The rich cultural heritage of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is apparent everywhere—from the Native Americans selling goods on the Plaza to the Hispanic influence of its chili-flavored menus and the still-entrenched feel of the Wild West. The adobe buildings of Santa Fe line its twisting streets, and in the late afternoon sun they seem luminous.
The sharp colors, spectacular sunsets and distinctive feel of Santa Fe have drawn artists from all over the world, including the fabled Georgia O'Keeffe. It's a friendly city that offers the traveler great restaurants, excellent museums and lots of galleries full of fine art. There's a vibrant outdoors community, too, making Santa Fe a popular destination year-round for mountain biking, hiking, fishing, skiing and snowboarding.
Santa Fe is a modest-sized city, and most of its attractions are quite close together. Many of the city's better restaurants, shops and sights are located downtown, within a few blocks of the historic Plaza—the heart of Santa Fe. Another prime district for visitors is Canyon Road, just southeast of downtown (within walking distance), where many of the art galleries are located. Several of the city's best museums are on Museum Hill, which is south of Canyon Road (bus service is available). Many hotels and other businesses are located along Cerrillos Road, which runs southwest out of downtown and has been a focal point of the city's growth in recent decades.
Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the U.S. Founded by the Spanish in 1610, the original name of Santa Fe was La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis (the Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi). This explains why St. Francis appears in place names all over town.
The Spanish came to Santa Fe in search of gold, bringing with them missionaries in search of converts to Christianity. They found no gold, and although thousands of Native Americans were converted to Christianity, the majority resisted. Forced to build churches for the Spanish, they resented the desecration of their own sacred places and the killing of their religious leaders. In August 1680, the Pueblo people revolted, killing missionaries and settlers before driving the Spanish from their land.
In 1692, Captain Don Diego de Vargas again laid claim to the area that became New Mexico for Spain. It remained under Spanish rule until 1821, when Mexico won its independence and Santa Fe became the capital of a Mexican territory. In 1846, the area changed hands again, becoming a U.S. territory, and then in 1912, the 47th state.
Santa Fe's development was aided by the Santa Fe Trail, which brought goods and thousands of settlers from the east. That route lost its importance with the arrival of the railroad in 1879. Since 1957, stringent building codes have enabled the city to maintain much of its original architectural charm.
By far the best way to see Santa Fe is on foot, as the main downtown area is very compact in size. The Plaza is where you should begin exploring Santa Fe. Once teeming with traders, farmers, produce and livestock, the Plaza used to encompass many more blocks than it does today. What remains is a small park (a nice resting spot for pedestrians) surrounded by shops, galleries and restaurants. Santa Fe has some of the oldest buildings in the nation, among them the centuries-old Palace of the Governors on the north side of the Plaza. A former seat of government, it's now a part of the New Mexico History Museum as well as an outdoor marketplace for Native Americans selling jewelry and crafts.
In any direction from the Plaza, you'll find other sights and museums to visit. Be sure to see the Loretto Chapel, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (where a lovely shaded park offers benches to rest on and history plaques telling the story of New Mexico) and the San Miguel Mission, billed as the country's oldest church. Across from the Cathedral Basilica, you'll find the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. Art aficionados should also stop in at the New Mexico Museum of Fine Art on the northwest corner of the Plaza. Fans of Georgia O'Keeffe will undoubtedly flock to her namesake museum, which houses some of her best paintings. By far the best museums are located about 2 mi/3 km southeast of downtown on Camino Lejo, in a complex known as Museum Hill. Our favorites there are the International Folk Art Museum and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (and they're definitely worth a visit).
Santa Fe isn't known for its scintillating nightlife, but young bar and nightclub owners are seeking to liven up the scene. If you like dance that has a certain formality and sense of tradition to it, salsa and flamenco are very popular. There are some cozy bars in the downtown area. Those in finer hotels tend to attract an upscale crowd. On weekend nights, you won't have to look far to find local music, including country and jazz. Nightspots tend to close around 2 am.
Food is certainly one of the lures to Santa Fe, and chili peppers are the state's most distinctive agricultural product. They're also thoroughly entwined in the city's culinary evolution. (In fact, chilies are so much a part of New Mexican culture that the state legislature decreed the word be spelled "chile," not "chili." Our style, however, is chili, so we have not followed the politicians' edict.)
There are many varieties of peppers, and chefs in Santa Fe have found interesting and unusual ways to incorporate them into a wide range of cuisines. If you are sampling New Mexican food, you will undoubtedly be asked: red or green? This pertains to the type of chili you want on your entree. We recommend you try both, either on separate occasions, or by trying a bit of each—something locals call "Christmas." The tastes are different, and each sauce has its zealous fans.
Note that color is not the best means to determine how hot a given chili will be. Just because the red you had at one restaurant was relatively mild, don't assume you'll find all reds to be likewise. Ask your server for advice on the heat. The green chilies grown in the Hatch Valley in southern New Mexico are perhaps the most famous variety in the state, but locals swear by their Chimayo red. And be warned, water doesn't always cool the heat, but a glass of milk works wonders when the chili is too hot.
Of course, Santa Fe is the epicenter of southwestern cuisine—the locals frown on labels such as Tex-Mex or Mexican. Although it shares similarities with other Mexican-influenced cooking styles, New Mexican-style cooking stems from the fusion of ingredients cultivated by early Native Americans, augmented by foodstuffs brought north with the Spanish—including the chili—and finally mixed with influences from Anglo and other cultures. Blue-corn tortillas are included in many southwestern recipes, as are sopaipillas—pillow-shaped dough fried in oil and often served with honey. Green-chili stew, chiles rellenos (peppers stuffed with cheese and other fillings), posole (a hominy stew with pork and chili) and carne adovado (marinated meat cooked in chili) are popular southwestern menu items.
Santa Fe also has a number of eclectic international kitchens, including Asian and European cuisines, and you can even find a burger joint or two. Many favorites are located in the downtown area near the Plaza or off Canyon Road, but there's a growing restaurant presence in the booming south side of town.
Watch for prix-fixe and early-bird specials during the shoulder seasons January-March, and October and November. Since Santa Fe is not a big nightlife destination, it's not just senior citizens who dine early—you'll find plenty of young locals enjoying specials offered 6-7 pm. Another good bet is to try the bar menus at the high-end restaurants for smaller portions, sumptuous appetizers and wallet-friendly prices.
Dinner reservations are highly recommended, especially during summer months, and the busiest times are 6:30-8 pm. Typically, the last seatings of the night are around 9 pm. Dress in Santa Fe is casual: Coats and ties are never frowned upon, but they certainly aren't dining necessities.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a single dinner without tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than US$15, $$ = US$15-$20, $$$ = US$21-$35, and $$$$ = more than US$35.
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