Planning to visit Denver and wondering if it’s worthwhile to rent a car? Here’s my honest opinion!
I grew up just outside of Denver in Lakewood, Colorado and have spent a lot of time working in and exploring Downtown Denver. There are beautiful parks, great coffee shops, and unbeatable views of the mountains.
It’s a great city, but it can be daunting to navigate if you don’t have your own transport. This is especially true for budget travelers, who might not be able to afford rideshares or taxis.
I’ve spent the last several years living in Europe without a car and it’s been an eye-opening experience. Although I rent cars from time to time, I typically rely on trains, buses, planes, and ferries to get around. As someone who isn’t particularly enamored with cars or driving, I wanted to share my thoughts on local transportation options within Denver.
So, do you need a car in Denver?
I would strongly recommend that you plan to rent or borrow a car when you’re visiting Denver. This is especially true if you want to travel into the mountains, venture into the various neighborhoods, or if you’ll be running a lot of errands. Who doesn’t want to visit the mountains or get outside when they’re visiting Denver?
Lackluster public transit is one of the cons of living in Colorado. The situation is better today than it was when I was in high school, but there’s still a way to go. Unless I’m traveling between Boulder, Union Station in Denver, and the Denver International Airport, I almost never take public transit in Denver.
That said, if you’re visiting for work and won’t be leaving Downtown Denver, you’re probably better off without a car. That small area is very central, with grocery stores, restaurants, shops, and hotels all within a small, walkable area. Non-drivers can always rely on ride shares, e-scooters, taxis, or public transit to get around in a pinch.
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Reasons to Have a Car in Denver 🚗
Not convinced you’ll need to rent a car in Denver? Here are some of the top reasons that I recommend you drive in my hometown, even if you’re not a car enthusiast.
Denver is sprawling
Denver is an expansive city, and the distances can be quite long on foot or by public transit. As an example, it would take you about 15 minutes to drive from Union Station in Denver to Washington Park. The same distance is a 1 hour and 45 minute walk or a 45 minute walk/train ride (25 minutes of which is walking).
For a one way trip, this isn’t the end of the world. But if you’re trying to run errands all over town, it’s easy to see how it could quickly eat up an entire day!
You need a car to reach the suburbs or mountains
While public transit or rideshare options may suffice while you’re in central parts of Denver, they’re not great options if you want to get out of the city. To travel from Denver to one of the surrounding suburbs, it can take as long as 3 to 4x as long to rely on public transit as a similar journey in a car.
Rideshares work just fine in the Denver suburbs, but they are not a reliable way to get into the mountains. Drivers could refuse your ride, and you might not have enough cell reception to call your return Uber. I wouldn’t risk it.
It’s more convenient
Put simply, Denver is a city that was set up for cars, so you’ll be at a disadvantage if you don’t have one. In all but the most populated parts of the city, cars were the first priority when designing roads and intersections.
By driving, you can significantly cut down on your transit time when traveling in Denver.
Public transit is limiting
Denver’s public transit options get better all the time, but they’re still not there yet. RTD, our local transit authority, recently reduced fares and the number of travel zones, both of which are big improvements. Still, I wouldn’t rely on local buses unless I was really in a bind.
The buses are slow, often late, and will add significant time to your journey when compared to taking a car. Again, the notable exceptions are the regional buses and trains that service Boulder, Denver, and the airport. Those are reliable and usually run on time.
Parking is generally available
Because Denver was designed for cars, there is ample street parking outside of the core downtown area. This is especially true the further you go from downtown, where the streets become more residential.
Be aware that Denver has street sweeping days from April through November. Read the signs carefully, because the city regularly issues parking tickets. Always look for the sign on your side of the street nearest your car – the other side of the street will probably have a different street sweeping day.
Alternatives to renting a car in Denver
Of course, there are alternatives to renting a car when you visit Denver. Maybe you’re not old enough to drive, the rental prices are outside of your budget, or you simply don’t like to navigate unfamiliar cities.
The easiest and most reliable alternative to renting a car in Denver is to use a ridesharing service like Lyft or Uber. These services are generally reliable and easy to use, but the costs can add up quickly. Because Denver is spread out, the distances can take 10-15 minutes or more, which drives up the cost of your rideshare.
A much more budget-friendly alternative to renting a car or using a rideshare service is to take public transit. Truthfully, this can be a good option, but it really depends on where you’re staying and where you’ll need to travel. If you’re staying near a Light Rail station and only need to go to Union Station, you might be just fine mostly using the trains.
Of course, you could always use a mix of rideshares/e-scooters and public transit, depending on where you need to go.
Downtown Denver is decently walkable, especially during the day. I typically feel comfortable walking in the LoDo, Ballpark, Capitol Hill, Highlands, and River North Arts District (RiNo) areas of Denver at night. I wouldn’t walk between these neighborhoods at night alone, though. Stick to busy and populated areas only, and pay attention when walking.
During the day, most parts of Denver are safe for pedestrians. At night, however, I would recommend against it, except in particularly safe and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. I wouldn’t personally walk any great distances in Denver at night.
Denver has an active cycling community, and parts of the city have cycle lanes that you can use. In fact, Denver recently added 137 miles of new bike lanes, so the infrastructure for cyclists is improving quickly. There is an especially nice 30 mile route along the Platte River that passes by RiNo and Empower Field where the Denver Broncos play, among other landmarks.
You can rent a bike from a local company or bring your own.
Whether or not cycling is a good choice for your trip depends largely on the weather and the safety of the routes you’ll need to use. If you’re visiting Colorado in September, you can cycle all through the city in the great weather. By winter, however, you’ll have to contend with snow, ice, and salt all along the roadways and potential delays in clearing the cycle lanes.
Electric Scooters 🛴
E-scooters are a popular way for locals and tourists alike to get around Denver. These zippy scooters are much faster than walking and sometimes even cycling, and you can rent them using an app on your phone.
Lime and Bird are the two most popular brands of e-scooters in Denver.
Never ride e-scooters on sidewalks. Further, you’ll need to obey all traffic laws, and take all necessary precautions to keep yourself, other pedestrians, and anyone else on the roads safe.
How to Get to the Denver International Airport
It’s very easy to get from Downtown Denver to the Denver International Airport, thanks to the train service that has been added within the last decade or so. The train runs from behind Union Station in the large outdoor pavilion directly to DIA. There are only 7 stops along the way, so the train is relatively direct and quick.
As of this writing, the first train leaves Union Station at 3am and the last train is at 12:30am. The train takes approximately 40 minutes. Tickets are $10 per person.
Of course, you can also drive directly to the airport. From Denver’s Union Station, it takes about 30-45 minutes to drive to the airport. Leave extra time if you’re traveling around rush hour (6:30 to 9am or 4 to 8pm).
FAQs: Do You Need a Car in Denver?
Planning to visit Denver and still have questions about car rentals, driving in the city, or how to get around? Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions from other travelers.
Can I get around Denver without a car?
Yes, it’s possible to get around Denver without a car. Depending on which part of the city you’re visiting, you may need to rely on a mix of public transit, ride shares, walking, and/or scooters or bicycles. However, for most travelers, I’d recommend that you rent a car because you’ll probably have a more positive experience.
Is it worth it to rent a car in Denver?
Yes, it’s definitely worth the hassle to rent a car in Denver. This is especially true if you plan to venture into any of the surrounding areas, such as the suburbs, the mountains, or nearby cities. Many of the most popular attractions in Denver are most easily accessible by car.
Is Denver an easy city to drive in?
As far as US cities go, Denver is a decently easy city to drive in. The roads are generally well marked and easy to follow, and several highways run through the urban areas. The main traffic artery in Denver is I-25, which runs north and south through Denver. I’d avoid driving on I-25 during rush hour if at all possible.
Is Denver a walkable city?
As far as US cities go, Denver is fairly walkable. Downtown Denver has wide sidewalks, with plenty of pedestrian areas and crosswalks available. Because Denver is so spread out, it can take a long time to walk from one neighborhood to another. Often, Denverites will drive, cycle, take public transit, or rely on e-scooters to travel throughout the city.
How to get to Denver Downtown from the airport?
There is a direct train line that connects Union Station in Denver to the airport. It is reliable, affordable, easy to use, and runs frequently throughout the day. When you arrive at the Denver Airport, follow signs for RTD/public transit after you collect your baggage.
You can also drive to the airport or take a taxi or a rideshare service.
Conclusion: Do You Need a Car in Denver?
Most travelers will have a better experience visiting Denver if they rent a car. Although Denver has walkable sidewalks and a compact downtown area, the rest of the city is quite spread out. Public transit in the city is improving, but there are still significant gaps in services and reliability.
In order to go hiking, check out Red Rocks Amphitheater, and generally make the most of your trip, I recommend renting a car. Hopefully Denver can continue to improve and cars will be less essential for future travelers!