Santa Fe’s Must-See Southwestern Sites

Visit historical attractions and museums, shop like mad and go hiking in the United States’ oldest capital city.


Santa Fe, N.M., is the oldest capital city in the United States and thought by many to be the most charming. It was founded in 1607 by Spanish conquistadors, later became headquarters for rulers of the northernmost colony of Mexico when that nation won its independence from Spain in 1821, and came under U.S. control in 1846.

Today it retains its Spanish and Mexican appearance, with winding paved and unpaved red dirt roads lined with sand or pink colored homes, shops and offices behind rounded adobe walls. The look of Santa Fe is by design—local authorities in the early 20th century declared that all buildings, even new ones, must conform to the historic “pueblo” or “territorial” styles.

Santa Fe is also an art hot spot in the Southwest, with more than a half-dozen world-class museums, a cathedral made famous by an American literary novel, thriving contemporary art and crafts galleries, and two major summer music festivals. It proudly celebrates its three distinct cultures: Spanish, Indian and “Anglo,” the common term for latecomers from mainstream white America.

On top of all this, Santa Fe, which is an hour north of the state’s biggest city and primary airport, Albuquerque, is an outdoor activities center of breathtaking natural beauty. Stunningly situated in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at an altitude of 7,000 feet, it features multihued sunsets each evening and lures visitors to its ski area in the winter and its hiking trails in the summer   

Historic Attractions

The downtown Santa Fe Plaza is like no other. It represents the end of the Camino Real, the route used to link Spanish colonies, as well as the end of the Santa Fe Trail, which was the main avenue of commerce between the states east of the Missouri River and the Southwest in the 19th century.

In the center of the plaza is a Soldiers’ Monument, dedicated in 1867 to those who died in wars with Native American tribes during the contentious years before statehood in 1912.

On the north side of the plaza stands the Palace of the Governors, the oldest public building in the United States and site of its first government. The Palace was already 200 years old when the White House was being built. Along its portal, or porch, Native American artisans continue a tradition of selling handmade jewelry and other wares. The Palace contains historical archives and exhibitions. It is the centerpiece of a history “campus,” which includes the New Mexico History Museum officially opened in May 2009.

Steps from the plaza, past the La Fonda Hotel, is the soaring St. Francis Cathedral, built in the late 19th century not in homage to the hacienda or territorial architecture, but in Romanesque revival style. A statue in front portrays the French archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, who had grand designs for reforming what he viewed as a straying Catholic flock that leaned toward heretical local worship. He is the model for the lead character in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, one of the most famous historical novels in American literature. Copies are sold in a museum shop just inside the entrance.

On a nearby street called Old Santa Fe trail is the Loretto Chapel, another Gothic structure built under Lamy’s direction. Inside is its “miracle” spiral staircase, a wooden flight of steps that makes two turns without a center beam. It was long ago desanctified, but still functions as a favorite place for weddings and as a magnet for tourists.

Shopping and Art Galleries

Canyon Road, which begins at the ring road called Paseo de Peralta, is Santa Fe’s best-known gallery haven, a half-mile packed with art galleries and restaurants. At Christmastime, visitors who stroll the street listen to carolers and warm their hands on many a corner over fires built in barrels.

The Railyard District, a short walk from the plaza, is a shopping, dining, gallery and transportation center reclaimed from freight and industrial yards. In season, Santa Fe hosts a large indoor and outdoor farmers market on Saturdays, featuring chile, organic produce and other items from New Mexico growers. The old train station, which was used by passengers from east and west who arrived in Santa Fe along a rail spur from the town of Lamy, 18 miles southeast of town, now is the boarding point for two different train lines.

Besides its vast number of art galleries on Canyon Road and elsewhere, Santa Fe shopping options include amazing clothing boutiques, cowboy boot shops, Nambe shops with gorgeous tableware and decorative items in both glass and an unusual metal compound, Collected Works (a great bookstore filled with titles linked to the Southwest and the wider world), and Jackalope—a filled-to-the-brim home objects and rug shop with a New Mexico flavor. The best advice: just stroll side streets near the plaza, on Guadalupe Street near the Railyard district, and you will find treasures. 

Walking tours of the downtown and other areas, conducted by such companies as Historic Walks of Santa Fe, are especially helpful in appreciating the city’s architecture and history.


Even with a population of just 144,000 in the entire county, Santa Fe is home to many world-class museums. The New Mexico History Museum, which opened in May 2009, is a perfect starting point for visitors who seek an enjoyable, interactive introduction to this unique part of the Southwest. Located directly behind the Palace of the Governors, its permanent exhibit, “Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now” covers six broad time periods. It presents a panorama starting with the ancient Native American tribes that flourished before the arrival of Europeans and ends with the social movements and changes of recent years.

Also downtown Santa Fe museums are: the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which houses a collection of exquisite works by one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, who made New Mexico her home; the Museum of Fine Arts, devoted to works by New Mexico artists, which also houses St. Francis Auditorium, where many concerts of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival are given during the summer; and the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, opposite St. Francis Cathedral, which presents great contemporary Native American works. 

On a bluff along Camino Lejo a short drive from the Plaza are four more great museums. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture holds a wide-ranging, lovely collection of works from ancestral Puebloans who lived at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde all the way to present-day artists in clay, painting, handicrafts and sculpture. The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art features works of folk art, retablos, santeros and other elements from the period of Spanish contact.

The Museum of International Folk Art is a large collection of international pieces. The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian has a fine collection of artworks by Navajo and other tribes as well as a wonderful gift shop designed as a trading post.

Performing Arts

Every summer, the Santa Fe Opera, a handsome protected but open-air venue located on a hillside with a spectacular view just north of town, features internationally known vocalists and a top-notch orchestra performing five operas (usually at least one of them a premiere) in repertory.

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, from mid-July through late August, features world-renowned soloists who perform at the auditorium in the Fine Arts Museum and the lovely restored Lensic Performing Arts Center, originally built in 1931, also near the plaza.

Hiking and the Outdoors

The city’s Dale Ball Trail system is a network of excellent hiking and mountain biking trails that begin within the city limits just a short drive from the plaza. High above town in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains a half-hour drive from downtown is Ski Santa Fe!, a complete downhill skiing area during the winter months, with 660 acres of runs served by six lifts. In the summer, numerous trails in Hyde Memorial State Park beckon hikers and mountain bikers.


December, 2008, saw the Santa Fe Depot in the Railyard become the terminus for the New Mexico Rail Runner, which transports commuters and tourists from Albuquerque and towns to the south of it in handsome, double-decked railcars with a bright red and yellow stylized bird beak logo emblazoned on the side (the roadrunner for which it is named is the official state bird).

The Railrunner offers visitors a scenic, cheap way to travel to and from Santa Fe from the Albuquerque Sunport (connected to the downtown Albuquerque rail station by a free shuttle bus) without renting a car. It costs adults $6 (seniors and students $4, children under 10 free) for a one-way trip and makes several roundtrips every day except Sundays.

The Santa Fe Depot is the starting point as well for the Santa Fe Southern Railway, a set of vintage locomotives and cars that runs between the Lamy depot and Santa Fe. The old railcars make the 18-mile journey in four hours roundtrip on selected days, and also do special events, including a Friday evening “High-Desert Highball” run with a complimentary bar and a Sunday Barbeque run.

Destinations: Santa Fe

Themes: Art and Museums, Shopping

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Shopping, Sightseeing

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