Few cities can take your breath away like Santa Fe, New Mexico. For starters, it offers to-die-for views of the luminous Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Then there’s the way the town’s low-rise adobe architecture can resemble a dreamscape. Art lovers (and turquoise jewelry collectors) go slack-jawed at the sheer abundance of creativity here. And spiritual seekers have long found Santa Fe to be an ideal place to contemplate the cosmos.
But there’s much more to it than that.
Santa Fe is so unlike any other place on Earth that visitors often feel like they’ve been transported to a different world. (Of course, the high altitude of 7,000 feet and abundance of craft margaritas may contribute to that sensation.)
In fact, the radiant light and chill vibe of this corner of northern New Mexico have long attracted creative types, from Georgia O’Keeffe, who spent most of her life in the area, to more recent residents such as Tom Ford, Ali MacGraw, and Bruce Nauman. Today, Santa Fe continues to draw a certain free-spirited visitor, who finds world-class attractions and inventive food in this relatively compact city. (With a population of 84,000, it’s among the smaller state capitals.)
Santa Fe is a seductive place any time of year, but it’s extra special during the holiday season, when twinkling lights, festivities in the central plaza, and skiing are all on offer. Visitors from the Bay Area can enjoy an easy winter getaway here by flying nonstop out of Oakland or San Francisco to Albuquerque, and then driving one hour northeast (or catching the Rail Runner Express train) to reach Santa Fe.
Art for Days
A visit to Santa Fe typically begins with a stroll around the center of town, through the main plaza and past the portals of the Palace of the Governors, where Native American artisans assemble daily to sell handcrafted silver jewelry. The downtown area teems with museums, all in walking distance of one another, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the New Mexico History Museum, and the New Mexico Museum of Art. The latter, one of the best in town, features an excellent collection of New Deal–era works and a peaceful courtyard garden.
The increasingly hip Railyard Arts District, a neighborhood just south of the plaza, is home to some of the most exciting galleries, restaurants, and shops in town. Not to be missed are Site Santa Fe, a highly regarded contemporary arts space, and Tai Modern, which shows the exquisite work of Japanese bamboo artists.
A few miles from the center of town is a locale known as Museum Hill, where four museums and a botanical garden offer a rich cultural experience. Collectively, the museums provide a deep dive into the various influences that shaped this region, from the contributions of indigenous people and folk artists to the legacies of the Spanish Colonial period. Of all the treasures found on this hill, one of the most intriguing is an exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art called Multiple Visions: A Common Bond. The gift of designer Alexander Girard, who lived in Santa Fe from the 1950s until his death in 1993, this collection of more than 100,000 miniatures, toys, tableaux, and tiny villages is utterly absorbing.
Another type of artistic immersion can be had along Canyon Road, a picturesque, winding lane that’s packed to the hilt with galleries and boutiques. It’s a half-mile to a mile stroll, with artworks visible through every window and door. With some 100 galleries, you can expect a wide range of quality, ranging from the masterful to the kitschy (if you want, say, a painting of a lonely burro at sunset, this is the place to find one.)
If you have the good fortune to spend the holidays here, don’t miss Christmas Eve on Canyon Road, which hosts one of the town’s most beloved traditions, the Farolito Walk. Farolitos, or luminarias as they are often called, are little lanterns made out of brown paper bags, sand, and votive candles. Every December 24 at dusk, thousands of people come to experience Canyon Road illuminated by farolitos, when it’s transformed into a glowing wonderland.
The Meow Wolf Effect
The cultural landscape in Santa Fe, so steeped in history and indigenous arts, changed dramatically in 2016, when an edgy local artists’ collective known as Meow Wolf unleashed their radical vision upon the world. The young creators wanted to shake up the scene with a project that would be multisensory and weird, a total experience that would transport visitors to, as they describe it, a "multiverse."
The artists found an abandoned bowling alley in the southern reaches of Santa Fe and set about transforming it into a large-scale installation they called House of Eternal Return. Consisting of some 70 interconnected spaces, with hidden passages, secret stairs, interactive technology, and "portals" where you’d least expect them, the House of Eternal Return recalls the fantasy of reaching Narnia through the back of a wardrobe—but it is infinitely trippier. Here, you can step inside a refrigerator, crawl into a fireplace, or slip into a washing machine to encounter a phantasmagoria that defies description.
To launch the project, the Meow Wolf artists enlisted the support of none other than George R.R. Martin, a longtime Santa Fe resident and creator of the megahit Game of Thrones series. Martin, who says that the artists’ idea to create "a sci-fi world spanning multiple universes … pushed all my buttons," agreed to purchase the bowling alley for the artists; he has now been given the odd but appropriate title of Meow Wolf’s chief world builder.
Today, the House of Eternal Return draws record crowds; many visitors put it at the top of their lists as the reason to visit Santa Fe. And the concept clearly has massive growth potential: Huge Meow Wolf installations will open in Las Vegas in 2020 and Denver in 2021; similar plans for Washington, D.C. and Phoenix are in the works.
For decades, Santa Fe has been known as a food mecca, famous for chili-infused New Mexican classics as well as daring culinary innovations. Many of the restaurants—and their chefs—that first put Santa Fe on the map are still at it, such as the Shed (an authentic southwestern eatery that’s been going strong since 1953), Cafe Pasqual’s (delicious New Mexican fare since 1979), and the Coyote Cafe (serving elevated Southwestern fare since 1987; its sister restaurant, Santacafé, is also an excellent choice).
Compared to these longstanding eateries, 10-year-old Restaurant Martin is a relative newcomer, but it and its celebrity chef, Martin Rios, have amassed accolades for "progressive American cuisine" served in a historic adobe home.
Along Canyon Road are several more time-tested restaurants, including Geronimo (the gold standard of Santa Fe dining for more than two decades) and the Compound, whose chef, Mark Kiffin, earned the James Beard Best Chef of the Southwest award in 2005 for his high-end farm-to-table food.
These restaurants alone make Santa Fe a dining destination that is tough to beat. But check out a few others, especially those in the Railyard District. A top choice in this part of town is Joseph’s Culinary Pub, the place to go for posole verde, duck cassoulet, or a tasty lamb burger.
After hours, visitors won’t find much in the way of nightlife here, but two scenic rooftop bars stand out, both in premier local hotels. One is the Bell Tower, atop the historic La Fonda on the Plaza, which offers cozy seating around firepits, great views, and craft cocktails. Another is Bar Alto, a self-described "island in the sky" on the top floor of Drury Plaza. Live music and a rooftop pool make Bar Alto one of the liveliest spots in town. Either hotel makes a great base for exploring the city; other distinctive lodgings are the luxe Inn of the Five Graces, the charming Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, and the retro-cool El Rey Court.
Nature and Nurture
One of the joys of a wintertime visit to Santa Fe is the chance to enjoy some downhill skiing or snowboarding without going very far afield. In fact, Ski Santa Fe is located just 16 miles from the city, making it possible to go for a half day and be back in time for dinner. There are 86 trails, ranging from easy to expert, over some 660 pristine acres; the ski season runs from Thanksgiving through early April.
After a few hours on the slopes—or even just hiking one of the breathtaking trails in the environs—head back to Santa Fe by way of Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese-inspired oasis where you can enjoy izakaya small plates at the restaurant Izanami, have a restorative massage, or soak in a private hot tub under the stars.
It’s the perfect way to reflect on how Santa Fe—this spectacularly appealing corner of our planet—remains a world apart.
Taos Road Trip
From first-class snow sports to locavore delights, this enchanted town has something for everyone—especially over the holidays.
By Diana Rico
Santa Fe’s small-town cousin, Taos, is just a 90-minute drive away but feels like a step back in time. With a population under 6,000 and a remote location at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Taos is the rare place where the holidays have remained uncommercialized. Take a day trip, and see why Georgia O’Keeffe, D. H. Lawrence, Julia Roberts, and Martha Graham, among others, were captivated by its rugged, mystical charm.
Start your visit at Taos Pueblo, the 1,000-year-old Native American community that’s both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark. The oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States, Taos Pueblo has some wonderful feast days in winter that fuse Native Puebloan and Spanish Catholic traditions: the Procession of the Virgin Mary on Christmas Eve, the Deer Dance or Los Matachines Dance on Christmas Day, and the Turtle Dance on New Year’s Day. Gazing out over the adobe structures and experiencing the power of these ancient rites is something you’ll never forget.
Drive several miles farther, and you’ll come to Taos Ski Valley, currently in the midst of a $300 million revitalization and a must on any snow lover’s itinerary, with its world-class terrain and light powder. For a memorable New Year’s Eve, hit the Torchlight Parade and Fireworks Display, a tradition that begins after dark with skiers holding flares snaking their way down the runs and ends with a fireworks show.
Art lovers won’t want to miss the Millicent Rogers Museum, named after the Standard Oil heiress who amassed a collection of more than 2,000 Native American artifacts after she moved here. Downtown, the Harwood Museum of Art houses works by the early-20th-century Taos Society of Artists, the postwar Taos Moderns who relocated here from San Francisco and New York, and contemporary artists.
End your day by sampling outstanding locavore cuisine at the Love Apple, located in an adobe church from the 1800s, and Common Fire, which features chic minimal decor, a wood-fire hearth, and a friendly vibe. Either would make a terrific stop before heading back to Santa Fe with a head full of magical memories—and perhaps plans for a return trip.
Insider’s Guide to Santa Fe
In-the-know advice on where to have the best culinary, cultural, and shopping experiences.
By Mary Sloane
The culinarily courageous won’t want to miss The Five and Dime General Store, right on the plaza, which offers its world-famous Frito Pie (served in a bag of Fritos, with spicy chile and cheese). Not for everyone, but an iconic nosh. fiveanddimegs.com.
Sage Bakehouse serves a fabulous breakfast or lunch of tartines—toasted open-face sandwiches topped with perfectly scrambled eggs, avocado, and ham—along with homemade soups and salads and the best bread in town. sagebakehouse.com.
On Guadalupe Street, Dolina Cafe and Bakery dishes up breakfast and lunch in a modern yet homey setting. Chef-owner Annamaria O’Brien creates fresh and imaginative variations on the Eastern European food she grew up eating, including many types of eggs, soups, and sweet and savory pastries. dolinasantafe.com.
Vinaigrette offers an array of locally grown greens, which form the basis of the eatery’s delicious salads. Highly recommended are the homemade soups and stews, sandwiches, and desserts. Its sister store, Modern General Feed and Seed, serves up healthy bowls, exotic smoothies, and more. Modern General also has an irresistible selection of housewares, gardening supplies, and intriguing books. vinaigretteonline.com, moderngeneralfeedandseed.com.
Check out Shake Foundation for its original Green Chile Cheeseburger (the perfect size—not too big, but full of flavor) and add the Adobe Mud Shake, which features house-made ice cream. Brian Knox, the chef and owner, also operates the Taco Fundación on Guadalupe Street, providing a casual, innovative take on the taco. shakefoundation.com.
The Second Street Brewery has three locations in Santa Fe, each serving locavore brewpub food and an extensive menu of craft beers. Live music, too. secondstreetbrewery.com.
Joseph’s Culinary Pub is all about local and inventive combinations. Try the Lamb Burger with green chile and sheep’s milk cheese, along with the roasted vegetable ratatouille and a glass of one of the featured wines, and you’ll have a meal to remember and repeat. josephsofsantafe.com.
For first-rate formal dining, Geronimo, on Canyon Road, is the place. The restaurant’s famous Elk Tenderloin merits its reputation, and the seafood and vegetarian entrees are equally delicious. The waitstaff takes great care to make a dinner here a thoroughly enjoyable experience. geronimorestaurant.com.
Finally, visitors won’t want to miss the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado in nearby Tesuque, a 20-minute drive from downtown Santa Fe. It’s a lovely spot for a sunset cocktail and dinner with sweeping views of the Jemez Mountains. fourseasons.com/santafe.
Upstairs on the plaza, the Shiprock Santa Fe gallery is a must-visit for serious collectors and admirers of high-quality Native American rugs, pottery, and silver. Shiprock is family-owned, and Jed Foutz, the current owner, grew up on a Navajo reservation watching his family trade and collect. He and his wife, Samantha, have an eye for color and quality, and their collection of rugs is one of the finest in the region. shiprocksantafe.com.
The two Owings galleries, on Marcy Street and the Palace Avenue, are oases of beauty. Owings has had a presence in downtown Santa Fe for more than 30 years, and the galleries are known for exhibiting the work of leading artists associated with the Santa Fe and Taos art colonies. owingsgallery.com.
On Canyon Road, the Adobe Gallery has one of the best selections of antique and contemporary Native American pottery; the Zaplin Lampert Gallery specializes in Western landscape paintings and prints; and the Morning Star Gallery features exquisite Native American art. Also on Canyon Road is the Ernesto Mayans Gallery, offering a wonderful assortment of art from the United States, Latin America, and Europe; and Chiaroscuro, which showcases contemporary painting, ceramics, photography, and sculpture. adobegallery.com, zaplinlampert.com, morningstargallery.com, ernestomayansgallery.com, chiaroscurosantafe.com.
The Railyard District is home to some of the most exciting arts spaces in town, including the top-notch Site Santa Fe, known for innovative shows of contemporary art and its world-renowned biennials, and Tai Modern, which highlights the magnificent work of Japanese bamboo artists. Gallery Fritz, one of three owned by Santa Fe gallerist Deborah Fritz, exhibits contemporary works by local and national artists, and the William Siegal Gallery features museum-quality textiles and artifacts from South America, Asia, Africa, and Indonesia. Siegal is a genius at including just the right contemporary pieces alongside his ancient treasures. Another top pick in this part of town is Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, which has been showing the finest contemporary American and European art in Santa Fe for 30 years. sitesantafe.org, taimodern.com, galleryfritz.com, williamsiegal.com, charlottejackson.com.
A Santa Fe gem is Todos Santos Chocolates and Confections, located in the historic Sena Plaza. Owner Hayward Simoneaux makes his fine chocolates in-house and packages them in extraordinary, hand-decorated boxes. Simoneaux has an eye for the beautiful, curious, and absurd. If you need a host or hostess gift, you can’t go wrong with a box of Todos Santos chocolates.
Spirit Clothing, on San Francisco Street, has an excellent selection of elegant, laid-back women’s clothing, perfect for the casual-chic look of Santa Fe. The owner travels the world to find her stock and has a special fondness for great Japanese pieces. She also makes her own line of refined clothing, hats, leather accessories, and jewelry.
Next door to Spirit is Corsini Bros, known for handsome Italian wool and linen jackets and stylish menswear.
Also for men is Standard and Strange, which stocks Japanese denim and high-style rugged men’s clothing and accessories in its Galisteo Street space. standardandstrange.com.
High-end shoppers have a lot to choose from at Santa Fe Dry Goods, on the plaza: Issey Miyake, Dries Van Noten, and Marni, to name a few, as well as fine jewelry, shoes, boots, and accessories. (Don’t miss the excellent sale rack.) santafedrygoods.com.
The newest addition to the women’s clothing scene is Toko. Owned by longtime Santa Fe retailer Jill Heppenheimer, Toko offers colorful, structured clothing and accessories from Asia and beyond. Different and refreshing. tokosantafe.com.