Free fun: Denver-area cultural activities that don’t cost a thing
There are plenty of free things to do along the Front Range, but some are more valuable than others.
But wait: isn’t free always good?
Not really. Whether you’re dropping cash or time, you’re still spending something. Benjamin Franklin coined the phrase “time is money,” but microeconomic theory calls it “opportunity cost” — or the realization that choosing to do one thing necessarily crowds out the opportunity for another.
Some free things offer a better return on your time investment. And when it comes investing in arts and culture, free can be a powerful motivator to try something new.
“When cost is a barrier someone might end up saying, ‘Oh, that isn’t for me,’” said Ashley Pritchard, communications manager for the Denver Art Museum. “But we offer free (programming) because we want to be accessible to everyone. Free gets someone in the doors and if they can have a beautiful, inspiring experience because of it, it’s worth it for us.”
Different things are free for different reasons, although many of them are sales tools. Like supermarket food samples or free song downloads, they’re tastes of a bigger experience intended to coax consumers into a purchase.
But they can also be high-minded in nature, as when open-source software allows developers to collectively improve and distribute free computer programs. Or, in our case, when taxpayer- and foundation-funded groups offer free programming with no other agenda than educating or building a sense of community. Think libraries, museums and city-wide arts festivals.
“Some people talk about how they don’t come to museums because they can’t afford it, and that makes me so sad because there are so many ways to come experience art and culture around Denver for free,” Pritchard said.
We like free things, but we want them to be worth our time. With that in mind, we’ve compiled some of our favorite cultural activities that are otherwise worth paying for along the Front Range . For day-by-day events, visit denver.org/events/free-events.
John Wenzel: 303-954-1642, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/johnwenzel
Free days (and weeks) at Denver museums
The city’s biggest and best cultural institutions offer a different free day each month, so if you don’t mind the crowds, they’re a great way to check out the Denver Museum of Nature & Science or Denver Botanic Gardens. Keep an eye on Denver Arts Week (Nov. 1-9), which also offers loads of top-notch programming like a free Colorado Ballet performance at the Children’s Museum of Denver, or the colorful, art-driven Festival de los Animales at the Denver Zoo (with a free day Nov. 4). The Night at the Museums program during Arts Weeks also offers free attendance to a dozen institutions like the Denver Art Museum, Clyfford Still Museum, Molly Brown House and more. denver.org/ denverartsweek.
Colorado brewery tours
Even before the microbrewery explosion of the past few years, Colorado boasted Coors Brewing Co. in Golden, which remains the largest single-site brewery in the world. Park, then catch a bus to the complex for a guided tour of the labyrinthine operation and a few gratis beers afterward. More plentiful are the dozens of microbreweries along the Front Range, which offer everything from quick, one-on-one brewery chats (Wynkoop Brewing Co.) to full tours of fast-growing local brands (New Belgium Brewing, Oskar Blues) and, as always, free samples. Various times and locations. Download the new Denver Post Beer Guide app for iPad from the iTunes app store for recommendations and links.
Seasonal festivals and parades
You don’t need to get lost in a corn maze or a haunted house to feel the rush of Halloween in Colorado. Arvada’s free Festival of Scarecrows (Oct. 12, arvada.org) offers a kid’s costume parade, pumpkin-picking, hay rides, potato-sack races and more. Denver’s infamous Zombie Crawl (Oct. 19) aims to attract a record-breaking and all-ages crowd of ghoulishly-costumed souls to the 16th Street Mall for its seventh annual parade of horrors ( eyeheartbrains.com). Closer to the big holidays, the free Lakewood Heritage Center presents its “Lakewood Lights” event (Dec. 6-7) with Christmas ornament-making activities, museum tours and more ( lakewood.org/holidaylights).
Denver money tours
Paying money to learn how money is made seems like a perverted sort of logic. Fortunately, the United States Mint in Denver still offers free tours of its winding and heavily-guarded halls. The process of making coins is fascinating but so is the history of this 150-year-old operation, which has its roots in the Pikes Peak Gold Rush and remains the largest coin producer in the world. Guided tours lasting 45 minutes start every 90 minutes and run from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday. Reservations are required, and spots fill up quickly. 320 W. Colfax Ave. 303-405-4761 or usmint.gov/mint_tours. Also check out the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s Denver branch’s free, walk-in Money Museum tour on the 16th Street Mall. Get a look at millions of dollars in the region’s largest cash vault and design your own digital currency (complete with your photo). 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays. kansascityfed.org.
Denver’s hilarious stand-up comedy scene is more active than ever, and one of the benefits of these comics’ relentless pursuit of stage time is the bevy of free shows. And we’re not just talking open-mics. Quality showcases with Comedy Works headliners and nationally touring stand-ups happen both weekly (Too Much Fun at the Deer Pile) and monthly (Arguments and Grievances at Vine Street Pub, Three Course Comedy and the Narrators storytelling show at the Deer Pile, Propaganda! at Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret). Visit 5280comedy.com for a complete list with locations, dates and times.