Denver with Kids: A Perfect Family Day

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Denver with Kids: A Family Vacation

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From a sprawling cow town built of 1800s silver mining to one of the world's best-known centers of winter sports, Denver has recently grown up into a chic and busy metropolis. For twenty years, 1 percent of the local sales tax has gone to support arts and cultural activities, so Denver's museums and events are especially state-of-the-art, clean and well maintained.

Apart from attracting world-class exhibitions, Denver arts and cultural activities are always planned keeping the local little ones in mind. So if you are planning a visit to Denver with kids, get ready to enjoy a magnificent climate, the cool mountain breeze and larger-than-life activities that will keep the whole family entertained. And then there is the delicious and filling western-style eating; I know – I'm the mom of three, now-teenage, children who are "Mile High City" born and raised.

Morning


Start your tour of the Mile High City with breakfast at Racine's (650 Sherman St., Denver; 303-595-0418). This Denver landmark is comfortable for parents but knows how to treat kids right, by offering coloring pages and a menu of tasty classics for $5, as well as a la carte items like muffins and fruit cups for choosy eaters. Statistically, Colorado has the fittest folks in the nation, so if you're watching your waistline, glide past the scrumptious raspberry brownies available for takeout from the bakery. The restaurant is open from 7AM weekdays and 8AM weekends. (Directions: Get to Broadway and head south. Turn left/east on Sixth Avenue and continue past Speer Boulevard. Turn left on Sherman Street and it's half a block north on your right.)

Turn around on Speer and take Colfax eastbound, taking a right onto 14th Avenue, which loops around to drive past the Denver Art Museum and the Denver Public Library. Look for Donald Lipski's sculpture, The Yearling, an oversized red chair with a toy horse on top. See also the Gio Ponti-designed Denver Art Museum, meant to look like a medieval, fortified castle protecting art treasures. Continue on 14th across Broadway and notice the Colorado State Capitol building's gold dome glinting in the sun -- because the sun is usually shining in Denver. (As they say here, if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.)

Make your way to The Cherry Creek Shopping Center (3000 E. First Ave.; 303-388-3900), which has one of the goofiest ever indoor parks for children. Kids can scramble and play on huge and cushiony, pretend breakfast foods -- bacon the size of sleeping bags, a squishy banana as big as a canoe -- while their folks enjoy a latte. Afterward, ask your youngsters to explain how to load aps into an iPod at the very hands-on Denver Museum of Nature and Science (2001 Colorado Blvd.) that enchants children and adults with its many hidden treasures. A colossal, dancing Tyrannosaurus rex will greet you at the door. Don't miss throwing a penny into the ancient saber tooth tiger's mouth to hear him roar -- kids have been doing so for 50 years. See also the mysterious crystal cave, a glittering fragment brought whole from Mexico. See if you can tell what areas contain mirrors to make the cave appear even larger.

Particularly stunning are the many huge, room-sized dioramas of animals in various ecosystems. The Colorado-themed rooms reveal the stunning range of local habitats, from arid prairies to 14,000-foot-high peaks. Museum workers in the 1940s even hid tiny elves in just a few of the scenes -- try to find them (ask a guide to give you a heads up). The museum is open daily 9AM-5PM. Admission: $11 for adults, $6 for kids 3-18. (Directions: From the Cherry Creek mall, take First Avenue curving around to Colorado Boulevard and drive North to Montview Boulevard; turn left into the museum.)


Afternoon


Now, for a great lunch in Denver with kids. The charmingly retro Annie's Cafe (3100 East Colfax Ave.; 303-355-8197) offers edible nostalgia such as lime rickeys, peanut butter shakes and meatloaf "sliders" as appetizers. Kids can get sloppy joes for $6, while adult-sized buffalo burgers start at $8. A good deal is the soup/chili and salad for $7.50. It's open weekdays from 7AM, weekends from 8AM.

Now it's time to work off some of those calories and explore the great outdoors. Denver's centrally-located, very child-friendly Botanic Gardens (1007 York St.; 720-865-3500) always has something to experience, and it has recently expanded its greenhouse complex with waterfalls, a Renaissance-style orangery, and a stunning range of cacti that appear to be from outer space. The Botanic Gardens' Boettcher Tropical Conservatory has a series of climbing pads and stairs to allow for best viewing of its green and moist jungle plants. Just feel the difference between the humidity of the conservatory and Denver's thin, crystalline air. The three-acre Mordecai Children's Garden encourages kids' real-life digging and exploring. (Directions: from Colfax, York street runs one-way south; go15 blocks west of Colorado Boulevard.)

If you're in Denver on a Friday, don't miss the free, hour-long art classes for kids ages 6 and older at the Meininger art supply store (499 Broadway; 303-698-3838). Many younger siblings attend, along with at least one parent, from 4:30 to 5:30PM. Friendly local art students lead the classes, which use quality materials and end with a souvenir. Arrive early, and bring a big T-shirt in order to avoid any mess. (Directions: from westbound Colfax Avenue, take a left onto Broadway, just past Sixth Avenue, on the right.)


Evening


Famous for giving fresh dough to kids to play with to make their own pizzas, Pasquini's Pizza (1336 E. 17th Ave.; 303- 863-8252) is known as Denver's most family-friendly restaurant -- in a good way. Grown-ups love its awesomely delicious pizzas and hip atmosphere; try their outrageously good chicken and pine nut pizza, which features local Haystack Mountain goat cheese from Boulder. 'Zas run from $10 to $22, with plenty of salads, calzones and pasta to choose from starting at $6.

If the sun hasn't tucked behind the mountains yet, end your day with some fresh air at the City Park (corner of Colorado Boulevard and East 17th Avenue). There is a duck pond and playground equipment for kids, who might even be tuckered out from all the super-sized fun to be found in Denver.

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