Thanks to a thriving artistic community, a distinctive local cuisine, and margaritas galore, the City Different more than lives up to its name.
As a New Yorker with a craving for wide-open spaces, I've always been intrigued by the American Southwest, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, remotely located in the foothills of the southern Rockies, with low adobe buildings, chile-laden cuisine, and 300 days of sunshine a year, has been on my to-visit list for ages. I'm happy to report that it doesn't disappoint: With ties to everyone from Georgia O'Keeffe to George R.R. Martin, the second-oldest city in the country offers a sense of place like no other. From museums, galleries, and interactive art spaces to decadent spas, great food, and free-flowing margaritas, here are seven ways to enjoy the City Different.
1. GET ACCLIMATED
Lodging at Ten Thousand Waves. (Courtesy Laurie Allegretti/Ten Thousand Waves)
At 7,000 feet above sea level, Santa Fe is the highest capital in the country, and those heights demand respect. Altitude sickness can feel like the morning after a rough night out, and much like beating that hangover, hydration is key. Luckily, we were headed for the refreshing waters of Ten Thousand Waves (tenthousandwaves.com), a spa inspired by the mountain hot-spring resorts of Japan, incongruously perched in the serene, wooded hills of New Mexico. The hot tubs and cold plunge pools are the thing here: For $26, you get a day pass for the coed Grand Bath or the clothing-optional Women’s Communal Bath, plus access to the relaxation room, saunas, sun decks, and locker-room facilities. (Those who don’t like to share might prefer a private tub, which start at $42 for 55 minutes.) There’s also a full menu of services, and it’s a doozy. Access to the baths is included with any treatment that’s 50 minutes or longer, but you can also opt for an extra dose of relaxation with add-ons like the Yasuragi Head & Neck Treatment ($65, 25 minutes), a soothing, gentle massage that unlocks tension in the head, neck, and face.
Other than a bit of trouble sleeping, I didn’t feel the altitude much after that first day, and I’d swear that submerging myself in various bodies of water upon arrival had something to do with it. (To be fair, I also made sure to drink the requisite amounts of water—an extra liter to a liter and a half, according to the Institute for Altitude Medicine—and that probably didn’t hurt.) Long story short: Don’t forget your swimsuit.
2. GET YOUR BEARINGS
Adobe on the Plaza. (Courtesy Tourism Santa Fe)
Before you run off to explore, put your new location into the appropriate context. Start in the historic downtown area: Long before it was a Jazz Age and Depression-era stop on Route 66, the Santa Fe Plaza was the endpoint of the Santa Fe Trail, a commercial corridor that connected the city with Missouri until arrival of the railroad in 1880. And now, at the heart of the city, a tree-lined, well-manicured square sits where alfalfa was once grown to feed pack animals. For a closer look at the Plaza and landmarks like the Palace of the Governors and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, schedule a walking tour with Friends of Architecture Santa Fe president David Rasch (suggested donation, $20; architecturesantafe.org). Book at least a month in advance, and you'll learn to identify the hallmarks of the city’s signature Santa Fe style, which combines the flat roofs, rounded exterior beams, adobe brick, and portals of Spanish-Pueblo Revival architecture with elements of Territorial Revival style for an utterly distinct look. All that learning will probably make you peckish, so treat yourself to a different kind of history at the Five & Dime General Store, right on the square. At the back of the store, past the walls of cheesy postcards and and alien-themed paraphernalia, a local delicacy awaits: Frito chili pie, chips topped with a scoop of homemade chili and grated cheddar and served right there in the bag.
3. EXPLORE MILES OF MUSEUMS
Multiple Visions: A Common Bond, at the Museum of International Folk Art. (Courtesy Michel Monteaux/Museum of International Folk Art)
Given its designation as a UNESCO Creative City for Crafts and Folk Art, with 14 major museums, 250-plus galleries, and more professional artists per capita than any other city in America, it’d be shocking if Santa Fe didn’t have a vibrant arts scene. From classic institutions to quirky independent galleries to immersive, interactive spaces, New Mexico’s capital more than earns its reputation as a hotbed of creativity. It’s next to impossible to see everything in a weekend, but aim to hit one area at a time and you'll make a decent go of it.
A short drive outside of town is Museum Hill, a red-rock plateau stunningly situated under picture-perfect blue skies. It’s home to four museums, but I only had time for two: the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture ($12; indianartsandculture.org), dedicated to the achievements of the Native peoples of the southwest from pre-history to contemporary times; and the International Folk Art Museum ($12; internationalfolkart.org), where the star attraction is a rotating display of dolls, puppets, and figurines of all kinds. With more than 10,000 objects, selected from a collection ten times that size and arranged in a series of vignettes reenacting daily life in miniature, the sheer volume—not to mention the mind-boggling attention to detail—is astounding.
After getting a peek at more traditional Native American arts and culture, I was curious to see what today’s artists were up to, and back downtown, in a small adobe space just off the Plaza, I found a refreshingly au courant collection. With a tight roster of often-changing exhibitions (current offerings include examinations of art and activism and Alaska Native films), the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts ($10; iaia.edu) showcases the boundary-pushing work of progressive, modern artists—and it’s easily managed in an hour or so, to boot.
From there, it’s not even a ten minute walk to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum ($13; okeeffemuseum.org). (On your way over, be sure to ogle the eye candy at Shiprock Santa Fe, a repository of highly covetable jewelry, pottery, Native textiles, furniture, and fine art.) True to its name, the museum shines a spotlight on the American icon, a New Mexico resident for the last 30-some years of her life. Yes, the cattle skulls and the vibrant southwestern landscapes are here, but I was particularly drawn to a a display called “The Wideness and Wonder of the World,” where a potentially mundane detail caught my eye: the boxes O’Keeffe used to organize the detritus of travel, collected from the various international trips she undertook in her ‘70s. I hadn’t realized she was a fellow itinerant, and something about the revelation just grabbed me. (Well, that and her handwritten tags...be still my label-loving heart.)
4. ART ON THE MOVE
Sculptures on Canyon Road. (Courtesy Tourism Santa Fe)
You don’t have to go to a museum to get your fill of artistic endeavors—a leisurely stroll down Canyon Road will stimulate your creativity and get your feet going at the same time. As you pop in and out of the galleries, keep an eye out for something special: the larger-than-life bronze statues by Allan Houser, in the Zaplin Lampert Gallery sculpture garden (zaplinlampert.com); outside of Gallery 901 (gallery901.org), a very cool stainless steel figure that disappears and reappears as you walk by, created by German physicist-turned-sculptor Julian Voss-Andreae; or maybe a flock of large-scale origami cranes, winged horses, and clever renditions of Rock Paper Scissors by paper artist Kevin Box, who transforms folds of paper into something much more permanent. Box’s sculptures are featured at the Selby Fleetwood Gallery (selbyfleetwoodgallery.com), a treasure trove of distinctive, stylistically diverse artwork from the likes of Joan Barber, Helen Steele, and Stacy Phililps. For beautiful bits of Native American handicrafts, from pottery, furniture, and baskets to beadwork, jewelry, and Katsina dolls, look no further than Morning Star Gallery (morningstargallery.com), where there’s plenty to discover for experienced collectors and beginners alike. Fashion mavens will find a kindred spirit at Nathalie (nathaliesantafe.com), a tiny boutique overflowing with vintage cowboy boots, retro Western shirts, silver belt buckles, and wide-brimmed hats—pretty much anything a city slicker might need for a proper makeover. When you’ve had your fill of shopping, stop for refreshments at Kakawa Chocolate House (kakawachocolates.com), where the homemade truffles, ice cream, and drinking elixirs will put the spring back in your step.
Meanwhile across town, SITE Santa Fe (sitesantafe.org) is a contemporary art space at the Railyard with even more galleries and shops, plus a ceramics workshop, a performance center, a sports bar, and a movie theater with 25 beers on tap and an old train car in the lobby. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday morning than browsing the galleries, then hitting the city’s justifiably renowned farmers market (santafefarmersmarket.com), a fixture in its own right—even in the offseason, vendors bundle up to hawk herbs and spices, baked goods, and plenty of produce. As the sun pours down and musicians stake their claim around the perimeter (and inside where it’s warm), chiles are roasted, ristras are arranged, and the people are here for it.
5. EXPERIENCE SOMETHING SURREAL
Meow Wolf's House of Eternal Return. (Courtesy Lindsey Kennedy/Meow Wolf)
This one’s art too, but it’s so spectacular it deserves its own category. An immersive experience from local art collective Meow Wolf, the House of Eternal Return ($20; meowwolf.com) is a choose-your-own-adventure, sci-fi-style head-trip—and it’s one that counts Santa Fean George R.R. Martin as both patron and landlord. The Game of Thrones author bought the site four years ago, renovating the building to the tune of $2.7 million and leasing it to the collective; the Meow Wolf Art Complex now includes a performance space, a learning center, and a bar, but the main attraction is its first permanent exhibition. In very X-Files fashion, the House of Eternal Return tells the story of a family that vanished after conducting a forbidden experiment that dissolved the nature of time and space (...yup!), and as a guest, you get to wander through their abandoned psychedelic Victorian funhouse searching for clues. A draw for all ages (toddlers and senior citizens and everyone in between on the day I visited), the 22,000-square-foot space is riddled with so many twists and turns—cave systems and tree houses, portals and hidden passageways, mirrors, optical illusions, and fairy lights galore—you could spend hours inside and barely scratch the surface.
6. EAT YOUR HEART OUT
Santa Fe School of Cooking. (Courtesy Tourism Santa Fe)
Food is culture, and getting to know the native cuisine is just as important as getting a handle on your surroundings. At the beginning of my trip, I spent a few hours at the Santa Fe School of Cooking (santafeschoolofcooking.com) and absolutely loved it—after a crash course in local food traditions, I came away properly prepared to tackle New Mexico and its various chiles. (The green version is made with fresh chile and has a piquant brightness, while the red is made with dried and therefore tastes a bit earthier; Christmas chile, my personal choice, is half and half.) During my tamale-making class, we sipped local wine, beer, and soda as our funny, approachable instructor provided a brief overview of the region’s culinary history and demonstrated how to handle some signature ingredients, and then we got to work, soaking corn husks, layering in the masa and various fillings, and preparing the little bundles for steaming. It was a hands-on experience that would make me appreciate the rest of my meals even more...and there were some pretty amazing meals to be had.
For a high-end introduction to classic Santa Fe food, the stellar breakfast at La Plazuela, the restaurant at La Fonda Santa Fe (lafondasantafe.com), sets a high bar. Commandeer a table in the light-filled, wood-beamed atrium and order the huevos rancheros, pan-fried trout (add chile for an extra kick), and fruit-topped blue-corn pancakes. A few blocks over, Tia Sophia’s (tiasophias.com) offers a more down-to-earth take: The local institution has been serving belly-busting meals to the masses since 1975, and it’s also the place where the terms breakfast burrito and Christmas chile were coined. Stop by on a Saturday morning for a bowl of green-chile stew or the homemade-chorizo burrito, but go early to avoid the crowds. If matcha smoothie bowls and gluten-free buckwheat pancakes are more your speed, put Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen (sweetwatersf.com) at the top of your list. With a focus on responsibly sourced seasonal ingredients, the internationally tinged menu has something for eaters of all stripes—vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, paleo, and carnivorous alike. Pass through on your way to Meow Wolf and fuel up for the fun.
Watch the skateboarders in action at De Vargas Park, then grab a seat on the sunny patio at Cowgirl BBQ (cowgirlsantafe.com) for margaritas and snacks (the cabeza de ajo, a whole head of roasted garlic in a pool of melted cheese, was a hit with my table), or more filling fare like chiles rellenos, smoked chicken, and an award-winning green-chile cheeseburger. Walk it all off with a stroll around the nearby Double Take (santafedoubletake.com), a 25,000-square-foot consignment shop with room upon room of cowboy boots and Western wear, turquoise jewelry and Native American blankets, and vintage memorabilia, collectibles, and fine art.
If gallery-hopping on Canyon Road has you feeling fancy, take a break and duck into The Compound (compoundrestaurant.com) for lunch inside a fabulous Alexander Girard–designed adobe building. Here you’ll find reasonably priced, white-tablecloth fare from Mark Kiffin, the only James Beard Award–winning chef in town: deceptively light and crispy onion rings, crab-and-lobster salad (a favorite with the ladies-who-lunch crowd), a decadent chicken schnitzel, and a house-cured pastrami sandwich that measures up to some of the best New York delis have to offer. For dinner, try to score one of the 12 seats at the sunken bar in the front of the restaurant—they’re extremely popular, so you’ll need a reservation. (Call a week in advance to be on the safe side.) Be sure to save room for dessert: Pastry chef Rebecca Freeman’s creations are not to be missed.
Every itinerary needs at least one blow-out meal, and Santa Fe provides plenty of opportunities to splurge. In the dining room at Sazón (sazonsantafe.com), portraits of Frida Kahlo watch over tables of guests thrilling to chef Fernando Olea’s contemporary spin on traditional Mexican cuisine. He’s a master of moles, so taste as many as you can—my favorite matched the coloradito with perfectly cooked duck breast—and prepare to be surprised. A simple-sounding shrimp consomme turned out to have a complex, multi-level flavor profile, and the chef’s signature blue-crab soup was a foam-topped revelation. For dessert, order the dulce sinfonía—your waiter will refuse to tell you exactly what's in it, which only makes it better. Outside of town, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Terra at Four Seasons Rancho Encantado (fourseasons.com) serves a global menu that simultaneously reflects the chef’s experiences in far-flung locations like Tanzania and the West Indies and nods to local Southwestern traditions. Sip a glass of wine in the high-ceilinged, modern dining room while a fire roars in the fireplace, and congratulate yourself on making good life choices.
7. HOP ON THE MARGARITA TRAIL
In a genius marketing move, the city’s tourism office launched its Margarita Trail program in 2016, and it’s been a boon to agave lovers ever since. Download the app ($4) or buy a paper passport ($3), flash it at 31 participating bars and restaurants to get $1 off the designated drink, and don’t forget to ask for a stamp with each one to earn some prizes. (Banish those visions of pub crawls past: You can only receive two stamps a day.) The watermelon-cucumber concoction at Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi (rosewoodhotels.com) is a must-order; pair it with excellent green-chile- and braised-bacon-topped buffalo sliders or groaning plates of nachos with the works. For a classic rendition of the cocktail, plus crowd-pleasers like guac and queso, chips and salsa, grilled-shrimp skewers, cheesy enchiladas, and ground-beef tacos, follow the Santa Feans' lead and turn to The Shed (sfshed.com), which was packed to the brim with happy customers on a recent Friday night. (Not so happy: the people who were quoted an hour-long wait time. Make a reservation if you don't want to take your chances at the first-come, first-served bar.) If it's a clear night, swing by Julia's Social Club at La Posada de Santa Fe (laposadadesantafe.com) for an al fresco outing. Stop at the hotel’s front desk on your way in and schedule a massage to take care of tomorrow’s three-margarita headache, then snag a table outside and hunker down around a fire pit for drinks and Mediterranean snacks.
Up for a nightcap? Evangelo’s Cocktail Lounge (evangeloscocktaillounge.com) is dive-bar heaven: a cash-only corner joint with live music, a local character pouring the drinks (don’t even think about asking for a Budweiser), and a great backstory. Bring a little extra change for the cover charge, and some for a t-shirt too. If you’d rather participate than watch the show, venture out past the Railyard to Tiny’s (tinyssantafe.com) for the best Saturday-night karaoke in town. Take a seat at the bar and pick a song from the hefty binder as fast as you can (you’ll be waiting awhile, so get your name in right away), then take to the stage and bask in the warm approval of an enthusiastic, generous room.
THE FINE PRINT
With 5,600-some hotel rooms in Santa Fe as a whole and 1,900 or so downtown, there are plenty of accommodations to choose from—rooms are often available for less than $200 from late fall to spring (minus the winter holidays). Independent and boutique properties in the historic city center tend to be pricier than the chain hotels on Cerrillos Road, but if you’re in search of a bargain, you’ll find the lowest average daily rates in January, February, and March. I loved the Hotel Santa Fe, the only majority Native American–owned hotel in the downtown area. hotelsantafe.com
Many of the city’s arts institutions offer discounted or free entry to New Mexico residents as well as seniors and children. If you have a few state museums or historic sites on your list, it might be worth looking into the New Mexico CulturePass, which grants access to 15 locations for $30. newmexicoculture.org/visit/culturepass
Given the altitude, two items are absolutely essential to making your visit an enjoyable one: a reusable water bottle and a serious moisturizer. Be sure to pack both.