by Glenda Winders // photography submitted by Tourism Santa Fe
Have a capital time in Santa Fe
Back in 1935, in an effort to encourage vacationers to visit the state, New Mexico magazine and the state tourism bureau came up with the tagline “Land of Enchantment.” In 1941 this tagline was added to the license plates, and in 1999 it became the official state motto. No wonder: Those people knew what they were talking about.
This enchanting state has it all — fabulous scenery, rich cultural heritage, good food, top-level entertainment and world-class art museums and galleries — and nowhere is all of this showcased like it is in Santa Fe.
“Santa Fe is a destination like no other in the United States,” says Randy Randall, executive director of Tourism Santa Fe. “Known as ‘The City Different,’ we are the nation’s oldest capital city, a place where 400-plus years of cultural fusion, progressive creativity and commitment to historic preservation make for a distinct visitor experience.”
What to do
The history here is fascinating, and that’s a good place to begin exploring. Head first to the Palace of the Governors on the Santa Fe Plaza (a national historic landmark) to visit the New Mexico History Museum. This is the oldest continuously occupied building in the country, and it’s where you’ll get a real feel for the area’s past. While you’re there, buy a Culture Pass for $30. This will provide admission to 15 museums and historic sites throughout the state, four of them in Santa Fe. Next, it’s out to Museum Hill for the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, where the newest long-term exhibit, “Here, Now and Always,” uses native voices and artifacts to tell moving stories about the area’s first inhabitants. The Museum of International Folk Art displays pieces from around the world in the permanent collection and special exhibits. The museum’s Girard Wing displays some of the 100,000 pieces collected by Alexander Girard, known in Indiana for doing the interior design work for the Miller House in Columbus.
Art lovers will discover every possible kind of visual art here, starting with the New Mexico Museum of Art and its collection that focuses on the American Southwest. The nearby Santa Fe Railyard Arts District houses some nine galleries, and Canyon Road is called “a magical half mile” because more than 75 galleries line the short street. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked an hour away in Abiquiu, where it’s possible to arrange guided tours of her home and studio, and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is within walking distance of the plaza.
Be sure to make time for the Meow Wolf experience, which has become the No. 1 tourism destination in the state since it opened in 2008. Part art installation and part funhouse, the “house” is filled with surprises. Climb through the refrigerator to another dimension, stand inside a cake, listen to the radio in a mobile home, walk through a neon forest and much more to solve a riddle, after you first figure out what the riddle is.
“The co-founders all agree that Meow Wolf loves making weird things,” says spokeswoman Laura Hudman. “It celebrates the flaws in life through an evolutionary creative process, from the early days of the dumpster-diving art collective of six co-founders to Santa Fe’s House of Eternal Return. We want visitors to enjoy exploring the expansion of storylines and all of the creative elements that the Meow Wolf experience offers. It’s all remarkably fun.”
Entrance is timed so that big crowds don’t spoil anyone’s good time, so book ahead and plan to spend about two hours here. That’s long enough to soak up the experience and short enough to avoid total sensory overload.
Shoppers are also in for an adventure. From artwork to attire, home décor and turquoise jewelry to custom-made cowboy boots, you’ll find it all in new and unusual colors and designs. You’ll also find every kind of chili product, from salsas to coffee and jelly. Be sure to stop in at Todos Santos, a candy shop like no other. The name (All Saints) comes from Milagros, that is, chocolates that have been shaped like sacred objects and dusted with edible gold. The shop’s interior is an homage to Mexico’s Day of the Dead festivities.
“My concept was to make things in the flavors and visuals of Santa Fe,” says owner Hayward Simoneaux, who just celebrated the shop’s 20th anniversary. “But I also have fun confections from all over the world: German marzipan, Italian licorice, French nougat.”
The Santa Fe Opera ranks right up there with New York and San Francisco, and the mountaintop open-air Crosby Theatre is an experience in itself. This is also the venue for pop concerts and other performances. Come early to enjoy a preview dinner or pick up a picnic box that you order ahead for a tailgate party.
A system of trails through the Sangre de Cristo Mountain foothills welcomes hikers and mountain bikers throughout the year, and in winter Ski Santa Fe is the place to be for skiing and snowboarding. If whitewater rafting is your thing, head north toward Taos and the Rio Grande. Outfitters along the highway can provide everything you’ll need.
While you’re in the area, you’ll want to spend at least a day in Taos. If time allows, take the mountain road so you can stop at small towns and do some wine-tasting en route. This is where some of the oldest vines in the United States sank their roots to supply the missions with sacred wine. Save the main highway for the trip back, especially if it’s after dark. While you’re in town, shop and eat on Taos Plaza and then tour the Taos Pueblo, ancient home of the Puebloans, and Kit Carson’s home. You can also visit his grave in a small nearby cemetery. Another hourlong drive from Santa Fe will take you to Bandelier National Monument. Wear comfortable shoes for the hike back to the cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people.
Where to eat
This is a place where you pretty much can’t go wrong when you select a restaurant. Naturally you’ll want to try the Southwestern flavors, and that might begin with a few stops on the Margarita Trail. A “passport” will allow you to sample 45 different margaritas and earn prizes as it is stamped along the way. Or have a sunset cocktail on the roof at La Fonda hotel.
The day you’re at the museums, stop for lunch at the Museum Hill Café. Among the offerings here are gazpacho, corn custard with poblano cream sauce, duck flautas, salmon tostada and chicken mole. During your art walk down Canyon Road try El Farol for a lunch of Spanish tapas (try especially the grilled avocado) or come back that night for dinner and flamenco dancing. Among the menu possibilities are lamb meatballs, beef skewers, pork belly, Spanish wines and Tres Leches (three-milks cake) for dessert.
Several excellent dining establishments are located on or near the plaza downtown. Start the day at Tia Sophia’s. This is a small, no-frills restaurant that serves authentic Mexican breakfasts with choices that range from a chorizo burrito or bacon-and-egg quesadilla to huevos rancheros and blue-corn pancakes.
For dinner, chef Estevan Garcia makes excellent Southwestern food at Estevan Restaurante upstairs at the Chimayo Hotel. To order like a local, ask for Christmas enchiladas, so named because they come with both red and green sauce. The Shed has many “best of” awards for its food, and the success shows in the lines of people waiting to get tables. Be sure to make a reservation; then enjoy upscale Mexican dishes such as grilled chicken breast and enchilada, Southwest grilled shrimp and green chili burrito. The original owners’ grandchildren now operate the restaurant, and all of the chiles here are home-grown.
Another plaza favorite is La Casa Cena, where many of the wait staff are professional musicians who burst into song from time to time throughout the evening. The menu is worthy, too, with entrees such as Creole pan-seared diver scallops, pork osso bucco and roasted Colorado lamb rack. The Pink Adobe is a good place for a celebratory dinner, and you’ll want to make reservations here, too. “The Pink,” as locals call it, is located in the historic Barrio de Analco directly across the street from the San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in the country. Start with clams Lucifer or green chili stew and move on to tournedos Bordelaise or poulet Marengo. Save room for Southwestern bread pudding or pear Amaretto.
Where to stay
The closer you are to the plaza, the pricier your hotel is likely to be and the more amenities it will offer. La Fonda is the only hotel right on the plaza and possibly Santa Fe’s oldest. It sits on the site of the city’s first inn, established when the city was founded by the Spanish in 1607, and it offers luxury Southwestern accommodations. The Inn on the Alameda is within walking distance and offers traditional New Mexican rooms with fireplaces as well as a sumptuous breakfast buffet. Hotel Santa Fe, the only hotel in the city owned by Native Americans, bills itself as “a sanctuary for the cultural traveler,” a claim it backs up with a spa that offers treatments for body and soul. Its Amaya restaurant features Pueblo and Southwestern dishes made from fresh ingredients.
The Parador is a 200-year-old farmhouse located right downtown. Now a bed-and-breakfast, the cozy rooms are appointed with Mexican furnishings. If you plan to go to Meow Wolf while you’re in town, check out the hotel’s special packages. Some other hotels make this offer, too, so be sure to ask. The Lodge at Santa Fe offers culturally inspired Southwest accommodations with architecture reminiscent of the Anasazi people and colorful appointments inside, plus a spectacular view of the high desert. For a cultural experience of a different kind, there’s Ten Thousand Waves, a secluded Japanese lodge and spa where you can stay in rooms that range from spare Zen rooms to lush “Emperor’s Rooms.”
Budget-sensitive accommodations abound, too. An especially good option is the Santa Fe Sage Inn. It’s a short drive to any of the attractions, and the included breakfasts go beyond what you’d typically expect. The attached Social Kitchen and Bar is a good place to stop in for a nightcap at the end of a busy day in this remarkable city.