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Santa Fe in New Mexico is one of the most fascinating cities in the United States!
As the oldest capital city in the country, it’s home to a cultural diversity that’s rooted in Spanish colonial history and community spirit.
As such, you can be sure there are plenty of things to do in Santa Fe.
If you’re looking for travel tips on what to do in Santa Fe, then you’ve come to the right place.
We spoke to Billie Frank, who has been living in Santa Fe since 2004, who shared with us her insider tips for the best places to see, eat, stay, drink, and explore in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
- Why Visit Santa Fe?
- What To Do In Santa Fe
- 1. Walk Around Downtown
- 2. Check out The Neighborhoods
- 3. Check out the Historic Sites
- 4. Explore the Galleries and Museums
- 5. Eat Some Mexican Food
- 6. Indulge on Margaritas
- 7. Shop Until You Drop in Santa Fe
- 8. Enjoy An Event or Festivals in Santa Fe
- 9. Take a Day Trip to a Pueblo Ancestral Site
- 10. Ski Santa Fe
- 11. Watch an Opera at Santa Fe Opera House
- 12. Relax in Santa Fe Botanical Garden
- 13. Go To El Rancho de las Golondrinas (Ranch of the Swallows)
- 14. Visit the Chapels of Santa Fe
- Where to Eat in Santa Fe
- Where to Stay in Santa Fe
- Getting To and Around Santa Fe
- Best Time of Year to Visit Santa Fe
- Final Thoughts on What To Do in Santa Fe
HANDY BOOKING CHECKLIST:
You’ll find more information on the following below, but to make it easy for you, here are our top recommendations for your pre-trip booking.
- CAR RENTAL: Find best price and availability via DiscoverCars.com
- the Inn and Spa at Loretto: Luxury with art and soul
- Old Santa Fe Inn is a locally owned, more upscale motel
- El Rey Inn, which offers vintage accommodations on the Historic pre-1937 Route 66.
Why Visit Santa Fe?
Santa Fe is magical.
The high desert with its beautiful mountains, rock formations and stunning sunsets is part of it.
Some of it comes from the synergy created by the intermingling of the three distinct cultures, the Native Americans, the Hispanics and the Anglo that call the area home.
It’s the second oldest city in the United States and at 7,000 feet above sea level, the highest capital city in the country.
There’s an Old World feeling and a palpable sense of history.
What To Do In Santa Fe
Now you know a little bit about why you should make a stop by Santa Fe, it’s time to look at the best attractions.
In no particular order, make sure you add the following activities to your itinerary.
1. Walk Around Downtown
Without a doubt, the first thing you need to do is definitely walk around the downtown historic area.
I highly recommend a guided walking tour so you can learn about the history and the architecture you’re looking at.
A knowledgeable guide not only shares the city’s rich history but also points out some hidden gems and gives you tips on things to do and places. tosee.
Or, you can do it yourself. Explore the narrow streets with their intriguing nooks and crannies.
2. Check out The Neighborhoods
After exploring downtown, walk around the other neighborhoods in town.
Barrio Analco is the oldest neighborhood in town, home to the oldest church and what is said to be the oldest house in the country.
Canyon Road, home to around 100 art galleries, shops and restaurants has some of the most historic buildings in town, including great of Territorial and Pueblo Revival architecture.
Acequia Madre (meaning mother ditch), just to the south of Canyon Road, is another great old street to explore.
Irrigation ditches, a necessity for high desert farming, date back over 400 years, this one dates to 1610.
This effective system was immortalized in John Nichols’ book The Milagro Bean Field Wars, later a Robert Redford film.
Don’t miss the narrow roads and alleys that wind off this old byway.
Railyard District is the trendiest neighborhood in town and home to galleries, shops, restaurants and the fabulous Santa Fe Farmers Market.
It seamlessly transitions to the Guadalupe District just to the north.
TOUR IDEA: You may enjoy this tour of the galleries on Canyon Road where you’ll get to chat wtih the gallery owners and artists.
3. Check out the Historic Sites
Santa Fe is one of the oldest cities in the United States, so be sure to check out its numerous historic sites.
The oldest house and oldest church in the US. The Palace of the Governors, the oldest government building in the USA.
Under the building’s portal (the overhang) you can buy Native American handcrafts as a souvenir of your visit, directly from the artisans who crafted them.
4. Explore the Galleries and Museums
Santa Fe, the third largest art market in the US (an amazing accomplishment for a city of a little over 70,000 people), has been attracting artists for over a century.
Visit some of the over 200 galleries and 11 museums scattered around town.
Meow Wolf (House of Eternal Return), opened in 2016 is a purely 21st century immersive art experience that is part fun house, part haunted house and part acid trip.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is another popular art gallery showcasing the artwork of Georgia O’Keeffe.
If you head to Santa Fe Plaza, you’ll find The New Mexico History Museum, Palace of the Governors and New Mexico Museum of Art.
My favorite museums are the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and International Folk Art Museum.
If you head over to the aptly named Museum Hill, you will find the Museum of International Folk Art, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.
5. Eat Some Mexican Food
Santa Fe has a huge Mexican influence, so you can’t visit the city without trying some Mexican food.
The local delicacy here is >Northern New Mexican (Norteño) cuisine.
This piquant fare is based on the chile pepper, the official state vegetable.
The unofficial state question: “red or green chile,” is asking which type of chile you want your food smothered in your dishes. If you answer “Christmas,” you’ll get both.
Great and reasonably priced places to sample New Mexican food:
- Tia Sophia’s is a popular downtown spot for breakfast or lunch.
- The Shed has been serving up the local fare for over forty years. Expect a wait. They do accept dinner reservations, make them well in advance. Their sister restaurant La Choza isin the trendy Railyard district.
- Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen (famous for their 100 item margarita menu) is also popular
6. Indulge on Margaritas
While in Santa Fe, you have to have a margarita; they are everywhere.
The seasonal Coyote Café’s Rooftop Cantina is another great spot for margaritas and bite to eat.
In summer, the Bell Tower Bar at the historic La Fonda Hotel is the place in town to enjoy a spectacular sunset with your drink.
If you are in the mood for a drive, the terrace and bar at Terra at Encantado, An Auberge Resort, offers panoramic views of the Jemez Mountains to the west and great food. It’s a chic spot catering to a well-heeled crowd and you may spot a famous face.
For a real, down-home bar, Evangelo’s is the place. If it looks familiar, it may be.
Jeff Bridges sang there in the movie, Crazy Heart. He also sat in with bands occasionally when he was in town filming.
It regularly hosts live music and entertainment, so if you’re every looking for things to do in Santa Fe at night, make a trip here.
Santa Fe also has a number of brewpubs offering locally crafted beers and a number of good wine bars.
Try Rowley Farmhouse Ales, or the Second Street Brewery, either at their original Second Street location or at their popular Railyard location.
7. Shop Until You Drop in Santa Fe
Santa Fe is a shopping town.
While there is a bit of everything; The City Different is the place to buy cowboy boots, silver and turquoise Native American jewelery as well as any indigenous and Spanish Colonial art, or any art, for that matter.
Places not too miss:
- Downtown Plaza area has wall to wall boutiques selling anything from tacky souvenirs to upscale clothing, art and more in the Pueblo-style adobe buildings that make this city so famous.
- Railyard and Guadalupe Districts west of the Plaza have a variety of shopping options. Two of the best resale shops in town are here.
- The quirky Double Take is a great source for vintage cowboy boots and western wear, vintage Native American and Mexican jewelry and more.
- Local women in the know have been shopping The Beat Goes On for years.
- Canyon Road sprinkled in among the town’s largest concentration of galleries are some not-to-be-missed (and mostly upscale) shops.
Insider shopping tips.
- Watch out for Native American reproductions from China and other places, the town are rife with them.
- Check out the museum shops. They are sometimes less pricy and you know you are getting the real deal.
There are great resale shops (besides the two mentioned above) around town that offer women’s clothing, jewelery and decorative items.
8. Enjoy An Event or Festivals in Santa Fe
Santa Fe is well known for having a thriving entertainment scene, and there’s always a festival or event happening.
Burning of Zozobra at the annual Fiesta de Santa Fe, the oldest fiesta in the USA, is a big draw.
The three major summer markets in summer draw tens of thousands of people to town. Both the International Folk Art Market and Spanish Market are in July.
Indian Market in August is the biggest and oldest of the three.
Wine and Chile Fiesta in late September is a major culinary event. Some of the town’s best chefs partner with major vintners and wine distributors throughout the country.
Santa Fe Restaurant Week, a new event on the scene, in March offers foodies some great dining bargains.
9. Take a Day Trip to a Pueblo Ancestral Site
To get a sense of Santa Fe’s first people, I highly recommend a day-trip to a Pueblo Ancestral Site.
My favorite is the Puye Cliffs as I had a transcendent experience there. Puye, part of the Santa Clara Pueblo, can only be seen via guided tour.
You can also visit the cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument or Tsankawi (part of Bandelier) on your own.
Or visit one of the two currently occupied historic Pueblos in the area. Both the Taos Pueblo and Acoma Sky City have been inhabited for about 1,000 years.
Chimayó, on the scenic High Road to Taos is a trip back in time.
Explore El Sanctuario de Chimayó, a church famous for healing miracles. Stroll through the galleries and shops; the town is famous for its weaving style passed down through families for generations.
Stop for a New Mexican lunch at Rancho de Chimayó, a local favorite, run by the Jaramillo family for over 40 years. You can continue up the High Road through villages that go back as much as 400 years.
As late as the 1960s, people here spoke a Spanish dialect that lent itself more to ancient Castile than modern day Spain or Mexico.
Taos, at the end of the High Road, is a popular day-trip for visitors to Santa Fe. It’s a town with a lot of history. If you take the Low Road, you’ll have more time to spend exploring the area.
10. Ski Santa Fe
One of the best things to do in Santa Fe in the winter is go skiing. Head to Ski Santa Fe, a medium-sized ski resort in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
It has around 68 runs and 7 ski lifts, with trails suitable for any skill level.
You could easily spend a week or so trying out all the different ski trails here.
11. Watch an Opera at Santa Fe Opera House
If you’re looking for things to do in Santa Fe in the summer, head to the Santa Fe Opera.
The Santa Fe Opera house was built on a former guest ranch in 1956 by John Crosby, a New York-based conductor.
The aim was to give American singers a space to learn and perform in a place where they can plenty of time to prepare for shows.
As such, you will only find shows on weekends in July and daily in August, plus the the occasional show in June and September.
If you’re visiting in the summer, be sure to check out the calendar to see what’s on. We attended the opera with friends here back in 07! Bring your chairs for a tailgate party beforehand!
12. Relax in Santa Fe Botanical Garden
If you’re feeling a little tired after exploring the museums on Museum Hill, then head over to the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, which sits in a stunning piñon-juniper woodland landscape.
You can check out native plants and fauna to the New Mexico state, which are preserved and cared for in three themed gardens.
Wander through the fruit orchard and meadow garden, or see cacti and succulents in the xeric garden.
13. Go To El Rancho de las Golondrinas (Ranch of the Swallows)
If you’re not tired of museums, then a visit to El Rancho de las Golondrinas is a must.
This living history museum highlights what it was like living in rural Santa Fe in the 18th and 19th century.
It’s a huge complex of buildings, constructed in the 1700s, where volunteers dress up in period clothing and bring history to life.
If you’re looking for things to do in Santa Fe with kids, the interactive and immersive experience at El Rancho de las Golondrinas is an educational and enriching experience your kids will love.
14. Visit the Chapels of Santa Fe
There are two important chapels in Santa Fe that should not be skipped on any visit to the city; the San Miguel Chapel and the Loretto Chapel.
The San Miguel Chapel is the oldest church in the United States. While not anything exciting architecturally, this church dates back to 1610, and has a church bell that dates back to the 1300s.
The Loretto Chapel, located on Old Santa Fe Trail, is famous for its spiral staircase which has been built without nails or screws to support it.
It was built in 1877 and rises 23 feet, taking you to a mezzanene where the choir sits.
The inside of the church is simply beautiful, with stained-glass windows to let in natural light, bouncing off the arched ceiling.
Where to Eat in Santa Fe
Santa Fe is a foodie’s town.
One of the things I love is the high-level commitment to fresh and local in many restaurants.
Budget Dining options:
- Jambo Café combines chef/owner Ahmed Obo’s native Kenyan cuisine with a touch of the Caribbean.
- Del Charro Saloon offers the least expensive burgers (outside of a national chain) in town and also features a $5 daily special.
- Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill offers fresh Baja-inspired Mexican food at reasonable prices.
- Harry’s Roadhouse is always bustling with both locals and tourists. Go for the specials (if they appeal) on their extensive and eclectic menu.
Pizza is always a great option for filling up without breaking the bank.
- Rooftop Pizzeria specializes in thin-crusted, gourmet pizzas.
- Pizza Centro draws diners with their New York inspired pies.
- Pizza Espiritu offers what they call “a taste of heaven” and I call some really great pizza.
Budget breakers, but worth it:
- Restaurant Martin, Chef Martin Rios’ realization of his dream showcases his strong commitment to consistently turning out fresh, seasonal food.
- Sazon’s chef/owner, Fernando Olea is intrigued by the flavors unique to the southwest, Mexico, Central and South America. His “inspired New World Cuisine” showcases his innovative approach to these foods and flavors.
- Chef James Campbell Caruso’s La Boca is a popular local spot for traditional and contemporary tapas.
Food stands, carts and trailers:
We love dining on street food and there are a lot of stands and trucks to choose from. A few favorites are:
- Roque’s Carnitas, a seasonal stand in the Plaza has been drawing visitors and locals for over 25 years.
- Bonzai Asian Tacos offers a Mexican cook’s take on Korean tacos and more.
- Bang Bite Filling Station- has a diverse menu including some of the best burgers and fries in town.
- El Chile Toreado, a burrito/taco stand on Cordova west of St. Francis Drive, serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday.
Breakfast in Santa Fe is a real treat.
If you can handle spice early in the day, try the local version of the breakfast burrito; huge cylinders of eggs, potatoes, the meat of your choice and cheese smothered in green or red chile.
On the go? Try the hand-held version. Not adventurous, there’s always traditional American fare, too.
A few of our favorite breakfast spots are:
- The Pantry has been cooking up New Mexican style food for over 50 years. Try the Huevos Consuelo, a mix of tomatoes, onions, garlic and spicy yellow peppers.
- The unpretentious Tia Sophia’s is one of the power breakfast spots in town. The Huevos Rancheros is hot seller.
- Café Pasqual’s is a destination dining spot for breakfast lunch and dinner. Be prepared to wait. Try the Smoked Trout Hash.
FOR FOODIES: You may enjoy the following food tours in Santa Fe:
Where to Stay in Santa Fe
When it comes to lodging, Santa Fe is not an inexpensive town.
The most budget friendly option is camping, but unless you’re a diehard, it’s a limited season.
Cerrillos Road, the main commercial drag, offers the usual line-up of chain motels. Staying here will be easier on your wallet, but you’ll miss the charm of the city.
Out here you could be in Anytown, USA, except all our motels are coated in stucco to look like adobe.
If you can afford it, stay in the downtown Plaza area, you’ll feel like you’re in Santa Fe plus you’ll be in walking distance to a lot of what you want to see.
For High end places to stay in Santa Fe, check out two AAA Four Diamond Rosewood’s Inn of the Anasazi and the Inn and Spa at Loretto, which attract well-heeled guests as does the Relais and Chateaux, Inn of the Five Graces.
Each has a distinct character and it’s important to figure out which works for you.
If you want to get out of town for a more relaxing experience, the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe offers a quiet, country getaway option.
For more moderate places to stay in Santa Fe, but still in the Plaza area, is Inn on the Alameda, which offers guests a warm welcome and a great breakfast buffet.
Old Santa Fe Inn is a locally owned, more upscale motel. Whereas El Paradero offers the charm and personal attention you expect in a bed and breakfast.
For those looking for budget places to stay in Santa Fe, check out El Rey Inn, which offers vintage accommodations on the Historic pre-1937 Route 66.
The Sage Inn is within walking distance to the Railyard District and about a fifteen-minute walk to the Plaza, offers no-frills digs. They also provide van service into town for their guests.
Getting To and Around Santa Fe
The best place to fly into is Albuquerque, about an hour south of Santa Fe.
Usually, the best fares can be found on Southwest Airlines. Rent a car or take a shuttle (advance reservations strongly recommended, especially in season).
There are limited commercial flights into Santa Fe Municipal Airport via American Eagle.
Amtrak stops in Lamy, about a half-hour from town. You can take a shuttle (again reserve in advance) from there.
It also stops in Albuquerque/ You can take the New Mexico Railrunner, light rail train service, from there.
When it comes to getting around Santa Fe, walking is a great option for getting around town if you stay in the downtown area.
Santa Fe Trails provides inexpensive bus service around the city. If you want to get out of town at all, a car is essential. Santa Fe has one cab company and you have to call for a ride, you don’t hail them.
Best Time of Year to Visit Santa Fe
My favorite seasons here are spring and fall.
November can still be a bit crowded meaning higher lodging rates. However, late April until Mid-May is the perfect time to visit Santa Fe.
It’s before the summer season gets going, the weather is great and hotel rates tend to be less expensive.
Final Thoughts on What To Do in Santa Fe
I love Santa Fe because it’s one of two places on earth (the other is Ireland) where my soul feels like it has come home.
Be prepared for a mañana pace, after all, we have Mexico in our name. It’s 7,000 feet above sea level and very arid here.
Because of this combination, some people experience mild altitude sickness. To minimize or avoid this, drink LOTS of water.
Also, because the air is thin and we’re closer to the sun than you may be used to, a hat and sunscreen are musts.
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Do you have tips on things to do in Santa Fe? Share in the comments.