On our recent trip to Santa Fe, we made a stop at the New Mexico History Museum. In the first floor gallery, an exhibit told the story of New Mexico’s quest for statehood in the U.S. Some senators at the time were not in favor of accepting a new state that they saw as ‘too Spanish, too Catholic, and too poor’. In other words, they wanted to reject New Mexico as too different. New Mexico has had the last laugh on this topic because New Mexico is indeed different… and that is just what attracts tourists to this state and to Santa Fe in particular.
Sante Fe has history. Santa Fe is the third oldest city founded by European colonists in the United States. New Mexico’s history goes back hundreds of years before that. The Taos Pueblo further north in Taos has been continuously inhabited for about 1,000 years and archeological sites of the Ancestral Puebloans dot the New Mexico landscape.
Santa Fe has art. Starting with the art of the local Indian tribes, this has always been a city of art. Local art has expanded in the last century or so into new styles of American art with artists like Georgia O’Keefe and Gerald Cassidy.
Santa Fe has food. New Mexico has a state question, “do you want red, green, or Christmas?” which refers to your choice of red or green peppers with your meal or a mix. This is a place where you can find unique and spicy cuisine that is worth exploring. I will be writing more about the food in an upcoming blog post as this post was getting too long.
Here are some recommendations on what you should do and see when you visit Santa Fe. Our visit was in winter, but all of these activities would work in a summer visit as well.
Table of contents: ()
- Santa Fe Attractions – History
- Santa Fe Attractions – Art
- Santa Fe in Winter
- Places to Stay in Santa Fe
- Getting to Santa Fe
Santa Fe Attractions – History
Much of the site corresponding to the early Spanish history of Santa Fe can be found in the old part of town near the Governor’s Palace and the Plaza.
New Mexico History Museum
I recommend starting with the New Mexico History Museum which is a wonderful museum that you can easily visit in an hour or two and learn the basic themes of New Mexico’s history. The museum is next door to the Govenor’s Palace. If you are doing a longer tour in New Mexico consider getting a New Mexico Culture pass which will cover this museum and 14 other attractions in the state.
Some of the highlights of the museum that caught my attention were the exhibits on the Pueblo Revolt, the Santa Fe Trail, the Lincoln County Cattle Wars, and the Fred Harvey Hotels.
In 1680 the local Pueblo tribes revolted against the Spanish colonists and their government and through the Spanish out of the region for a few years. This happened in response to the Spanish arresting 47 medicine men for sorcery. 3 were executed, one committed suicide and the rest were whipped.
After Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, the Santa Fe Trail opened for trade between the rapidly growing United States and this northernmost outpost of Mexico. It remained a major trade route until the railroads came to Santa Fe in 1880.
Fans of either John Wayne’s movie Chisum in 1970 or Young Guns in 1988 may have heard of the Lincoln County Cattle Wars where a feud between rival ranchers and businessmen erupted into 3 years of violence in 1878. But even those who have not heard of the history have probably heard of Billy the Kid, the most famous name to come out of the conflict, or of Pat Garrett, who hunted him down.
Even while the Lincoln County Cattle Wars were going on forces were coming into New Mexico to tame the old west. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad arrived in Santa Fe in 1880, and with it came a man who would leave his mark on the southwest, Fred Harvey. Fred Harvey used to be a household name in the USA. He opened up a series of hotels and restaurants along the train line and created good food that you could eat in the 30 minutes allotted for rail service, inventing fast food in America.
In the process, he hired hundreds of young women called the Harvey Girls which gave an important opportunity for women to work outside the home and provided New Mexico with an influx of young women for which many a cowboy was thankful. Judy Garland starred in a movie about the experience called the Harvey Girls in 1946.
Fred Harvey also founded a tour company called Indian Detours which introduced tourists to the local Native American tribes. He commissioned jewelry from local artists that started to popularize the silver and turquoise style of jewelry you can still find in the area. By the time of his death, he operated 47 Harvey House restaurants, 15 hotels, and 30 dining cars for the railroad. Read more in the book Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West – One Meal at a Time.
- Hours 10 am–5 pm, Closed Monday
- Admission: New Mexico residents $7, nonresidents $12
- Children 16 and under are always FREE
San Miguel Mission
The San Miguel Mission is a short walk about 3 blocks from the Plaza on the Old Santa Fe Trail. The mission is considered to be the oldest church in the United States. It was built in the early 1600s but burned down in the Pueblo Revolt and rebuilt in 1680. It is a small adobe structure as Sante Fe was still a pretty small town at the time of its construction. It is still an active church so plan your visit accordingly.
- <li_8″> Monday: 1 – 3 pm, Tuesday – Saturday: 10 am – 3 pm, Sunday: Noon – 3 pm
<li_8″>Docent History talks – Tuesday through Saturday: 11 am & 2 pm
Palace of the Governors
The Palace of the Governors is a historic building located in the heart of downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was built in 1610 and is the oldest public building in continuous use in the United States (built by Europeans). The palace served as the residence and administrative center for the Spanish colonial governors of the region. It is a long, rectangular building with thick adobe walls and a flat roof. It sits directly across from the main Plaza of Santa Fe.
Local Native American artists will typically display their wares on blankets in front of the building so it is a great place to interact directly with the artisans. Of course on a snowy day in February, there will not be as many vendors out.
La Fonda Hotel
Many of the Fred Harvey hotels from the golden age of railroad tourism are no longer in existence but Santa Fe still boats the beautiful La Fonda Hotel on the Plaza. While it has certainly undergone many renovations since its opening in 1922 (after the death of chain founder Fred Harvey), this hotel still retains some of the elegance the Fred Harvey hotels were known for. You can still get a great meal in the courtyard restaurant La Plazuela. It also offers a lounge and a rooftop bar.
Even if you are not staying at the La Fonda take a peek in the hotel at some of the artwork. The hotel has enough art to open its own art gallery including a collection of paintings by southwestern artist Gerald Cassidy. Special thanks to their concierge John for answering my questions about the hotel’s history.
You could not find a more convenient place to stay in Santa Fe if you want to explore the old downtown area.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi
The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is a historic and beautiful church located near the main plaza. Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of Santa Fe.
Construction of the cathedral began in 1869 and was completed in 1886. It is built in the Romanesque Revival style and features two towers that soar 160 feet into the air. The cathedral’s exterior is made of sandstone quarried from nearby mountains, and its interior is adorned with beautiful stained glass windows, frescoes, and murals.
The Loretto Chapel is steeped in legend and mystery, particularly when it comes to the story of its unique and miraculous spiral staircase. According to legend, the chapel’s builders realized they had forgotten to include a staircase to the choir loft and were unable to find a carpenter who could construct one in the tight space. The sisters who ran the chapel prayed to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, for help, and soon after, a stranger arrived with a donkey and a toolbox.
The stranger, who some believe was St. Joseph himself in disguise, constructed the spiral staircase using only primitive tools and simple materials. When the staircase was complete, the stranger disappeared without a trace, leaving the sisters to marvel at the “miracle” that had occurred. To this day, the staircase remains an engineering marvel, with no visible means of support and no nails or screws holding it in place. It was originally constructed without the handrail so climbing it was an act of faith.
The walls of the chapel are decorated with the stations of the cross.
The chapel is popular for weddings.
- Hours: 9:30 am – 4:30 pm
- Admission: Adult Admission: $5, Seniors 65 and over: $4, Youth 7-17: $3, Children under 7: Free
Santa Fe Attractions – Art
Georgia O’Keefe Museum
Fans of the American artist Georgia O’Keefe or of southwestern art should schedule a visit to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum which is a couple of blocks away from the Santa Fe Plaza. The museum’s permanent collection includes many of O’Keeffe’s most famous works, including her flower paintings, landscapes, and abstract compositions. Visitors can also see personal artifacts and photographs that offer insights into O’Keeffe’s life and career.
Some of the earlier works date back to O’Keefe’s time in her hometown of Sun Prarie, Wisconsin, or her time in New York and Chicago, but the museum’s main focus is on the work that she created within New Mexico. O’Keeffe first came to New Mexico in 1929 and moved to the state in 1949. She continued to live in the state until her death in 1986 at the age of 98. She continued creating art well into her old age with the help of assistants, but lost her sight due to macular degeneration and created her last solo oil painting in 1972.
- Hours 10 am to 5 pm Thursday – Monday
- Admission: Adults $20, children free
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture
The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is found on Museum Hill, not too far from downtown. On Museum Hill, you can also find the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Museum of International Folk Art, Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe Botanical Gardens, International Folk Art Market, and Museum Hill Café.
I think for me the most amazing things in the museum are the baskets and pottery from the local Pueblo people that date back as far as 1500 years. Some of these were found relatively recently but have been preserved by the dry desert environment and look like they may have been created last week.
The traditional way that the pottery was created was similar to the baskets, with coils of clay instead of on a potter’s wheel. The artisan would then smooth the clay with a smooth stone.
In the collections of native jewelry look for the silver and turquoise bracelets that were commissioned by the Fred Harvey company for their tours of local Indian culture mentioned above.
Also, check out the display about the somewhat complicated relationship between the local people and the trading posts. Trading posts provided a way that the local craftspeople could trade their jewelry, blankets, baskets, and pottery for the staples that they needed to live. These trading posts became a center for the community, but sadly some of them were not offering fair prices. These tended to be the trading posts operated by outsiders. The craftspeople found that it was better for them to sell directly to the public, as the vendors on the porch of the Palace of the Governors still do.
- Admission: $7 for New Mexico residents, $12 for non-residents, Kids 16 and under are free
- Hours: 10 am – 5 pm, closed Mondays
Museum of International Folk Art
The Museum of International Folk Art has a sometimes strange collection of folk art from around the world. During my visit, it displayed art about demons from Japan, Mexican paper art (especially the day of the dead), and Swedish traditional costumes.
Did you know that the original Mexican pinãtas were 7-point stars that represented the 7 deadly sins? It makes the tradition of beating them to a pulp with a stick make a lot more sense. Or did you know that Swedish traditional costumes had different colors for the liturgical seasons of the Lutheran Church?
A large room has a collection of dioramas from all over the world. If you visit with kids, get the paper guide to the museum at the front desk which has a scavenger hunt of things to look for in that room.
Galleries on Canyon Road
Canyon Road in Santa Fe has over 100 art galleries and boutiques as well as 8 restaurants, all of this in a half mile of art. But I would say that Canyon Road was not what I expected. You are a bit out from the city downtown so it is not a series of galleries and shops on a city street with a sidewalk and lots of parking. We visited Canyon Road in the winter and it was less pedestrian-friendly in that season.
Some galleries are open to the public and some can be visited only by appointment. My expectation of window shopping past galleries and popping into the ones that looked interesting was not quite the experience. That being said, there are some great galleries in the area… it just may take a bit more work to find them.
I have saved the most memorable art experience in Santa Fe for last and that is Meow Wolf. Meow Wolf is an interactive art experience. There are over 200 artists in the Meow Wolf art collective and these artists have been given some portion of this large warehouse space to create their art.
You start in the Spirit House which seems to be telling a story of unusual occurrences that have been happening. As someone who likes a good escape room I kept wanting to solve Meow Wolf, but it is an experience, not a puzzle. The themes in the Spirit House don’t continue through the rest of this ever-changing exhibition.
We had clues right away that “Toto, we arent in Kansas anymore” when someone came in the house and crawled through the fireplace to a place where you could play the glowing bones of a mammoth like a xylophone. The dryer in the laundry room is also a slide down into another room.
Elsewhere in the exhibit you can play old video games in an arcade, see a room decorated with art made from bottle caps and see a full-sized bus that has been turned on its nose.
If you are not rigid about what you think is art, then you should definitely go to Meow Wolf. You may not come out knowing what you saw, but you will know you saw something.
Santa Fe in Winter
We visited Santa Fe in winter which should be obvious from some of the pictures above. Santa Fe is popular in the winter because it is close to ski resorts and it was a fine time to come, but we did need to pack our long underwear as Santa Fe is at 7,000 feet so it can get quite chilly. We also did not get a chance to do some of the outdoor hiking that we would have done in the warmer months. Next time we get to Santa Fe, I want to do some of the hikes close to town like the Dale Ball Trail.
Places to Stay in Santa Fe
We stayed at a Hyatt Place for our visit because we were able to book with miles. It was a lovely comfortable stay but was not near the downtown area. The La Fonda would be a great place to stay downtown. One advantage is that the hotel has parking and parking is limited in the downtown area.
Getting to Santa Fe
Most visitors to Santa Fe will either fly in or drive in from Albuquerque which is around an hour’s drive away. Santa Fe’s airport is small so it won’t take much time to get through the airport. Most of the planes that fly to Santa Fe are also a bit smaller so getting off the plane and into a line for a rental car will also not take that long. The airport was undergoing some major construction during our trip, so hopefully, you will find a newly upgraded airport on yours.
There are no restaurants in the airport, only a couple of vending machines past security, but there was a decent food truck parked outside during our visit where I could pick up a breakfast burrito for my flight out of town.
I paid for all transportation, lodging, and meals for my visit to Santa Fe, but my museum visits were sponsored by the Santa Fe Tourism Board, Meow Wolf, and the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, to whom I extend my thanks.