I have a confession to make. I tried redeeming a free airline ticket I’d won toward flights to other big U.S. cities including Nashville, Los Angeles and Boston but kept encountering  roadblocks in terms of  getting to or staying in each of those cities so ended up choosing Denver as a more workable western compromise with less travel and better value accommodation options. What seemed like a convenient compromise at the time however turned out to be an amazing Summer weekend escape in the Colorado capital because of a compact core that makes exploring its diverse districts on foot not only practical but preferred.

Many visitors arrive at Denver’s International Airport, known by its aviation code DEN, and the smart ones jump on the A -line commuter rail line that connects DEN and downtown Denver. This 23-mile, 37-minute ride is $9 one-way and the fare includes unlimited rides on the A-line the rest of that day.

After the short commute passengers disembark at the Beaux-Arts style Union Station, a 1914-vintage train depot that underwent a complete $54-million restoration and modernization project before reopening on its centenary in 2014.

The interior features soaring ceilings and a public area bathed in natural light from cathedral-like windows. The cafe in the center serves up specialty coffees consumed by patrons either at long, library tables or in comfy couches. I liked the black high back wood waiting room benches and Art Deco lamps that added a touch of nostalgia.

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In front of the station Wynkoop Plaza has become the popular city gathering point with seasonal restaurants and cafe terraces, farmer’s markets, outdoor performances and plenty of places to perch and enjoy kids cooling off in a splash pad.

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The plaza has a line in the paving stones that marks the meridian 105° west of Greenwich which runs from north to south poles but isn’t to be confused with the 100° meridian where the Great Plains begin.

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The blocks surrounding Union Station are home to a similar vintage of sturdy red brick warehouses that have been preserved and converted to hip lofts, shops, studios and offices.

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The Wynkoop Railroad Bridge is a 1908 cast iron bridge spanning Cherry Creek which is also named Manny’s Bridge after local resident Manny Salzman who in the mid-’90s helped spearhead efforts to save the city’s trestle bridges using city grants to turn them into pedestrian paths.

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Another area with huge heritage appeal is the Larimer Square district that houses Denver’s oldest and most historic block and is draped with glittering lights strung over the entire block.

The Victorian buildings are now home to specialty boutiques, galleries and unique chef-driven restaurants but the street was the birthplace of Denver in 1858 with shops, hotels and saloons that catered to prospectors and pioneers flooding the state during its gold rush. The original wood buildings were destroyed in 1863 by fires but the late Victorian brick buildings that replaced them date from the late 19th century.

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For the full effect visit Larimer Square at dusk to watch the sun go down and the lights come up.

The U.S. Mint Denver is a historic 1906 landmark that has kept its role as a key production facility for minting U.S. coins. In fact, the Denver Mint is the single largest producer of coins in the world with billions of pennies, nickels, dines and quarters rolling off the production line every year.

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The Mint offers six free tours a day at 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. however during peak Summer season demand is high and visitors line up as early as 5 a.m. to get one of the few tickets given out on a first come, first served basis as no online reservations are possible. As an early riser I thought I was safe arriving around 5:30 a.m. but found I was about 30th in line and had to settle for the first tour at 8 a.m. as those before me had selected the other morning tours leaving me no choice as I had to catch a late afternoon flight home.

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The tour lasts about 45-minutes but it’s well worth reading up about the rules for visiting the Mint as backpacks or bags are not allowed and there are no locker facilities on-site, cameras are not allowed and all cellphones must be powered off as all photography during the tour is prohibited.

Despite all the security the tour is well worth it since it’s a.) free and b.) interesting to see the coins being struck in huge quantities. While I’d read that the Mint loses money making pennies which was confirmed by the tour guide it actually makes money minting nickels, dimes and quarters and so is a self-sufficient entity within the U.S. government.

As a Canadian I couldn’t resist ribbing fellow American tour participants about how enlightened we are to have discontinued productions of the penny and moved to one and two dollar coins. Most took it with good grace but several commented that they couldn’t quite imagine an economy without small bank notes or pennies.

Taking the tour earns participants free money and a unique souvenir in the form of a cellophane-wrapped 2018 “D” mark Denver penny which is paired with a blank before its struck. The gift shop also has some unique items and one I picked up for cleaning around the house is a 4 X 10 inch microfiber cloth of the Benjamin Franklin $100 bill.

Public art is prominently displayed around downtown Denver and nowhere is it as noticeable as the 40-foot-high blue bear that appears to peer into the Colorado Convention Center.  Officially known as “I See What You Mean” and installed in 2005 artist Lawrence Argent wanted to inject a sense of fun and playfulness into the convention center experience and his whimsical artwork has quickly become a Mile High City icon.

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The 16th Street Mall is a 2-kilometer long pedestrian promenade that runs from Union Station to the Civic Center and is  home to over 300 locally owned or chain stores, over 50 restaurants, and the Denver Pavilions.

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There is a free shuttle bus service, operated by the Regional Transportation District (RTD), known as the Free MallRide, that stops on every corner.

At the opposite end of the downtown from Union Station is the Colorado State Capitol Building with its gleaming gold dome a very visible reminder of the 1858 Pike’s Peak Gold Rush that helped spur the creation of the Colorado territory a few years later and its eventual statehood in 1875. The dome’s colour comes from 65 ounces of gold-leaf applied in the most recent re-application in 2013.

Constructed of  white Colorado granite the building, which was designed to resemble the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., opened in 1894.

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Free tours of the state capitol are available every weekday between 10 AM – 3 PM and last one hour. While visitors are able to tour the building on their own only guided tours are able to access the dome and enjoy an outstanding view of Denver from its outdoor viewing platform.

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The green space grounds around the capitol extend to the City and County Building of Denver which is the white Neoclassical building directly opposite and together with the Denver Mint, Denver Public Library, Denver Art Museum and History Colorado Museum make up the Civic Center.

On the 15th stone step of the State Capital Building is an inscription noting it being exactly one mile above sea level although more recent and accurate measurements place the spot on the 13th and 18th steps where other markers have also been placed. Regardless of the exact elevation the view from these steps is worth pausing to admire.

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Visit Denver has produced an excellent online city guide that highlights all the capital offers including user-friendly downtown maps for types like me while prefer maps over apps.

With 300-days of sunshine every year and an extremely walkable city centre Denver it’s always a good time to visit but I like the outdoor living on those sultry Summer days so would suggest planning a trip between June and September.  With free tours and reasonable dining and entertainment costs exploring Denver’s downtown districts also won’t cost a mint (pun intended).