Day Trips & Beyond: Santa Fe, N.M.

Art and food in the enchanting city of Santa Fe

Santa Fe holds a special allure to anyone who has visited or ever thought about exploring the Land of Enchantment. Surrounded by mountains with a mild desert climate and the soft architecture of the adobe buildings, it is a city with a charm all its own.

The vivid colors of New Mexico have attracted artists for centuries. The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe opened in 1917. The architecture of the building mimics the look of historic adobe churches around the state and inspired the Pueblo Revival-style of construction around the capital city. (Photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

Once the summer crowds have dissipated, Santa Fe’s beauty as a world-class city really shines. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to call it the New Orleans of the Southwest (or NOLA the Santa Fe of the bayous). Both cities have a lively culture all their own. Both are inviting, proud, and exciting.

For Santa Fe, the central industry is art, while in New Orleans, it is music. Both cities are culinary wonderlands with their own specialties. In either place you can find a rich history that goes back to before the founding of the nation.

If art is the soul of Santa Fe, then Canyon Road must be the heart. In the space of a half mile more than 100 galleries and shops display the finest of regional artisans. From wine-bottle stoppers to multi-ton outdoor sculptures, the artists present a range of shopping opportunities. Canyon Road is a few blocks southeast of the world-famous Santa Fe Plaza.

The New Mexico state capital boasts more than 250 galleries with most within a four-block radius of the central business district. The neighborhood southwest of the historic Plaza houses an array of galleries and shops. And of course, the daily Native American market along the northern edge of the Plaza is a great source for turquoise jewelry.

The mind-bending experience of Meow Wolf offers a one-of-a-kind experience that all ages can enjoy. Get your timed tickets online before arriving to avoid the lines. Then explore to your heart’s content. (Photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

Nothing announces the new wave of arts to Santa Fe like Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, 1352 Rufina Cir., an interactive cave of illusions and fun for all ages. George R.R. Martin, the author of the popular Game of Thrones series, purchased the old bowling alley on the southwest side of town for the art cooperative to experiment with building the innovative playhouse. The group is now looking to expand to Denver, Colo., and Las Vegas, Nev. Rumors say that plans to place a permanent Meow Wolf installation in Austin have been put on hold.

Martin has become somewhat of an ambassador for Santa Fe since moving here in the 1970s. His pet project, the Jean Cocteau Cinema, 418 Montezuma Ave., presents an assortment of arthouse films and lectures with famous authors. The lounge and coffee shop is a hip place to hang out. There is a chance you will run into Martin when he takes a break from writing; he has an office upstairs. The theatre also sells autographed copies of Martin’s books.

Santa Fe is a very walkable city, although few streets seem to go parallel or perpendicular with each other. Since the local taxi company went out of business, ride-sharing apps provide a necessary service to visitors. The city transit company connects the outer neighborhoods to the downtown Plaza. To get to the most popular spots around downtown, Museum Hill, and Canyon Road, hop on and off the free Santa Fe Pick-up shuttle.

A short walk from the Jean Cocteau Cinema is the Railyard District. Home to the Farmers' Market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, it is a great place to start the morning with fresh pastries and hot coffee to the smell of roasting chiles.

With more than 200 independent restaurants in Santa Fe, it’s not hard to find a meal to satisfy any appetite. The Food Network’s TV show Best Ever featured Tia Sophia’s breakfast burrito as one of the best breakfast meals in the nation. (Photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

A true Santa Fe breakfast means red or green chiles on almost anything. Tia Sophia’s Restaurant, 210 W. San Francisco St., attracts locals and visitors with a New Mexican and American breakfast and lunch menu. A couple of blocks off the Plaza, it is a small place with the ambience of a neighborhood breakfast joint. Serving since 1975, this traditional eatery is where the term “Christmas” was coined for those who couldn’t decide whether to have red or green chiles on their eggs. “Red and green or Christmas” became the state’s official answer to every New Mexican server’s favorite question.

Of the more than 200 independently owned local restaurants in Santa Fe (the city of 84,000 boasts more than 450 eateries), everyone has their favorites. The menus cover a wide range of items from steaks to vegetarian, but visitors would be remiss if they don’t sample the local cuisine. A breed apart from Tex-Mex or regional Mexican, New Mexican fare takes full advantage of the indigenous chiles. The green chiles tend to be hotter than the red, but both are rich in flavor and don’t have to be overwhelmingly spicy.

Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant, the Plaza Cafe, has offered a varied menu with authentic New Mexican dishes since 1905. At the southwest corner of the Plaza, the dining room can get crowded during meal times, so opting for a late lunch can decrease your wait time. Or take a short drive to their second location on the south side at 3466 Zafarano Dr., off Cerrillos Road. Same great menu without the crowds.

Hidden away in a neighborhood a few blocks north of the Plaza, we found Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill, 301 Jefferson St., an inexpensive taco and hamburger joint that my grandsons loved. The green chile burger was one of the best I tried, and the tacos and burritos were made with delicious and generous portions.

Chef Allen Smith at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, 125 N. Guadalupe St., says that corn is the foundation of Southwestern cooking. Nearly all of the recipes he uses in his traditional cooking class include some form of corn, from masa to posole. In their 30th year of showcasing the local cuisine, the school hosts cooking demonstrations that end with the students eating what is prepared. Even if you don’t attend a class, their gift shop carries a mixture of cooking utensils and spices that is hard to find in one place.

Framed by mountains and unique architecture, the New Mexico sunsets always seem to be spectacularly colorful. New Mexicans claim the beautiful sunsets are because of clean air, no pollution, and lots of refractive particulate in the air. (Photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

New Mexico is famous for its beautiful red, gold, and orange sunsets. They even put it on their state flag – known as the Zia. Anywhere is a good place to see the sunset, but a rooftop bar is all the better.

The site of La Fonda on the Plaza, 101 E. San Francisco St., has been a hotel (la fonda means “the inn” in Spanish), as far back as 1609. The current version was built in the 1920s in the Pueblo Revival style that has come to define Santa Fe architecture. Visiting the lobby and first-floor shops is worth the time just to see the murals and artwork. The hotel’s fifth-floor Bell Tower Rooftop Bar is one of the best places in the city to watch the sun drop behind the mountains. Try their signature Mana Margarita made with top-shelf tequila and a special house mix for a smooth drink to go with the appetizers.

Looking toward the northeast, the sunset lights up the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From the rooftop bar at the Drury Plaza Hotel, 828 Paseo del Peralta, the peaks are bathed in colorful light at sundown. The Bar Alto on the fifth floor of the former hospital building delivers a full bar and food service. Guests of the hotel can soak in the rooftop pool or hot tub while watching the spectacle.

Whether for a weekend, a week, or longer, Santa Fe is a unique and beautiful place to explore. With more than a dozen major museums, the city provides a cultural experience, from Georgia O’Keeffe originals to Native American history and one-of-a-kind collections of folk art. Surrounded by national forests, the central New Mexican city is a great place to start an outdoor adventure. The Land of Enchantment provides a lifetime of art, food, history, and adventures.

Gerald McLeod has been traveling around Texas and beyond for his "Day Trips" column for more than 25 years. Keep up to date with his journeys on his archive page.

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Day Trips, New Mexico travel, Santa Fe, Canyon Road, Meow Wolf, Jean Cocteau Cinema, George R.R. Martin, Railyard District, Tia Sophia’s Restaurant, Plaza Cafe, Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill, Chef Allen Smith, Santa Fe School of Cooking, La Fonda on the Plaza, Bell Tower Rooftop Bar

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