Over the years I’ve spent the holidays in a mix of places, from the exotic beaches of Thailand, to the city streets of New York and of course, the comfort of my family’s home in Northern California. This year, we followed the cool, piñon-scented air to New Mexico. I’d visited the state in the past to see family, but it had been a while (11 years to be exact), so I had admittedly forgotten how cool New Mexico really is. The trip has actually made me realize there are so many neat places in the United States worth exploring. We began our trip in the quaint capital of Santa Fe and ended it in nearby Albuquerque, which is more metropolitan than the former. I hope to visit Taos, Chaco Canyon, White Sands National Monument, and El Santuario de Chimayo on my next trip to New Mexico, which will definitely happen (hopefully sooner rather than later)!
Dubbed a “creative arts hotbed,” the charming capital feels less like a city and more like a village that preserves its origins through the Spanish Pueblo Revival look. The architecture doesn’t depict Anywhere, USA, but instead creates an old world feel with its thick walls of adobe and stucco and flat roofs. It’s actually the oldest city in the state and the oldest state capital city in the United States! Santa Fe draws a ton of out-of-state tourists and it’s easy to see why. Besides the city’s rich history being a highlight, the cluster of art galleries that surround the town square and nearby Canyon Road make it one of the largest art markets in the country.
We stayed at the Inn on the Alameda in Santa Fe, which is a cozy hotel tucked away from all the plaza commotion, but still less than a 10 minute walk away. A huge complimentary breakfast and afternoon happy hour are a few of the perks, as is the main lobby fireplace (below), which makes for the perfect place to enjoy your morning cup of piñon coffee. If you’re looking to be closer to the plaza, other accommodations I’d recommend are the Inn and Spa at Loretto or the Hotel St. Francis.
Shopping in the plaza is a major draw for tourists and locals alike. Unlike the town square in Albuquerque, which consists of mostly affordable souvenirs and trinkets, the price tags in Santa Fe are significantly steeper, so be forewarned. That being said, it’s the ideal place to look for luxury items like turquoise jewelry, sheepskin rugs, cowboy boots, and home decor. Some of my favorite stores include Malouf on the Plaza, Wind River Trading Co., Overland Sheep Co., Santa Maria Provisions, Santa Fe Vintage Outpost, and Detours at La Fonda.
The La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site is home to one of the largest collections of Native rock art in the American West. It’s a short hike off the Paseo Real (10 minutes at the most), making for an easy outdoor activity if you’re pressed for time. We went just before dinner as the sun was setting and it felt great to stretch our legs and take in some Santa Fe history. By no means does it measure up to cliff sites like Mesa Verde, but its accessibility and simple beauty make it worth a quick visit.
Religion is important to the community, but the architecture of the Cathedral (above) and the Loretto Chapel (below) can be appreciated regardless of your beliefs. I highly recommend visiting the gorgeous and mysterious Loretto Chapel if you have half an hour to spare. There are many theories about its “Miraculous Staircase,” which has two 360 degree turns and no visible means of support. It has been said that the staircase was built without nails – only wooden pegs. You’ll have to decide the physics of its construction yourself!
If you’re celebrating a birthday or simply looking to enjoy an upscale dinner while in Santa Fe, it’s imperative that you get a reservation at Geronimo’s. Located on Canyon Road amidst dozens of impressive art galleries, Geronimo’s will give you a break from all the Southwest cooking. Once inside, you are greeted by a warm fireplace and a romantic, dimly-lit atmosphere you won’t want to leave. The wine list and menu are just as impressive as the atmosphere and the service is superb. It was easily my favorite meal of the trip!
The menu made it hard to choose an entree, but I went with my first instinct and ordered the Tellicherry Rubbed Elk Tenderloin; it was divine and the garlic mashed potatoes and brandied mushrooms complimented the meat. Others ordered the Mesquite Grilled Lobster Tails, the Grilled Rack of Lamb, and the NY Strip Steak.
We ordered a spread of artfully-displayed desserts out of sheer indecisiveness; everything sounded too amazing not to pass up! The trio of crème brulee was my favorite, as was the banana cream pie with coffee anglaise and meyer lemon & white chocolate mousse “pillow” (not pictured).
The Shed is a colorful, highly-accoladed (James Beard Award, among others) restaurant just off the plaza that can be near-impossible to get a table at. After failing to get in without having to wait 2+ hours on our first attempt, we lined up right as it opened for lunch the following day. The menu is traditional, no-fuss New Mexican cuisine – think blue corn burritos, carne adovada, and enchiladas laden with red or green chile.
If you find yourself needing a sweet, mid-day pick-me-up, stop in to cozy The French Pastry Shop inside the La Fonda Hotel. Among their French crepes and pastries, they also bake Biscochitos, a New Mexican classic cookie you have to try. I’m partial to my grandma’s, but these satisfied my sweet cravings. Pair it with their hot chocolate sprinkled with cinnamon for an ideal treat on a nippy afternoon.
Just off the plaza, La Casa Sena Wine Shop is a neat place to pop into after a day of shopping for New Mexican goods. The shop, which looks small at first but spans a few rooms, has received the Wine Spectator’s “Best Award of Excellence” for 18 consecutive years. What I love most is that La Casa Sena doesn’t care about scores or points; they buy what they like, which often doesn’t include those 90+ point bottles everyone has heard about. Though you probably won’t have room in your luggage for a bottle, you may consider perusing their shelves in search of one to bring to a dinner out in Santa Fe.
Albuquerque is the opposite of Santa Fe in that it’s much more metropolitan. The city is also a tourist draw, hosting the the world’s largest gathering of hot-air balloons from around the globe each October. The Sandía Mountains and tram, which is the world’s second-longest passenger aerial tramway, is another major highlight. If you’re longing for that historic feel amidst the skyscrapers and bustling freeways, wander over to Old Town Albuquerque. The shops are mostly souvenir-based, but they’re worth perusing if you have a few hours to spare.
As far as hotels go, you’ll want to book a room at Hotel Chaco. Situated in the heart of Albuquerque in the Historic Old Town, Hotel Chaco will give your visit to the Southwest a contemporary spin. The rooms are so spacious, not to mention gorgeous, even in their modern, minimalistic design.
Find time to head up to the rooftop bar and restaurant, Level 5, ideally just as the sun is starting to set. It’s a sophisticated spot to sip killer cocktails and enjoy the panoramic views of the Sandía Mountains and downtown skyline. We didn’t make the tram trip up the Sandías this time, but I recommend it to anyone visiting for the first time; “Sandía” means watermelon in Spanish and it is a popular belief that the name refers to the reddish color of the mountains at sunset, as seen above.
Spur Line Supply Co. hasn’t been open long, but I have a good feeling it will be. It’s one of those trendy, eclectic, Instagram-worthy stores that could easily do well in a city like Los Angeles. Spur Line is arranged as a series of vignettes (think pop-up shops), ranging from apothecary and home decor, to apparel and stationary. There are even shops that sell neat vinyl records and gorgeous florals! The end result is a store that has an Urban Outfitters-meets-Anthropologie feel with just the right amount of high desert attitude. Though I could have easily bought something from each section, I picked up a botanical beauty oil from Dryland Wilds (Sagebrush + Snakeweed oil here) and the cutest kid’s t-shirt from Luna Y Luz as a gift.
Old Barrel Tea Co. is a female run, family business just off Old Town Albuquerque’s main square. I would have missed it if it weren’t for my mom discovering it and I’m so glad she did because I’m a huge fan! There’s literally a tea for everyone, whether you like green or oolong, black or white. We were sold on the Lavender Creme Brûlée, which happened to be the sample tea of the day and it’s easily one of the best teas I’ve ever had; it’s a rooibos tea made with natural creme brûlée flavor, lavender, and blue cornflowers. Add a touch of milk or cream and it quickly becomes a warm, indulgent treat! You can opt for a tin of the loose leaf teas (below) or go big with their filled mason jars.
*Note: Though I’m sure there are a number of exquisite restaurants in Albuquerque, we kept it pretty casual during our short stay here and ate with family. If you’re looking for a good breakfast, stop in to Little Anita’s; I’m partial to the Huevos Rancheros with extra sopapillas drizzled with honey! They were so good, I didn’t even get a chance to snap a photo before I devoured them. But perhaps the best, most special meal was the posole and menudo our relatives made for our short visit.
I didn’t eat this entire box of doughnuts on my own, but I probably could have! By the time we stopped into the Rebel Donut shop, which was recommended to us by family, nearly all of the doughnuts were gone; however, buying this pre-arranged box was a smart idea for our big group. Rebel Donut is known for creating a doughnut inspired by the hit show Breaking Bad; fans will remember that it was filmed in Albuquerque and the “Blue Sky” doughnut features blue rock candy as a nod to the show’s subject. My favorites were the Fruity Pebbles-topped doughnut and the Biscochito doughnut (not pictured).
There’s a definite learning curve that comes with traveling someplace new. Here are some additional tips that may be useful for your New Mexico travels:
Some restaurants/bars are very strict about I.D.’s. Even though I’m over 21, one particular restaurant (Santa Café) would not serve me alcohol simply because I have a vertical license. My California I.D. states in bold, red font that I am well over 21 and that my license doesn’t need to be renewed to horizontal form until 2019, but none of that mattered to this particular restaurant. It may have gotten me through airport security and into every bar I’ve ever been to, but I learned the hard way that New Mexico is strict. I didn’t have this issue at other places we went to; however, each person who checked my I.D. did so with obvious skepticism. Be mindful of this if you’re planning on drinking!
After hearing rave reviews and seeing the outrageous line of people at Meow Wolf, a contemporary art installation that offers an immersive experience, we spent about an hour outside in line alongside other tourists. When we finally got inside, we quickly realized Meow Wolf was not our cup of tea. The combination of people and tight spaces made it a challenging experience, not to mention the bizarre storyline that simultaneously confused and creeped me out. Although I’ve never thought of myself as a germaphobe or a claustrophobe, Meow Wolf made these phobias come alive. I would have much rather spent the morning at the Georgia O’ Keefe museum and called it a day!
The chile is spicier than you may think! Even if you’re used to spice, New Mexico chiles are whole different fiery story. Typically, the green chile is less spicy than the red, but you may want to ask for samples before getting that enchilada slathered in it.