Photo: Tourism Santa Fe

How to Take the Perfect Family Vacation in Santa Fe

Santa Fe Family Travel
by Alicia Underlee Nelson Aug 25, 2022

My nine-year-old son stared, transfixed as an artist painstakingly painted pottery with a single, nearly invisible horsehair. He stood on an open-air train car enjoying the cool, honey-scented breeze as we chugged out into the arid landscape in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Then he crawled through the fireplace in a Victorian house and popped out in another dimension. And that was just in the first 24 hours of our Santa Fe family vacation.

The nation’s oldest capital city doesn’t really market itself as a family-friendly destination, but don’t let that fool you — there’s a plethora of immersive and unusual things to do in Santa Fe with kids. Many are infused with or inspired by the city’s creative traditions. This is the first UNESCO-designated Creative City in the US and it’s been a hotbed of artistic collaboration for centuries. I visited with my parents and my fourth grader to experience how this eclectic community makes art and history feel playful and provocative.

We hope you love the experiences and stays we recommend. Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay.

The city different

Family Hiking in Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument Santa Fe New Mexico one of the best things to do with kids in Santa Fe

Photo: Margaret Wiktor/Shutterstock

Northern New Mexico is a place where tradition lives close to the surface. The dusky pink tinted mountains, stark desert light, and vivid blue sky have inspired and attracted artists, builders, and dreamers for generations. The oldest colonial adobe structures in Santa Fe date back to the 1600s. But the region’s Indigenous Pueblo communities have been creating sculptures, pottery, and jewelry for thousands of years. Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo creatives added their own artistry to the mix, followed by hippies, spiritual seekers, and counter-culturalists. You can see this artistic lineage at work in Santa Fe’s 20 museums and 250 art galleries.

Santa Fe’s motto, “the city different,” is a rare thing — a marketing slogan that actually rings true. Low-slung buildings in the Pueblo Revival style seem to glow in the sunset light. Strings of chiles hang to dry against terracotta-colored walls, a timeless tableau.

But instead of being mired in the past, this community’s eclectic mix of cultures and its many artists inject a Santa Fe vacation with a jolt of creative energy. Here’s how to use that energy and a few of the best things to do in Santa Fe with kids.

The Plaza and Downtown

Start at the Plaza, the heart of Santa Fe. This shady square is centuries old, but it’s still a prime spot for stellar people-watching, summer concerts, and festivals all year long. Many of the city’s historical attractions, boutiques, and over 400 restaurants are a just short walk away.

Get an overview of the neighborhood from a colorful Santa Fe pedicab. Guides can create customized tours for kids, art lovers, history buffs, and tourists pressed for time.

Or dig deeper during The Santa Fe Creative Adventurer Scavenger Hunt, an engaging interactive game guided by your cell phone. Teens can play on their own team, but younger kids do best paired with caregivers.

Buy authentic pottery and jewelry from the Indigenous artists who sit under the portal of the Palace of the Governors, the oldest public building in the country still in use. It’s now part of the engaging New Mexico History Museum, which held my nine-year-old’s attention for a few hours. It’s free for kids 16 and under, so if your kids aren’t as interested, it’s not a big deal. Museum-trained docents also run walking tours of historic downtown Santa Fe. They’re a fun way to get the family learning on the move while the littlest ones doze in strollers or carriers.

Treat the kiddos to food truck fare on the Plaza or indulge in a Frito Pie (a portable chips and chili concoction) and souvenir shopping at the Five and Dime General Store. Or put your name on the list at The Shed, a local favorite that’s been serving up addictive red chile enchiladas and other Pueblo, Spanish, and Mexican-influenced dishes since 1953. (The brick and flagstone patio is especially atmospheric.) Pop into the shops, galleries, or the Neo-Romanesque St. Francis Cathedral (home to the oldest statue of the Madonna in the nation) while you wait for the text that your table is ready.

“Many restaurants also have a kid’s play area, which helped when the kids were younger and wouldn’t sit through a meal and adult conversation,” explains Betsy Dahms of Carrollton, Georgia. She’s the mother of two teenagers and visits Santa Fe every year. “The Cowgirl has really good burgers and a nice outdoor space for kids. Afterward, you can walk around and window shop or poke your nose into an art gallery.”

“They have an ice cream thing that looks just like a baked potato, but is made of ice cream,” adds Greg Gellar, a Santa Fe resident and father of three. “Kids love it. I personally prefer the chocolate lava cake.”

The Santa Fe Railyard

We found many of the most fun and affordable things to do in Santa Fe with kids in the Santa Fe Railyard district. The neighborhood is anchored by Railyard Park (an award-winning green space full of gardens, public art, a children’s play area, and free family-friendly events like concerts, singalongs and sand play Saturdays for toddlers) and the Santa Fe Railyard Plaza and water tower.

The neighborhood hosts the Santa Fe Artists Market on Saturdays, the Railyard Artisan Market on Sundays, and the excellent Santa Fe Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Locals and tourists gather for free summer concerts by the water tower, outdoor movies, gallery hopping in the seven-block Santa Fe Railyard Art District, and a host of other festivals, races, and public performances.

My son insists that stopping for local and organic ice cream at La Lecheria is an absolute must. A flight of four mini scoops is perfect for curious and/or indecisive ice cream fans. Bee Hive Books stocks a cozy cottage with children’s books steps from the Railyard. Geller recommends a few other neighborhood spots to add to your Santa Fe vacation experience.

The Violet Crown movie theater is a fun place to watch movies,” he says. “Also, there are often people who gather to play board games or DnD. There’s a chess club, a go club, a backgammon club, and probably others. There’s also Site Santa Fe, which always has really interesting art installations.”

puzzah escape rooms one of the best things to do in santa fe with kids

Photo: Puzzah!

All three generations of my family had a blast at Puzzah! which offers two different escape rooms that adapt to your skill level. But our favorite Railyard attraction was the Sky Railway. Look for the engines covered in graffiti-style art, then hop on the vintage train cars for a leisurely ride to Lamy and back. There are complimentary snacks, cold drinks from the cash bar, live music and an open train car where you can (and should) stand and wave to cyclists and hikers along the Santa Fe Railtrail as the train rolls by only slightly faster than they do. It’s delightful.

Museum Hill and beyond

Visiting the Santa Fe Children’s Museum is one of the most perennially popular things to do in Santa Fe with kids. And for good reason—dozens of hands-on exhibits and activities encourage kids to build, jump, climb, and experiment. Look for a dedicated Toddler Zone, a garden and outdoor classroom, weekly story times, workshops with scientists, and engaging craft sessions.

I didn’t think The Museum of International Folk Art would appeal to children, but the locals insist it’s a fun and affordable addition to a Santa Fe family vacation itinerary. (It’s free for kids 16 and under.) Activity areas are packed with books, toys, discovery boxes, miniature tree houses, puppets, and craft stations. Much of the museum’s vast collection (130,000 objects from over 100 countries) is showcased in interactive exhibits. Even the newest and youngest museum-goers can appreciate and understand dolls, animal sculptures, costumes, and toys.

Eat before you go or stop for sandwiches, salad, or brunch at Museum Hill Café. It’s upscale casual (and features a nice wine list) which can feel like a respite for parents and grandparents.

“If you don’t want to spend restaurant money, then definitely bring snacks,” Geller advises. “There are places where you can buy snacks at both the Folk Art and Children’s Museum.”

If you need a little fresh air, stroll through Santa Fe Botanical Garden, which showcases orchards, roses, annual crops and traditional plants in a piñon-juniper woodland. It’s free for kids 12 and under.

Or lace up your hiking boots and head to the nearby Dorothy Stewart Trailhead. The Dorothy Stewart Trail is an easy one to nine mile loop.

Immersive experiences elsewhere in Santa Fe

Some of the most transfixing things to do in Santa Fe with kids are along Cerrillos Road and just outside the city. All the kids at our hotel pool were buzzing about two things — going up in a hot-air balloon and visiting Meow Wolf, the most surreal interactive art experience in town.

Meow Wolf: The House of Eternal Return one of the best things to do in Santa Fe with kids

Photo: Kate Russell, courtesy of Meow Wolf

Meow Wolf: The House of Eternal Return is a trippy, explosive fever dream that sends you on a journey into the multiverse via 70 rooms of colorful, touchable, crawlable and occasionally climbable interactive art. My dad loved a pastel-colored room that looked like a game of Candyland exploded inside the walls. My mom sat in the dark gleefully making music with lasers. My son and I teamed up with a bunch of strangers to crack codes, open safes, and unravel the mystery that serves as a throughline. You can interact with the space however you like. Wear something comfortable, set aside at least two hours for your visit, and just accept that you’ll never see or understand everything.

Floating away from the city in a hot-air balloon is the exact opposite kind of experience: gentle, tranquil, and brimming with a quiet wonder. Peering down at the countryside as the balloon drifts softly on the breeze feels both serene and somehow magical. The Santa Fe Balloons experience includes pick up and drop off from local hotels, a champagne toast, and a light post-flight brunch. This bucket list experience is a splurge, but it’s the kind of thing you’ll talk about for years. Kids aged six to 12 must ride with a parent.

For a more grounded family activity, add El Rancho De Las Golondrinas to your Santa Fe vacation to-do list. This living history museum brings an 18th-century hacienda to life with costumed guides, demonstrations, crafts, and live animals every April through October. Reserve guided tours in advance. Kids 12 and under visit free.

Order locally-sourced salads, panini, and burgers from the on-site restaurant. Or try sopapillas, green chile chops or red chile pork ribs at Tortilla Flats. Southside Santa Fe has plenty of restaurants to choose from.

“We love to go to Counter Culture for breakfast,” Dahms says. “My kids adore the lemon ricotta pancakes and I love that they have an indoor section for kids with toys that you can take outside to your table. The kids can play with tiger figurines on the ground while the adults visit and enjoy a cowboy bowl with red and green chile.”

Traveling with children doesn’t have to feel childish. Channel Santa Fe’s creative energy and laid-back vibe to customize a family vacation that everyone will enjoy.

Family-friendly places to stay with kids in Santa Fe

La Fonda on the Plaza

La Fonda on The Plaza celebrated 100 years in 2022. But there’s been an inn (or fonda) on this corner of the Plaza since 1607. On-site babysitting makes it easy for parents to slip away for sunset cocktails in the Bell Tower Bar, innovative New Mexican cuisine in the atrium dining room, or a massage or body treatment at the spa. (In-room treatments are possible too.) Kids dig the hotel’s heated courtyard pool and chocolate shop.

Drury Plaza Hotel

Always hungry? Try the Drury Plaza Hotel. Guests enjoy a free hot breakfast, popcorn, and soda in the lobby and complimentary hot food and cold drinks at the 5:30 PM Kickback every night. Mingle with the locals over green chile brisket pizza at The Kitchen + Bar or relax in the rooftop pool and hot tub. Book family-friendly packages so kids can score their own art kits or tackle a treasure quest.

Hotel Santa Fe The Hacienda & Spa

The city’s only Indigenous-owned hotel mixes homey pine furnishings and indigenous art with luxe extras like an on-site spa, robes, and slippers for in-room relaxation, and a sunny courtyard restaurant called Amaya. Book a massage or facial, then treat the kids to ice cream and prickly pear lemonade by the Hotel Santa Fe pool. The complimentary shuttle service brings guests to all the key tourist spots. Junior suites with balconies sleep up to six.

The Sage Hotel

Boho flair and a budget-friendly price tag make The Sage Hotel a go-to for families who want to save without sacrificing style. Start the day with coffee and a hot breakfast. Stretch out in the sunny courtyard, cool off in the seasonal pool, or snack on frybread tacos or chile-topped fries at Social Kitchen + Bar. Walk to Santa Fe Railyard Park or hop on the free shuttle to the Plaza.

Convenient and comfy home rental

Larger families will be comfortable in this three-bedroom rental home — it sleeps up to nine. Kids love the bunk beds and the nearby park’s pool, playground, and baseball field. Parents will appreciate the fully stocked kitchen, complimentary breakfast, fenced backyard, and gracious outdoor patio and dining area complete with a grill and hammock. A highchair, pack and play, and toys are available upon request. Walk to the Plaza or key bus stops.

Four-bedroom home close to the Plaza

This sunny Santa Fe-style rental home is within walking distance of the Plaza. But the views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the fenced, half-acre yard feel connected to nature. Enjoy complimentary coffee on the patio, share a family meal in the newly remodeled kitchen, check out the collection of books, video games, and board games or curl up by the fire. The four-bedroom home sleeps eight.

Tips on things to do in Santa Fe with kids

Photo: Bonita R. Cheshier/Shutterstock

  • Dress the family in layers. Temperatures can vary widely during the day, especially in winter.
  • If your hotel doesn’t have a pool, bring the crew to The Genoveva Chavez Community Center.
  • Santa Fe Public Library offers singalongs, storytime (including bilingual sessions in Spanish and English ) and other family-friendly activities at multiple locations.
  • The June-September monsoon season often brings afternoon rain. Plan accordingly.
  • The Santa Fe Climbing Center is a great place to burn off excess energy, and a shareable punch card saves families a few bucks.

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