Of course, there’s plenty to see and do in Denver aside from baseball. And football. And hockey. And basketball. Denver’s home to a team in each of the “Big 4” professional sports leagues – And happily enough for sports fans, all four (well, three actually – the Avalanche and Nuggets both play in the Pepsi Center) home fields are all within easy reach of downtown.
Within that roughly two-mile radius are all of Denver’s major cultural and recreational centers.
We’ll start at the northwest end of the 16th Street Mall, though. The street continues as a pedestrian walkway onto the Millenium Bridge, a technologically necessary but artistically overdone walkway over the rail lines. At the far end are a bunch of parks on the South Platte riverfront, and another pedestrian bridge. This one, the Platte River Bridge, called for a more pleasing design what with its views of the river and all that. But aside from a wide spot for an observation platform at the center, it’s a boring straight and flat crossing. For some reason, people have been doing what I’ve heard has been done in other cities – attaching locks to the bridge railing.
I honestly don’t get the point here. You’re wasting a perfectly good lock, and making more work for the maintenance people. Can someone explain this to me?
The riverfront is a bunch of parks that all pretty much flow together. Let’s call them all “Confluence Park”, since that is the name of one of them. Denver was founded at the place where Cherry Creek flows into the South Platte River, so… The park(s), at the time of my visit, weren’t much to look at. They looked like land deliberately left undeveloped because the river kept flooding onto it.
Downtown’s other major open space is at the southeast end of 16th Street – the Civic Center Park. Not that it’s where an arena or hall called the “Civic Center” is, but that it is the center of the government (the ‘civics”, if you will). The state capitol is at the east side; the city (and county) hall is on the west. Other municipal buildings are alongside or within a block or two.
Great views can be had from the steps of the state capitol – local laws prohibit any building from being tall enough to block the view to the west behind City (and county) Hall. One of the steps is engraved with the words “One Mile Above Sea Level”. The step actually isn’t; it’s the little metal disk a few steps above that marks the official altitude. At least until they have to move it (again – determining ‘sea level’ is rather complicated) due to sea level rise from global warming.
A block or two south of Civic Center Park is where all the main museums are located. I visited two of them.
The Colorado History Center is what it says it is. They’ve got some good exhibits suitable for all ages covering the state’s history. It’s hard to tell which are permanent exhibits and which are temporary, but they’re all good. I saw an exhibit on Keota, a town on the Plains that peaked a century ago, an exhibit on mining that took you deep down into a “mine” for a look at what it was like to work with explosives in a confined space, and a cool interactive display on managing water usage.
There’s an exhibit called “Zoom In”, which is another one of those “history of X in 100 objects” things. This one has to do with Colorado, of course. There’s a Folsom point from prehistory, one of Kit Carson’s jackets, one of John Denver’s guitars, the first same-sex civil union license…. At the end, you are asked to nominate the 101st object. I agreed with the one suggesting a dinosaur fossil and the three suggesting something to do with the Colorado Rockies. I’d go with either something from the team’s very first home game or a program from the 2007 World Series (they won the pennant that year after an incredible run of victories in September and October).
A block away is the Denver Art Museum. While I was there, a major exhibit was “Serious Play: Design in Mid Century America”, a cool look at domestic interior design in the 50s (think Ray Eames – he’s all over the exhibit). Not just furniture and housewares, but toys! There were about a dozen people all playing at the table of tops (including me). I had a nostalgia overload in the gift store; you could buy toys of the era in replica packaging! I played with many of them in my youth!
Once I tore myself away, there was an exhibit on British art to see: “The Treasures of British Art: The Berger Collection”. A decent enough look at British painting from the 1400s to the 1800s. I’m not much of a painting buff, so most of it was lost on me. The one spot that I liked the best looked at a specific portrait by an anonymous artist, and went over the ways that art experts and historians figure out which paintings were done by the same unknown artist. In this case, the clincher came from an expert in an unusual field (I’ll only tell if you ask nicely).
I did not visit the Denver Mint; it happened to be closed when I came by. I’ve been to the Philadelphia Mint, so I don’t think I missed much. I did visit the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve, though. I was a bit disappointed. There were a number of displays on the history of American currency, how to spot forged bills, and a lot of displays on managing personal finances. But if people know about the Fed, it’s because they control interest rates through some arcane process. There was nothing at all on the how or why of that – nothing that I saw, at any rate. Well, at least admission is free, and I got my free souvenir bag of shredded currency on my way out.
If you want to get a little further out of the center of the city, a visit to the Denver Botanic Gardens is worthwhile. It’s about at the limit of walking distance from Civic Center Park. It may seem small – only 24 acres – but they cram a LOT of stuff in there. Garden design is seriously underrated. You’ve got to include hundreds of plants, place them in ways where they don’t ‘compete’ with each other and have some reason to be with their neighbors, and allow for paths that let visitors see every one.
Naturally, I went too early in the (local) spring for the Gardens to be at their best. And I got caught in a thunderstorm. Fortunately, I was right outside the Belcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory when the skies opened…. And their collection of lilacs (my favorite flower) was in bloom. If I had the time, I would have checked out the Science Pyramid. Like every garden of this sort, they actually do real science on plants and ecology. On a properly sunny day, in the right season, the Gardens would be a great place for a relaxing stroll.
The Gardens are located at one side of Cheesman Park, one of the largest open areas in Denver. It’s on the site of a former cemetery; so if Denver isn’t doing a Zombie Festival of some sort there in October – what is wrong with them?
I mentioned that I went to Denver to visit an old friend. Well, he took me out to some of the sights in the region. I’ll tell you about them next time.