rescue/educational facility 30 miles outside of Denver is home to nearly 300 large carnivores (including lions, tigers, bears and wolves!). They roam the massive refuge while you walk above them on the Mile Into the Wild walkway.
Dinosaur Ridge: Compare footprint sizes with giant prehistoric beasts on a 1.5-mile nature walk in Morrison. You’ll encounter more than 100 fossilized dinosaur tracks, including those of stegosaurus, apatosaurus and allosaurus.
Spending an adults-only weekend in Denver?
Photo: Courtesy of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.