10 things to do in Santa Fe

Now’s the time to visit this arts and culture hotspot, says Elizabeth Miller

Monday 16 May 2022 14:48 BST
Santa Fe, New Mexico at dusk
Santa Fe, New Mexico at dusk (Getty/iStock)

There’s never been a better time to spend a few days in Santa Fe.

Here are 10 ideas for getting to know the place nicknamed the “The City Different”.

Gallery hop

Santa Fe is a renowned arts hub, with more than 80 art galleries clustered along just a few kilometres of Canyon Road, the city’s historic arts district. Expect to find genre-defying art from newcomers, solo shows from contemporary icons, evocative works in new media, and invocations of Western archetypes – all among traditional adobe structures interspersed with gardens and sculptures that nearly sprawl into the street. A guide for a DIY-approach can be downloaded at canyonroadarts.com/maps.

Still overwhelmed by the options? Book a two-hour tour, which often means a chat with an artist or gallery owner (they can also be paired with a chocolate tasting or yoga practice), through the likes of Santa Fe Art Tours.

Hit the historic downtown plaza

The Museum of New Mexico
The Museum of New Mexico (Getty)

The Santa Fe Plaza occupies the old city centre, which was built over the top of a Tewa Pueblo village that dates back centuries (seriously – city architects bemoan every underground renovation, as it almost always entails an archaeological excavation). The Palace of the Governors, built in 1610 and now one of the most continuously used European settler structures (the Taos Pueblo, about two hours to the north, ranks as one of the longest Native-inhabited structures in the nation) showcases Spanish-Pueblo Revival style architecture. The building now houses the Museum of New Mexico, and the portal, the shaded walkway out front, is routinely lined with indigenous artisans selling jewellery and other crafts. That’s just the start of the shopping options that sprawl out around downtown, interspersed with quick stops for a burrito, or patios for a longer linger over margaritas.

Take your entertainment outdoors

The plaza is packed with dancers in summer
The plaza is packed with dancers in summer (Getty)

The beauty of New Mexican summers is that as soon as the sun starts to set, any edge comes off the heat and the breeze picks up. Spend those summer evenings outdoors but entertained with a bevy of options. The Plaza Bandstand is booked almost non-stop with music – expect classic genres like mariachi and flamenco alongside local artists, blues, country, and Americana – while the plaza fills with dancers. At the Railyard, a pop-up stage hosts more modern bands, as well as “bike-in” movies. Elsewhere, the Motorama at the Downs Santa Fe, a now-closed horse racing track, recently revived the Americana classic drive-in movie theatre; toss a blanket on the grassy lawn, and check for food trucks parked near the screen.

Past booms

From downtown, walk along East Palace Avenue to number 109, the storefront that once housed the offices for workers checking in for the then-top secret Manhattan Project, the mission to create the first atomic bombs in nearby Los Alamos. The New Mexico History Museum sometimes includes exhibits on the role New Mexico played in this arms race (and several hours drive south, the Trinity Site opens twice a year for visitors curious to scour the desert for the glass remnants of the first atom bomb explosion, a material now called trinitite).

Make a night of it

Half of the magic at the Santa Fe Opera comes from sitting captive to a sunset on the Jemez Mountains, unfurling pinks, lavenders and blues as a backdrop to the onstage intrigues and arias. As an open-air venue, the opera runs only in the summer months, with curtain times just before sundown. Go early, and you’ll find repeat visitors feasting on dialled-in picnic dinners at their car tailgates, followed by world-class operas in a season packed with classics and spiced with one contemporary debut.

Climb aboard

The Railyard art district of Santa Fe, New Mexico
The Railyard art district of Santa Fe, New Mexico (Getty)

Departing from downtown Santa Fe’s Railyard district, the Sky Railway runs on a spur rail line for about 20 miles from Santa Fe, chugging through red dirt hills and a forest of pinyon and juniper trees in hand-painted trains. Cocktails and snacks await passengers, while entertainers lead a smorgasbord of experiences: listen to local history, take in the landscape, get sucked into an improv theatre escapade, or simply soak in the starlit desert night sky.

Get some context

History still lives and breathes in New Mexico, where the cultures, practices and arts of some of the area’s earliest residents continue to bleed into modern life – and it’s not hard to look at the carefully manicured historic homes and massive turquoise and coral jewellery and feel like you’re living in a piece of art. The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian makes a study of that wearable art, housing a centre that focuses on silversmithing, lapidary and historic and contemporary southwestern jewellery, alongside one of the most comprehensive collections of Navajo and Pueblo jewellery in the world. It’s one of a cluster of museums on Museum Hill, each with a narrow focus on a particular era of history or population.

Booth browsing

Browse for gifts downtown
Browse for gifts downtown (Getty/iStock)

The International Folk Art Market draws artisans from around the world. At the Traditional Spanish Market, watch for art forms practiced for the 16 generations some Spanish families count in this region, like weaving, straw applique and tinwork, and keep an ear out for flamenco music. Downtown Santa Fe is surrendered, with streets closed to cars and booths lining the sidewalks instead, during the Santa Fe Indian Market, where artists compete for prize money and the eyes of more than 120,000 people (well over the city’s population). Hungry from all that browsing? Pop-up food vendors serve traditional dishes like Navajo tacos and frybread.

Dig in

The buzziest new spot in town is Mille, a French-influenced breakfast and lunch spot a few minutes’ walk from the plaza with to-die-for crepes – but this new hotspot also offers an endorsement for the multicultural influences in the city’s bountiful dining options. Yes, the New Mexican cuisine is excellent at local institutions The Shed, Coyote Cantina, and Plaza Cafe. But you’ll also find a stunning Japanese menu at Izanami, while signature local influences pop up in surprising places, like the Latin nudges at the otherwise South Indian-focused Paper Dosa, and green chile as a standard pizza topping at Upper Crust Pizza.

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