Why New Mexico's Santa Fe should be your next US destination

Sarah Rodrigues

Sarah Rodrigues

Easily accessible from major US airports flying to nearby Albuquerque (yes, that's right - of Breaking Bad fame), Santa Fe truly merits its nickname, 'The City Different', which is proudly emblazoned on licence plates.

The warm, low-lying Santa Fe skyline, New Mexico
The warm, low-lying Santa Fe skyline, New Mexico © Sean Pavone - Adobe Stock Image

Juxtaposing a sophisticated art and dining scene with ruggedly unspoilt landscapes, upscale tourists with authentic indigenous communities, and rough'n'ready bars with fine-dining establishments, New Mexico's capital is alight with something even more intangible than the quality of its high-altitude, desert-infused light.

From shopping to outdoor pursuits, and from incredible architecture to psychedelically weird rock formations, here are just some of the reasons to fall in love with Santa Fe.

Getting to Santa Fe: find your place on an expert-led, great-value tour to New Mexico including time in Santa Fe with the likes of Cosmos*, Trafalgar Tours* and Contiki*.

Its rich & accessible history

New Mexico's history is unlike that of any other US state; not only was it home to America's first capital city, but also America's oldest public building, the Palace of the Governors.

Additionally, it's the oldest European settlement west of the Mississippi, a distinction that's not without uncomfortable ripples, still felt today.

After all, New Mexico has the third largest indigenous population in the country. It's steeped in ancient culture and significance, some of which can, fortunately, be accessed via eight Pueblos (each one representing a specific tribe and sovereign nation) within a thirty-minute drive of the centre. Be aware of certain etiquette rules when visiting these, especially around feast and ceremonial days.

Ancient sites of indigenous import should also feature in your stay: at Bandelier National Monument, evidence of habitation in cave dwellings, carved out of tuff rock, riddled with petroglyphs and dating back 11,000 years will, quite literally, make you dizzy.

Especially when you ascend the 140 feet of steep ladders to the Alcove House, complete with ceremonial kiva, and look out over what was once someone's everyday view.

The wonderfully varied landscape

Surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (meaning 'Blood of Christ,' derived from the red glow in which sunset bathes the peaks) Santa Fe sits over 7,000 feet above sea level, making it the highest state capital in the United States.

Forested with conifers and junipers, its elevation transforms it into a popular ski area in the winter months, with snow still icing the peaks into late spring.

View from Sun Mountain, Santa Fe
View from Sun Mountain, Santa Fe - photo courtesy of Tourism Santa Fe

Naturally, this something-for-everyone environment makes Santa Fe an irresistible playground for outdoor enthusiasts, with hiking, snow-shoeing, white water rafting and mountain biking all popular activities.

A little way beyond the city centre, discover the geographical marvels of Tent Rocks and Nambé Badlands, where ancient volcanic activity has left otherworldly rock formations.

Its concentration of art galleries

Artists have long been drawn to Santa Fe and, more broadly, New Mexico, so it's perhaps no great surprise that it has one of the highest concentrations of art galleries in the world.

The city's most famous artist in residence was none other than Georgia O'Keeffe, known as the 'mother of American modernism.' Linger over a visit to her eponymous museum (book online in advance) and take a drive or guided tour to Ghost Ranch in nearby Abiquiù, where the artist lived and worked.

Beyond O'Keeffe, the city has over 250 galleries, displaying everything from ceramics and textiles to photography and sculpture: head to the Canyon Road area for an all-in-one-location gallery crawl, but spare time for the Museum of Arts and Indian Culture, which showcases indigenous experience through a contemporary lens.

Your tastebuds will thank you

The food scene in Santa Fe has been celebrated for years thanks to its fusion of Mexican, Native American and Spanish flavours, harnessed by eateries ranging from low-key cantinas to high-end restaurants.

These days, indigenous chefs are tapping into their ancestral roots to produce ever-more authentic options with a thriving food truck scene leading the charge.

Pick up local treats at the Railyard Farmers' Market
Pick up local treats at the Railyard Farmers' Market - photo courtesy of Tourism Santa Fe

There's also the weekly Farmers' Market in the Railyard District; not only the place to see and be seen on a Saturday morning but also the place to sample and stock up on locally produced goods.

The churches are remarkable

Be sure to visit at least one of Santa Fe's six churches, whatever your beliefs. As the oldest church in the United States, records date the San Miguel Chapel back to 1610; restored several times over the years, it's open for tours, as well as worship.

San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in the USA
San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in the USA - photo courtesy of Tourism Santa Fe

A short walk away, the Loretto Chapel houses a miraculous spiral staircase crafted by a mysterious carpenter, said to have appeared in response to nuns' prayers. The structure makes two full turns without the use of nails, a central pole or glue.

Inside Lotetto Chapel, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Inside Lotetto Chapel, Santa Fe, New Mexico © Craig Boudreaux - Adobe Stock Image

Over to the west, The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe features a magnificent bronze statue of the saint outside; its dimensions contrast with the church's original doorway, for which most modern visitors must stoop.

The enchanting architecture

Traditional adobe-style architecture abounds: Santa Fe is largely constructed of these cubes of sun-baked earth. With their pinkish hue, the buildings glow in the sunshine that beams down on The City Different for over 300 days per year, forming a colourful contrast with its bright blue skies.

Traditional adobe architecture
Traditional adobe architecture - photo courtesy of Tourism Santa Fe

Come Christmas, the flat roofs are lined with farolitos (candlelit paper lanterns) to magical effect. From the Cross of the Martyrs, you can appreciate Santa Fe's beauty from above: an earthen oasis surrounded by mountains and forests that regulations, limiting builds to a five-storey maximum, leave unobstructed.

Dangerously good shopping

You'll be hard-pressed not to dip a hand into your pocket when confronted by the treasure trove of retail delights that Santa Fe offers.

The daily Native American Sante Fe Indian Market in the Plaza shimmers with handcrafted silver and turquoise, enticingly laid out on woven rugs, while the surrounding shops offer a dazzling array of homewares and artworks.

Vintage enthusiasts will be in paroxysms of delight at Double Take, which is packed with Western wear, including used cowboy boots and fringed shirts, as well as consignment designer garments and accessories.

A little further down towards the Railway District, Kowboyz sells, in its own words, a selection of 'good ol' Western wear' in which you could happily lose yourself for days, or at least until the next frozen margarita happy hour.

Climate in Santa Fe

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Maximum daytime temperature °C
Hours of sunshine (daily)
Days with some rainfall

The above guide shows the climate in Santa Fe. Find out more about conditions across the state of New Mexico and the climate of the wider USA.

Tours to Santa Fe

Operator Tour Duration Prices
Cosmos Highlights of Route 66 and Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta* 17 days £3,544
Contiki Grand Southern* 21 days £3,477
Trafalgar Tours Southwest Native Trails* 11 days £3,190
Topdeck Travel Get Social: USA West to East 2024-25* 18 days £2,927
Trafalgar Tours Colourful Trails of the Southwest* 10 days £2,876
Topdeck Travel Get Social: USA East to West 2024-25* 18 days £2,821
Contiki Southern Adventure* 12 days £2,525

✝ - From prices shown as of 24th November 2023

More about Santa Fe

Santa Fe by month

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Sarah Rodrigues

Sarah Rodrigues

Posted on Friday 24th November 2023 in: City Culture North America

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