Best things to do with kids in surprising & enchanting Albuquerque
Albuquerque, really? Yes, really! You’re going to be amazed at all the fun that awaits your family in the Land of Enchantment. I think that it’s a particularly ideal destination for young families with children older than 5, because that’s how old you need to be to take a hot air balloon ride in the capital of hot air ballooning. Nothing like checking off the bucket list as a kindergartner!
Photo courtesy: Marble Street Studio
5601 Eagle Rock Ave. NE
Our hot air balloon ride with Rainbow Ryders was absolutely my family’s favorite thing to do in Albuquerque, the “Hot Air Balloon Capital of the World.” It’s a true bucket lister and worth getting up early.
For a sunrise flight during the summer, you arrive at about 5:45 a.m. The first hour is spent filling out waivers, dividing into flight groups (multiple balloons go up at the same time), and then driving to your ascension location. The balloons are laid out with the baskets on their sides. Then, with the help of a blower and burners, they’re filled with hot air, and as you know, hot air rises! Your group - anywhere from 2 to 14 people - hops in the basket, and you’re off. Yes, you’re stacked in the basket like crayons, so if you’re claustrophobic (or afraid of heights!), this activity is not for you.
KidTripster Tip: Sunrise launches are offered year-round. During the winter, Rainbow Ryders also gives sunset rides; however, a ground crew member told us that they’re cancelled about 60% of the time due to weather. If it were me, I’d opt for sunrise and less chance of disappointment. Also you can book a private ride, but it’s twice the price and no discount for kids. In my opinion, it’s not worth the added expense.
KidTripster Tip: You’ll be up in the air for about one hour. The whole experience lasts three hours. Go easy on the food and drinks in the morning. There are no bathrooms at 6000 feet!
Soaring in the balloon is surprisingly smooth and peaceful. The views are phenomenal: the city skyline, Sandia Mountains, Rio Grande River, and Chihuahuan Desert. This area is ideal for hot air ballooning because of the unusual wind flow. At night, the cool mountain air drops down to the valley floor along the river flowing in a northernly direction. But you also have southernly winds at about 500 feet. These conditions create the “Albuquerque Box,” allowing pilots to fly easily in both directions.
Our pilot Kris Braden was a fourth-generation Albuquerquean with over 3,300 hours of flight time. (Ask him about landing in a nudist colony in Battle Creek, Michigan!) My son and I felt very comfortable and safe the entire time with Kris at the helm.
KidTripster Tip: In the balloon, we stood closest to Kris and the burners. While we loved chatting with him, those burners are blazing hot. One burner is rated to 16-18 million BTUs; as a comparison, your stovetop burner is 7000 BTUs. Our KidTripster Teen strongly advises to position yourself away from the burners, which means that you want to be the last to load.
KidTripster Tip: Dress for the conditions on the ground. You’ll be plenty warm in the air. And while I normally hate them, bring a selfie stick. It’s the only way to get great photos of your family in the air.
The most intriguing part of the trip is actually the landing. You can legally land just about anywhere in Albuquerque including a golf course or right in the middle of a residential street, both of which we saw on our trip. We ended up landing in a not-so-attractive field of junk, but when it’s time to come down, it’s time to come down! A chase crew follows your 1-hour flight in a vehicle with a trailer, so they’re ready to collect you and the balloon at the end. The flight concludes with a champagne toast, a longstanding ballooning tradition that your pilot will explain. It’s truly a tremendous experience. Cost: Youth $99; Adult starts at $149, depending on the day of the week. No pregnant women allowed because of insurance reasons. The minimum age to fly is 5 years old, but make sure your child is tall enough to see over the basket, which is about 4 feet tall. If it were me, I’d plan my whole trip to Albuquerque around my family’s ability to have this experience.
A word about the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, one of the most visually spectacular events in all the world: about 888,000 thousand people attend the nine-day festival in October to see nearly 600 hot air balloons. Should you go? That’s a tough question. It’s amazing, no doubt, but you’re going to be sharing that experience with a lot of people. You’ll also be paying for the privilege. Prices on nearly everything in Albuquerque bump up during this time period, especially lodging. Rainbow Ryders is the only company authorized to give balloon rides during the Fiesta. Cost ranges from $395-449/person; no discount for kids.
2/Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum
9201 Balloon Museum Dr. NE
After your balloon ride, you can head over to the Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum to learn more about the history, science, and sport of ballooning. Or if you weren’t able to go up, plan to watch My Balloon Ride, a 4-D film aboard a hot air balloon at the Tim Anderson 4-D Theater. My son and I found the most interesting exhibits in the center of the museum where both the first trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights are detailed and gear is displayed. While free, guided tours are apparently available, no volunteers were on hand when we visited; check when you arrive about docent availability. I definitely wish someone had been around to answer questions. While the facility is large, the museum itself is small and can easily be seen in under an hour. Check in advance to see if any educational and special programs for kids coincide with your visit. Cost: Youth (5 & under) Free; Youth (6-17) $3; Adult $6; discount to New Mexico residents. Closed on Mondays.
KidTripster Tip: Museum admission is free on the first Friday of every month.
KidTripster Tip: The museum is adjacent to Balloon Fiesta Park and offers front row seats to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October. You can buy tickets online for the morning mass ascension or the Balloon Glow in the evening. Both events are accompanied with a breakfast or dinner buffet. Cost: Youth (2-12) $29; Adult $69.
3/ABQ Trolley Company
Boards at Hotel Albuquerque
I think taking the “Best of City” tour with ABQ Trolley Company should be the first thing on your “to do” list when you arrive in Albuquerque. This nearly 2-hour tour gives an excellent overview of the city and takes you into some neighborhoods that likely wouldn’t have been on your itinerary. Our tour was guided by Joanne whose enthusiasm for all-things-Albuquerque was contagious. Her commentary was supplemented by video clips that played throughout the tour. For example, we drove through a neighborhood used in the movie Wild Hogs and then saw the clip of the scene. In fact, the city has been featured in several movies and television shows, most notably Breaking Bad. If you’re a fan, you’ll recognize several locations.
The tour also includes tons of Albuquerque and New Mexico trivia, like did you know there’s an official state question? Yep, it’s “red or green?” as in what kind of chilies do you prefer. Joanne also gives her recommendations for shopping (Palms Trading Company for authentic Native American goods), restaurants (Frontier Restaurant for cinnamon rolls the size of your head) and treats (Rude Boy for award-winning cookies). You’ll see examples of Pueblo Revival architecture plus some wacky homes, including one shaped like a spaceship that had William Shatner on the owner’s doorstep begging for a tour. At the end of the ride, you’ll be sworn in as an honorary Lobo, the mascot of the University of New Mexico. This tour is a lot of fun and tremendously informative. Cost: Youth (12 & under) $20; Adult $30.
KidTripster Tip: Another reason for taking this tour at the beginning of your visit? ABQ Trolley Company gives you a brochure for a bunch of BOGO offers and other discounts at area attractions and restaurants.
KidTripster Tip: Try to sit on the right side of the trolley (as you’re facing the front) for better picture-taking opportunities. For some reason, most of the attractions are on that side of the trolley.
KidTripster Tip: If you pay $10 more per person, you’ll get hop-on, hop-off access to the trolley for 48 hours. But frankly, Albuquerque is an easy city to drive and park; I’d recommend using a rental car.
4/Historic Old Town
Mountain Rd. and Central Ave. (Route 66) just East of Rio Grande Blvd.
My family’s favorite area in Albuquerque is the historic Old Town. Centered on shaded plaza, Old Town encompasses about ten blocks of adobe buildings dating back to the late 1700s and early 1800s which have now been converted to quaint shops, art galleries, and restaurants with long portals (porches) that offer relief from the New Mexican sun. On the north side of the plaza, you’ll find San Felipe de Neri Church, the oldest building in the city. This area begs to be strolled and explored without an agenda. There are surprises around every corner. Stop in one of the local restaurants like Church Street Cafe, and you’ll discover a hidden world behind the adobe walls.
KidTripster Tip: While museums offer a welcomed, air-conditioned respite, your kids - if they’re like mine - will have a museum limit. Choose wisely.
5/Explora Science Center & Children’s Museum
1701 Mountain Rd. NW
Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum is located in the heart of Albuquerque’s historic Old Town district. The mantra here is ideas that you can touch. I’ve been to a lot of children’s museums, and honestly, this center is one of the best because of the quality and variety of exhibits. Ideally suited for toddlers to elementary school-age children, the museum really does invite hands-on exploration. You’ll love the indoor bubble lab and outdoor water flow patio. The museum also has some amazing creator spaces for both art and construction. And don’t miss the alternating Sketch Aquarium or Sketch Town, where your kids can imagine, sketch, and then release their own animated characters onto a large digital screen. If you have older siblings along on the visit, don’t worry. Teens and tweens can be challenged for a good hour in the brain teaser and mind puzzle area. And anyone (between 4’ 8” and 6’ 5”) - even parents! - can try the balance bike on a high wire that stretches two stories above the exhibit floor. Everyone will be having so much fun here that your kids won’t even realize that they’re building their brains! Cost: Youth (under 1) Free; Youth (1-11) $4; Other $8.
KidTripster Tip: In partnership with the New Mexico Autism Society, Explora offers sensory-friendly hours. For more information, call (505) 224-8300.
KidTripster Tip: Toddler Time runs on Mondays from 9 to 11 a.m.
6/American International Rattlesnake Museum
202 San Felipe St. NW
If you’re the kind of family that appreciates the kitschy and unusual, head over to the American International Rattlesnake Museum in Old Town. Admittedly, it can be kind of a puzzler. It’s part zoo with the largest collection of different species of rattlesnakes in the world, plus other snakes, lizards, and reptiles - all in small tanks. It’s part pop culture museum with memorabilia that has those creatures prominently featured. And it’s part gift shop with anything snake-related that you could possibly want, including the museum’s popular t-shirt. The space is small and cluttered, but owner Bob Myers is dedicated to educating visitors and dispelling the rattlesnake’s bad rap. Cost: Youth $4; Student $5; Adult $6.
7/Sandia Peak Tramway
30 Tramway Rd. NE
Located on the eastern edge of Albuquerque, the Sandia Peak Tramway is about a 20-minute drive from downtown. Once you board the tram, it takes about 15 minutes to travel 2.7 miles to the observation deck atop 10,378-foot Sandia Peak. My family and I aren’t always fans of tourist trams, but the sunsets are so spectacular nearly every evening in Albuquerque, we made an exception. And the sunset didn’t disappoint! While you can ride the tram during the day, I’d strongly suggest leaving this attraction to the early evening. Plan to arrive 30 to 45 minutes prior to sunset; it’s a popular time to ride, so you may have to wait. Once the sun sets, hang tight. The color display usually gets even better within a half hour.
Alternatively, if the weather is cool, you can access several hikes in the Cibola National Forest from the tramway. During the winter, the tramway serves Sandia Peak Ski Area, a prime spot for intermediate and beginner skiers. A new upper mountain restaurant is expected to open here soon, and we’ve heard rumors of a mountain roller coaster coming too, so stay tuned. Cost: Youth (under 5) Free; Youth (5-12) $15; Youth (13-20) $20; Adult $25; bikes and pets are not permitted.
KidTripster Tip: Dress in layers. The temperature at the top can be 30 degrees cooler than at the bottom.
KidTripster Tip: The tram car is packed with 40+ people per ride, so if you’re claustrophobic (or afraid of heights), this attraction isn’t for you.
8/Cliff’s Amusement Park
4800 Osuna Rd. NE
Cliff’s Amusement Park is a small park located just 10 minutes from downtown Albuquerque and ideal for toddlers to elementary school-age children. Little ones will enjoy rides just their size in Kiddyland. Or they can head over to WaterMania!, Cliff’s mini water park, to cool off from Albuquerque’s heat. The park does have a handful of rides for thrill seekers, including the teeth-rattling New Mexico Rattler roller coaster, but in general it’s better suited to younger families. Cost: Youth (under 3) Free; Youth (3-7) $26; Other $29; save $2 per ticket by purchasing online in advance.
KidTripster Tip: During the summer, go to Friday Family Fun Nights and pay just $13/person from 5 p.m. to close. Or buy your tickets online in advance for Tuesday through Friday and pay $20/person.
Near Old Town
Every major city seems to have a multi-attraction destination specifically geared to young families. In Albuquerque, it’s called the ABQ BioPark, and it’s comprised of the zoo, aquarium, botanic garden, and a lake area called Tingley Beach, which is primarily used by locals for fishing. A train connects the zoo to the aquarium and botanic garden located about 1-1/2 miles away.
The 64-acre zoo is home to apes, elephants, Mexican gray wolves, and polar bears, just to name a few. When you arrive, make sure to check out that day’s schedule for various animal feedings and the Animal Encounters show. Cost for zoo only: Youth (2 and under) Free; Youth (3-12) $6; Adult $14.50; discount for New Mexico residents.
The aquarium is small, air-conditioned, and easily seen in less than an hour. Favorites here include the river otters, named Chaos and Mayhem, and the mesmerizing jellyfish and moon jellies. The aquarium sits right next to the botanic garden, which was my and my teenaged son’s favorite of the ABQ BioPark attractions. Families should make a beeline to the whimsical Children’s Garden for its oversized and imaginative play areas. (Giant carrots, anyone?) There you’ll also find the BUGarium with all sorts of interesting arthropods. The butterfly and bee exhibit was closed during our visit, but look for that, too, when you go. Cost for both aquarium and garden: Youth (2 and under) Free; Youth (3-12) $6; Adult $14.50; discount for New Mexico residents.
If you’re ambitious and the kids don’t tire too easily in the heat, it’s possible to visit all three attractions (again, Tingley Beach is mostly for locals) in one day. Cost for discounted combo ticket which is only available Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon: Youth (2 and under) Free; Youth (3-12) $8; Adult $22; discount for New Mexico residents. The combo ticket includes the train ride.
KidTripster Tip: A good strategy would be to visit the zoo for an hour and then hop the train for a short visit to the aquarium before entering the garden by noon.
From its architecture to its food and festivals, Albuquerque is heavily influenced by Native American culture. There are 19 pueblos, or independent Native groups, in New Mexico. Most of them open their communities to the public. One of the easiest for families to visit is the Acoma Pueblo, just about an hour’s drive west of Albuquerque.
You arrive at the Sky City Cultural Center & Haak’u Museum where you can purchase tickets for a 2-hour tour; you only can visit the pueblo on a tour. A shuttle bus takes you to the top of 367-foot mesa where the village is located. Dating back to 1150 A.D., Acoma is the longest, continuous settlement in North America. About a dozen families live here today, still without running water or electricity. According to our guide - a young woman from the pueblo who lives in a nearby town - there are 500-plus homes total; members come to their family home for feast days and other celebrations throughout the year. Over the next two hours, you learn about the bloody history with Spanish colonizers. You learn how houses are passed from mothers to their youngest daughters in this matriarchal society. And you see the San Estevan del Rey Mission Church and the tall white ladders that lead to kivas, sacred chambers reserved for men. At the end of the tour, you can take the shuttle back or walk the ancient stone stairway down, the same stairs used for more than 900 years. Cost: Youth $17; Adult $25; Family (2 kids, 2 adults) $66. Mission-only tours also are available, but honestly, the mission was the least interesting part of the whole tour for my son and me. The ticket price includes a camera permit, so you can take photos. However, you’re told to ask permission before photographing any pueblo members; video is strictly prohibited.
KidTripster Tip: Because of the length (and heat, if you’re visiting during the summer), I wouldn’t recommend the tour for young kids.
KidTripster Tip: Vendors from Acoma are placed along the tour route, selling handcrafted jewelry and pottery. Many of the pieces are exquisite, but they’re expensive. Some of the vendors do take credit cards, but if you’re interested, you should bring several hundred dollars in cash.
If you’re flexible about your timing, plan to go on one of Acoma’s feast days. That’s when you’ll really get a sense of the community. The public is welcome to attend.
There are other way to experience Native American culture. If you’re interested in the ancient people who predate the pueblos, head to Chaco Culture National Historic Park about three hours from Albuquerque. Or right within the Albuquerque city limits, you can walk the trails at Petroglyph National Monument. While it’s possible to see hundreds of petroglyphs - images pecked into the rock by Native people - along a number of trails, your family probably will be good with one or two short trails in Boca Negra Canyon. Again, it’s blazing hot during the summer and without knowing what the petroglyphs really mean (experts themselves aren’t sure), it can get monotonous. I’d give it about 20 minutes. Cost: Free; Parking $1.
Finally, Albuquerque is home to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. The museum itself isn’t particularly kid-friendly for young children, as there’s a lot of reading involved. However, if you take your family on a weekend, you can watch Native groups perform their traditional dances. That’s when the place will come alive! In the summer, performances run on Friday through Sunday; during the rest the year, it’s Saturday and Sunday only. These performances are included in the ticket price. Cost: Youth (under 5) Free; Youth (5-17) $5; Adult $8; discount for New Mexico residents.
KidTripster Tip: Even if you don’t go to the museum, stop by for a meal at the center’s restaurant, Pueblo Harvest. It serves a pre-contact meal, meaning food as it was before the arrival of Europeans. The delicious meal is a history lesson in itself. It’s one of KidTripster’s Top 10 Eats in Albuquerque.
For KidTripster’s Top 10 Stays in Albuquerque, click here.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah loved her first trip to New Mexico so much that she’s already started planning another!
This writer received some complimentary activities for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.