There’s something intrinsically mystical and alluring about an illustrious city like Santa Fe. The capital of New Mexico, this artsy enclave is the quintessential high-desert oasis. Flanked by snow-capped mountains and gnarly piñon forests, it’s the kind of haven that’s long defied the arid odds, casting a spell on anyone pulled into its orbit, from casual weekenders to inspired transplants like Georgia O’Keeffe and Lynn Riggs. But unlike most oases, passersby aren’t just stopping for water, but rather to bask in Santa Fe’s myriad cultural wonders and natural beauty.
As the oldest capital city in the United States (the city’s founding pre-dates statehood by a couple centuries, dating to conquistador Don Pedro de Peralta in 1609), this is a place steeped in singular lore, as evidenced by its adobe buildings, vaunted downtown plaza and timeworn turquoise treasures. While relatively small in size and population, Santa Fe boasts the kinds of shops, museums and restaurants more commonly seen in major metropolises, with more galleries per capita than just about anywhere in the country, and a little place called Meow Wolf, which almost single-handedly invented the concept of immersive art. Clocking in at an elevation of nearly 7,200 feet, this is also the highest capital city in the nation, with all manner of hiking trails, mountains, desert and forest providing adventure and escapism. Both indoors and out, Santa Fe is a cultural and natural bastion unlike any other, and a trip to this enchanting mecca is what weekend dreams are made of.
How to Get to Santa Fe
Considering Santa Fe’s diminutive size (with about 90,000 people, it’s the fourth largest city in New Mexico), its airport is understandably quite tiny. Santa Fe Regional Airport only has a few direct flights per day, so unless you’re coming from Phoenix, Dallas or Denver, you’re in for a layover or two. When flying, the easiest option is to land at Albuquerque International Sunport — the much larger city is barely an hour southwest, making it an easy entry point to New Mexico. Visitors can either rent a car from the Albuquerque airport or hop aboard the New Mexico Rail Runner Express, which makes speedy trips back and forth between the two cities all day.
If you’ve got several hours to kill, Santa Fe is also easily drivable from surrounding states and cities, like Phoenix, Tucson, Denver, Amarillo, Oklahoma City and El Paso. The drive may be long, but it’ll almost certainly be easy and traffic-free. Just be mindful of the weather, because Santa Fe gets surprisingly frigid and snowy in the winter, and some roads and highways can get treacherous as you ascend into the southern Rockies.
Where to Stay in Santa Fe
For a city as pint-sized as Santa Fe, it boasts quite the high-caliber array of hotels and unique abodes, across a wide spectrum of styles and amenities. On the ritzy end, the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe is the ultimate desert retreat nestled in the Sangre de Cristo foothills outside of the city core. Intimate and majestic, with just 65 rooms and casitas scattered across its rolling sun-swept turf, it’s the kind of resort that typifies desert solitude and serenity at its most ornate, home to a heated outdoor pool and hot tub, a luxe spa, crackling fire pits (equipped with s’more kits, naturally), spacious rooms with fireplaces and plunging tubs, and a rigorously seasonal restaurant, Terra, where vibrant dishes — like New Mexican bison tartare with huitlacoche aïoli and chile relleno with avocado-bean succotash and quinoa pilaf — are just as bewitching as the sunset views. A must-do amenity is the Adventure Center, an on-site outfitter that curates guided experiences that you’ll only find in New Mexico, from private hot air balloon rides and white water rafting on the Rio Grande to horseback riding near artist Georgie O’Keeffe’s desert retreat at Ghost Ranch.
On the more casual side, El Rey Court is a funky adobe-style motel that’s been retrofitted into a hipster enclave with a mezcal-soaked bar, a pool, a turquoise-tinted food truck and enough twee art and merchandise to make the whole property feel like something out of a Wes Anderson movie. Even if you’re not staying here, a drink or two at La Reina is mandatory — the dreamy on-site bar features a curated selection of agave-focused cocktails, beers, mocktails and wines, served up in stylish environs with two patios, a fireplace and the attached lobby lounge.
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What to Do in Santa Fe
With so much to see and do in Santa Fe, both indoors and out, winter through summer, you’d be hard-pressed to make a dent in your bucket list in the mere span of a weekend. But for a whirlwind tour of The City Different, your requisite itinerary should include a smattering of galleries, shops, hikes, and of course, a full-blown immersion into one of the most extraordinarily unique art experiences in the country.
The latter is Meow Wolf, a groundbreaking art experience that feels like a zany mashup of haunted house, escape room and live-action Alice in Wonderland cosplay all in one. The fact that this 20,000-sq.-ft. labyrinth is backed by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin should clue you in to its coolness. You’ll need to book tickets in advance, and select a date and time slot for entry, then line up outside a few minutes prior to your reservation. Once given a wristband, you’re free to explore the ominously titled House of Eternal Return, and its more than 70 rooms of whimsical art and hands-on gadgetry. The whole experience is a veritable choose-your-own-adventure, with every nook and cranny filled with things to open, dance to, crawl into and photograph, like a laundry machine that’s actually a small slide, a refrigerator that’s a portal into another dimension, and a neon-colored underwater forest. For a more intimate experience, Meow Wolf hosts periodic special events and concerts, and there’s a quirky lobby bar that serves “Meowgaritas” topped with a cloud of cotton candy.
For a more traditional kind of art experience (ya know, one that doesn’t entail crawling into household appliances), look no further than Canyon Road, Santa Fe’s artsy epicenter lined with more than 100 indoor and outdoor galleries, plus boutiques and restaurants. With more galleries per capita than almost any city in the nation, there’s no shortage of art to ogle here, from the antique Native American works at Buffalo Tracks Gallery to the mesmerizing sculpture garden at Kay Contemporary Art.
Art takes different forms near the historic plaza downtown, surrounded by historically preserved adobe architecture and timeworn turquoise temples. Construction ordinances ensure that all of the buildings downtown don’t exceed a certain height, so as not to inhibit the surrounding mountain views, or veer from the adobe motif. Thus, all of its hotels and restaurants and businesses are housed in buildings that feel distinctly and deeply Santa Fe. Among them are businesses hawking local wares, like Turquoise Trail Jewelry, Long John Silver Turquoise and Ortega’s On the Plaza. And don’t sleep on the western wear, either — the cowboy hats, boots and bolo ties may be expensive, but that’s because they’re made from top-tier materials, by artisans who have dedicated their livelihoods to the craft. See for yourself at O’Farrell Hat Company or Santa Fe Hat Company.
Nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and home to the vast Santa Fe National Forest, the city is also an apt base for a bevy of outdoorsy activities. The Atalaya Peak trail, in the Santa Fe National Forest, affords a stunning panorama of the city if you’re willing to hoof it up the steep summit (hot tip: pack a hammock, lots of water and a good book to reward your efforts with some wooded solitude). Closer to town, the far-flatter Santa Fe River Trail gently meanders from downtown along the — usually pretty dry — Santa Fe “River,” passing through shaded parks and picnic spots along the way. If you’ve got wheels, it’s well worth the drive out to Plaza Blanca, aka the White Palace. Located in the quiet desert town of Abiquiu, this surreal sandstone landscape, clad in canyons and cliffs galore, inspired many of O’Keeffe’s most famed paintings. Plaza Blanca is currently privately owned by Dar al Islam, so you’ll need to contact them ahead of time for entry, but it’s well worth the extra planning.
Then, once you’ve piqued your O’Keeffe interests, visit the famed Georgia O’Keeffe Museum back in town, a lustrous love letter to the American southwest that’s home to nine galleries and some 700 abstract pieces from the desert-dwelling icon.
Where to Eat and Drink in Santa Fe
A kaleidoscope of flavor, Santa Fe is just as regarded for its culinary art as it is its immersive art, making this one of the most singular — and colorful — dining destinations in the nation. Start your day with a feast at Dolina Cafe & Bakery, a Hungarian-New Mexican mashup that pairs chile-smothered breakfast burritos and buttermilk fried chicken & waffles with the likes of Hungarian goulash, borscht and chicken Paprikash. Whatever cuisine you choose, don’t sleep on the sweets — the pastry case teems with buttery Polish tea cookies, apple-walnut strudel and makos dios, a Hungarian cake made from ground poppy seeds, walnuts and raspberries. For other sweets, you’ll find green chile-apple fritters and blue corn-lavender donuts at adorable Whoo’s Donuts, or saucer-sized cinnamon rolls and frosting-slathered bundt cakes at kitschy Counter Culture. If you’d prefer your green chile in burrito form, it doesn’t get any better than Betterday Coffee, a nondescript cafe in a shopping plaza that low-key serves some of the best coffee and breakfast burritos in town, including atypical versions stuffed with smoky brisket, and a California iteration that pairs grass-fed steak with fried potatoes.
Later, more green chile goodness can be savored at Shake Foundation, which curiously also served lamb burgers and fried oyster sandwiches, and The Burger Stand, a gritty corner spot downtown that features a whole slew of offbeat burger flavors and toppings, like spicy habanero jam, truffle butter, charred squash and toasted almonds. Or you can keep it classic with the pitch-perfect green chile cheeseburger, heaped with fire-roasted Hatch green chile, pepper Jack cheese, tomato, onion and local greens.
Elsewhere downtown, Coyote Cafe and Coyote Cantina are a one-two punch of original Santa Fe vibes and flavors. The former is the indoor restaurant, a longstanding fine dining fixture since 1987, serving up contemporary Southwestern flavors like venison carpaccio, summer squash soup with squash blossom relish, a duo of quail with preserved lemon masa and seared grass-fed filet mignon with blackened serrano and tomato butter. On the casual side, head outside and upstairs to the Coyote Cantina rooftop, one of Santa Fe’s most popular rooftop bars, renowned for its tart margaritas and superb snacks, like slow-braised pork nachos, mini chimichangas and griddled corn cakes with jumbo prawns and chipotle butter.
Some of the most in-demand eats in Santa Fe can be found a few miles southwest of downtown, at El Rey Court. In addition to La Reina’s cocktails, the retrofitted motel also serves as a home base for Tender Fire, a seasonally driven sourdough pizza concept that slings feverishly popular (i.e. wait times can reach two hours) pies out of a roaring outdoor oven on the back lawn. Using a three-day fermented sourdough as the base, along with locally sourced toppings and homemade cheese, the ever-changing menu runs the gamut from creamed kale and nettle pizza with mozzarella and fontina, a green chile pepperoni pie with ricotta and macha chili oil, and one that combines dates, tomato sauce, pepperoni, mozzarella and mascarpone.
If you’ve got time for one show-stopping dinner in Santa Fe, though, make it Terra. The restaurant at the Four Seasons serves food as staggering as those sunsets, marrying northern New Mexican ingredients with global influence, along with extravagant cocktails and fireside s’mores for a fitting finale.
Still thirsty? Other unique bars in Santa Fe include Rowley Farmhouse Ales, a funky brewpub where the food (e.g. green chile risotto tots, green chile tuna melts) is just as exciting as the beer (e.g. pomegranate sours, rye saisons), and The Matador, a subterranean downtown dive stocked with local beer and frills-free cocktails in an art-filled setting that looks like an eccentric garage sale. Or, for cocktails with more frills, there’s Secreto Lounge, a swank watering hole in the Hotel St. Francis that specializes in “garden-to-glass” mixology — think dill-infused vodka and gin tipples with housemade pickle juice and celery bitters, sparkling rosé spritzes with pomegranate juice and smoked sage margaritas lined with hickory-smoked sea salt rims.
If you somehow can’t manage to cram all that in within a weekend, fear not: an appetizing taste of Santa Fe is all it takes to ensure you’ll be back time and again.
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