The best things to do in Santa Fe each present an opportunity to celebrate diversity as well as our shared human experience. Nestled in the foothills of Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Santa Fe is New Mexico’s capital, and renowned for its Pueblo-style adobe architecture and creative arts scene.
Art has been the common ground for all those who have been enchanted by Santa Fe’s distinctive scenery, its light and mystique: Native Americans, descendents of Spanish and Mexican colonists who settled the area in the 1600s; and Anglo artists who began arriving from the East coast in the 1900s.
The varied people that were drawn to the area left their mark on the cultural history of Santa Fe. The area was first inhabited by Native Americans circa 900 A.D. They gave it the names "White Shell Water Place" and "Dancing Ground of the Sun." The name Santa Fe came into being in the late 16th century, coined by Spanish colonists; it translates as "holy faith". Early in the 20th century, Santa Fe started to draw writers and artists. Santa Fe was the first American city to be recognized as a UNESCO Creative City in 2005. It is known for its exceptional crafts and folk art.
Many people may not realize that Santa Fe is the oldest capital in the U.S. The city was founded thirteen years before the Mayflower Pilgrims settled Plymouth Colony. It quickly rose to prominence as the capital of the Spanish Empire north of the Rio Grande.
Today Santa Fe is an arts and culture destination that is both earthy and chic, colorful and yet contemplative, and home to both tradition and a spirit of innovation. The best things to do in Santa Fe are sure to expand your mind and your heart!
Appreciate the Architecture
Due in large part to the city's preservation of historic structures and a contemporary zoning code passed in 1958 that requires the city's distinctive Spanish-Pueblo style of architecture, based on the adobe (mud and straw) and wood construction of the past, Santa Fe is acknowledged as one of the most intriguing urban environments in the country.
Traditional Pueblo architecture, Spanish missions, and the Territorial Style are all sources of influence for the Santa Fe style, also known as Pueblo Revival Style. Simple, modern structures in earth tones composed of adobe bricks a combination of sun-dried dirt and straw define this particular appearance. The design was created at the start of the 20th century and was most popular in the 1920s and 1930s, though it is still often utilized for new construction today. The Georgia O'Keefe Museum, La Fonda Hotel, and the Palace of the Governors are a few examples of notable structures that feature this style.
Santa Fe Plaza
The old town of Santa Fe is compact and quite walkable. Santa Fe Plaza, a classic Spanish plaza that has been used as a community gathering place for more than 400 years, is located at the center of the city. Buskers perform a variety of musical genres throughout the park, including native drumming, bluegrass violin, and jazz saxophone. Local native craftspeople provide handmade traditional goods for sale beneath the Palace of the Governors.
Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi
On the site of two older churches stands the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. In 1610, the year Santa Fe was established, the first adobe chapel was constructed. The Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680 completely destroyed the grander building that had been put in its place in 1630.
Despite their return in 1693, the evicted Spaniards were unable to reconstruct the church until 1714. Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Santa Fe, is honored by the name of this new church.
The tiny chapel honoring Our Lady La Conquistadora made of adobe is the only remaining portion of this church. The statue, which was imported from Spain in 1625, is the country's first depiction of the Virgin Mary.
In 1850, Santa Fe received its first Bishop, Father John Baptiste Lamy of France. Judging the 1714 old adobe church as inadequate for the seat of the Archdiocese, Bishop Lamy ordered a new Romanesque church built, and brought French architects and Italian stonemasons to build his Cathedral. Construction of the Cathedral began in 1869 and continued until 1887.
Saint Francis Cathedral was built in the Romanesque Revival style, which stands out dramatically against the nearby adobe buildings. As a result, the cathedral has distinctive round arches divided by Corinthian columns as well as truncated square towers. From Clermont-Ferrand in France, the huge rose window in front and the Twelve Apostles windows on either side were brought over.
Docents are on hand to explain the Basilica’s features and history.
Where to Stay in Santa Fe
Here are some highly-rated hotels that cater to all budgets.
Statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha
The first Native American to be canonized as a saint, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, is commemorated with a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall monument outside the cathedral. Her mother was Algonquin and her father was Mohawk, according to historical sources, and she was born in 1656.
At the age of 19, Kateri made the decision to become a Catholic, which was quite unpopular in her neighborhood at the time. Whatever your opinion of the meeting of colonial and Native American civilizations, the statue is beautiful. Estella Loretto, a well-known sculptor from the adjacent Jemez town, produced it.
Cathedral Park, which is located next to the Basilica, served as a nuns-only sanatorium from 1883 until 1896. Later, it was used as a convent for a nursing school. For 90 years, it has served as a public green area for recreation. For the 400th anniversary of the first European settlers, Santa Fe architect Bernabé Romero created a monument for the park that features a Franciscan monk, a colonial settler family, and a Spanish soldier on either side of a column.
Formerly a Roman Catholic church, the Loretto Chapel is now a private museum and a chapel for weddings. It was modeled after King Louis IX's Sainte Chapelle in Paris, and finished in 1878. Located just a short walk from Santa Fe Plaza, it's worth a quick visit just to marvel at the ingenuity of its distinctive spiral staircase that rises 20 feet without the use of a support pole. The staircase, which was constructed in four years, features two 360-degree turns.
Multiple builders were contacted, but because to the cramped quarters, no practical solution could be found, according to the Sisters of Loretto's version of events. In response, the nuns prayed to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, nonstop for nine days. A mystery visitor made an appearance on the ninth day of the novena and offered to construct the staircase. He labored alone, using only a few straightforward hand tools, then vanished without getting paid or revealing his identify to the Sisters.
Recommended Tours in Santa Fe
- Santa Fe Scavenger Hunt - Join this interactive scavenger hunt that combines the fun of the Amazing Race with a three-hour sightseeing tour of Santa Fe. $44
- Santa Fe: Canyon Road Curated Art Walking Tour - Join a curated walking tour that takes an interactive approach to explore several must-see galleries in Canyon Road. Chat with artists and gallerists while learning local art history. $52
- Santa Fe: Architectural Walking Tour and Wine Tasting - Walk through Santa Fe’s historic Eastside neighborhood and explore the distinctive architecture the region is known for. $136
New Mexico History Museum
The Palace of the Governors, a National Historic Landmark and in a sense the largest artifact in the museum, joined the New Mexico History Museum in May 2009 as the state's newest museum.
The Museum's displays interweave the histories of the various groups who have called New Mexico home for more than five centuries, including Native Americans, Spanish colonists, Santa Fe Trail travelers, outlaws, railroad workers, artists, scientists, hippies, and others.
One or more visits to Museum Hill is among the best things to do in Santa Fe. Set amidst neighborhoods of beautifully-landscaped pueblo-style homes, this campus of four top-notch museums and the Santa Fe Botanical Gardens offers a thoughtful and inspiring look at the cultures that are a part of Santa Fe's history and identity. Whether you spend a day here, or make several return trips as I did, you are sure to come away with a deep appreciation of how integrated art is in the soul of Santa Fe.
The creation of the Museum Hill complex was led by a philanthropist known for his vision, John D. Rockefeller. The site was specifically chosen for its drama and history as a cultural intersection in the early days of Santa Fe's settlement. From Museum Hill, you can take in views of the historic highways that led expeditions here: the Camino Real, the Old Santa fe Trail, and the Rio Grande Valley. Yet from downtown Santa Fe, Museum Hill is just 1.5 miles south of Santa Fe Plaza, and parking is free.
Take a break from your cultural immersion to enjoy a tasty lunch at Weldon's Museum Hill Cafe, open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.
From downtown Santa Fe, Museum Hill is just 1.5 miles south of Santa Fe Plaza, and parking is free.
You can save money by purchasing a New Mexico CulturePass, which is good for entrance to all of the state's museums; however, there are additional fees for the Wheelwright Museum, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, and the Botanical Garden.
The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture
The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is a renowned collection of native art that chronicles the history of the southwest's inhabitants from prehistory to the present. A wonderful exhibition of pieces by the prominent Navajo family of artists, the Abeita, was on display when I was there. The paintings by the father, son, and two daughters, each a talented artist, offer the unique perspective of two generations of Navajo life art and storytelling.
The Santa Fe Botanical Garden
The Santa Fe Botanical Garden offers a breathtaking view of the hills and mountains in the area and is home to native plants and animals of the Northern New Mexico region.
There are three primary areas on eight of the 20 acres that make up the garden. The pinyon-juniper woods, a natural area showing indigenous plants common to the community, the orchard garden and art trail, an ethnobotanical garden with raised beds for annual crops, and a large collection of plants with traditional uses, and the orchard garden and art trail.
Museum of International Folk Art
The largest collection of global folk art is found at the Museum of International Folk Art. Florence Dibble Bartlett, a Chicago heiress, founded the museum in 1953 with a collection that included items from 34 different nations. More than 130,000 items from more than 100 nations are now housed in the museum.
One of the Museum's flagship exhibits is called "Multiple Visions: A Common Bond" designed by Alexander Girard and featuring more than 10,000 pieces of folk art, toys, miniatures and textiles from a collection he and his wife built from their travels over a lifetime. The Italian proverb "The whole world is hometown" was a guiding principle for the Girards and their affection for humankind is evident in this amazing homage to folk art.
Taking a leisurely stroll along art-filled Canyon Road is one of the best things to do in Santa Fe. This half-mile stretch of hill is lined with more than 100 galleries for an immersive experience in the arts. The level of inventiveness on exhibit here ranges from upbeat and playful to somber and reflective. Contemporary, abstract, modern expressionistic, figurative, photorealistic, digital, traditional, western, and Native American works are all represented.
The sculpture garden at the Wiford Gallery is a fantastic place to relax after exploring Canyon Road. All the ideas, images, and sensations given along Canyon Road can be distilled and savored in peace by the outdoor kinetic sculptures and rock fountains.
The way in which expressiveness, shapes, spirit, nature, and mindfulness interact in this scene is an accurate description of the Santa Fe experience.
Santa Fe Summer Markets
Three significant and quite different markets are held in Santa Fe each summer, drawing crowds of collectors who come to admire the creations of modern artists who modernize long-standing customs. These are the Spanish Market, the SWAIA Indian Market, and the International Folk Art Market (IFAM). Although each of these well-known markets has its unique character, they are all the ideal locations to meet imaginative artists, talk about their work, and purchase something to save a memory of your visit.
International Folk Art Market
The International Folk Art Market is hosted each year over a weekend in July on Museum Hill. IFAM was founded in 2004 and is the world's largest international market. More than 150 artists from all over the world apply to sell hand-made crafts that include textiles, jewelry, ceramics, rugs, and two-dimensional art. In 2022, 164 artisans from 48 nations were chosen from among hundreds of candidates after a difficult, multi-stage screening procedure; 38 of these artists were first-time Market participants.
The Spanish Market celebrates New Mexico’s Spanish ancestry and traditional crafts that have been being produced for hundreds of years, such as furniture, weaving, and woodworking, as well as mural paintings, retablos, straw appliques, tinwork, and colcha needlework. This oldest and largest Hispanic art exhibition and auction was originally staged in 1926 and is hosted by the Spanish Colonial Arts Society. The annual event usually takes place in the storied Santa Fe Plaza around the end of July.
SWAIA Indian Market
The Indian Market is presented by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) and welcomes Native American artists from all across the nation for 100 years. The juried market, which takes place in August, brings together artists and collectors of indigenous works of art, showcasing contemporary forms of art including photography and digital art as well as traditional crafts like jewelry, pottery, basketry, quillwork, and beadwork.
Visit Indian Pueblos
Several Pueblos are close to Santa Fe and make for fantastic full- or half-day excursions. Between Santa Fe and Taos, there are eight Pueblos to visit, and the scenery en route is spectacular.
The nearby Santa Fe pueblos Santa Clara and San Ildefonso both have thriving artistic communities. Small galleries are a common feature in homes.
The pueblos of Taos and Acoma are farther afield but well worth a side trip. Acoma is known as “The Sky City,” and said to be the oldest continuously inhabited structure in North America. Acoma is located approximately two hours southwest of Santa Fe on I-40.
The pueblos welcome providing tourists with the chance to experience and learn about their culture. It is important to keep in mind that each pueblo is sovereign, meaning they have their own laws. Call the tribes ahead of time to make sure they are open for visitors and to find out what is open to the public.
Jaunt to Madrid
The Turquoise Trail, officially known as New Mexico State Road 14, is a 50-mile highway that connects Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The community of Madrid, located in the Ortiz Mountains and tucked away in a tiny canyon, is a half-hour drive southeast of Santa Fe over this two-lane road.
The oldest coal mining location in New Mexico is Madrid. Around 1835, miners discovered the mineral in this area. A railroad line was erected in 1892 to transport the coal from "Coal Gulch," as it was known at the time, to Santa Fe. Madrid was a company town for 80 years, which meant that several mining businesses owned everything there.
The need for coal started to diminish in the late 1940s, and by 1954 the mine was closed down and the town's inhabitants had nearly completely vanished. For twenty years, the town was deserted. The miner's cabins were then rented out to artists and outdoor enthusiasts who wished to live off the grid in the 1970s by the son of the previous owner of the mining company.
A creative community of roughly 300 people now resides in Madrid, together with more than 40 shops, galleries, and restaurants.
Pilgrimage to Sanctuario de Chimayo
Sanctuario de Chimayo is a National Historic Monument, shrine, and pilgrimage destination about a half hour drive from Santa Fe on the High Road to Taos. This adobe church in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains’ foothills has long been believed to have healing powers.
In addition to being a moving example of Spanish Colonial architecture, El Santuario is currently one of the most significant Catholic pilgrimage sites in the United States. Over 300,000 pilgrims visit El Santuario de Chimayo annually from the Southwest and other parts of the world. During Holy Week, about 60,000 pilgrims trek from Santa Fe and other locales to El Santuario. We visited late afternoon on Easter Sunday and enjoyed the church and grounds alongside several dozen families engaged in fellowship and reflection.
Road Trip to Taos
Another hour's drive north on the High Road is Taos, a very small town nestled in the mountains that is well worth visiting for culture lovers. Home to an artist's colony and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Taos was initially founded in 1615. It wasn't until almost two centuries later that it was formally established as a trading post for the nearby Taos Pueblo and Hispano communities.
Like Santa Fe, Taos is laid out around a traditional Spanish Plaza, dominated by a large cross, a legacy of its Catholic missionaries. While relations between the Native Americans and Colonists were initially friendly, things deteriorated and within twenty years, the indigeous people revolted and armed conflict persisted for almost 150 years.
A century later, three adventurous painters came to Taos and were inspired by its atmosphere and the Native American people and their culture. They invited other painters and in 1912, formed the Taos Society of Artists. Since then, generations of artists have been drawn to the light, the sparse yet majestic landscape and the spiritual aura of the area.
In Taos’ diverse cultural landscape, art, spirituality, history, and nature all delightfully converge. Enjoy the breathtaking beauty along the Low Road as it travels from Santa Fe to Taos in this video from our sister YouTube channel, Flip the Lens.
Nicolai Fechin House
The artist Nicolai Fechin, his wife Alexandra, and their daughter Eya lived in the Nicolai Fechin House for many years. He spent several years enlarging and altering the two-story adobe building after buying it in 1928, including increasing the porch and adding and widening windows to take advantage of the vistas.
A 4,000 square foot, asymmetrical, adobe Pueblo and Mission Revival home with twenty-four-inch walls was the end result. Fechin arranged window openings meticulously despite the thick walls. The home's picturesque surroundings, including the Sangre de Cristo Mountains beneath a clear sky, necessitated their placement and design.
Many of the furnishings and fixtures in the house were carved by Fechin using traditional Russian design elements like "triptych windows" and ornately detailed doors. The overall design combines Spanish, Russian, and Native American traditions with a modernist sensibility.
After the Fechins' divorce in 1933, Alexandra continued to reside there until her passing in 1983. In the 1970s, Eya went back to Taos and started renovating the home. In 1981, she began to welcome guests under the aegis of the Fechin Institute, which she established in honor of her father.
Millicent Rogers Museum
The Millicent Rogers Museum was created by her son after her death in 1956 to showcase the arts and cultures of Northern New Mexico. The Museum is based on Millicent's extraordinary collection of Native American jewelry and textiles, and Hispanic religious and secular art. Today, the Museum is home to more than 7,000 works by Southwestern artists.
The museum offers hour-long tours conducted by docents for $10.
Millicent Rogers, was a gifted designer, and benefactor of the arts who was the granddaughter of one of Standard Oil’s initial founders. A socialite who lived a life of privilege she nonetheless dealt with very human challenges. She relocated to Taos in 1947 after her heart had been broken by none less than Clark Gable.
In Taos, she became an avid collector of Native American weavings and jewelry and the 2,000 pieces she acquired she acquired are a significant component of Southwestern arts and design. In the early 1950s, Millicent promoted the issue of Indian rights and citizenship. She successfully lobbied for Native American art to be classified as historic and protected.
She died at the age of 51 years, after life-long ill health that included rheumatic fever and a heart condition.
More than 50 Native American and Hispanic textiles, including Navajo chief blankets and colcha needlework, as well as more than 1,200 pieces of Native American and Hispanic jewelry, were gathered by Millicent. Along with advocating for Native American rights, Rogers also used her social ties to push for the classification of Native American art as "historic," which gave it both prestige and protection.
The Museum was the first cultural institution in New Mexico to present a thorough selection of Hispanic art in the 1980s. The Hispanic collection includes Spanish Colonial furniture, tinwork, Rio Grande blankets, and Colchas represent the resourcefulness and endurance of Hispanic settlers.
Millicent's son Paul Peralta-Ramos built the Museum's Hispanic Santos collection. Santos are an important form of religious folk art, and crafted within familial dynasties, Santos, or saints, were made as part of the traditional Southwestern Roman Catholic religious traditions. The museum’s collection spans from the region's great master carvers of the 18th and 19th centuries to the work of contemporary makers.
Santa Fe is a world class city that has an incredibly rich and diverse culture. The abundance of creativity that radiates throughout the area suggests that all the wide open space in this part of the world invites the imagination to run free. What’s more, there is a very positive message in the wonderful fusion of different backgrounds and beliefs that emerged from the struggle and strife of its settlement.
Out of an early history that began with discord and attempts at domination, Santa Fe has come to stand for open-mindedness and embracing different perspectives. The best things to do in Santa Fe are all sure to inspire you!
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