Santa Fe: Why It's So Popular with Visitors

Native American artist showing ceramics at Palace of Governors in Santa Fe, NM. Tab Hauser photos.
Native American artist showing ceramics at Palace of Governors in Santa Fe, NM. Tab Hauser photos.

Art, Culture, and History in abundance in Santa Fe, New Mexico

By Tab Hauser

Indian warrior sculpture

Located in the very western setting of New Mexico about an hour north of Albuquerque is the historic city of Santa Fe.

It is a place that embraces and shows off its history, original adobe-style looks, art, culture, and food. With more than 250 art galleries, it's an art-lover's paradise.

It is here that Spanish,   Native American and old American heritage can be seen daily. Santa Fe’s location also makes it an excellent base for good day trips.

Walking Intro

A good way to get familiar with the city is to take the daily downtown walking tour given by the New Mexico History / Palace of the Governors Museum. Their $10 tours do not require reservations and start on Lincoln Street.

Old timer enjoying a slice of tall caramel pecan apple pie at the Plaza Cafe, Santa Fe.
Old timer enjoying a slice of tall caramel pecan apple pie at the Plaza Cafe, Santa Fe.

If you arrive early, go to the wall of the Governors Palace facing the plaza where Native American artists display their crafts for sale. These artists must pass strict requirements that authenticate who they are and what they sell.

Our tour guide Frank started in the Plaza where long rows of red chili peppers were tied to the lamp posts to dry.   Here he explained Santa Fe’s founding by the Spanish, (making it the oldest capital city in the United States), how it conquered the nearby pueblos in search of gold and then was successfully revolted against 1680 only to return 12 years later.

We learned that the Santa Fe Trail started in Missouri 900 miles east taking traders 2.5 months to reach the exact spot we were standing on.   He then guided us around to the area buildings and old churches.

At one point he took us into an old Spanish courtyard to show us the secret door where all civilians of the Manhattan project needed to check in.

The Palace of the Governors

Former secret door for Manhattan Project now a market in Santa Fe.
Former secret door for Manhattan Project now a market.

After our tour, we went into Palace of the Governors.   This structure, now a museum, is the oldest continuing government-run building in the United States. It was built in 1618 and served under Spanish, Mexican and American flags over its history.

Inside are artifacts from the Spanish and Native Americans that lived here. A few rooms were decorated in different period style.

Connected to the palace is the New Mexico Historical Museum. Their galleries display Spanish, Native and Cowboy history through objects, paintings, and photographs.   With our appetite up and acting on a tip from some locals, we walked down San Francisco street for a traditional New Mexican lunch at Tia Sophia of green chili stew, red chili cheese enchiladas and black beans served with fry bread.

An Art Agenda at the Capital

Adobe style architecture dominates Santa Fe
Adobe style architecture dominates Santa Fe.

The state capital was next on our list to visit while downtown.   This is the only round capital in the country informally called the “Roundhouse”.   In 1991 the Capital Art Foundation was created making this place of legislation look like an art museum.

Visitors here are not met with security detectors and guards but instead with a smile at the front desk and a map of the building.   Here we were told wander completely around each of two floors and the Governor’s office to view all different forms of art that cover every wall.

From the capital and walking back to the plaza, you can visit the Loretta Chapel that was completed in 1878.   The draw here is its unusual 33 step free-forming “miracle” staircase.   Continue a few blocks east to visit the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.   This church built in the 1870’s is on the site of former churches from the 1600’s.

There is a notable and colorful statue of Kateri Tekakwitha who was an Algonquin-Mohawk from New York in the 1600’s. She is honored as the first Native American Saint.   San Miguel Mission nearby is considered America’s oldest church.   It was built in the early 1600’s and rebuilt in 1710 and still retains the original adobe walls.

RELATED  Albuquerque's Magical Balloon Fiesta: Up, Up, and Away!

Day Two: Cliff Dwellings, Science, and Art

4X4 roads gets you in the remote back country of Great Sand Dunes Park
4X4 roads gets you in the remote back country of Great Sand Dunes Park

Santa Fe’s location makes it ideal for half day and day trips out of the city. A popular destination just 50 minutes away is Bandelier National Monument. The monument is a place where you can see the protected ancient cliff dwelling pueblos. Visitors here take the one hour Main Loop Trail that includes a chance to climb ladders for up-close viewing.

The other popular hike is the 1.5 mile Falls Trail.   Nearby the  Bradbury Science Museum focuses on the United States entry into the atomic age. Here you will see models of the first atomic bombs, declassified material from the Manhattan Project and other similar science related items.

On return to Santa Fe, we headed straight to Canyon Road to take in the city’s famed artist’s street.   To visit here use the parking lot at East Palace Road and Canyon. Starving from our morning excursion, we walked across from the lot to the Milad Persian Bistro.

This middle-eastern/Mediterranean style restaurant was a good choice and a nice break away from anything with the red or green on it.

From lunch stroll up Canyon Road to visit the 100 galleries and studios that line the street. Here you find almost every genre of art. We visited galleries with sculptures, paintings of all types, pottery, photos and kinetic works.

After visiting the galleries reward yourself from your half mile walk with a stop at the Kakawa Chocolate House to have one of their warm chocolate elixirs. For information on Canyon Road galleries and events is go to www.visitcanyonroad.com

Museum Day

Hand made jewelry at Palace of Governors, Santa Fe New Mexico.
Handmade jewelry at Palace of Governors

Day three started with a visit to Museum Hill 2.5 miles from the plaza. This area has the museums of Spanish Colonial Art, Indian Arts and Culture, International Folk Art and Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.   Also here is the newly developed Santa Fe Botanical Garden.   Information and links to all these places can be found at www.museumhill.net

We chose to concentrate on folk and Indian arts followed by a stroll in the garden.   The folk art museum has one permanent and two changing exhibition halls.

The permanent exhibit has a collection of 130,000 pieces that include dolls, toys, textiles, masks, metal works and more from 34 countries.

Many similar themed items are displayed in large themed cases. W e recommend the free docent tours at 10:30 & 11:30 and 2:00.

Large human face sculpture on Canyon Rd, Santa Fe.
Large human face sculpture on Canyon Rd

Across the plaza is the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.   Displayed here are artifacts from the southwest broken down by region or tribe that included pottery, clothes, weapons, farm tools and beaded items.

Also displayed in a changing gallery were modern designer clothing and art. Across the way, the Santa Fe Botanical Gardens is a work in process.   Visitors can walk around four acres of groomed indigenous flora and 14 acres that are in development.

Our last museum for the day was the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum near the plaza.   Georgia O’Keefe was an American Artist that lived from 1887 to 1986. This museum contains her largest permanent collection of about 140 pieces.   Here you can learn about her colorful life and New Mexico studio through two short videos that run all day.

While downtown we highly recommend lunch at The Plaza Café. This restaurant is a Santa Fe classic and serves to a mix of locals and tourists diner style food as well as delicious New Mexican specialties. Do not miss their homemade tall caramel pecan topped apple pie.

Railyards: Modern to Bizarre

Rainbow over Cathedral Basilica St Francis of Assisi
Rainbow over Cathedral Basilica St Francis of Assisi

The Railyard district is an area of galleries and a farmers market.   We came here see the reopened modern art museum called The Site. This 34,000 square foot building contains a constant change of exhibitions in different styles of media.

During our visit, we viewed paintings, unusual videos, and sculptures. There is a coffee shop with sandwiches at the entrance and a rustic park with a railroad feel next door to picnic at.   For information on events and galleries go to www.railyardsantafe.com

RELATED  Visiting Berlin: Balm for the Soul

For a completely different interactive art experience visit the Meow Wolf .   Housed in a giant warehouse it can best be described as part fantasy and part science fiction with all your senses woken up as you go about the different rooms.   Meow Wolf is a good evening entertainment option.

Choo Choo Day Trip

Fans of old-style steam locomotive trains should not miss a ride on the Cumbres and Toltec two hours north of Santa Fe.   Climb aboard and smell the coal burning and hear the old steam whistle.

Engine 489 seen on turn with smoke and steam, the Cumbres and Toltec railroad.
Engine 489 seen on a turn with smoke and steam, the Cumbres and Toltec railroad.

This moving national historic landmark crosses the New Mexico - Colorado border 11 times, climbing up and down mountains, and chugging alongside a pretty gorge.

At 10,200 feet it crosses the continental divide making it the highest elevation of any train in the United States.   We departed Antonito at 10 AM, completed the one-way ride to Chama in a fun five hours with a one-hour buffet lunch half way.

We were returned to our car by bus at 4:15. This gave us plenty of time for dinner in the courtyard of the La Fonda Hotel where you can choose between a good continental menu and traditional New Mexican fare.

Santa Fe Trip Tips:

In the parlor car with conductor and server on the train excursion.
In the parlor car with conductor and server on the train excursion.

When driving to Santa Fe from the Albuquerque airport take the scenic Turquoise Trail.   It adds 15 minutes over the dull highway route and you can make stops along the way.   For a look into Americana allow 45 minutes to visit Tinkertown .

Tinkertown took 40 years for Ross Ward to build hundreds of miniatures as well collect old carnival penny machines, knick-knacks and antiques. Much is displayed in dioramas.

Hotel: La Fonda on The Plaza was our choice hotel.   This is because it is near the plaza and has an old world charm about it as well as a deep respect and collection of local art.   Every room at La Fonda has original paintings.

Anyone is welcomed to take the morning hotel art tour.   The bar here offers nightly regional entertainment.

Take the Train

In the winter of 2008, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express train began service between Santa Fe and towns to the south including Bernallio, Albuquerque, Los Lunas, and Belen among others. The train is currently served by three stations in Santa Fe, the Highway 599, south Capitol, and Railyard stations.

The train was an instant success with commuters, residents, and visitors alike, making the trip between cities easy and comfortable. Currently, trains run 7 days a week to and from Albuquerque and extra trains have been put on for special events like Santa Fe Indian Market and Fiesta de Santa Fe.

Other Day Trips to Consider:

Country western music at La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe.
Country western music at La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument: 45 minutes towards Albuquerque has unusual rock formations that look like giant upside down ice cream cones and a pretty gorge to walk through.

Great Sand Dune National Parks has one of the world’s largest sand boxes measuring 6 miles by 5 miles with a height of about 700 feet.   Visitors can hike up and sand board down.   We recommend going deeper in the park by taking a personal three-hour tour with Pathfinders 4 X 4.

Their comfortable 4 X 4 goes deep into the park to see its alpine beauty and wildlife that 95% of the visitors miss.   This park is near the Chama train depot so an overnight in Alamosa would be recommended.

For all things Santa Fe go to www.santafe.org

Tab Hauser

Tab Hauser was President of two small family businesses before selling out and embracing his passion for writing and photography. When not at his home in Glen Cove, NY he is traveling the United States and world where he visited 42 countries so far.