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City guides

Santa Fe city guide: Where to stay, eat, drink and shop in New Mexico’s culture hub

With charming adobe buildings and bluebird skies, the New Mexico capital’s aesthetic appeal is endless. With a new literary festival launching this spring, there’s more than ever to draw the culturally curious, finds Elizabeth Miller

Monday 09 May 2022 13:39
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This northern New Mexico city, hugging the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, has long served as a multicultural crossroads. For centuries, it housed one of a string of pueblos (indigenous villages) along the Rio Grande that traded goods and jewellery. Then, it became a frontier tourist destination; later an off-the-beaten-track artists’ enclave. That well-trodden road is worn in a little deeper now (and the airport’s flight frequency has grown, too), but the “City Different” still sparks joy for creatives.

Guided tours take you to peaceful sculpture gardens and private artists’ workshops; ancient healing techniques influence spas and retreats; while Native American and Latin flavours influence a scattering of inventive restaurants. Here’s how to dive headfirst into this culture-packed, nature-wrapped city.

What to do

Lean into the literature

New on the scene is the inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival, surging onto the scene with a star-powered line-up that includes Colson Whitehead, Joy Harjo, John Grisham, Jon Krakauer, George R.R. Martin, and Sandra Cisneros – a new chapter in the city’s legacy as a magnet for writers, painters and sculptors. Taking place from 20-23 May 2022, it’s a mix of big keynote speeches from the heavyweights and smaller, more intimate hangouts with emerging writers. Hosted in a LEED-certified green building, with “Tea and Tequila” sessions on hand, it’s a cutting edge take on the classic lit fest.

Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe

Plunge into the past

Explore Santa Fe’s history and cultural overlays at Museum Hill, where you’ll find a group of tightly focused local museums. Don’t miss the delightfully eclectic Museum of International Folk Art (£9), reputed to be the largest folk art collection in the world, with a wing of dioramas made with more than 10,000 pieces; or the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture (£7), which shares stories from the southwest’s earliest inhabitants. The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian houses intriguing artefacts from jewellery to toys and wood carvings (£6). Meanwhile the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art – in a former residence in the Pueblo-Spanish revival style – showcases architecture, furniture, and other trinkets from the daily life of Spanish colonists.

Near the Plaza, the New Mexico Museum of Art (£9) features art from the southwest. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (£15) exhibits paintings by the legendary O’Keeffe, who made northern New Mexico her home and muse.

Delve into modern arts

For a contemporary arts overdose, stroll door to door through dozens of galleries clustered along Canyon Road. Time it for the first Friday evening of the month in summer, and you can nibble hors d’oeuvres and sip wine as you go. (Find gallery walking tour maps for Canyon Road, the Railyard, and downtown here).

A fully immersive, semi-psychedelic art experience for all ages is found at Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return (£15-£26), a labyrinthine, 22,000-square-foot space. Here you can solve the mystery of a family gone missing, play a laser harp, walk through a fluorescent forest, and hang out with Day-Glo-coloured creatures.

Visit the growing Railyard District

On Saturday mornings, the Railyard bustles with a farmer’s market where the state’s signature cropgreen chillies – are roasted in late summer. Dip into a coffee or teahouse for a caffeine fix between browsing booths or adjacent shops and art galleries; or commandeer a patio table for brightly-packaged local beers at the Second Street Brewery. The Rail Trail, which stretches 27km from downtown into the surrounding desert, starts here alongside native plant gardens, including century plants that bloom on stalks that tower overhead.

Take a hike on one of New Mexico’s popular trails

Take a hike

Networks of footpaths cut through the pinon and juniper woodlands ringing Santa Fe. From trailheads in the Dale Ball Trails system on the east side of town, expect a steep rise to a sweeping view of the valley and mountain ranges that run south for hundreds of miles. Swing by the Randall Davey Audubon Centre for weekly bird walks and a list of the recent sightings.

Where to stay

One of the most historic crash pads in a city with deep roots (and frequented by film stars drawn by New Mexico’s booming film industry), La Posada hosts guests in casitas – semi-private suites with kiva-style fireplaces built into traditional adobe walls, exposed beams and wood-slat ceilings over hardwood or Saltillo tile floors. Doubles from £237. Laposadadesantafe.com

The living tree growing through the lobby at Las Palomas Hotel is just a glimpse of the quirkiness and charm of this boutique hotel. Each room is uniquely done up with local art, wooden bed frames and leather furniture for sinking into by the fireplace. A breakfast of made-to-order omelettes and freshly baked muffins speeds you toward a day of exploring the downtown Plaza, just a few minutes’ walk away. Studio rooms and casitas start at £133. laspalomas.com

El Rey Court harks back to the heyday of legendary US road-trip route Highway 66, but was overhauled in 2018 with a modern, chic sensibility that blends southwestern accents – pillows, throws, the occasional set of antlers and potted cactus – with clean lines and ample light. Rooms and suites start from £97. elreycourt.com

Or go for an immersive experience at Ojo Santa Fe, where guests retreat to a 77-acre campus spotted with spring-fed soaking pools, a farm-to-table restaurant, a coop full of cuddly chickens and the occasional pack of puppies for a serious serotonin boost. Rooms with patios or balconies and casita suites start at £212. ojosparesorts.com/ojo-santa-fe

Thermal pools at Ojo Santa Fe

Where to eat

For classic New Mexican dishes – enchiladas, chiles rellenos (green chillies stuffed with cheese, battered, and fried), and tamales – try Cafe Pasqual’s, Tomasita’s Restaurant, or The Shed. The customary question with any order is, “red or green?”, which applies to the kind of chilli poured over the plate. Trouble choosing? Order it “Christmas” to get half and half – red and green.

Oaxacan-focused Paloma sources local ingredients and starts every dish from scratch, including house-made corn chips and tortillas. Vegetarians delight over cauliflower tacos and wild mushroom fajitas. Explore a lengthy list of mezcals – a smokier, earthier take on agave than tequila, by the flight.

Nibble your way through tapas at La Boca, opened by a James Beard Award nominee, with a Mediterranean-inspired menu with grilled eggplant, hummus, patatas bravas, and chorizo con huevo, and a chunky wine list that includes a rare sighting of Spanish sherry.

For a smartly curated beer list and epic fried brussels sprouts, served with a Cubano sandwich you’ll consider writing home about, don’t miss Fire & Hops Gastropub.

Red chilli ristras hung at roadside stand,

Local favourites for brunch include Dolina, where eastern-European influences land on hearty but simple dishes and the siren song of a bakery case that’s nearly impossible to escape. At the downtown diner, Plaza Cafe slip into a red vinyl booth, order a bottomless cup of coffee, and dig into melt-in-your-mouth blue corn pinon pancakes or the New Mexican staple huevos rancheros, beans topped with chile, cheese, and eggs and served with warm tortillas.

Where to drink

Few trips to Santa Fe can skip the chance to sip a margarita and the city has lined out 41 options to try one via the Santa Fe Margarita Trail. Take on the Norteño Margarita, boosted with a green chilli kick, at the Coyote Cafe’s Rooftop Cantina, immensely popular for a sunset cocktail, or the Chimayoso margarita rimmed with Chimayo red chile and mixed with apricot liqueur at Low n’ Slow, themed around lowriders, the distinctive, low-slung northern New Mexico style of car. Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen is home to one of the longest margarita menus in town, with more than 180 ways to take your tequila.

Canyon Road meanders are well-met with some refreshments from The Tea House, where the tea menu offers pages of options for oolong, pu-erh, green, white, and black teas and outdoor seating tucked away from the bustle in a shady alcove.

More 21+ brews are found at Rowley’s Farmhouse Ales. The crew at Tumbleroot also brews lagers, IPAs and brown ales, as well as distilling gin, rum, and vodka – with live music on a mid-size stage primed for catching bluegrass, Latin, and rising singer-songwriters.

Native American-style clay pots on display

Where to shop

The shopping highlight of the year comes with summer market season, which brings a series of art-focused markets to downtown Santa Fe. Artists from more than 50 countries flock to the mid-July International Folk Art Market. Spanish colonial history shines at the Spanish Market in late July, but the flagship event is the Santa Fe Indian Market in August, which assembles an unparalleled collection of Native American artists and their pottery, blankets, basketry, and jewellery, and includes live music and dance performances.

Those in town with a literary agenda in mind may want to browse the eclectic collections of second-hand books at Big Star Books and Music near the Railyard District and Opcit Books in the DeVargas Center. At Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse near the Plaza, peruse shelves of southwestern writers, then tuck in at a table with a latte in hand to immediately start turning pages.

Southwestern staples of cowboy boots, concha belts, and turquoise pendants can be found in shops surrounding the Plaza downtown. Back at the Ranch makes custom boots, and the Wind River Trading Company boasts one of the largest collections of Native American jewellery around. Outside of downtown, Jackalope stocks a smorgasbord of pottery, throw rugs, and other southwest-themed home decor.

Traditional architecture in Santa Fe

Architectural highlight

Visit the Gothic-style Loretto Chapel to see the “Miraculous Staircase”, a tightly spun spiral staircase with a mythical origin story.

Nuts and bolts

What currency do they use?

US dollars.

What language do they speak?

English.

How much should I tip?

15-20 per cent.

What’s the time difference?

7 hours behind the UK.

What’s the average flight time from the UK?

17-19 hours.

How should I get around?

For downtown-focused visits, walking will do. Otherwise, there’s a city bus service. For out-of-town jaunts, a rental car will come in handy.

What’s the best view?

Walking the paved path at the Cross of the Martyrs earns views of the city and surrounding mountains and serves as one of the most popular spots for catching dazzling tangerine and hot-pink sunsets.

Insider tip?

“The blue bus,” the regional transportation system-run buses, shuttles passengers to surrounding small towns, Native American pueblos, hiking and mountain biking trailheads, even the nearby ski area, easing access to the outdoors for both residents and visitors. Find route schedules and fares at ncrtd.org.

Getting there

Trying to fly less?

Adventurous types could take a cargo ship from Belgium to Houston, from where they can take a train or bus to Santa Fe in less than a day.

Fine with flying?

Connect in Dallas or Chicago for flights to Albuquerque, an hour’s drive from Santa Fe.

The Independent, as the event’s international media partner, will be providing coverage across each day of the festival as well as during the lead up with exclusive interviews with some of the headline authors. For more on the festival visit our Santa Fe Literary Festival section by clicking here or visit the festival’s website here. To find out more about buying tickets click here.

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