Albuquerque, New Mexico, could be the place to fulfill dreams of a southwestern getaway. A centuries-old Spanish church anchors the city's plaza, chili-pepper-spiked delicacies are found on almost every menu, and residential neighborhoods are chock-full of both real adobe houses (made of mud and straw) and adobe-style look-alikes (made of concrete and stucco).
Albuquerque is New Mexico's largest city and definitely different from other cities in the state: It is a bustling, working town that doesn't run the risk of becoming too precious or too exclusive.
Albuquerque's size has also helped it to develop a fine lineup of attractions, such as the Albuquerque Zoo and Old Town Albuquerque—many of which are located close together near the downtown area. Even if you don't have a lot of time to spend in town, you can see several excellent sites in the span of a short drive and a few hours.
Albuquerque sits in a bowl-shaped valley formed by the Rio Grande (Spanish for "Big River"), which runs north-south through some of the city's oldest districts. The Sandia Mountains define the eastern side of the bowl, and the Manzanos, smaller cousins of the Sandias, form the southeastern edge. Extinct volcanoes lie to the west.
The city is laid out in a grid pattern divided into four quadrants: Northeast, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest. The north to south boundary is Central Avenue, which once was Route 66; and the east to west boundary is Broadway Avenue and the railroad tracks. Many of the city's prime attractions can be found where the quadrants meet, near downtown. Old Town, the city's historic district and home to many shops and museums, is immediately west of downtown. The Nob Hill shopping district is east of downtown.
Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado arrived in central New Mexico in 1540 looking for the legendary Seven Cities of Gold. He didn't find them, but he did discover another precious place: the fertile middle Rio Grande valley. There he encountered New Mexico's indigenous residents, who lived in close-knit villages that the Spanish called pueblos.
The small farming community established by the Spanish remained a tiny outpost until 1706, when an ambitious provisional governor, Don Francisco Cuervo y Valdez, petitioned the viceroy of Spain to grant the outpost formal villa status. His petition also proposed that the new village be christened after the viceroy himself, the 10th duke of Albuquerque. His petition was granted.
Albuquerque developed slowly until 1880, when modern transportation reached the town. Railroad engineers, preferring to build along the straightest lines possible, relocated the center of town 2 mi/4 km to the east. (The former center of Albuquerque became known as Old Town.) In 1937, the cross-country highway Route 66 arrived in Albuquerque, overlapping Central Avenue. Gas stations, motor lodges, restaurants and curio shops sprang up along the road to take advantage of the anticipated traffic. The influx of railroad and automobile visitors brought new life to the town, and it became an important transportation hub in the region.
In the second half of the 20th century, the atomic age left its mark on Albuquerque. Situated between Los Alamos (where the atomic bomb was developed) and Trinity Site (where it was tested), Albuquerque was a logical place for a military outpost and for Sandia National Laboratories, one of the country's largest producers of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Today the city remains a center for technology-based businesses, both for the government and the private sector.
Start your visit with a walk through Old Town, the city's historic district, where Albuquerque had its beginnings in the early 1700s. This charming area is full of restored adobe buildings that now house restaurants, galleries and shops selling everything from low-priced souvenirs to handcrafted turquoise-and-silver jewelry. Old Town's centerpiece is the dignified San Felipe de Neri Church, built in 1706 (it was rebuilt in 1793). Despite being a tourist attraction, Old Town is still popular with locals, and the gazebo on the plaza is a favorite place for weddings. Maps of Old Town are available in most shops and restaurants in the area as well as the visitors center (across Romero Street from the Church), and you can inquire there about guided tours of the area.
Old Town also serves as the city's main museum district. Our favorite is the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Its full-size dinosaur models, some of which roamed New Mexico's landscape, and simulated volcano cover the history of Earth from the beginning to present day. Another good choice is the National Atomic Museum. Its analysis of the development of nuclear weaponry and related technology manages to be both interesting and disturbing.
Just a few blocks west of Old Town, on Central Avenue, are the Albuquerque Aquarium and the Rio Grande Botanic Garden. Both are part of the Albuquerque Biological Park (BioPark, for short), which also includes the Rio Grande Zoo.
The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, the city's other must-see museum, is a little north of Old Town, across Interstate 40. It examines the history and culture of the region's pueblo tribes (the museum is a replica of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon). Native American culture is also the focus of Petroglyph National Monument, on Albuquerque's West Mesa near the Rio Grande. There, you'll find thousands of drawings of birds, animals and humans that were made by the ancestral Puebloan and Tiwa people.
You should also plan to take the Sandia Peak Tramway—at 2.7 mi/4.3 km, it features the longest single section of cable span (pylon to pylon) in the U.S. It delivers you to Sandia Peak, where you can have dinner and enjoy spectacular mountain views.
The majority of Albuquerque's nightclubs are located downtown or around the University of New Mexico. Not surprisingly, they attract college students and other twentysomethings. There's a small but thriving live-music scene, with numerous local bands garnering a dedicated following. (One Duke City band, the Shins, was catapulted to fame thanks to the movie Garden State.) Most nightspots close around 2 am.
At the heart of the state's southwestern (also known as New Mexican) cuisine is the small but fiery chili pepper, a vegetable so popular that great debates rage about which color—red or green—is the best. New Mexico accounts for more than 60% of the chilies consumed in the U.S., and to purists, a chili isn't a chili unless it's grown in New Mexican soil.
Visitors may have trouble understanding the local reverence for chilies if their uninitiated palates can't tolerate the peppers' intense burn. In that case, ask your server for advice about which dishes are less spicy and if your meal can be prepared "mild." You may also be able to order your sauce on the side. Remember that water doesn't do much to alleviate the heat. You're better off dousing the flames with sour cream, milk or guacamole, or with a bite of bread or tortilla.
Although we think that all visitors should sample the southwestern favorites, there are other choices. Albuquerque's multicultural population supports a large number of ethnic restaurants. For those who like to dress up, Albuquerque offers several fine-dining establishments. Many restaurants offer vegetarian dishes, but there are few strictly vegetarian eateries.
Generally, reservations are a good idea, especially weekend evenings or during busy events such as the Balloon Fiesta. Typical dining hours are 7-9:30 am for breakfast, 11:30 am-2 pm for lunch and 5:30-9 pm for dinner.
Expect to pay within the following general guidelines, based on a meal for a single person, excluding drinks, tax and tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
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