Santa Fe, New Mexico, affectionately called “The City Different” for its combination of cultures and architecture, is also the highest altitude capital in the U.S. at 7,199 feet and the oldest capital city, founded between 1607-1610. More important to tourists, it is beautiful and charming.
Recently, I had the peaceful joy of sitting in the 400-year-old plaza in the center of Santa Fe. It was mesmerizing to gaze at the passersby from all over, with an impossibly blue sky overhead. There is a quiet wonder to this small city of 85,000 or so inhabitants, situated in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains, where the historic Camino Real and Santa Fe Trail trade routes meet.
Here, I found an astonishing mix of authentic adobe buildings, the densest concentration of art galleries in the world with over 200, endless acclaimed and award-winning restaurants, as well as 20 museums, such as the one dedicated to American Modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe. In addition, each year Santa Fe hosts the Native, Spanish and International Folk Art markets and the renowned Santa Fe Opera. Travel & Leisure Magazine awarded the #3 slot on its 2020 list of Top 15 Cities in the U.S. to Santa Fe, and it placed on TIME Magazine’s list of the "World's Greatest Places 2021."
Since the 1920s, all new buildings in Santa Fe were ordered to be built with adobe in the Pueblo Indian style, inspiring countless artists and photographers to visit. Today, new buildings may be finished with stucco, but must still have the adobe look. Some authentic buildings even have cutouts showing fragments of straw and pebbles. The Spanish colonial San Miguel Mission, constructed near the same time as the city’s founding, is considered a fine example of genuine adobe.
At sunrise, during my summertime visit, I awoke at the exquisite Hotel La Fonda on the Plaza, marveling over the soft peachy glow of daybreak touching the hotel’s adobe walls. Slowly, the sunlight spread onto the surrounding buildings, pale green junipers and willows beyond the expansive bedside view. Depending on which side of the hotel they’re on, guests look out at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis de Assisi, the historic Loretto Chapel, or the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The La Fonda on the Plaza, a AAA Four Diamond property, is a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Hotels of America. It will celebrate its 100th anniversary in January 2022, with a Centennial Gala on January 22 and other special events, as well as the premiere of its newly upgraded luxury concierge section known as the Terrace Inn at La Fonda. The hotel is the only one located directly on the historic Santa Fe Plaza, and has hosted countless celebrities, politicians and other renowned folks throughout the years. It is akin to a world-class art museum, and considered a must-do destination while in Santa Fe, even for non-guests, hosting free public docent tours daily.
Gastronomy is a foodie’s paradise in Santa Fe. Indeed with restaurants ranging from rustic to high-end white linen bistros, visitors need to pace themselves. Yes, there are the typical New Mexican staples of green chile in just about everything and blue corn as well as pinon nuts all over the place, but there are also endless fusions and eclectic menus spread throughout the city.
Santa Fe is also renowned for its spas, and one blissful evening we visited Ten Thousand Waves, a ‘don’t miss’ oasis in the forested outskirts of town. Here, we felt like we might have ventured to Japan, which is exactly the intent. We luxuriated in our private hot springs pool for 90 minutes, while two raccoons frolicked over us in the pine branches. Ten Thousand Waves features 12 lodge rooms, a Japanese restaurant and full spa services.
Of all the outstanding museums, the New Mexico History Museum sometimes slips under the radar, and that is a mistake. This interactive, socially progressive and inclusive museum is a gem, with a wide array of exhibits ranging from the Santa Fe Trail and the tragic concept of Manifest Destiny, to Buffalo Soldiers, Indian Schools, Billy the Kid, Willa Cather, Fred Harvey restaurants, the Civil War and the history of La Fonda on the Plaza. Savvy visitors might buy a Culture Pass, which includes entry to that museum as well as to the superb Museums of Indian Arts and Culture and International Folk Art and the New Mexico Museum of Art, as well as to other sites in New Mexico.
For those seeking something way out, Meow Wolf, which recently opened a new location in Denver, started out in Santa Fe. This internationally known immersive and interactive sensation has transported two million visitors since 2016 into fantastic realms of story and exploration. A surreal experience, unlike any other!
Looking for a destination unlike anywhere else? Think Santa Fe “The City Different.”