Known as the “Land of Enchantment,” New Mexico truly is a beautiful state. But its capital city, Santa Fe, is the place that really works magic on its visitors.
Dubbed “The City Different,” Santa Fe soars above the rest of the state at 7000 feet. Full of history, culture, art, diverse cuisine, unique accommodations, wellness spas, and just plain Old-World charm, Santa Fe ranks as a top travel destination. And we’re here to discover it for ourselves.
As we step into the town center, we can immediately sense this city’s heritage as a trading post at the end of a historic cross-country trail route. For years, diverse groups of people, Native Americans, Spanish colonists, Europeans and Americans have been drawn to the beauty and spirit of the city, as well as its integrated commercial synergy. Several have put down roots, managed successful businesses while keeping their cultures intact. The city’s pueblo architecture blends in with the landscape around it. Even contemporary structures, made of adobe walls, conform to Santa Fe’s unspoken look.
A Vibrant Art Scene
With more than 200 galleries, art is the heartbeat of Santa Fe. In the 1920s five impoverished painters, nicknamed Los Cinco Pintores (the Five Painters) moved into rundown houses on Canyon Road. Soon, word of the city’s reputation spread and attracted more artists. Famous artists like Georgia O’Keefe moved here and Santa Fe’s reputation as a place of artistic freedom was established. Today, one in six people in Santa Fe work in the art industry.
With just a week in this creative center, we only have time to scratch the surface. The Georgia O’Keefe Museum is a must visit to view this American artist’s dramatic and colorful paintings. The tiny but whimsical gallery upstairs from Café Pasqual is a hidden treasure that features the functional mica cookware influenced by local artistic creativity.
At the Lyn A. Fox Pueblo Pottery Gallery, we meet up with Randy Brokeshoulder, a Hopi Indian living in Santa Fe, who makes katsina dolls. Deeply rooted in the traditions of the Hopi people of Arizona, these carved wooden dolls represent rainmaking messengers from the spirit world. The tradition and techniques of katsina doll making is passed from generation to generation.
On Museum Hill, the Museum of Native Arts and Culture, the Buchsbaum Gallery of Southwestern Pottery features vessels from New Mexico and Arizona pueblos. The San Ildefonso exhibit is extraordinary, featuring pottery from 1600 – 1930. This small village was home to visionary artists. It was in San Ildefonso that Maria Martinez’s unique black on black pottery brought Native American pottery international recognition from art collectors.
READ MORE: Highlights of Hanoi with Pam and Gary
But it’s the Museum of International Folk Art that completely captures our fancy. The largest collection of international folk art in the world, it contains more than 130,000 objects from more than 100 countries. Case after case filled with hundreds of tiny colorful people, houses, animals, trees, boats and carts make up scenes of realistic looking villages. Hand-painted tiles, beaded dolls, wooden carved figurines, colorful quilts, face masks, and weavings fill the room in a colorful, dizzying array of objects.
Santa Fe’s Best Restaurants
Santa Fe’s reputation as a culinary mecca draws foodies to this high desert city. And it’s not just about green chiles during roasting season. With more restaurants per capita than most major cities, it’s hard to know where to eat first. But a visit to the well-known and much-loved Café Pasqual is a good start. Service is excellent but the food is even better. We order corned beef hash and eggs and chile rellenos topped with poached eggs from an extensive menu. Flavorful and plentiful, these dishes are solid evidence of why this restaurant remains so popular.
The Shed, housed in an unpretentious adobe hacienda, is known for its Northern New Mexico cuisine. Also a stop on Santa Fe’s Margarita Trail, expect a wait for a table at this popular restaurant. But a drink in the bar while you wait will help you get your first stamp in your Margarita “passport.” Its sister restaurant, La Choza in the Santa Fe railyard district, with its bright, cheery interior and colorful paintings, also delivers delicious, authentic Southwestern food.
In the Hotel Santa Fe, the only Native American-owned hotel in downtown Santa Fe, the Amaya Restaurant offers diners a wide choice of New Mexican and American dishes. But their Red Mesa Cuisine provides diners a chance to taste Native American food with a choice of red chile and herb rubbed elk tenderloin, herb and olive oil marinated quail breasts or pan fried red chile cornbread crusted trout. The Picuri tribe owns the hotel, and that evening one of the elders joins us for dinner, sharing the history of his tribe and tales of life on the pueblo. During the warm summer months, guests can reserve a private teepee dining experience on the patio.
To learn more about New Mexican cuisine, we attend a three-hour cooking demonstration at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. Our engaging instructor, Jen Doughty teaches guests how to choose and roast chiles, techniques for making red and green chile sauce, the simplicity of handmaking corn tortillas, how New Mexico enchiladas are layered, not rolled, and all about the deliciousness of New Mexico ingredients.
A visit to Santa Fe would not be a complete without an excursion to its famous Farmer’s Market. One of the oldest, largest markets in the country, the Santa Fe Farmer’s market is a foodie’s delight.
Baskets of colorful produce, vendors cooking regional foods, and chiles, red and green, everywhere, make this twice weekly market a joy to visit. During chile roasting time from late August to mid-October, the smells of freshly roasting green chiles fill the air, attracting hungry shoppers. And the pequin wreaths at Christmastime, made from bright red chiles, are too beautiful to pass up.
Santa Fe Wine Tasting
Where’s there’s good food, there’s bound to be wine and Santa Fe does not disappoint. We discover a handful of wine tasting rooms just a few short steps from our hotel and set out to explore New Mexico wine.
Gruet Winery’s tasting room, inside the historic Hotel St. Francis, provides comfortable seating at the bar, inside tables or its outdoor patio. Known for their sparkling wine, Gruet also offers still white and red wine. The excellent Sauvage, a non-vintage sparkling wine made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, was our favorite. Small bar bites are available for purchase to pair with your wine tasting.
Vivac Winery in the Farmer’s Market Pavilion in the Railyard District features European styled wines. Made from 100% New Mexico grapes, hand harvested and sorted, pressed and aged in French oak barriques, Vivác Winery has been producing classic European styled wines for over 20 years. Try their unique Refosco, an unusual grape from Northern Italy.
Spas and Wellness Centers
Many of Santa Fe’s hotels offer spa and wellness services as part of a relaxing stay. A visit to Ten Thousand Waves Spa, just ten minutes outside of Santa Fe, provides guests an opportunity to experience spa services in a unique environment. Inspired by Japanese mountain hot spring resorts, this internationally known spa features a grand bath, women’s only tub, private tubs, specialty massages, skin care and spa treatments.
Here, people speak in hushed tones and it’s okay to walk around in your bathrobe. The thoughtful design of this wellness center evokes a feeling of peacefulness and spirituality.
After an afternoon soaking in the Grand Bath, time in the Relaxation Room, a stint in the foot soak and a Deep Stone massage, we return to town relaxed, rejuvenated and ready to explore more of this delightful town.
El Dorado Hotel and Spa
Just two blocks away from Santa Fe’s historic plaza, El Dorado Hotel and Spa, a AAA four-diamond property, provides guests with spacious, well-appointed rooms, full-service amenities and valet parking. The El Dorado features an onsite spa, two dramatic yet comfortable cocktail lounges and a restaurant that serves up delicious local dishes like blue corn pancakes and huevos rancheros. Some deluxe guest rooms come with in-room fireplaces, serviced by hotel staff, for a cozy, romantic stay.
If You Go..
Frequent flights into nearby Albuquerque make it easy to get to Santa Fe. But Santa Fe’s regional airport also offers several daily connecting flights.
Regardless of how you choose to get to Santa Fe, you’re sure to fall in love with this magical city. Sometimes when you travel to a new place, you connect in ways that can’t be explained. Santa Fe was that place for us. It captured our hearts and we can’t wait to visit again.
Pam and Gary Baker are freelance food, wine and travel writers based in Northern California. They’ve written for regional, national, and international publications including Upscale Living, Edible Sacramento, International Living, Via Magazine, Porthole Cruise, Northwest Travel and Life, Food Wine and Travel Magazine and Australia & New Zealand Magazine.