Do You Know the Way to Santa Fe?
Updated: May 28, 2021
(Apologies to Dionne Warwick for altering her song title, just a little...)
Situated high in the northern Rio Grande Valley, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of northern New Mexico, is a destination that is, by any definition, enchanting and unique. Santa Fe is a rare gem of a city that is both old and new, cosmopolitan and unpretentious, and moving at a slower pace than the world around it. It lives up to its nickname as "The City Different." It is one of the best places in the country to experience the arts and is considered to be a mecca for artists and art lovers alike. There are more than 250 galleries in the city alone. In fact, one in 10 jobs in Santa Fe is connected to the arts, and the city has a vast creative scene spanning several districts and neighborhoods. Downtown Santa Fe is tightly packed with galleries and gift shops all within walking distance of many other significant historic buildings and sites. Santa Fe is such a cultural and artistic treasure that, in 2005, it was designated as the first UNESCO Creative City in the United States.
April 22, 2021 (Thursday)
To celebrate my partner Matthew's birthday this year, we decided to travel to Santa Fe for an extended weekend. Matthew had never been to Santa Fe before, but as an artist himself, he has wanted to see the city for years. The flight from Seattle was just over two hours.
Getting there is easy. Matthew and I flew into Albuquerque's Sunport Airport, rented a car and then drove the rest of the way. Santa Fe is only an hour away if you take I-25. (Click here to review more information about getting there.) Of course, you can fly directly into Santa Fe's airport, but airfares can be substantially higher. We saved about $200 per ticket flying into Albuquerque instead of Santa Fe.
Since we arrived late in the day, we checked into a hotel in downtown Albuquerque and then got up early the next day to start our journey up to Santa Fe. We decided to take the old Turquoise Trail (NM Route 14) from just east of Albuquerque. It's a slower route, but passes through some spectacular scenery, including the small town of Madrid where you can pull off the road and explore the many galleries and gift shops and have a bite to eat. A short time later, we were in Santa Fe.
A few interesting facts about Santa Fe
Santa Fe is not only the state capital of New Mexico, it is the oldest state capital in the US.
It is also the highest US capital city at an elevation of 7,200 feet.
Santa Fe is the second oldest city in the United States (after St. Augustine, FL), founded between 1607 and 1610. To provide perspective, 1607 was the year the Jamestown colony was founded in Virginia.
Santa Fe is home to the oldest house, the oldest church, and the oldest public building in the United States.
It enjoys approximately 310 days of sunshine each year.
April 23, 2021 (Friday)
When we arrived in Santa Fe, it was snowing. Neither of us dressed for it, so we took shelter immediately under the downtown covered sidewalks until it passed and the sun came back out. In all, it was about 20 minutes from the start of the snowfall to the last few flakes. In speaking with some of the shopkeepers, it seems that it's completely normal for it to snow at that time of year, even into early May. Within 30 minutes, there was really no evidence of the snow anywhere on the ground. Matthew and I parked on Galisteo Street and started our walking tour of the city by heading toward the central plaza. I got this picture of one of the stunning adobe buildings shortly after the snow melted and the sun came out.
The city is remarkable for its use of indigenous materials: Pueblo-style adobe exteriors, thick hand-plastered walls, carved wooden doors, exposed natural wood vigas, and earthen hues. In the 1920s, city officials ordered that all buildings be built with adobe in the Pueblo Indian style. The style perfectly complements the rolling landscape dotted with classic southwestern vegetation. As you explore the streets and courtyards, you'll see clusters of red chili pods (known as ristras) drying in the sun, hanging from adobe buildings as decoration literally everywhere in the city. They are somewhat iconic as part of the old town vibe.
With the exception of a Starbucks and a Häagen-Dazs, the central core of the city is completely devoid of the commercial clutter of franchise-style businesses and chain restaurants. Whether by design or by chance, it is one of the city's most refreshing qualities.
Another of its best features is walkability. There are several key architectural, cultural and historic sites within a few blocks of Santa Fe Plaza. Just one block east of the plaza is the stunning Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. At noon each day, the bells of the cathedral toll. They can be heard for several blocks in any direction. Matthew and I arrived just as Mass was starting, so we weren't allowed in to view the interior. The exterior of the building is quite something to behold:
A half block away at 109 East Palace Street, you'll find chocolate + cashmere. On the outside, it looks just like any other business, and indeed, you'll find exactly what you would expect inside -- a delectable array of chocolate truffles and lots of cashmere. From 1943 to 1945, that building served a different purpose altogether. It was the first stop for innumerable scientists working on the top secret Manhattan Project in the nearby Los Alamos laboratory. Dozens of scientists, technicians, and other workers would arrive each day to be ferried up to “the Hill” where work on the atomic bomb (and possibly other secret science projects) actually took place. The primary contact person who greeted arrivals at 109 East Palace was Dorothy Scarritt McKibbin, who became nearly as vital to the Project as any of the scientists. McKibbin would process each of the arrivals and keep the overwhelming secretarial work in order, essentially making sure that the top-secret trains ran on time. As you step through the front door of the shop, you'll notice books on either side of the doorway covering topics like the Manhattan Project and the "father of the atomic bomb," Robert Oppenheimer.
One block southeast of the plaza is the Loretto Chapel. Built in 1873 under the direction of the Sisters of Loretto, the chapel houses a very unique feature inside -- a spiral staircase known as the Miraculous Staircase. Legend has it that a carpenter appeared with only a hammer and carpenter’s square. He built the staircase with simple tools and wooden pegs and then disappeared before accepting payment for his work. Admission to the chapel is just $5 for adults.
From the Loretto Chapel, continue further south along the Old Santa Fe Trail, crossing the diminutive Santa Fe River, and you'll encounter both the oldest church and the oldest house in the United States. The oldest house is actually a free museum on E. De Vargas Street, a half block off the Old Santa Fe Trail. Built circa 1646, there are only two rooms you can tour, but you'll notice how small the spaces are and how low the clearance is on the doors. (Yes, that is an actual coffin in the photo below. You can get the whole story on your next visit.)
On the corner of E. De Vargas Street and the Old Santa Fe Trail is the San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in the United States. At the time of our visit, it was closed due to COVID-19 concerns, but the exterior is quite beautiful and the courtyard in front is a nice place to relax and enjoy the sunshine.
Just south of the Santa Fe River along the Old Santa Fe Trail, you'll encounter this wooden sign marking the location of the Barrio de Analco which is a National Historic Landmark. It is one of the oldest residential neighborhoods of European origin in the United States.
You'll enjoy lots of beautifully restored adobe buildings along the way, like this one.
Walk another block or so further south and you'll come to the New Mexico State Capitol Building. New Mexico became the 47th state in 1912, but the current capitol building was not completed until 1966. The building was designed to resemble the Zia sun symbol (the symbol emblazoned on the New Mexico state flag) when viewed from above, and houses an impressive collection of Native New Mexican art. At the time of our visit, the building was closed to the public due to the pandemic. We were able to walk around the grounds and see some of the statues and art installations on the capitol campus. The pear trees were in full bloom when we were there:
Matthew and I had decided before arriving in Santa Fe that we both wanted to go visit the immersive art experience of Meow Wolf which has become an extremely popular entertainment destination in the last few years in Santa Fe. It's about two miles south of the town center, just off Cerrillos Road, tucked back behind a few buildings. We completely underestimated the demand for tickets. When we got there, we received the disappointing news that tickets had been sold out for the next few days; the next available time slot coincided with our return flight to Seattle. If you've been there, please do tell me about it in the comments below.
There are plenty of great hotels, inns, B&Bs and resorts to choose from in Santa Fe. We ended up choosing the Las Palomas Inn on San Francisco Street, just four blocks west of the plaza. The rates are pretty reasonable for what you get. The staff could not have been friendlier. Even though we arrived before check-in, since our room was ready, they allowed us in. They have cold beverages available all day, and you can buy cans of soda or bottled water for just a dollar. They were doing no-contact breakfasts which means they put your meal together in a bag and hang it on your door between 8 and 8:30 a.m. each morning. Our breakfasts were different every day -- one day it was a breakfast burrito, and another day it was a breakfast bagel sandwich with egg, cheese and ham. Included in the bag were hard-boiled eggs, a pastry (one day it was a cinnamon roll, the other it was a blueberry muffin), an apple, and, to top it all off, a yoghurt parfait. In truth, it was too much food for us both to consume, but with a refrigerator in our room, it was easy to stash the leftovers for a snack later. Each unit has its own kitchenette, complete with coffee and coffee maker, or if you prefer, you can walk to the office and help yourself to their freshly brewed coffee each morning.
The property was an interesting collection of buildings on separate blocks and streets, all in the adobe architectural style and topped with electric luminaries. The individual rooms could best be described as ”casitas” — nearly distinct little houses huddled together into clusters. We were in Unit 18 which was a suite and part of a cluster of other units located on Park Avenue, a short walk from the office. Our front door opened up into a small courtyard that faced two other units (16 and 17). Although the room had a somewhat worn and outdated feel to it, it was quite comfortable and had all of the amenities we could use -- including a working fireplace. The proprietors even left us some firewood outside the front door. We really liked how conveniently located it was near the center of town. This was our casita from the outside:
This building along W. San Francisco Street, with the warm adobe exterior, punctuated by the eye-catching turquoise trim of the windows and doorways, was one we passed as we walked to and from the town center:
As much as possible, we tried to sample a variety of restaurants and New Mexican cuisine. Our first stop was at Tia Sophia's on W. San Francisco Street. It is an unpretentious diner with a limited menu that is well-known for its green chili-smothered enchiladas. The prices were pretty reasonable and the food was very good. Dishes are served with warm sopaipillas and honey.
That first night, we had dinner at the Thunderbird Bar & Grill, which is on the second floor of a building at the southwest corner of the plaza. The ambience is a bit more lively and the floor plan is open. We started with a toast to Matthew's birthday over lime margaritas and then moved on to the main course. The Chimayo fish tacos were outstanding!
The next day, we had lunch at the Coyote Café and Rooftop Cantina on Water Street. The restaurant was packed when we arrived, but our wait was just 10 minutes. It was a very popular place, and after having drinks and lunch, we came to understand why. The entire restaurant is literally laid out on the rooftop of a building with some tables being directly out in the sun while others are shaded under an awning. The blue agave margarita is a must if you want to start the experience with a cocktail. The appetizer menu is full of tantalizing choices and the regular lunch menu portions appeared to be substantial. Matthew and I really just wanted a light meal, so we didn't order a full lunch, but saw the heaping plates coming out of the kitchen destined for other hungrier diners. I ended up ordering the green chili pork posole which was heaven in a bowl.
Our last dinner in Santa Fe was at the Upper Crust Pizza restaurant on Old Santa Fe Trail in the Barrio de Analco. Our timing could not have been better when we arrived. There was no wait at the counter, and soon after we placed our order, there was a long queue of people waiting to place theirs. When you dine in, be prepared to wait a while for your pizza to be brought to your table. We ordered a simple, small margarita pizza and our wait was about 20 minutes. I wouldn't say the pizza stood out in any way that made it special -- it was just simply a good, satisfying meal.
The majority of our time wandering the city was spent in and out of galleries and gift shops. Matthew was especially interested in some of the Native artwork and was looking for some inspiration for his own retail business. Nearly all of the business owners were extremely friendly and engaging with us. We were warmly welcomed into many spaces during the time we were in Santa Fe. The depressing reality of the arts community today is that many businesses were severely impacted by COVID and sadly, did not survive. We saw shuttered and vacant storefronts on every street. Despite the obvious economic impacts, there was no shortage of amazing shops and galleries to see. The sheer volume of pieces available to the public for sale was overwhelming. We saw a number of striking, visionary pieces in galleries that we would have loved to take home with us. You could spend days upon end perusing the shops and galleries in central Santa Fe before you could claim to have visited them all.
If you're not accustomed to walking for several hours at higher elevations, you may find yourself fatigued quickly. That's what happened to me. I live at nearly sea level north of Seattle, so my body was not used to the far more rarified air of Santa Fe at 7,200 feet. On our first day, we returned to the hotel in the early afternoon so that I could nap for a few hours and regain my energy. On the second day, however, my body appeared to adjust to the higher altitude.
Los Alamos and a New County
In the late afternoon of Saturday the 24th, Matthew and I decided to take a drive out of the city and up to Los Alamos. There were two reasons I wanted to go: (1) I wanted to see the city that virtually sprang into existence as a result of the Manhattan Project (and is reputed to have the highest number of PhDs per capita in the country), and (2) I wanted to cross one more county off my list of those I have yet to visit -- Los Alamos County. The city is quite beautiful, located on a flat mesa, separated by steep canyons and adjacent to the mountains on its western flank. The location was chosen for its relative inaccessibility to help protect the secret activities of the Manhattan Project. Los Alamos County is a relatively new one, created along with the city of Los Alamos in 1949. New Mexico has 33 counties, and I have now been to 23 of them. My current county count notched up by one as a result of this outing to a total of 1,934.
April 25, 2021 (Sunday) - Taos
Since our flight didn't leave Albuquerque until 7:40 that Sunday, we had virtually all day to explore. We decided to spend the day driving up to Taos, have an early lunch, and stop along the way to visit galleries and shops. The drive takes about an hour and a half from Santa Fe. Taos is about 70 miles north with lots of breathtaking scenery along the way. In Rancho de Taos, we stopped at the San Francisco de Asís Mission Church to capture this amazing photo:
We arrived in Taos mid-morning and found a nice restaurant with outdoor tables — the Bent Street Café and Deli — just a short walk from the Taos Plaza. The weather could not have been more beautiful. The sky was a brilliant cornflower blue and the air temperature was a pleasant 75 degrees. Before arriving in town, we had heard from some people in Santa Fe that Taos, though very much an artist community, was suspended in time in the 1960s. Possessing a quirky vibe, Taos offered up little glimpses of its anachronistic culture as we strolled around town. The commercial area of town is quite small and easily walkable. Most of the shops, galleries and eateries are either directly on Taos Plaza, or located along the narrow streets and pedestrian malls radiating out from the plaza. This is a shot of the plaza facing west:
One of the most famous attractions of Taos is the Taos Pueblo, but unfortunately, we did not have time to see it. It's one of the things, along with Meow Wolf and the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, that we want to see on our next visit to Santa Fe and Taos.
We managed to pack a lot of sight-seeing and activities into our short three-day tour of Santa Fe and Taos. I recommend, fellow travelers, that if you are going to spend time there, add a few extra days and go online to check availability for the Taos Pueblo and Meow Wolf. A visit to Santa Fe will leave you craving more. I sincerely hope you will have the opportunity to experience it one day.
. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!