A 24-hour guide with 8 cool things to do in Santa Fe New Mexico, this hot spot on America’s culinary and cultural map
Santa Fe is known for it’s pueblo style architecture and for the prolific creative arts scene it has fostered.
Situated in northern New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains, the nation’s highest state capital is nestled in the foot hills of the Sangre de Cristo Range.
As we drove down toward Santa Fe from the north, along the straight highways of northern New Mexico, the beauty of the state, known as the “Land of Enchantment”, revealed itself. The endless flat plateaus allow boundless views of a breathtaking sky. Angry storms rage over dramatic mountain ranges in one corner of the vastness. In another, clouds drift lazily in a deep blue sky, as the sun bakes the cracked desert dirt.
As you approach the capital, the terrain becomes hilly and small scrub begins to dot the landscape. Mud brick homes knowns as adobe, almost indistinguishable from the reddish-brown hillocks they sit on, start to peak out from the partial scrub.
The Sangre de Cristo mountains loom up above the city to the east. Throughout the wet season, between July and August, the mountains gather up threatening clouds during day sending wild and beautiful thunderstorms down to the city in the evenings.
Santa Fe itself is remarkable for the adobe inspired architecture that dominates the streetscape. Pueblo Revival architecture, recognisable by flat roofed, earth-toned, mud brick construction, makes up the majority of the buildings in town. This style was developed by the Pueblo people, native to this area of the United States. A city ordinance dating back to the fifties mandates the use of this “Old Santa Fe Style” for all new buildings in the city, even today.
Santa Fe is the oldest state capital in the U.S. and one of the oldest occupied cities in the western hemisphere. Accordingly, it has a long and fascinating history dating back to 900CE. Today, Santa Fe has become a beacon for artists and creatives. With over 250 galleries, this city may be the most art dense city in America, if not the world.
Santa Fe is also the place to sample New Mexican food (or northern New Mexican food to be precise). Make no mistake this is not Mexican and it’s not Tex-Mex (and certainly don’t refer to it as such in front of the passionate locals). New Mexican cuisine, incorporates influences from Mexican, Pueblo Native American, and Southwestern American cuisine. Dishes focus heavily on New Mexican spices, particularly the red and green New Mexican chile. Be forewarned, the default for food here is hot, very hot.
There’s no doubt you will find plenty to do in this incredible city. To stream-line the process we’ve got eight cool things to do in Santa Fe New Mexico to ensure one amazing day in this charming city.
10 Cool Things to Do in Santa Fe New Mexico
#1 Go Hiking
One of the best ways to see the ever changing landscapes of New Mexico is to set out on one of the many trails surrounding ths city in the Santa Fe National Forest. Here there are an array of trails with a huge variety in landscapes, topography and vegetation just 20 minutes from the city. With scorching summers, unpredictable weather, and stunning sunrises, early morning is the best time to explore this inspiring state.
Get a feel for the vast and unforgiving New Mexican landscape by trekking dry, semi-arid trails to the west of the city. El Camino Del Real de Tierra Adentro or the Spanish Interior Kings Road, has linked Mexico City to North America for centuries. Follow a section of this trail to get a feel for New Mexico’s harsh conditions and brutal beauty.
Alternatively, head to the mountains that flank the city on its eastern side. Here you can hike in the shade through green pine forests with streams and waterfalls.
# 2: Try the original breakfast burrito at Tia Sophia’s
One of the best things to do in Santa Fe is to eat. Hungry yet? Head back into town to start your day like the locals do, with burritos. You may know breakfast burritos as a Tex-Mex staple. You may even be aware that they were invented in New Mexico. But did you know they were invented right here in Santa Fe? Right here at Tia Sophia’s in fact (or so the story goes).
This Santa Fe institution has been serving up homemade New Mexican food for 45 years. In that time Tia Sophia’s has earned and maintained a reputation as some of the best in the business.
#3 Stroll through the Santa Fee Historic District
Expanding out from the Santa Fe Plaza is the historic district where you can explore a plethora of museums, boutiques and galleries.
Museums cover arts, native culture and history. Boutiques sell artisan crafts, home goods, clothing and jewelry. Hundreds of vibrant art galleries display the craft of local artists. All the while being framed by the gorgeous colour coordinated Santa Fe style architecture the city is renowned for.
You won’t run out of things to do here in a morning or even a week. Highlights include:
- The Palace of the Governors – Now an impressive State History Museum
- Georgia O’Keefe Museum – Dedicated to the incredible portrayals of New Mexico that made her one of the Southwest’s most influential artists
- Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi – This impressive Roman Catholic cathedral has been a dominant feature of the city skyline and inspiration for local artists since 1886
- New Mexico Museum of Art – This state art gallery focuses on the local, with 20,000 pieces of art hailing from the Southwest
#4 Grab Lunch at The Shed
The place to try New Mexican fare since 1953 has been The Shed in Santa Fe. Among their accolades the restaurant has a James Beard Award and has been named one of Travel and Leisure’s top 32 Mexican restaurants in the USA.
The Shed is particularly famous for it enchiladas and we can highly recommend them. Two blue corn tortillas loaded with your choice of filling are served up smothered in New Mexican red or green chile and plenty of gooey cheese alongside a hearty serving of pinto beans. These things are fiery so make sure you’ve got a full glass of ice water handy or better yet The Shed’s famous ‘Roca Coin Margarita’.
The secrets out, so even at lunchtime on a weekday the queue can be upwards of 45 minutes. Grab a buzzer and bring a crossword or see if you can snap up a stool at the bar which is first come first served.
Pro-tip: Order your enchiladas ‘Christmas’ to get a taste of both the red and the green chile. Although the red was our favourite you’d do well to try them both.
#5: Visit Canyon Road and Santa Fe’s World-Class Galleries
On reflection, it’s not too difficult to understand why the art community has flocked to Santa Fe. The unique architecture, rich history and culture and fierce natural beauty of the surrounding area create the perfect environment to inspire and nurture creatives.
On Canyon Road, you will find over one hundred galleries dedicated not just to the works of local artists but to artists great and small from around the globe and in every style imaginable.
Begin at the top of the one-kilometer-long Canyon Road and stroll downhill back toward the historical district. Take your time to stop in at galleries that catch your eye. Oh, and be sure to swap the coin purse out for the checkbook, it’s not unusual to find pieces going for over $100k on Canyon Road. You break it you buy it.
#6: Pull Up a Stool at the Del Charro Saloon
After an afternoon wandering down Canyon, you are going to work up a bit of a thirst. Luckily a tumbleweed’s roll from the end of Canyon Road is the Del Charro Saloon. This saloon is pure Western. With low lighting, dark wooden tables and chairs, a roaring fire, and red leather stools at the bar, you’ve walked right into the Wild West. Just make sure you get in early to score a seat in the charming saloon room, as opposed to the cafeteria-style seating out the back.
With great drinks and an even better atmosphere, Del Charro also serves up some of the best food in town. A rotating menu of small plates like the green chile cheeseburger sliders, the pulled pork sliders, or tacos are the perfect accompaniment to a house margarita or local Santa Fe brew. Don’t fill up though, the main course is yet to come.
Pro-tip: If you’re loving the saloon vibe why not hitch the horses and stay the night? The attached inn, the Inn of the Governors has charming Santa Fe styled rooms and reasonable rates.
#7: Grab a Feed at the Cowgirl
Ok, hopefully, you took my advice and ordered small at Del Charro because it’s time for the main course. This place can get crowded too, if there’s a queue, head next door to rack up a pool game while you wait.
Ready to be seated? Great. Weather permitting grab a table outside in the beer garden where some local rock will likely be playing (unless it’s karaoke Monday). If you prefer a quieter meal head inside. Famous cowgirls of our time cover the walls of the dining room. As Kelli astutely pointed out to me, this is a subtle reference to the name of the restaurant ‘Cowgirl’.
Cowgirl’s forte is barbecue, but their specialty, as featured in The Wall Street Journal and The Food Network, is their Five Pepper Nachos with Salsa Diablo. Order loaded with their famous pulled pork and you can’t go wrong.
Make sure you bring some friends (or a takeaway box) to help you take down this massive portion.
Pro-tip: Nachos are included in the happy hour after 10 pm so you can get a tray bigger than your head for just $8.
#8 End Your Night at the Matador
This dingy dive bar has plenty of character, (true grit the locals might call it), great (eclectic) music and cheap drinks. If you aren’t too full, waddle over to grab a beer, recount the day’s adventure and figure out how you might stay a little longer in Santa Fe.
Consider visiting more of New Mexico with a road trip to White Sands National Park.
Where to Stay in Santa Fe
Van Life Santa Fe
There is a fantastic option 20 minutes outside of town for overlanders. At the trailhead for the Santa Fe section of the El Camino Del Real de Tierra Adentro. Complete with plenty of flat spaces with shrubbery for privacy, and pit toilets, this free campground is clean and accessible with two-wheel drive. Do your part and keep this terrific free resource clean.
If you have a camper van you can also get closer to the action by parking overnight at the Fort Marcy recreation complex. There is plenty of parking attached to this large park with tables, water, a children’s playground, and workout equipment. The recreation centre has day passes to their gym and swimming pool for $5 or shower access for $3.
The Santa Fe International Hostel
The Santa Fe International Hostel is a non-profit organisation dedicated to encouraging personal development through independent travel and cross-cultural exchange. They are a true traveller’s hostel and highly regarded.
Inn of the Governors
The Inn of the Governors is a comfortable inn that exudes southwestern charm. Located right on the edge of the historic downtown, it’s the perfect place to base yourself while you immerse yourself in the city.
Helpful Advice for Visiting Santa Fe and New Mexico
- With such an active and passionate arts community Santa Fe boasts an incredible roster of annual events. From weekly markets to painting workshops, art exhibitions, community festivals, and concerts, it seems like there is always something happening. Be sure to check out Santa Fe’s events calendar before you arrive.
- Swerve Albuquerque. Delighted with our stint in Santa Fe we decided to see what nearby Albuquerque had to offer. Very little in our opinion. The downtown felt seedy and dangerous. The city streets felt abandoned. The parks were dirty. There was very little going on and not much to see or do. Albuquerque is one of the more charmless places we have been to. We arrived in the afternoon planning to spend one or two days here but left later that night.