The curve of adobe against cobalt skies; the spicy scent of pinyon smoke curling from kiva fireplaces; the exuberance of colorful art and sculpture adorning every corner of the city; the quiet calm of centuries-old cathedrals and missions; the delicious chile-laced cuisine—Santa Fe is an intoxicating feast for the senses. It truly is, as the New Mexico license plate proclaims: “The Land of Enchantment.” I love this city.
Situated at 7,000 feet at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Santa Fe is the highest and oldest capital city in the U.S.—but what makes it really distinctive is the melding of Pueblo Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo cowboy heritage. All three bring their traditions and celebrations to the cultural milieu, giving rise to the art, architecture, and cuisine that is uniquely Santa Fe.
We’ve visited Santa Fe many times, and I route our cross-country trips so that we pass through at least every year or two. Eric always enjoys our visits, but this is one of those situations where he would stay a few days, and I would stay for a month. Or three. On our most recent visit, we planned for five days, added two more (the seventh day at the RV park is free!), and then added two more when inclement weather on our route forced us to stay put (much to my delight).
I love wandering the historic Plaza and the narrow adobe-lined side streets, exploring the colorful galleries on Canyon Road and discovering new favorite sculptures and paintings, devoting a day to one of the fascinating museums, lingering over a meal in a cozy café, browsing the bookstores and small shops downtown, hiking in the nearby hills, and simply being immersed in the vibrancy of this unique crossroads of cultures.
On each trip to Santa Fe, we revisit favorite places and explore a few new ones. Here, the highlights of our most recent Santa Fe sojourn:
• The Plaza. The heart of downtown Santa Fe for nearly 400 years, the Plaza is a good place to begin exploring the city. Here, you’ll find the Palace of the Governors (the oldest public building in the U.S.), where local Native American artisans gather daily beneath the portico to sell their handcrafted wares. A short stroll takes you to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, a lovely place for a moment of meditative repose.
• Canyon Road. The light, landscape, and culture of New Mexico have lured artists since the 1920s. At that time, Santa Fe was an inexpensive place to live and artists settled into old adobes along Canyon Road, opening their studios to the public and displaying their art on the street. Today, Santa Fe is one of the top art markets in the world, and the tradition of Canyon Road continues (although I doubt the artists are trading for groceries, as they did in the early days). Wander the narrow, winding street and enjoy the sculptures, galleries, courtyard gardens, and beautiful adobe dwellings—it’s an art experience unlike any other.
• Nedra Matteucci Gallery. Of all the galleries in Santa Fe, this remains our favorite. Housed in a rambling classic adobe in walking distance of Canyon Road, the Nedra Matteucci Gallery displays an extensive, museum-quality collection in a laid-back, welcoming atmosphere. We especially enjoy browsing works by early Santa Fe and Taos artists and the charming sculpture garden. (Be sure to cross the street afterward for a cup of drinking chocolate at Kakawa Chocolate House.)
• Museum Hill. I’m always dubious about Santa Fe itineraries that advise spending “an hour or two” exploring Museum Hill. Seriously? There are four fabulous, world-class museums on Museum Hill (as well as several very good museums on the Plaza downtown). We choose one (or two) each time we visit Santa Fe, and spend the entire day in the museum, taking a break only to have lunch at the Museum Hill Café (the salmon tostadas are excellent).
This time, we visited the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, where we were fortunate to catch a temporary exhibit of sculptures by Native American women. A highlight of the museum is a permanent exhibit that traces the lives of Native Americans, designed with the help of tribal elders and artisans.
• The Capitol Building. The artistic flair of Santa Fe extends to their attractive state capitol building. Designed to resemble the Zia sun symbol when viewed from above (the same symbol used on the New Mexico state flag), it’s the only round capitol building in the U.S. The building houses not only the legislative offices, but also a wonderful collection of art representative of New Mexico culture and history.
• Breakfast at Café Pasqual’s. Named for the patron saint of Mexican and New Mexican cooks, Cafe Pasqual’s is one of our favorite restaurants. Located just a block from the plaza in a historic adobe, breakfast here makes a great start to a long day of wandering. The atmosphere is cozy and colorful with hand painted murals and tiles, and the food is locally sourced and perfectly prepared. Poached eggs with smoked trout and tomatillo salsa…I could eat this every day. This place is popular, small, and they don’t take breakfast reservations—go early to avoid a wait.
• The Farmers’ Market. Open year-round on Saturday mornings, this is one of our favorite markets anywhere, especially in the fall when the smell of roasting peppers wafts through the air. The Santa Fe Farmers’ Market is festive and fun—good music and people watching in addition to an array of local, mostly organic foods. We came away with fresh roasted poblano peppers, red chile raspberry jam, local eggs, feta made by the local Waldorf school, pastured pork, and heaps of beautiful locally grown produce.
• Tapas at La Boca. We really like tapas restaurants, and this is one of the best. La Boca serves fantastic Spanish cuisine in a cozy, romantic adobe just a block from the Plaza. We shared two tapas platters—one vegetarian, one seafood and meat—and every bite was divine (Oh my God, can you believe this shrimp? The grilled artichoke is the best…No, wait till you taste this Spinach Catalan…). This lovely restaurant is on our can’t-wait-to-return list.
• Tune-Up Café. Fun, colorful, and loaded with chiles—this down-home neighborhood restaurant far from the plaza is a favorite with locals. The Tune-Up serves up tasty and generous portions of New Mexican favorites with a Salvadoran twist (banana leaf wrapped tamales, yum).
• Santa Fe Spirits. A small distillery with a downtown tasting room, Santa Fe Spirits offers creative, handcrafted cocktails in a cozy, candlelit adobe—it’s a nice vibe, like being in a friend’s living room.
• Kakawa Chocolate House. A stop at Kakawa Chocolate House provides respite in a day of gallery browsing (and it’s conveniently located right across the street from the Matteucci Gallery). They serve up tiny cups of drinking chocolate based on authentic Mesoamerican recipes—lightly sweetened with coconut sugar and infused with herbs and spices (including chiles, of course)—so tasty, and nicely energizing.
• Hiking Trails. We spend hours walking in Santa Fe, but when we want a real hike (mostly when Eric needs a break from galleries and wandering in town) we head to one of the nearby trailheads, just a couple of miles from downtown. There are many choices: We always visit the pretty Randall Davey Audubon Sanctuary (at the top of Canyon Road) and walk the trails above the center, as well as hiking the nearby Canyon Preserve Nature Conservancy trails and the Dale Ball network of trails.
Near Santa Fe:
• Shidoni Bronze Foundry. Even if you think you’ve seen enough sculptures on Canyon Road and in downtown Santa Fe, you still need to make the trek out to Shidoni Bronze Foundry, in nearby Tesuque. Located in an old apple orchard, the picturesque compound houses a foundry, gallery, and fabulous sculpture garden free for the wandering. On Saturdays, you can witness a bronze pouring–something we’ve yet to see, but is on our list.
• Santuario de Chimayo. More than 300,000 people journey here each year to petition for healing, to give thanks for answered prayers, and to scoop up a bit of the red dirt that is believed to have miraculous curative powers. Through a long and somewhat complicated history of legend and avowed miracles, Santuaria de Chimayo (now a National Historic Site) has become known as the “Lourdes of America.” The sanctuary, built in 1816, is lovely; in an annex is the “holy dirt room,” where you can help yourself to a scoop or two (the church replaces the dirt from nearby hillsides, for a total of about 25 tons per year). Adjacent to the holy dirt annex is a room filled with a poignant display of thousands of photos of those asking for blessings, along with canes, crutches, eyeglasses, and other reminders of the human condition.
About the campground: The last three times we’ve been in Santa Fe we’ve stayed at the Trailer Ranch RV Resort; we enjoy the in-town convenience, the amenities (good internet, laundry, full-hookups, propane on site), and the friendly and helpful staff. Nestled behind adobe walls, the park is cozy and attractive. There is some traffic noise and lights, but with blackout shades and our sound machine, we sleep well (and I’m a finicky sleeper). We always request a site away from the main road and have been very happy. The cost is $42-47 per night, with the 7th night free.
Next Up: Day Trip To Tent Rocks National Monument