Santa Fe has long ranked among the chic-est cities in the US, a favourite destination for upmarket travellers in particular. Its romantic appeal rests on a very solid basis: it's one of America's oldest and most beautiful cities, founded by Spanish missionaries a decade before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock. Spread across a high plateau at the foot of the stunning Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico's capital still glories in the adobe houses and baroque churches of its original architects, while its newer museums and galleries attract art-lovers from all over the world.
As upward of a million and a half tourists descend yearly upon a town of just seventy thousand inhabitants, Santa Fe has inevitably grown somewhat overblown. Long-term residents bemoan what's been lost, while first-time visitors may be surprised by the depressing urban sprawl on the edge of town. There's still a lot to like about Santa Fe, however, Once you get used to the rigorous insistence that every building should look like a seventeenth-century Spanish colonial palace, strolling around its compact, peaceful downtown is a real pleasure.
Despite its rich and sometimes turbulent past, Santa Fe was slow to grow. Until 20 years ago, it was not a major city by any standard. Since then, the population has grown from around 40,000 to over 60,000. Zoning laws from the 1950s, written by visionary civic leaders, helped the growing city retain the enchanting charm that makes it one of the most fascinating in the country.
Nowhere is this charm more evident than on Santa Fe Plaza . Shaded by 150 year-old cottonwood trees, this grassy square is surrounded by historic buildings. The ancient adobe structures, with their gentle corners and irregular earth-tone walls, bake in the strong light of the New Mexico sun. The hustle of the modern city teems to the south, but on the Plaza life slows, and the locals affectionately call their home "the Land of Mañana."
On the north side of the Plaza is the Palace of the Governors , the oldest public building in the country. Across from this grand structure, Native American artisans sell the fruits of their labors on colorful blankets at the yearly Santa Fe Indian Market. The remaining three sides of the Plaza are lined with boutiques, galleries, restaurants and jewelry stores that cater to tourists.
Carrying down melted snow from the 12,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Rio Santa Fe splashes and dances over granite boulders on its way south and west to the Rio Grande. Walled compounds hide historic haciendas along this narrow winding road. Many of the old properties have been converted into galleries like Thirteen Moons Gallery , bed and breakfasts, and restaurants like Geronimo and El Farol .
Greater Santa Fe
Like spokes of a wheel, three major arteries spear their way northward from Interstate 25 toward the Plaza. On the western fringe of the city, Cerrillos Road is Santa Fe's busiest boulevard and boasts the largest concentration of modern hotels and retail outlets in the city. Villa Linda Mall , Santa Fe's largest indoor shopping mall, is located on the far southern reaches of Cerrillos Road. Be prepared to deal with heavy traffic congestion along this road in the summer months and during ski season.
To the east is Old Pecos Trail. This two-lane route to downtown is void of the high-density commercial zones that line Cerrillos Road, but a sharp eye will spot a number of appealing lodging options, like La Quinta Inn Santa Fe , and shops, like Jackalope , peeking out from behind the piñon trees.
Rolling hills carpeted with piñon and juniper bracket the city to the north and create a setting for the world-famous Santa Fe Opera . This outdoor theater is famous for its acoustics and offers the very finest in operatic entertainment. Nearby you'll also find Camel Rock Casino and the Ten Thousand Waves spa.
The city of Santa Fe sits at a cultural crossroads—a junction between Native Americans, Old World Spaniards and Anglo-Americans. As these cultures interacted through the centuries, a singular brand of cuisine evolved that combined the utilitarian simplicity of Native American food with spicy Spanish seasonings.
The Ore House on the Plaza has served the taste of the Southwest to Santa Fe visitors in a rustic, yet classy style for decades. To get a first-hand taste of what residents ate in the old days, visitors can try one of the Ore House's wild game dishes of quail, elk or venison. The New Mexico State Capitol sprawls a few blocks off the Plaza and lawmakers make a habit of congregating and discussing state politics at the aptly-named Bull Ring , where you can still find a delicious Southwestern combination plate. The restaurant's increasing popularity prompted a move a few years ago to the other side of the Plaza to more spacious quarters. Just east of the Plaza, in a small courtyard hides The Shed , where massive burritos bathe in a tasty green chile sauce.
In recent years, classically trained chefs from the east and west have moved to Santa Fe, opening critically-acclaimed restaurants like the Coyote Cafe and Anasazi Restaurant . One of the oldest fine dining establishments in Santa Fe is the The Pink Adobe , where locals and tourists have enjoyed gourmet meals like Poulet Marengo since 1944. La Casa Sena hides in a mesquite-shaded courtyard, just off Palace Avenue.
One of the best kept secrets in Santa Fe is an ancient adobe hacienda that touts itself as the oldest bar and restaurant in the city. Considering the fact that Santa Fe is over 400 years old, this is a pretty bold claim, but there is no question that El Farol is one of the favorite places among locals to go for food, drink and music. While the sidewalks of Santa Fe may empty after dark when the shopkeepers go home, there is always someplace to go. Most hotel bars remain quiet during the week, but liven up on weekends. A block south of the Plaza is Catamount Bar & Grille , where solid blues flow as continuously as the beer on tap.
Greater Santa Fe
Maria's New Mexican Kitchen serves traditional Mexican meals in a comfortable setting, while India House offers delicious Tandoori classics. Their lunch buffet is popular among locals. Pizzeria Espiritu has large murals on its walls, and is a good place to grab a quick bite. The atmosphere at Counter Culture is diner-esque, with an accessible menu of American classics. Sweet treats can be found at Chocolate Maven Bakery and Cafe , which also serves light lunch items like salads and grilled sandwiches. Mu Du Noodles specializes in Asian fare of all kinds, from Chinese to Malaysian.
From the nearby rivers, to the surrounding mountains, and from the pueblos to the ancient heart of the city itself, there are literally hundreds of tour opportunities in Santa Fe. Here are just a few samples of what Santa Fe has to offer.
Santa Fe Plaza
Tour the historic La Fonda Hotel, then explore the vibrant Santa Fe Plaza , where you'll find the massive St. Francis Cathedral . Across the street is the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum . Browse the artwork there, then dine at the Old House Restaurant .
New Mexico Museum of Art
Located in the Plaza is the historic Palace of the Governors , which contains a musem. Beneath its portal, Native American artisans spread their handcrafts out for visitors to buy. Just outside the Plaza are many fabulous restaurants, such as the Palace Restaurant and Saloon and the Ore House on the Plaza .
Center for Contemporary Arts Santa Fe
Downtown Santa Fe also offers many things to do. Catch a show at the Santa Fe Playhouse , browse the offerings at the Center for Contemporary Arts Santa Fe , then grab lunch at Cafe Dominic or indulge in something sweet at the French Pastry Shop . Nearby Site Santa Fe focuses on local art by up and coming artists.
Visit the many galleries along Canyon Road , such as Running Ridge Gallery , Thirteen Moons Gallery and Waxlander Gallery . Nearby is the city's oldest restaurant, El Farol and the James A. Little Theater .
Traditional Spanish Market
In the area around the Plaza , you'll find the Traditional Spanish Market and the Sanbusco Market Center , both of which feature handmade products from Native American merchants. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum and the San Miguel Mission are also nearby. When you're through admiring the art and architecture, grab a bite at The Pink Adobe .
Self-guided tour opportunities abound in and around Santa Fe, but a number of reputable companies offer well-interpreted walking, or riding tours of the area.
Historic Walks of Santa Fe (+1 505 986 8388/ http://www.historicwalksofsantafe.com/)
Palace of the Governors Historical Walks (+1 505 827 7941/ http://www.palaceofthegovernors.org/index.php )
Santa Fe Detours (+1 505 983 5637/ http://www.sfdetours.com/ )
Bus Tours Rojo Tours ( +1 505 474 8333/ http://www.rojotours.com )
Sandia Shuttle Express ( +1 505 474 5696/ http://www.sandiashuttle.com/ )
Adventure Tours Santa Fe Rafting Company & Outfitters ( +1 800 467 7238/ http://www.santaferafting.com/ )
Southwest Safaris ( +1 800 842 4246 / http://www.southwestsafaris.com/ )