If you’re traveling to Santa Fe, you’ll want to see it through the eyes of those who live there year-round. In this city of piñon pine trees and adobe 7,000 feet above sea level, the difference between a tourist and local experience is like night and day. The divide is so clear that one family even owns two restaurants, The Shed and La Choza. Unofficially, locals know to avoid The Shed and its epic wait times; instead, they head for La Choza, which is far from the beaten path (and has better prickly pear margaritas, anyway).
Santa Fe is also said to be the third-largest art market in the country, after New York and LA. With nearly 300 galleries, you could spend a long weekend looking at art and never get bored—but there’s too much going on for that alone. From world-class restaurants, such as La Boca and Pasqual’s, to dreamy hot springs and spas including Ten Thousand Waves and Ojo Caliente, Santa Fe aims to please.
How to prepare
Before you go, take ChlorOxygen for a week to prepare your body for the altitude, and keep taking it while you’re there. And be sure to say “Christmas”—both red and green—when restaurant waiters inevitably ask which chiles you want to top your dish with.
Where to stay
Entering the Hotel St. Francis can feel like the start of a ritual, with its low light, austere chandelier, and a water vessel seemingly primed for daily ablutions. After an extensive renovation in 2009, the oldest hotel in Santa Fe prides itself in its simplicity—and stripped down to its most basic essence, the beauty lies in the details. Named for the city’s patron saint, Hotel St. Francis features rooms furnished with handmade furniture from Santa Fe artisans. Ask for a room with the original hardwood floor beams exposed, and don’t miss the bar downstairs, Secreto Lounge, which opens onto a seasonal loggia patio facing the street (and the ever-changing desert skies).
The only thing better than soaking at Ten Thousand Waves is staying there. In the tradition of Japanese mountain hot spring resorts, the spa features the Houses of the Moon, a constellation of guest rooms and bungalows that treat guests to perks such as early tub access, Sachi Organics beds, and organic, house-made, wheat-free granola for breakfast (this is Santa Fe, after all). Surrounded by twenty acres of juniper and piñon, it’s possible that nowhere in the world smells better than Ten Thousand Waves at night, especially if you’re lucky enough to snag a room with a kiva fireplace. Even if you don’t stay here, get a day pass and come for an afternoon or evening soak, and stay for a truly transcendent massage.
This hot spring wonderland is not actually within Santa Fe city limits—but if you have a car at your disposal, it’s well worth the 45-minute drive north. While the day away with an all-access day pass, which affords you entry to four different springs: Lithia, Iron, Soda, and Arsenic, each with unique mineral properties. There’s also a mud bath, which is open year-round, weather permitting; pack your least favorite swimsuit or a black suit that won’t stain to partake. If you want to make a weekend of it, Ojo offers lovely guest rooms, plenty of spa amenities, and opportunities to soak in private pools.
Where to Eat
The first thing to do when you arrive in Santa Fe is head to La Choza immediately. There, sopaipillas dripping with red chile and honey await, which are the perfect accompaniment to anything on the menu. You would do well to order the green chile stew, seasoned with the illustrious Hatch chiles native to New Mexico that you can’t find most anywhere else, or the Nixtamal corn posole, made with red chile, a riper, earthier version of the same pepper. Both are available vegetarian. If you want to go full Santa Fe, order the Frito pie. Don’t forget that businesses often have odd hours in Santa Fe, and La Choza is no exception: They serve lunch from 11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., and they’re closed on Sundays.
Even if you’re only in Santa Fe for three days, it’s possible you’ll still wind up at the Tune-Up three times. First, drive by for a hand-held breakfast burrito, crammed with avocado, eggs, potatoes, Monterey Jack cheese, chile, and breakfast meat (don’t worry, vegetarians: substitute pinto beans for bacon). Later you might swing through for a steaming bowl of green chile stew, by far the best in town (and there’s plenty of competition). Their Cubano is also quite possibly the best you’ll ever have, and if you leave the city without trying the mole enchiladas, we can’t help you; served with rice and grilled banana, the dish will blow your mind. Tune-Up shines brightest for their counter-service breakfast, brunch, and lunch, though they do offer table service at night. This is one of the few restaurants in the city that stays open straight through from breakfast to dinner, so it’s your spot if you need a meal at an odd hour.
This is the place to go for The Meal while you are in Santa Fe. You know the one: The singular culinary experience you have while on holiday, the glittery feast you’ll never forget and will think of every time you flashback to that particular trip. At Pasqual’s, brunch is king, and the communal table is your friend if you’re starving and can’t wait 45 minutes for something more private. Get the huevos motuleños, a Yucatán dish starring a heap of sautéed banana, feta, green peas, roasted tomato-jalapeño salsa, and black beans atop corn tortillas. Order your eggs poached, and again, when they ask what kind of sauce you’d like, say “Christmas.” If you need a break from New Mexican fare, their pancakes and French toast are also inimitable.
La Boca takes a page from the complicated history book of New Mexico with its strong staging of modern Spanish cuisine. Tapas are in the spotlight here; you’ll need the cheese plate, featuring drunken goat cheese, Andaluzul blue goat cheese, Manchego sheep’s milk cheese, cranberry compote, winter Malbec reduction, pickled peppers, and house-made escabeche. Try the alcachofas with grilled artichokes, Spanish goat cheese, mint, and orange zest. At most restaurants, bruschetta is just a filler, but here it positively sparkles; the toasted bread is cooked with cream and mushrooms and topped with a fried egg and truffle oil. The paella, shimmering with flecks of saffron, will satisfy even the hungriest of diners.
Where to Drink
Most bar counters face a towering wall of liquor bottles. Not so at the Bell Tower, the belle of the bar scene, where barstools face out from the rooftop, offering unparalleled views of the sky and the mountains in three directions: the Sangre de Cristos to the north, the Sandias to the south, and the Jémez to the west. The fifth-floor bar is open May through October, and when it is open, it’s majestic. Since they close at twilight, come for a late afternoon or sunset drink and sip their signature drink, the Bell Ringer margarita.
Everyone goes to Maria’s for the margaritas. There’s a reason for that: There are over 200 margaritas to choose from, and 150 different types of tequila and mezcal, the unofficial liquor of Santa Fe. The house tradition is Cuervo Tradicional Reposado tequila, triple sec, and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Be careful: Visitors often find themselves tipsy more quickly than usual because of the city’s high altitude.
Iconik Coffee Roasters
Though you can order decent beer, wine, and sake, Iconik is not technically a bar—but we would be remiss to leave it out. What started out as an independent, airy roastery and cafe in an industrial space off the beaten path has grown to include two other locations. You won’t find better coffee or espresso in all of Santa Fe, so save yourself the hassle and hotfoot it here every morning. All three spaces are lovely, but the one on Lena Street is the original.
Make a beeline to Kawaka as soon as possible for a Mesoamerican elixir created with recipes based on archeological research and written accounts from Spanish conquistadors and colonists. The elixirs will perk you right up even after a long flight thanks to the stimulating properties of theobromine, a bitter alkaloid found in cacao plants. Nothing in the world tastes quite like the rose-almond elixir, a creamy, floral brew sweetened lightly with coconut sugar. If you’re in search of something closer to traditional hot chocolate, order from the European menu—specifically, the Marie Antoinette, which dates back to a recipe favored by the French court in 1775. All drinks are offered in two sizes, but even visitors with the heartiest of appetites would do fine with a three-ounce demitasse.
What to Do
Meow Wolf got their start as a ragtag art collective in 2008 and has since grown into a full-scale arts and entertainment group, creating trippy immersive experiences around the country. Their first permanent installation is this one, in the city where it all began, though more are on the way in Las Vegas, Denver, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix. At the House of Eternal Return, expect to see a giant robotic raven, a metal archway of televisions, and a geodesic dome filled with foot-wide, glowing animal eyes. It’s all part of the surreal charm.
There are many museums worth a visit in Santa Fe, but there’s something special about seeing O’Keeffe’s masterpieces in their natural habitat, mere miles from her 21,000-acre Ghost Ranch, where she lived for more than 40 years. With a collection spanning O’Keeffe’s lifetime, including 140 of her stunning oil paintings, a visit to the museum’s ever-changing galleries will lend a new perspective to her art and allow you to see works you’ve likely never seen before.
Santa Fe is home to some of the best vintage and second-hand shopping in the country. You could spend a full day traipsing from shop to shop, but if you only visit one, go to Double Take for its enormous selection that caters to all genders and ages. In the designer area, find floor-length gowns from Vivian Tam and minidresses from Balmain, as well as a well-curated shoe section. In the vast Western selection, stock up on snap shirts and cowboy boots; in the main consignment area, find deals on 60s t-shirts and faded jeans.
A trip to Santa Fe would be incomplete without a stroll down Canyon Road. Home to almost 100 galleries, the half-mile stretch is crammed with art of various styles and provenances, including contemporary, abstract, modern, expressionistic, digital, figurative, photorealistic, traditional, Western, and Native American. With the wide blue sky above you, make an afternoon of it and pop into the Teahouse for a Manchester Fog (Earl Gray tea, soy milk, and vanilla) to refuel.