10 Reasons Santa Fe Is the Artsy Southwestern Wonderland You Need to Visit

Tucked into a 7,000-foot-high valley abutting the Rio Grande and Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Santa Fe invites travelers to an adobe-dotted, nature-fringed wonderland brimming with art, culture, food, and history. The city is a long-established arts haven, thanks to its harmonious high-desert landscapes,sweeping blue skies, and generous light. (The sun shines an average of 300 days per year here). And laid-back, endearingly eccentric Santa Fe remains a vibrant cultural center for the visual and performing arts. Prepare to tackle the best of 250-plus art galleries, numerous art markets, 14 quality museums, a world-class opera house, and more — a staggering array of cultural diversions for a city of just 82,000.

A distinctive cross section of local cultures permeates that demographic. An Indigenous Pueblo population is still intact, along with descendants of Spanish colonists and subsequent waves of Anglo settlers, making the country’s second-oldest city a compact cultural melting pot that’s had 400 years to simmer to perfection. It’s all so refreshingly different from mainstream America that you would be forgiven to wonder, upon arriving here, if you had perhaps left the country entirely. Here are 10 reasons why you need to pack your bags for “The City Different” right now.

1. Adobe architecture

The New Mexico Museum of Art (Courtesy: Jack Parsons/Tourism Santa Fe)

Santa Fe’s sense of place is pronounced, owing largely to the city’s distinctive adobe architecture marked by rounded edges, flattened roofs, and softly tanned hues. The low-lying pueblo-style buildings, traditionally built of adobe bricks (a mixture of straw and mud) and wooden beams, were favored by the area’s original Native American settlers, adapted by 16th-century Spanish colonists, and stringently preserved, marking a rare example in the U.S. where architectural styles are rooted in indigenous traditions. Peruse art galleries carved out of adobes along Canyon Road, eat (try The Shed) or drink (hit up the Dragon Room) in an authentic 17th-century Pueblo building, or spend the night at the adobe-style La Fonda, a 1920s Harvey House hotel overlooking the town’s historic adobe-fringed main plaza.

2. The Railyard

The Railyard (Photo: John Garay)

A railroad town at heart, Santa Fe emerged as a booming national rail hub in the late 19th century. As the golden age of industry and travel by rail declined, the city’s historic mission-style depot and surrounding warehouse district fell into disrepair before being imaginatively revived over the last decade. While the revitalized Railyard district still buzzes with rail activity (via the Rail Runner Express commuter train), it has really gained steam as a gathering place for art, culture, and commerce. Come to gallery-hop or check out contemporary art space SITE Santa Fe; browse independent boutiques and consignment shops; catch a flick at the art house Jean Cocteau Cinema (owned by George R. R. Martin, whose work inspired HBO’s Game of Thrones); peruse produce at the bustling year-round farmers’ market; or refuel at locals’ favorite eateries like the Second Street Brewery.

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3. Market mania

(Courtesy: Jack Parsons/Tourism Santa Fe)

Santa Fe’s foundations as a legendary Old West trading hub have endured with its thriving modern-day market culture. Numerous major annual market events draw hordes of enthusiastic shoppers who descend upon the city in search of the region’s most coveted wares, especially Southwestern and Native American artwork, jewelry, and crafts. Time your visit to coincide with some of the popular ones, like the International Folk Art Market (July), Indian Market (August), or the two-for-one Traditional Spanish and Contemporary Hispanic Market (July). At other times of the year, visitors can check out Native American vendors selling handcrafted jewelry and artwork under the portals of the main plaza’s Palace of the Governors and at the outstanding New Mexican-sourced farmers’ market or artisans’ market at the Railyard.

4. Museums, museums, museums

Georgia O’Keeffe displays one of her works. (Photo: John Garay)

With 14 museums, the number and caliber of offerings for a city of Santa Fe’s size is staggering. Head up to Museum Hill, a serene complex of four museums, where standout collections include the Museum of International Folk Art, highlighting more than 150,000 folk art pieces, and the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, showcasing ancient and contemporary Southwestern Indian arts and crafts. Downtown, view a rotating selection of the world’s largest collection of O’Keeffe works at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Or, put the destination in context at the excellent New Mexico History Museum, where the story of Santa Fe and New Mexico is conveyed through wonderfully digestible multimedia displays; be sure to pop in to view the historical regional artifacts in the adjoining Palace of the Governors — dating to 1610, it’s the country’s oldest continuously used public building.

5. Chile & chocolate

Chocolate-dipped chiles at Kakawa Chocolate House. (Photo: John Garay)

Imagining just about everything on New Mexican menus to come smothered in “chile” (as it’s spelled locally) wouldn’t be far from the spicy reality. From breakfast burritos to towering burgers, and from sweets to drinks, there are no culinary boundaries when it comes to the state’s best-loved ingredient. Take your stance on the local red-versus-green “chile wars” at local hot spots (literally) like The Shed (best for red) or Tomasita’s (for green). Or chomp into the 2014 “chile cheeseburger smackdown winner” at the Second Street Brewery. Try handcrafted, chile-spiced cocktails like the Agave Way at the Secreto Lounge, or indulge in chile-infused chocolate elixirs or hand-dipped chile chocolates at Kakawa Chocolate House, one of Santa Fe’s most exceptional artisanal chocolate makers. Also try ChocolateSmith, which turns out imaginative flavors like white chocolate lemon lavender bark.

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6. Art galleries galore

A work by artist James Tyler. (Photo: John Garay)

More than 250 diverse art galleries overflow with Indian antiquities, Southwestern landscape paintings, abstract contemporary drawings, tribal pottery, towering bronze sculptures, and more, as imagined by artists near and far. Galleries come clustered within three main districts: the superlative half-mile stretch of Canyon Road, where old adobes have been converted to contain some 100 galleries; the historic Downtown Arts and Museum District; and the warehouse-sized art spaces in the Railyard Arts District. Art lovers and collectors can peruse gallery listings in advance on sites like SantaFe.org and SantaFeGalleryAssociation.org, though wandering in and out to browse at whim is also fun. (Tip: Don’t miss the Nedra Matteucci Galleries, just off Canyon Road.) Look out for special Friday evening art openings; art enthusiasts should also consider visiting during special gallery-anchored events like the Edible Art Tour (June), Santa Fe Studio Tour (June), Paint & Sculpt Out (October), or the hugely popular Christmas Eve Farolito Walk (December).

7. History-rich Santa Fe Plaza

Santa Fe Plaza (Courtesy: Chris Corrie/Tourism Santa Fe)

For more than four centuries, all roads have led to Santa Fe’s historic main plaza (which once marked the terminus of El Camino Real and the Santa Fe Trail). The city’s historic heart is still a lively downtown hub, luring locals and visitors alike with independent boutiques, galleries, and vendors. (Don’t miss the Native American-sold jewelry and crafts, by the Palace of the Governors). In summer, Santa Fe Plaza sets the stage for festivals, bandstand music, and major annual markets. Get your history fix here at the New Mexico History Museum; peruse fine arts at the New Mexico Museum of Art, or venture just a short stroll away to the serene Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and its neighboring Loretto Chapel. Refuel at the charming Plaza Café (circa 1905), and base your stay at the historic La Fonda hotel — the only lodging option based right on the plaza; its Bell Tower Bar is a must for a sunset drink paired with sweeping views.

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8. Pulsating Performing Arts

Santa Fe Opera (Courtesy: Robert Reck/Tourism Santa Fe)

Santa Fe is bursting at the seams with a robust performing arts calendar. Leading the pack is the highly acclaimed open-air Santa Fe Opera — with operas staged in the summer season only, it’s well worth planning your trip around attending one. A former 1930s-era movie palace near the plaza, Lensic Performing Arts Center hosts the Santa Fe Symphony and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, along with a steady stream of well-known musical acts (Lyle Lovett and Arlo Guthrie are upcoming headliners). Several smaller venues offer diverse cultural programming in an inviting atmosphere; check out the Santa Fe Playhouse, the oldest continuously operating theater west of the Mississippi. Annual music festivals, like the New Mexico Jazz Festival (July) and Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival (July/Aug), make for lively times to visit. Indigenous dances and drum circles, flamenco dancers, jazz troupes, bandstand concerts — the list goes on; check SantaFe.org up-to-date events listings.

9. The spa scene

Ten Thousand Waves (Courtesy: Douglas Merriam/Tourism Santa Fe)

With its pristine high-desert geology and dry climate affording some of the cleanest air quality of any U.S. city, Santa Fe has long served as a retreat for visitors in search of healing and renewal. A robust spa scene has sprung up, with some 30 spa options to soak, scrub, or rub your worries away. On the outskirts of town, try the Japanese-inspired Ten Thousand Waves, offering outdoor mineral hot tubs in a serene mountain setting and first-rate massages and body/facial treatments. (Tip: Stick around for Japanese fare at their excellent on-site restaurant). Another solid choice is the upscale Spa at Rancho Encantado (at the Four Seasons Resort Santa Fe), said to be situated on a healing energy “vortex” (see below) and touting a spa menu of Southwestern-inspired treatments (as well as Asian- and global-inspired offerings). In the heart of downtown, the Indonesian-style, “green” Absolute Nirvana Spa & Gardens offers restorative Balinese treatments and outdoor gardens.

10. Legends & lore

Loretto Chapel (Photo: Daniel Nadelbach)

With 400-plus years of civic history — and a considerable indigenous history before the founding of the city — Santa Fe has managed to accumulate legends and lore aplenty. For one, seemingly every other place you visit will be purportedly haunted. Whether you’re staying at La Fonda hotel — which comes with an assortment of guests who never checked out (including the ghost of a judge and a newlywed bride) — or tossing back a drink at the Dragon Room (a skeleton turned up during a renovation, and its spirit is said to haunt the property), Santa Fe may be more crowded than you think. Several ghost-themed walking tours help add insight — try one by Historic Walks of Santa Fe. Or pop in to look at the “miraculous” spiral staircase at the Loretto Chapel, which was built with uncanny precision by a mysterious carpenter. Santa Fe’s prevalent New Age community will also swear that the city is traversed by special energetic ley lines that make it a “vortex,” a place where spiritual and psychic energy is heightened. The spa lobby at the Four Seasons resort is said to be one particularly vibrant site of this healing energy, and after one transporting massage here, you may just have to agree.

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