Santa Fe: One of the oldest and most photogenic cities in the United States

Travel News from Stuff - 08-05-2023
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Known as the "City Different" for its unique history and culture, New Mexico's state capital Santa Fe is one of the oldest – and most photogenic – cities in the United States.

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Visitors are arriving in increasing numbers to savour its stunning architecture, arts scene and distinctive cuisine.

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And with great skiing, mountain-biking and hiking opportunities in the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains, it's got outdoorsy types covered, too.

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For such a small city – it's only the fourth-largest in New Mexico with a population of around 85,000 – there's an awful lot going on.

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So whether you're in town for a couple of weeks or a few days, here are 10 things you should do to get the most out of your trip.

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Since Santa Fe is a compact and walkable city, it will be tempting to dump your bags and head out to explore on your own. But if you want to learn about its colourful 400-year history, tag along with a guided walking tour.

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Departing from the La Fonda Hotel lobby at 10am daily, a guide takes you through the famous plaza to some of Santa Fe's most treasured landmarks. Along the way, they'll fill you in on its past.

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Highlights include visits to 109 East Palace Avenue (a drop-off point for scientists working on the top-secret Manhattan Project that delivered the first atomic bomb), the Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi and Palace of the Governors (the oldest public building in the country).

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Our guide also took us to the Five & Dime store where the original Frito pies (pinto beans, red chili, cheese, onions and Frito chips) were made. Not a fan? Best keep your thoughts to yourself. following his withering review of this local staple.

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The daily historical tour costs US$25 (NZ$40) for adults, with children under 12 free when accompanied by their parents. It takes two hours so bring plenty of water – the air is thin at high altitude, elevating the dehydration risk. See:

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Even if art's not really your thing, you can't help but be blown away by Meow Wolf. The brainchild of a Santa Fe-based arts collective, this one-of-a-kind exhibit inside an old bowling alley opened its doors to rave reviews in 2016 and more than lives up to the hype.

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The centrepiece of the Meow Wolf experience is the House of Eternal Return permanent exhibit, a spellbinding space spread over 20,000 square feet that's part interactive installation, part mystery funhouse.

Your adventure begins outside a two-storey Victorian house as you attempt to piece together the clues behind the mysterious disappearance of the fictional Selig family.

Put your detective skills to work as you pass through dozens of secret rooms (the clothes dryer is a portal to another dimension) in search of the answers to this riddle.

The immersive, non-linear storytelling encourages you to tread your own path and let your imagination run wild for a few hours. But you don't have to follow the plot to enjoy yourself – walking around and admiring the artworks will keep you entertained.

Suitable for adults and children, no wonder Meow Wolf has established itself as Santa Fe's No 1 tourist attraction. See:

As well as a functioning station, the Santa Fe Railyard has been transformed into the city's hippest neighbourhood, home to a collection of art galleries, restaurants, cafés, breweries and a cinema.

Spread over 50 acres, this vibrant district deserves more than a whistle-stop tour. And it doesn't have to be a costly day out – in the Railyard Park you can catch a free concert or performing art show, stretch your legs on a walking trail or just roll out a picnic blanket.

Game of Thrones fans should call in at , owned by noted Santa Fe resident and prolific author George R.R. Martin, who has personally signed every book in store.

And if you head down to the railyard on a Saturday (or Tuesdays during the warmer months) you'll find the lively Santa Fe Farmers’ Market where more than 150 local farmers and producers sell the fruits (and vegetables) of their labour.

On Sundays, the artisan market takes centre stage, offering jewellery, hand-crafted pottery and glassware to discerning shoppers. See

Who said America has no history? Originally built in 1610 when the city was founded by Spanish colonists, the San Miguel Mission is the oldest church in the country and a Santa Fe icon.

This historic place of worship has undergone several structural changes over the years – the present-day adobe-style chapel dates from 1710, having been partially destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 – but several of its culturally significant artefacts remain intact.

Go inside and check out the San Jose Bell that once hung in the bell tower, and the wooden statue of St Michael the Archangel celebrating his victory over Satan.

A stone's throw from the chapel is the De Vargas Street House, which claims to be the oldest abode in the US. A little plaque on the wall indicates the significance of this unassuming building with foundations from the 13th century. The dwelling itself is believed to have been completed between 1740 and 1767.

The old western portion of the house has preserved the thick adobe walls, dirt floors and low ceilings from hundreds of years ago. The eastern side contains an Indian craft shop and a small history museum, open 9am-6pm daily and worth a brief perusal. See: and

A visit to Santa Fe wouldn't be complete without rifling through the racks at the city's best vintage stores.

And if it's western wear you're after, you can't go wrong with Kowboyz. This local institution sells everything from used and new cowboy boots to hats, belts and buckles – they'll have you looking like John Wayne in no time.

Double Take, a family-run consignment store specialising in second-hand jewellery as well as furniture, rugs, lighting and vintage designer clothes, is a must for antique hunters. There's even a small gallery on the second floor to explore once you've maxed the credit card. See: and

Blending Pueblo, Spanish and contemporary tastes, New Mexico is renowned for its inventive dishes. Nowhere is this more evident than Santa Fe, the centre of the state's booming culinary scene.

Chile of the green and red variety is the most sacred ingredient, whether we're talking enchiladas, tamales, burgers, cheeses and even chocolate. But that's not to say New Mexican cuisine is just about cranking up the spice levels, as you'll discover when you take a class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking.

Led by local chefs, the school offers a range of classes – from hands-on workshops to demonstrations – covering a variety of southwestern fare.

Our group were shown how to bake a herb-stuffed, bacon-wrapped trout in clay, rustle up Native American wild rice and cook a traditional berry crisp dessert from scratch.

Once the demonstration is over, it's time for the best part – devouring these mouthwatering dishes. Coffee and tea are included with your meal, with local wine, beer and soft drinks available for an additional cost.

A culturally (and gastronomically) enriching way to spend three hours.


One of Santa Fe's sights comes with a century-old mystery. The origins and design of the Loretto Chapel's "miraculous staircase" have had locals and visitors scratching their heads for decades.

Legend has it that when the nuns behind the church needed a skilled carpenter to connect its choir loft to the chapel below, a mysterious figure rode in on a donkey with just a saw, hammer and measuring square and completed the job – before leaving without seeking payment or credit for his craftsmanship.

Ever since, people have travelled from near and far to admire his handiwork. To reach the loft, the helix-shaped staircase takes two 360-degree turns but has no obvious structural supports, defying physics.

When you pop in to see this extraordinary feat of engineering, be sure to take in the late 19th century chapel's other charms, such as the stained-glass windows and wood-carved altar.

A small entrance fee of a few dollars helps maintain the church's upkeep. See:

Whether you're an art lover or architecture buff, the one-mile stroll down Canyon Road will be time well spent.

More than 100 galleries are dotted along this celebrated thoroughfare, which has the highest concentration of art studios in the US.

You'll find art of every stripe en route but while you're here visit some galleries which showcase Native American and Spanish-influenced works.

Morning Star Gallery () is a must due to its unrivalled collection of New Mexican antiques, while Canyon Road Contemporary () displays an eclectic mix of paintings, pottery, sculpture and jewellery in a spacious setting.

The Alexandra Stevens Gallery of Fine Art () and Vivo Contemporary () are also worth a visit, giving top billing to emerging and award-winning Santa Fe artists. See:

If you can afford one blowout meal during your stay, make it La Plazuela. This local favourite in the historic La Fonda hotel has been serving high-quality Southwestern food with a twist since the 1920s.

Start with some fresh guacamole (made at your table) and pork carnitas to share, then take your pick from the mains, ranging from classics such as enchiladas and tamales to experimental offerings like New Mexico buffalo tenderloin and green chile meatloaf. Finish with the chocolate molten cake.

Part of the joy of eating at La Plazuela is the setting – the cosy dining room, set around a fountain in the central atrium, evokes the style of the old Southwest with its wrought-iron chandelier, lofty foliage and hand-painted windows. This is the place to see and be seen in Santa Fe.

To avoid a serious case of FOMO, you'll need to make a booking for dinner as the restaurant can get busy during peak hours.


Don't say adios to Santa Fe without raising a glass to the city's cocktail scene on the popular Margarita Trail.

From classics like blood orange to experimental concoctions featuring smoked sage or jalapeno, you're bound to find one that tickles your tastebuds among the more than 40 participating bars and restaurants.

The aim of this cocktail-infused game is to win prizes by ticking them off as you go on your paper passport (US$3/NZ$4.80). Five stamps, for instance, will get you a free Margarita t-shirt, while 15 merits full membership to the Margarita Society and its exclusive access to events, seminars and tastings.

Before you get carried away, the rules only allow you to earn two stamps every 12 hours. This is a marathon not a sprint, for good reason – Santa Fe is 7200 feet above sea level, meaning the air's thinner and you'll get drunk faster. Drink responsibly!


Air New Zealand runs direct daily flights from Auckland to Houston, where you can take a short connection to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport before completing your journey on to Santa Fe.

Flying generates carbon emissions. To reduce your impact, consider other ways of travelling, amalgamate your trips, and when you need to fly, consider offsetting emissions.

The Inn and Spa at Loretto has a range of rooms, starting from U$299 (NZ$535) per night ().

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