Do You Know the Way Santa Fe?

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A 24 hour guide to 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 of the best bits of Santa Fe to cram into one amazing day.

Get started with some early morning hiking

The ever changing landscapes of New Mexico are striking. Almost completely surrounding the city is 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 it’s eastern side. Here you can hike in the shade through green pine forest, with streams and waterfalls.

The Rio en Medio Falls trail offers a moderate 4 mile hike through pine forest, crossing creeks and streams to reach the falls.

Breakfast of the original breakfast burrito at Tia Sophia’s

Hungry yet? Head back into to town to start you day like the locals do, with burritos. You may know breakfast burrito’s 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 home made 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.

Ok, let’s go for a walk. Grab a cup of Santa Fe’s best coffee from Holy Spirit Espresso across the road and let’s see what Santa Fe is all about.

Have a wander through the historic district

Expanding out from the Santa Fe Plaza is the historic district. Explore a plethora of museums, boutiques and galleries.

Rather than being contained to one gimmicky main strip, Pueblo Revival architecture is the dominant feature in Santa Fe.

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.

One block from Santa Fe Plaza is the incredible Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi constructed in 1886.

You won’t run out of things to do here in a morning or even a week. Highlights include:

Grab Lunch at The Shed

Lunch time! 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’.

Erm, we had every intention of photographing the enchiladas but as soon as they were served we forgot and didn’t return to our senses until the plate was cleaned. Rest assured they looked amazing.

The secrets out, so even at lunch time 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 are 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.

Head to 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 kilometre long Canyon Road and stroll down hill 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 check book, it’s not unusual to find pieces going for over 100k on Canyon Road. You break it you buy it.

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 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 slider, 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.

Head on over to the Cowgirl for the Main Course

Ok, hopefully you took my advice and ordered small at Del Charro because it’s time for the main course.

This place can get crowed 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 be 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 10pm so you can get a tray bigger than your head for just $8.

Have a night cap 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.

The Nuts and Bolts

Where to Stay

Overlanding

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.

Hotels and Hostels

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.

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.

Where to eat and drink

Holy Spirit Espresso

Small cafe with plenty of character serving up the best espresso in Santa Fe, right in the heart of downtown.

Tia Sophia’s

This second generation, family run restaurant has been delivering the goods when it comes to home cooked northern New Mexican for decades. Their claim to fame? They invented the breakfast burrito, or so the legend goes.

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.

Sazón

Unfortunately closed when we visited, however, our friends went previously and raved about it. This restaurant specialises in molé sauce from the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Here you can sample a variety of different molé sauces before settling on one and deciding on the recommended meat or vegetable pairing. We have it on very good authority that this is some of the best in the southwest!

Del Charro

A western saloon with great atmosphere, a great drinks menu and great southwestern fare. The green chile cheeseburger with hand cut steak fries is particularly good!

Cowgirl

The place for friendly service, live music, barbecue and some of the best pulled pork nachos you’ve had. Bring a friend or be prepared to take home some food because the portions are huge. Great happy hour deals on meals after 10pm.

The Matador

Keep the party going after dinner with cheap drink and great tunes at this fun dive bar.

What to do

  • Hike the Santa Fe National Forest
  • Explore the historic district. Highlights include:
  • Visit the galleries of Canyon Road

Pro-Tips

  • 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.
  • Looking to explore New Mexico a little more? We recommend;
    • Roswell for the spooky alien vibes and/or kitsch alien themed everything.
    • Carlsbad caverns, some of the States largest and most impressive cave systems

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