The City Different: Travel Guide Santa Fe

Santa Fe carries many accolades.

Located at 7,000 feet in the foothills of the southern Rockies, Santa Fe is the highest and oldest capital in the U.S. Founded in 1610, it’s America’s second-oldest city. Santa Fe ranks as one of America’s Best Small Cities and the most Instagrammed small city in the country.

San Francisco Street in the heart of Santa Fe

Blending rich Native American, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo heritages, Santa Fe offers legendary history and culture, an art scene spanning traditional to contemporary to immersive, and award-winning cuisine. It’s packed into a bite-sized city of under 100,000 residents who only elected their first full-time mayor in 2018. They relish 300 days of sunshine a year, proximity to cholla-filled deserts, and mountainous landscapes offering hiking, biking, fishing, river rafting and skiing.

Having taken a Left At Albuquerque, I’m now one of those Santa Fe residents.

The combination of cultures is what gives Santa Fe its popular nickname—The City Different.

Diverse cultures breed creativity.

A yearning for creativity lured me to Santa Fe. But I also love economics. So when I learned the team at Creative Vitality Suite (CVSuite) developed an economic development tool that ranks the most creative small cities in the U.S., the results weren’t that surprising—Santa Fe ranks #1.

Perhaps creativity is what is calling you to visit.

The Basics

Though Santa Fe Regional Airport (SAF) is close and quaint, Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ) offers greater airline options. From ABQ airport, Groome Transportation provides convenient Santa Fe drop-offs. Here’s more about getting to Santa Fe.

To travel differently, consider a train. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief trains eastbound from Los Angeles and westbound from Chicago meet at Lamy station (Santa Fe) daily. Or enjoy a comfortable one-hour ride on the NM Rail Runner Express commuter train from central Albuquerque to Santa Fe.

But if possible, travel by car. New Mexico is the ultimate state for a road trip—from White Sands National Park in the south to Taos further north, and pueblos, national parks, and historic sites everywhere in between. Here are some sample road trips to get you started.

Angelisa Murray of Heritage Inspirations curates unique New Mexico experiences for visitors & locals. Photo:  Minesh Bacrania.

My four favorite pieces of advice to future visitors?

  • Begin your visit with some basics of Santa Fe’s long, fascinating history by starting with a walking tour. I recommend Bob Ackenhausen, founder of Santa Fe Footprints.
  • For the locals’ scoop on happenings during your stay, check out the weekly Pasatiempo Calendar.

The Lodging

If Santa Fe is part of your Southwestern road trip, stay at El Rey Court along the original Route 66. Creatives Jay and Alison Carroll fell in love with its 1930’s adobe-style architecture, and in 2018 renovated it to an Instagram-ready style. It’s located between Santa Fe’s trendy Railyard District and Meow Wolf; that it’s not on the Plaza is arguably a good thing.

If you do want to be closer to the Plaza, Inn & Spa at Loretto offers a comfortable celebration of New Mexican style and culture. Many of the 130 rooms come with outdoor balconies. There’s easy access to dining, a new wine bar, a year-round heated garden pool, and onsite boutiques—and the Santa Fe River Park and Loretto Chapel are right outside your door.

Carolina Olea Cosignani & Manuel Lezcano de Orleans of Casa Culinaria

My favorite is Casa Culinaria, a 12-suite bed-and-breakfast hidden in an exquisite compound half-mile south of the Plaza. Owners Carolina and Manuel have lived all over the world and have chosen Santa Fe as their home. As you enjoy the complimentary three-course daily breakfast in the gardens, you’ll be grateful they did.

If you are in the mood to splurge, Santa Fe can provide. The Inn of the Five Graces is hidden on a quiet street just off the Plaza. If you fall in love with the Inn’s East meets West furnishings, explore Seret & Sons down the street. Wander through one of the world’s largest collections of central Asian imports and antique Tibetan furnishings and decide what you’ll bring home.

East meets West decor at the Inn of the Five Graces

Just minutes north of the Plaza on the edge of the Santa Fe National Forest is a century-old legendary landmark reimagined. Auberge’s Bishop’s Lodge re-opened in 2021 to critical acclaim with the vision of being the premier luxury resort in the Southwest. Even if you don’t stay, stop by for Happy Hour at SkyFire Monday-Friday 2:00-5:00pm.

Wish to enjoy the natural hot springs of New Mexico? My favorites are Ojo Spa Resorts just north and south of Santa Fe. Stay the night, or just dine and soak for the day. Is it your birthday? Ojo Caliente invites you to soak for free.

The Food

When I moved to Santa Fe in 2020, I heard recommendations from my well-meaning traveler friends.

“You must go to Geronimo’s. And have you been to The Shed? You must try the mole at Sazon.”

It was the same handful of restaurants. From every person. Matching the highest-ranked restaurants on Trip Advisor. Though they are all amazing, here are my favorites as a Santa Fe local.

  • La Choza is the “local version” of its more touristy (but fabulous) sister restaurant, The Shed. Their New Mexican delights are known as among the best in the state. My husband is hooked on their chile relleno; they had me at complimentary sopapillas.
Chef/Owner James Campbell Caruso at La Boca
  • La Boca has the feel of a lively European wine bar. Plan to share your innovative Spanish tapas as a group, and ask your server about the carefully chosen Mediterranean wines. Try to visit on a weekend evening to enjoy music, and ask to sit on the back courtyard patio. Or grab some snacks prior to your hike at their adjacent La Boca Market.
  • Joseph’s Culinary Pub is truly all about the food—traditional and contemporary, regional and international. For chef and owner Joseph Wrede, food is art. It’s the place I chose for dinner to celebrate my 50th (COVID takeout) birthday; I’ve dined in-restaurant on my birthday every year since. It’s my favorite place in Santa Fe.
It’s all about the food at Joseph’s Culinary Pub
  • Alkemē is a “Culture-to-Table” concept restaurant that celebrates the amazing food heritage of Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Korean, and Hawaiian Pacific Rim cuisines in a modern context. Order a tasting menu or a la carte. Pair with wine or Japanese whiskeys. Enjoy the outdoor patio or the cozy dining room. The passion of chef-owners Hue-Chan Karels and Erica Tai is felt throughout.
  • Esquina Pizza and Copita Wine Bar offer that casual pizza and wine night we sometimes need. I find it the best pizza in town, and the wine list is 100% natural wines. There’s a breezy patio or a cozy indoor wine bar in which to enjoy.
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to venture from the Plaza. Only 10 minutes away, Tesuque is best known as the home of the Santa Fe Opera. It’s also my home. Tesuque Village Market is our local roadhouse, serving everything from scrumptious baked goods and scrambles at breakfast to margaritas, New Mexican cuisine and wood-fired pizzas for dinner. Down the street, El Nido has a sleek dining room, an exhibition kitchen, a cozy bar, a and a warm outdoor covered patio. Drive 10 minutes up into the Sangre de Cristo mountains and you will swear you traveled to Japan. Ten Thousand Waves offers lodging, spa and upscale izakaya fare in a casual setting at Izanami.

For all of the amazing places I missed, check out this Best of Santa Fe list.

The Drink

Beverages have played a long role in New Mexico’s history. Hard apple cider and spirits were a form of currency on Western trails; vineyards were originally planted by Spanish monks 400 years ago.

Today, New Mexico has a fun and vibrant beverage industry.

  • Santa Fe Spirits was founded in 2010 with the goal of becoming the preeminent artisan distillery of the Southwest. You can take a distillery tour at their headquarters, or sample their wares in their downtown Santa Fe tasting room.  One of the West’s premier distillers Caley Shoemaker opened As Above So Below in the Santa Fe Railyard.
  • Who knew New Mexico made wine? Most of the vineyards can be found near the Rio Grande River (map). In Santa Fe, Gruet Winery offers delightful sparkling and still wines, best enjoyed at an outdoor tasting with their knowledgeable staff. About 60 minutes north of Santa Fe on the way to Taos is Vivac Winery, with internationally awarded wines enjoyed in a kick-back vineyard patio.
Gruet Winery tasting room associate pours the makings of a proper toast. Photo: Douglas Merriam.

The Art

My well-meaning traveler friends also shared Santa Fe art recommendations.

“The Canyon Road galleries are amazing. Get tickets to the Santa Fe Opera in the summer. Don’t miss the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.”

They are all amazing. But the art scene in Santa Fe is evolving.

East of the Plaza, the Canyon Road Art District remains a global art mecca and is the city’s most densely concentrated collection of art galleries. Among my favorites are Kay Contemporary, Winterowd Fine Art and Gallery Gaia.

Around the touristy Santa Fe Plaza, there are also unique art finds. On Saturdays and Sundays during the summer, strike up conversations with local artists at The Santa Fe Society of Artists. If you want an awesome introduction to Native American pottery, enter Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery and learn from the world expert.

Down the street, visit Mostly By Nature. As you admire founder Sequoia Maden’s home decor creations, you will ponder—what is the line between store and art galley? Over on Marcy Street, visit women’s clothing boutique TOKo Santa Fe. Curating a collection of selected clothing and jewelry designers is no different from what an art gallery does with its artists.

Walk west from the Plaza and you’ll find the burgeoning Santa Fe Railyard Arts District. Anchored by SITE Santa Fe and Vladem Contemporary, the district’s focus is modern art. The Railyard Arts District galleries invite patrons to for Last Friday Art Walk during the summer.

Moving south, Meow Wolf is the cornerstone of the emerging Midtown Arts District. An interactive and immersive art and entertainment company started by young do-it-yourself artists funded by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, the success of their flagship exhibit House of Eternal Return has fueled their expansion to new cities.

House of Eternal Return at Meow Wolf (Santa Fe)

An unexpected place to enjoy Santa Fe art? The New Mexico Capitol Art Collection was created in 1991, is free to the public, and consists of 600+ works from local artists in the interior public spaces of the State Capitol Complex.

The Common Miss

I knew little about the Manhattan Project upon moving to New Mexico and thought Los Alamos was a decaying atomic lab. I had no idea Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) remains a beacon of science and innovation, leading U.S. scientific efforts ranging from climate change to space research to vaccines. A company town of 18,000 people, Los Alamos has one of the highest concentrations of PhDs and is one of the wealthiest and safest cities in the U.S. Between Los Alamos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, it begs the question—might we be sitting on the innovation triangle of the Southwest?

Don’t miss a visit to Los Alamos.

Walking in the footsteps of history at Los Alamos History Museum

Pre-trip, I recommend reading 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. Less about the technicals of nuclear fission, it tells the stories of real people and their families who led us through a fascinating time in history.

Los Alamos is an easy 30 miles from Santa Fe. Start by visiting the Los Alamos History Museum. On their daily tour, you walk in the footsteps of esteemed Manhattan Project scientists who cemented Los Alamos’ place in history and were brought to life in the 2023 blockbuster movie Oppenheimer.

Bridging the past, present and future is the Bradbury Science Museum. LANL is understandably closed to most outsiders, so the Museum does a great job of bringing us inside. Focus your visit on the Museum’s Research Gallery, exploring at your leisure the topics you are most interested in.

My final piece of advice? Engage with the locals. We came to or remain in Santa Fe for its curious blend of cultures and creativity. Want to know the best place to watch the sunset, stargaze, catch local art, or hike?

Just ask. We love to share.

We hope you enjoy this Travel Guide. Want additional Santa Fe and New Mexico trip planning resources? Santa Fe Selection links you to all the basics, and the Santa Fe New Mexican’s Pasatiempo is the locals’ guide for what’s happening currently. AFAR New Mexico offers an amazing state travel guide, and New Mexico Magazine brings you the best ideas and stories.

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Jodi Morris Written by:

Venture Guide to High-Achieving Seekers. Success Coach. Venture Travel Curator. Impact Investor. Traveler. Writer. Global Connector. When we connect to others' stories it changes our own. Let's Venture!