In Santa Fe, the high is natural.
The New Mexican city’s 7,000 feet of elevation make it the highest state capital in the United States. For some, a visit to this earthy, luminous place will require an altitude adjustment. I discovered this as I ascended the Sun Mountain Trail, a rugged, rocky hike on one of the mountains surrounding Santa Fe’s downtown huddle of adobe buildings.
A quarter of the way up, I found myself short of breath, prompting the first of many necessary stops. My wife, indefatigable and sweat-free in the arid desert climate, could have summited the mountain with nary a stop. The same could be said for the locals traipsing past us, most led by scruffy dogs bee-lining toward the peak amid the screeching soundtrack of unseen cicadas.
I didn’t feel too out of place, however, because taking your breath away is what the city is all about. Santa Fe is famous for its sunsets, where the fragile light casts an incandescent glow over the high desert, over the soaring centuries-old cathedrals, over the bronze sculptures towering like sentinels on what seems like every street corner of the densely clustered downtown. Aside, perhaps, from one of the area’s many rooftop bars, there’s no better way to enjoy this soothing blanket of gold than when positioned on a rock with a view.
This climate, which is literally healing—Santa Fe was one of the country’s most desirable places to convalesce from the tuberculosis outbreaks in the 1920s and ‘30s—has attracted artists, writers and dreamers from D.H. Lawrence to Georgia O’Keeffe, who found inspiration and calm in its uncanny light, exotic vegetation and mystical ambience.
Countless painters, sculptors and designers have continued to flock to Santa Fe, and today, art, craft and commerce coexist everywhere you look. Santa Fe is the nation’s third-largest art market, with more than 250 galleries muscling for visitor dollars, in addition to 15 nonprofit museums, in a city of 70,000. The district known as Canyon Road is the most abundant art haven, with 80 to 100 galleries in a walkable half-mile that remains Santa Fe’s top attraction per TripAdvisor.
Its march toward visual-art ubiquity began long before O’Keeffe popularized New Mexico’s erotic flowers and ripply mountains for the broader art world. Thanks to contributions from indigenous Americans, art has been woven into Santa Fe’s fabric for centuries. Dating back at least to 900 CE, members of the Pueblo, Plains and Najavo tribes designed beadwork, jewelry, pottery and textiles, a craftsmanship that endures today. The historic outdoor Plaza at the city center, built in 1610, still teems with jovial artisans, most native Americans , selling their wares directly on the bustling brick sidewalk, flea market style and without tables, to the soundtrack of buskers and, sometimes, full bands. Prices vary wildly, so if you’re seeking some of the city’s trademark Native American turquoise earrings or pendants, shop around before committing.
Even the city’s most historic hotel, La Fonda on the Plaza, is a de facto art museum. Three years’ shy of its 100th birthday, La Fonda has a wild and woolly history; the Pueblo Revival building has been the site of two murders and a hanging, and not coincidentally, it’s said to be haunted by three ghosts. The Los Alamos scientists stayed at La Fonda during the time of the Manhattan Project, and Robert Oppenheimer was known to regale hotel guests with tall tales. Albert Einstein stayed at the hotel, too; if you take its engrossing docent tour, you’ll see a photo of the physicist in native headdress circa 1930.
La Fonda also has been collecting art since its inception. Its handful of owners has amassed more than 400 works, a number that continues to grow, mostly from Native American artists. Original artwork hangs in every room in La Fonda; ours included a woodcut from outsider artist Jonathan Kendall, who created his totemic portraits on found wood. According to Donna, one of the hotel’s docents, Kendall was a strange fellow. “He seemed to have no moral compass,” she says. “He lived in monasteries when he wasn’t in jail.” But he was a blazingly original artist, and like other regional talents, he bartered his work for room and board at La Fonda.
A craftsmanship of a different kind greets guests of the Inn of the Five Graces, voted in 2019 as the No. 1 city hotel in the U.S. by Travel + Leisure. This resort, complete with a spa, and a charming outdoor courtyard with a burbling fountain, is the decadent brainchild of local business owners, interior designers and power couple Ira and Sylvia Seret.
Each distinct room the Inn is awash in treasures from the historic Silk Road that once linked Europe and Asia—exotic rugs, antiques and textiles imported from Afghanistan and Pakistan, not unlike ones the owners sell in their nearby shop, Seret & Sons. There’s a kiva fireplace in each suite, the sinks are made from marble, and mosaic art from natural crystals is etched into the walls and countertops.
Santa Fe boasts a generous trove of outdoor activities—you can even ski it in the winter—and historical and holy sites, but if we seemed to bump into art at every turn, it’s partly because we organized the trip as an art pilgrimage, with invaluable assistance from the folks at Tourism Santa Fe. Here are just a few of its don’t-miss destinations for cultural nourishment.
Meow Wolf: The House of Eternal Return
1352 Rufina Circle; 505/395-6369, santafe.meowwolf.com
“The House of Eternal Return,” a permanent installation by the local art collective known as Meow Wolf, is revolutionizing the concept of immersive art. Part museum, part theme park, part escape room, part live-action video game, “The House of Eternal Return” is a 72-room exhibition housed in a 30,000-square-foot former bowling alley the artists renovated at a cost of $2.7 million. You can spend hours inside and not see everything.
Meow Wolf’s artists have backgrounds in theatre, and they supplemented the exhibit with a storyline as mysterious and open-ended as the structure itself. You enter the exhibition through a conventional-looking Victorian manor that once housed the nuclear Pastore family—mom, dad, twin son and daughter, gerbil (the gerbil is pivotal to the strange goings-on). Once you’re in, the options are boundless. Many attempt to solve the enigma of the missing inhabitants by piecing clues together from staticky TV broadcasts, correspondence jammed into desks and scrawled in bedroom diaries, obtuse missives tacked onto corkboards.
Others just enjoy the wild ride, which involves walking through refrigerators and into the quantum multiverse, with its literal halls of mirrors, its bookshelves that double as secret doors, its human-sized traversable fish tank, its display of harvested hearts. The members of Meow Wolf create art everywhere that meets the eye, but certain rooms reveal large-scale pleasures. Find the cave with giant dinosaur bones protruding from the sides like teeth, and compose music on them with the sledgehammer nearby. Discover the floating, triangle-shaped harp, playable through the invisible lasers that surround it—just wave your hand through the ether and make beautiful noise.
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
217 Johnson St.; 505/946-1000, okeeffemuseum.org
The master’s legacy is celebrated at her namesake museum, which features nine galleries divided by theme, space and time. It’s an essential visit for newbies and O’Keeffe cultists alike. Not only does it unearth lesser-known forays in O’Keeffe’s evolution—like her experiments with pointillism, cubism and found-object canvases like that of a recycled Chevrolet headlight—but it exhibits her most-famous watercolors in all their radiant, uninhibited, larger-than-life intimacy. Think the anatomical suggestiveness of “Bleeding Heart;” the alien energy of “Black Hollyhock Blue Larkspur;” the serpentine suggestiveness of “Trees in Autumn.”
Museum of International Folk Art
706 Camino Lejo; 505/476-1200, internationalfolkart.org
Open since 1953 and home to the world’s largest collection of folk art, this spot is situated on idyllic Museum Hill, where it is steps away from a botanical garden and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. It is home to the permanent exhibition “Multiple Visions: A Common Bond,” which has drawn more than a million visitors in its more than 25-year run.
A labor of joy from the maximalist vision of the late artist and designer Alexander Girard, “Multiple Visions” features more than 10,000 individual pieces creating a simulacrum of virtually the entire world. More than 100 countries on six continents are represented through countless dioramas of people, animals, places and objects created from clay, wood, paper, cloth and plastic. The scenes depict religious rituals, busy waterways, grand suppers and enchanted castles, and they run from the size of shoeboxes to nearly the width of the gallery.
Girard is the Cecil B. DeMille of artists, and “Multiple Visions” is among the cinematic exhibitions I’ve experienced. Traverse its mazy layout, and don’t forget to look toward the ceiling and down at your feet: No space is unused.
New Mexico State Capitol building
490 Old Santa Fe Trail; 505/986-4589, nmlegis.gov/visitors
With so many museums and galleries from which to choose, it’s easy for a government venue like the State Capitol building to fall through visitors’ cracks. Don’t let this happen. The edifice, known as the “Roundhouse” for its circular pathways around a towering atrium, has been collecting and displaying New Mexican art since 1991. It showcases hundreds of works, at no cost to visitors, along the circumference of three floors.
My favorite piece in the building is Holly Hughes’ “Buffalo,” the sort of assemblage that stops you in your tracks. From afar, it’s an accurate, imposing likeness of the titular beast. Up close, the materials come into focus—newspapers, pottery shards, fishing reels, lantern parts, horseshoes, nails, netting, film strips, paintbrushes, each object chosen for a specific sociopolitical purpose. It’s undergirded by a message of reuse, of conserving resources, of preserving Gaia.
For all of Santa Fe’s emphasis on markets—on art as commerce, and vice versa—works like “Buffalo,” offered not for sale but for cultural enrichment, in the (hopefully still) hallowed halls of local government, embody a passion for creativity that has long been embedded in the city’s firmament. It is hard to imagine the state government of, say, Tallahassee, accruing a collection of original art with such gusto. After a visit to Santa Fe, it’s just as hard to imagine a building—any building—that isn’t alive with the painting, chiseling, molding and stitching that is the city’s lifeblood.
New Mexican cuisine would be a much milder place without the chile pepper. Two-thirds of the chilies in the U.S. are grown on 15,000 acres in New Mexico, and at local restaurants, it provides the dominant spice on everything from breakfast dishes to hamburgers to chocolate. Red and green chilies tickle different taste buds, but if you want to order like a local, ask for “Christmas” seasoning, and enjoy a little of both.
You’ll learn facts like these, and countless more, on one of Santa Fe’s culinary walking tours, such as the “Off the Beaten Path” food tour from Wander New Mexico. The tour includes four stops—for appetizers, an entrée, a dessert and margaritas—and includes a visit to the city’s storied Farmers’ Market, the crown jewel of its once-blighted, now fashionable Railyard District. On Saturdays, the Market is elbow-to-elbow with, tour guide Lauren Slaff says, “every social butterfly who lives in Santa Fe, and every tourist.” Go on Tuesday, when the crowd is thinner, and pick up a chile-infused pocket of flavor-rich bread from the quirky vendor Intergalactic Bread Company.
Other recommended dining spots:
Kakawa Chocolate House specializes in one-of-a-kind chocolate elixirs—an upscale spin on humble hot chocolate—from recipes once favored by Mayan and Aztec warriors. Its 16 flavors include the rose-flavored Tonantzin; the Mayan Full Spice, with 17 herbs; and the Jeffersonian, studded with the Founding Father’s favorite spice, nutmeg. (1050 Paseo de Paralta, 505/982-0388)
The casual Upper Crust Pizza has been a Santa Fe staple for four decades, offering a wide variety of specialty and bespoke pies, which are greasy and flavor-forward. Get yours, naturally, with green chile, and no tabletop condiments will be necessary. Sit on the outdoor beer garden and enjoy the nightly acoustic guitarist. (329 Old Santa Fe Road, 505/982-0000)
Open for breakfast and lunch, the laid-back downtown diner Tia Sophia’s has been whetting the appetites of locals and in-the-know tourists for nearly 45 years. Order the breakfast burrito, the huevos rancheros or the artrisco plate—a chile stew with two eggs and a flour tortilla—which arrive smothered in the spicy chile sauce that gives Santa Fe its unique character.
For Santa Fe visitors with even a casual interested in extraterrestrials, Roswell is a worthwhile getaway; for UFO freaks like yours truly, it’s pretty much Mecca. About a two hours’ drive from Santa Fe, Roswell is the site of what remains the most famous alleged UFO crash in American history.
The object touched down in July 1947, and was soon immortalized in Roswell’s Daily Record newspaper with the headline “RAAF (Roswell Army Air Field) Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region.” The government quickly offered a more prosaic explanation but, buttressed by rigorous research, witness testimony and even some physical evidence, ufologists have continued to suggest a cover-up.
The extent to which this incident has permeated everyday life in Roswell cannot be overstated. ETs litter the landscape, from the inflatable ones waving from car dealerships to the grey alien heads that rest atop streetlights. They are the driving force of tourism in Roswell, especially during three days in July for the city’s annual Roswell UFO Festival, in which the normally sleepy town is overrun by pilgrims wearing googly antennae and tinfoil hats (you can buy yours at the International UFO Museum downtown).
While kitsch is central to Roswell’s embrace of the topic—see the annual pet costume contest, which in 2019 featured a time-traveling pooch ridden by a stormtrooper, and two dogs in NASA gear emerging from a “space shuttle”—the festival’s A-list panel of guest speakers appeals to the serious enthusiast. The most famous guests this year, like UFO abductee Travis Walton, had lines around the block, and I heard tell of “record attendance.”