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Santa Fe - New Mexico

GGo To: The Plaza - Museums - Opera - Pueblos - Eat

Before a single Englishman had set foot in the American West -- before the landing at Plymouth Rock -- Santa Fe was a capital city. For more than 380 years, this unique community has been a center of culture and government: first as the capital of the Spanish Kingdom of New Mexico, then as the Mexican province of Nuevo Mejico, and, since 1912, the State of New Mexico.

The cultural life of Santa Feans has been developing since the laying-out of the city in 1610 over the ruins of the Kaupoge Indian pueblo. Today, Santa Fe is the most desired vacation destination in all of the United States, and what draws visitors here is its symbiosis of the three dominating cultures: Indian, Spanish/Mexican, and Anglo.

What surprises many visitors to Santa Fe is that this southwest city is a mountain community. There are no cacti in Santa Fe except for those imported for garden landscaping. Situated at an elevation of 7,000 feet, at the southern edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (the southernmost Rockies), the city is also at the edge of supreme outdoor adventure.

What to See & Do

The Santa Fe Ski Basin is a half-hour's drive from downtown. North of the city is a land made for hikers, backpackers, and river rafters.

The modern big-city ambience of Albuquerque is an hour to the south. The small-town art community of Taos is an hour to the north. Within a day's travel of Santa Fe are most of the notable Indian pueblos in New Mexico -- a continuing cultural presence in this fast-changing state. More than 20 Pueblo villages are within a 2-hour drive, and many exhibit a way of life which has been intact for 800 years.

There are two cultural sub areas that make Santa Fe -- to us and many other visitors -- the most appealing city in the nation: architecture and food. The unique style of building called Santa Fe Style, or Pueblo, or Territorial, is an architecture that blend the signatures of Spanish and Pueblo building design with modern adaptations to present a form of structure that is up-to-date yet blends with the terrain in a timeless way. These buildings -- which can best be seen in the newest subdivisions on the Santa Fe outskirts -- owe much to the original adobe brick homes of the first Spanish settlers.

The food of Santa Fe needs no extravagant praising here. New Mexico cuisine, now au courant across the U.S.A., originated in Santa Fe restaurants such as the Coyote Cafe, Le Tertulia, and La Casa Seña. These and less formal eateries including the Blue Corn Cafe continue to set the pace for the serving of super-fresh cuisine using regional foodstuffs in imaginative ways. Here too, the mingling of the three historic cultures produces a synergistic effect. Please see the next Santa Fe Page for a listing of outstanding restaurants.

This city of 60,000 and its visitors support six fine museums and at least twenty art galleries. The city contains the country's oldest public building -- the Palace of the Governors -- situated along the north side of the Plaza. Now a museum, this Spanish adobe building has inspired the self-image of Santa Fe and the preservation of its historic districts. This early colonial office, called Palacio Real, was the site from which Governor Don Pedro de Peralta governed an empire that stretched from the Mississippi to the Pacific. It is a symbol of the past, but also of the present and future for this city, which always manages to excite the senses and inspire the imagination.

The Plaza

The heart and soul of Santa Fe, this park is surrounded by some of the earliest buildings to be constructed by the Spanish for their territorial capital. In the 1800s, the Plaza was the terminus for the Santa Fe Trail, the main trading route for the Spanish and Mexican settlers. Over the years, this historic center of culture for the territory (and later the state) saw the ebb and flow of political life, including the Pueblo Indian revolt, the re-conquering of the land by Spaniards, and attacks by other Indian tribes -- Comanche, Apache, Navajo.

The park was laid out in a rectangular shape for protection and ceremonial purposes. It was a parade area for religious processions and was also used as a market and as the site of public executions. The Spanish reigned supreme from the Plaza between 1692 and 1821, when the Mexican period began. Soldiers for the Confederacy were based here for a few weeks in 1862.

The Palace of the Governors runs along the north side of the Plaza. This was the city's first building and the seat of Spanish and Mexican government. It is now the main site of the Museum of New Mexico, paying homage to that early era of settlement. It is the oldest public building in continuous use in the United States. It was the capitol until the 1860s, serving as a fortress in defense of the city against the Pueblo Revolt. It was then occupied by the new state government, and Governor Lew Wallace wrote most of his novel Ben Hur while occupying the Palace.

The other three sides of the Plaza are filled with shops and restaurants, while the historic ambience of the Plaza spills out over several blocks surrounding the park. The La Fonda Hotel and St. Francis Cathedral are both located here and both are prime places to visit while strolling the Plaza. The cathedral, built in 1869, is in the French Romanesque style, seeming to be in stark contrast with the rest of the downtown area, but yet a major landmark. The church was constructed with local stone carved from nearby quarries and from La Bajada Mesa west of town. Built on the site of a former Spanish church, La Parroquia -- destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt -- a few artifacts remain from the earlier period, notably the wooden statue of the Virgin, called La Conquistadora. The statue was first installed in the city in 1625 and was returned following the reconquest in 1692.

Only 600 yards from the Plaza is a hilltop ruin, the remains of Fort Marcy, the first American army outpost in the Southwest. The crumbled adobe walls are a testament to its military use from 1846 and its role in the development of modern Santa Fe, which spread out from around its base.

Shopping around the Plaza is always exciting. Some of Santa Fe's finest clothing and specialty stores are located in the old Victorian buildings looking out on the park. Local native artisans are often found at the Portal of the Palace of the Governors, selling exquisite Indian art and crafts including weavings and jewelry. The La Fonda Hotel is the scene of a monthly art and crafts fair. There are commercial galleries in the area and when you're tired of shopping, fine cafes are found around and near the plaza.

Other Historic Districts

A Sena Plaza is located on East Place Avenue, just a few minutes' walk from the main Plaza. Here, in this secluded historic district, is one of the best-preserved old homes in Santa Fe, built by Major Jose Sena about 1867. The huge house has 33 rooms enclosing a garden patio with trees and a fountain. The cathedral is across the street. A second storey was added to the hacienda in 1927 by artist William Penhallow Henderson, giving the building a new look and a new life.

A drive (or walk) along Old Santa Fe Trail will lead you past the State Capitol, looking like a Zia design representing the circle of life. Upstairs in the capitol building is the governor's office, which includes a public gallery featuring exhibits by New Mexican artists. Farther along Old Santa Fe Trail -- across the river -- is the Barrio del Analco, stretching along De Vargas Street. This is said to be the oldest residential neighborhood in the country, set on the ruins of a native pueblo. This section of the city was home to Santa Fe Indians and Spanish servants, who were directed by the Spanish conquistadors to live on the "other side of the river." The Gregorio Crespin House was built about 1720 and is purported to be the oldest home in the U.S.A.


The Museum of New Mexico is the umbrella name for four separate museums in Santa Fe and five state monuments located across the state. Admission is $3.50 and a 2-day pass to all four museums is $6.00. Children under 16 years are admitted free. Palacio Real (Palace of the Governors) houses the History Museum&emdash;a regional collection with exhibits centered on the heritage of the Spanish, Mexican, and Indian past. For information, call (505) 827-6483.

The Museum of Fine Arts at 107 W. Palace Ave. features the work of recent and contemporary artists, including a substantial collection of paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe and the Taos Masters, as well as works by contemporary photographers, sculptors, and painters. More than 8,000 works are in the museum's permanent collection. The building, completed in 1917, was Santa Fe's first in the Pueblo revival style, influencing much of the city architecture to follow (505-827-4468).

The Museum of International Folk Art houses a collection from more than 100 nations, with an emphasis on Hispanic folk art (including toys, textiles, and costumes). The museum also has a fine collection of religious art and artifacts. The Hispanic Heritage Wing features displays of Spanish&endash;New Mexico colonial folk art. The building is located at 710 Camino Lejo (505-827-6350). The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, at 710 Camino Lejo, focuses on the history and modern life of the Pueblo cultures. Opened in 1987, the museum features displays of southwestern artifacts from the nearby Laboratory of Anthropologists and of art, photographs and artifacts of Pueblo existence over the centuries. For open hours, available tours and other information, call (505) 827-8000.

Nearby (at 704 Camino Lejo) is the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. Founded in 1937 by Mary Cabot Wheelwright, it was originally named the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art because of the influence upon the founder of the celebrated Navajo medicine man Hosteen Klah. The museum now includes works from varied North American Indian cultures. The unusual eight-sided structure is based on the shape of the traditional Navajo sand paintings and other Navajo ceremonial artifacts. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday from 1 to 5 pm. For information, call (505) 982-4636.

In addition to these treasure houses of New Mexico history and culture, there are several more museums dedicated to preserving New Mexico traditions. El Rancho de las Golondrinas is a 400-acre town filled with buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The restored ranch features towers that were originally constructed in the 1850s. Demonstrations of colonial village life, including farming and domestic activity, take place during the summer months, particularly during festivals held at the site. The Rancho is open Wednesday through Sunday, with the special festivals held during June, August, and October. To get there, take Interstate 25 to exit 271 and follow signs to the village. For information, call (505) 471-2261.

Santa Fe Children's Museum is approximately 1 mile south of the Plaza, at 1050 Old Pecos Trail. This is a great place for families, open Thursday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm. For information, call (505) 989-8359. The Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, at Cathedral Place, features a national collection illustrating contemporary native cultural traditions; call (505) 988-6278. Put together, the Santa Fe museums serve to provide an exhaustive and stimulating look into the 500-year cultural history of New Mexico. In the walkable area close to the Plaza, one can savor the rich artistic heritage of the Southwest natives and enjoy the work of recent and contemporary emigrés who have added their own interpretations to the cultural mix.

Santa Fe Opera

In a spectacular setting just north of the city, the Santa Fe Opera draws opera fans from around the world to its July/August season. Part of the excitement is in the outdoor amphitheater, which provides a perfect ambience for the music. The desert scene at sunset is an awe-inspiring vista.

Musical standards have always been very high, with noted conductors and singers coming to Santa Fe from the world's great opera companies. The Santa Fe Opera, now more than 40 years old, combines traditional operatic classics with premiers of modern operas, including new works by American composers.

The opera grounds are located near the Pueblo Indian villages of Tesuque and Nambe, via Highway 84/285. For advance information on the opera scene, write Santa Fe Opera, P.O. Box 2408, Santa Fe NM 87504 or call (505) 982-3855 or 982-3851.

Other Cultural Attractions

Santa Fe is almost a non-stop festival during the summer and fall months, and at other times of the year the city's institutions provide a full schedule of drama, music, and dance. These companies include the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, Santa Fe Symphony, Serenata of Santa Fe (a chamber ensemble), the New Mexico Repertory Theater, and the Southwest Repertory Theater.

The town of Madrid is only 30 minutes' drive south of Santa Fe. Here, in the old Engine House Theatre, two melodramas are staged in rotation from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The renowned Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival is held annually in July. The Santa Fe Rodeo is held during the second week of July.


The Spanish Market has been held in the Plaza for more than 40 years -- at the end of July. The Indian Market is more than 70 years old. Collectors of native art flock to the plaza each August to buy outstanding examples of native art and crafts and to eat Indian tacos and fry bread.


Descendants of the Anasazi, the Pueblo Indians have lived and farmed in the valleys surrounding Santa Fe for many centuries. There are 19 pueblo villages in New Mexico today and most are within an easy drive of the city. The villages are not only homes, they are also spiritual and ceremonial centers. Visitors may find feast observances, dancing and other activities taking place. Tribal rules should be observed by all who visit the pueblos. There is sometimes a parking charge and a fee for photography (if allowed by the pueblo). Some forbid photography and sketching.

San Ildefonso Pueblo is 21 miles north of Santa Fe via U.S. Hwy. 84/185 and off N.M. Route 502. There is a visitor center and museum; call (505) 455-2273.

Santa Clara Pueblo is 22 miles north of Santa Fe, on N.M. Highway 30. The Puyé Cliff Dwellings -- at the entrance to the Santa Clara Canyon -- provide a look into the past of this village. A self-guided tour will lead you through the cliff dwellings and escorted walking tours are available. As in most pueblos, there are shops and artists' studios in the village.

Tesuque and Pojoaque pueblos are located 9 and 15 miles north of the city, on N.M. Route 84/285. Tesuque Pueblo has a campground and an ongoing bingo operation.

Nambe Pueblo (north of Santa Fe via U.S. 84/285 and N.M. 503) is a favorite for visitors and local residents, who picnic, fish, and camp at the pueblo and come to see Nambe Falls.

Eating in Style

When Mark Miller established the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, he set the standard for what has become known as Southwest cuisine. Miller has ventured east and even to Las Vegas to establish other restaurants with the same theme but, as owner, his influence is still intact at this landmark restaurant. The Coyote Cafe is a fairly noisy, gregarious place with modern decor and informal but efficient service. The food is super-fresh and the menu offers a variety of adventurous prix-fixe meals accompanied by a distinguished wine list. It is located near the Plaza, at 132 West Water Street; Reservations are necessary - Go Here($$$).

La Casa Seña (125 E. Palace Ave.) is the second in this trio of influential downtown restaurants. Here, continental meets New Mexico in the historic district; call 505-988-9232. You are advised to make reservations here ($$$).

For a more traditional approach to Mexican cuisine, served in a very informal setting, try the Blue Corn Cafe at 133 Water Street (across the street from the Coyote Cafe). Blue corn tortillas are washed down with margaritas and beer in this outstanding restaurant. For reservations, call 505-984-1800 ($$).

As a result of being a notable center of cuisine, the hotel restaurants in Santa Fe are better than in many other cities. The excellent dining rooms include the Piñon Grill in the Hilton (100 Sandoval St.) and Luminaria Restaurant & Patio in The Inn & Spa at Loretto at 211 Old Santa Fe Trail. Both hotel dining rooms are in the $$$ range.


New Mexico Destinations




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Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Chaco Culture National Historic Park



Las Cruces

Los Alamos



Santa Fe

Silver City





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