Looking for travel tips on what to do in Santa Fe?
As part of our city guides series, we interviewed Billie Frank who has been living in Santa Fe since 2004.
Billie shares with us her insider tips for those looking for the best places to see, eat, stay, drink, and explore in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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
Definitely walk around the downtown historic area. I highly recommend a guided walking tour. A knowledgeable guide can share the city’s rich history.
Or, you can do it yourself. Explore the narrow streets with their intriguing nooks and crannies.
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.
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, opened in 2016 is a purely 21st century immersive art experience that is part fun house, part haunted house and part acid trip.
Best Neighbourhoods to Explore in Santa Fe
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.
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 specializing in thin-crusted, gourmet pizzas.
- Pizza Centro draws diners with their New York inspired pies.
- Pizza Espiritu offering 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 isone of the power breakfast spots in town. The Huevos Rancheros is hot seller.
- Tecolote Café is another popular breakfast hangout. Their motto: “Great Breakfasts, No Toast.” Instead they offer their house made bread basket or tortillas. Go for the basket. They are a contender for best breakfast potatoes in town.
- Café Pasqual’s is a destination dining spot for breakfast lunch and dinner. Be prepared to wait. Try the Smoked Trout Hash.
- If a European café is more your style, Clafoutis and the Swiss Bakery and Pastry Shop are great bets.
You Can’t Visit Santa Fe Without Eating
The local 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,” is asking which type of chile you want your food smothered in. 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
Where to Drink in Santa Fe
While here, 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.
Santa Fe also has a number of brewpubs offering locally crafted beers and a number of good wine bars.
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.
High end places to stay in Santa Fe
Each has a distinct character and it’s important to figure out which works for you.
Moderate places to stay in Santa Fe
Still in the Plaza area, and offering Santa Fe charm at moderate (for Santa Fe) prices:
- Inn on the Alameda offers guests a warm welcome and a great breakfast buffet.
- Old Santa Fe Inn is a locally owned, more upscale motel.
- El Paradero offers the charm and personal attention you expect in a bed and breakfast.
Budget places to stay in Santa Fe
- El Rey Inn and the Silver Saddle Motel. Both offer vintage accommodations on Historic pre-1937) Route 66.
- The Sage Inn, 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.
Shopping 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 jewelry 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.
- 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, jewelry and decorative items.
Events & Festivals in Santa Fe
Burning of Zozobra at the annual Fiestas 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.
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.
Finding WiFi in Santa Fe
There are coffee houses all around town that have free Wi-Fi.
The Washington Avenue Branch of the Santa Fe Public Library a block from the historic Plaza is a convenient place to connect. Many of the hotels and motels offer free Wi-Fi.
Best Time of Year to Visit Santa Fe
My favorite seasons here are spring and fall.
Fall can still be a bit crowded meaning higher lodging rates. 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.
Favorite Side Trip from Santa Fe
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.
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Getting There and Away
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.
Best insiders Tip for Santa Fe
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.
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.
Planning a Trip to Santa Fe
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