Your Weekend Guide to Artsy, Mystical Santa Fe
Nicknamed “The “City Different,” pinon-scented Santa Fe is charmingly weird and endlessly authentic.
You’ll know you’ve reached Santa Fe when the smell of piñon pine wafts off the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the vast New Mexico desert starts to shrink into warm, rounded adobe buildings. With its famous architecture, green chile-singed cuisine, Native American traditions, twinkling turquoise treasures, and art mecca status, Santa Fe is truly like a drink of water after so much sand.
The nicknamed “City Different” has its Native American community to thank for its distinct look. The sun-dried earth and straw homes of the Tanoan peoples proved ingenious, enduring, and hugely influential to the city today. The low-slung architecture — characterized by flat roofs, rounded walls, corner fireplaces, and covered porches — is so integral to Santa Fe’s aesthetic that city law mandates any new construction in historic districts adhere to the style.
This is one of the country’s greatest art cities, with a concentration of galleries and museums second to none. The city is a magnet for road trippers, hikers, and creators alike. One could easily spend a lifetime exploring its many facets, but even a quick weekend trip will prove there really is something exceptional about The City Different.
Feel the artistic call of the desert
For a city with fewer than 90,000 people, Santa Fe’s art galleries per capita is astounding. The Museum of International Folk Art offers the largest collection of handmade folk art on earth, from glasswork to pandemic-inspired face mask creations. On the ancestral Tewa Land that is present-day Museum Hill, other stalwarts include the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
The classic Georgia O’Keeffe Museum contains nine galleries and 700 drawings from the woman nicknamed the “Mother of American Modernism.” Her abstract nature paintings and sweeping desert landscapes are clear love letters to the region that came to define her career.
On the modern side, SITE Santa Fe is a striking contemporary art space that’s hosted nearly a dozen international biennials since 1995, when it was the only biennial in the US. The non-profit organization curates international and local artists, including repurposed adobe artwork from New Mexico-based Joanne Keane and hand-painted maps scented with tree resins by Colombian artist Oswaldo Maciá.
Then there’s Meow Wolf, a labyrinthine art space that almost single-handedly coined the phrase “immersive art experience” when the collective launched House of Eternal Return in 2016. Backed in part by Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, the interactive installation feels part haunted house, part art gallery, part extraterrestrial mystery, and part selfie wonderland. It’s outfitted with luminous, explorable oddities like neon forests, trippy living rooms, and dryers that turn into slides.
Stock up on turquoise and cowboy boots
Turquoise, cowboy boots, paintings, and food are just a few Santa Fe staples dominating the city’s dynamic shopping sector.
It’s only fitting that one of Santa Fe’s most prolific authors would open his own bookstore. Beastly Books is a passion project for Game of Thrones’ George R. R. Martin, who stocked his shelves with plenty of Thrones-esque reads, including signed copies of his works, merchandise, and memorabilia.
Just off the plaza, Back at the Ranch is a go-to for hand-crafted cowboy boots in vibrant colors, funky patterns, and high-quality leather. Peruse hundreds of pairs in the shop, including boots decorated with song birds and Dia de Los Muertos imagery.
Around the corner, satisfy your taste for turquoise at Wind River Trading Company, the largest Native American jewelry store in town. The shop biographically lists out the craftsmen who make the goods, so you know who you’re supporting. They carry minerals, chunky bracelets, pendants, bolo ties, and money clips.
If your idea of shopping is more culinary, the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market hosts more than 150 local farmers sling wool, goat milk, preserves, produce, organic meat, and herbs. It’s held on Saturdays year round in the Railyard, and on Tuesdays May through November.
Satisfy your green chile cravings
Santa Fe is renowned for its farm-fresh restaurants, tequila-soaked watering holes, and bakeries wafting with aromas of blue corn and chile.
Unless you straight-up move there, it’s hard to put a dent in your Santa Fe food bucket list, but a few standouts include brisket breakfast burritos from Betterday Coffee, green chile cheeseburgers from Shake Foundation, cheesy enchiladas from old-school Tia Sophia’s, blue corn doughnuts from Whoo’s Donuts, and al pastor tacos from the casual Coyote Cantina rooftop. For pastries, Dolina Cafe & Bakery offers New Mexican and Eastern European flavors, from crumbly Mexican wedding cookies and apple-walnut strudel to makos dios, a Hungarian cake made from ground poppy seeds, walnuts, and raspberries.
For more on where to eat and drink in Santa Fe, check out our full dining guide here.
Walk up desert mountains
Nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and surrounded by 1.5 million acres of Santa Fe National Forest, opportunities for outdoor recreation abound. You can ski or snowboard at Ski Santa Fe, or hike up Atalaya Mountain in the warmer months — bring a snack or two, because the trek is quite vertical (but the panorama is worth it).
A quick drive northwest of Santa Fe, Bandelier National Monument is a popular national park for ancestral Puebloan history and hiking. The park contains 30,000-plus acres of mesmerizing mountainous landscape, canyons, and ancient dwellings crafted by Southwestern Puebloan tribes pre-1600. Frijoles Canyon is a prime place to follow indigenous peoples footsteps, seen through petroglyphs, rocky abodes, and ceremonial pits called kivas.
Back in the city, the Santa Fe River Trail follows the mostly-dry creek from Canyon Road through downtown and a few miles southwest. In the summer months, periodic pools provide an oasis for overheated hikers to dip their toes.
Where to stay in Santa Fe
El Rey Court, a few miles southwest of downtown, is the perfect example of old Santa Fe meets…slightly less old Santa Fe. The adobe motel was constructed in 1936, and while original fixtures like exposed-beam ceilings and corner fireplaces remain, it’s been gussied up with mural-clad rooms, gardens, a swimming pool, and a chic cocktail lounge, La Reina, for mezcal-centric sips.
It’s all about location (and panoramic rooftop views) at La Fonda on the Plaza, a 180-room lodge half a block from Santa Fe Plaza. Originally built in 1922, this is another art-filled haven furnished with handmade furniture and hand-carved headboards. La Fonda offers chocolate tours and exclusive Pendleton jackets, and hosts Bell Tower Bar on the fifth floor, where you can drink in a margarita while drinking in the sunset views.
Feeling extra? The city’s newest hotel, Bishop’s Lodge, is luxury like the city has never seen, sprawled across 317 tranquil acres abutting Santa Fe National Forest. The massive adobe-style property feels like its own bougie town, complete with private casitas, a locally sourced restaurant called SkyFire, and a resident “art therapist” who leads meditations culminating in DIY art projects.
Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He's the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on IG @matt_kirouac.