Santa Fe, New Mexico – Superlative Destination for the Discriminating

Santa Fe Opera House - no single photo does justice to this unique structure

Santa Fe Opera House – no single photo does justice to this unique structure

Santa Fe, New Mexico is one of travel’s most enchanting destinations – UNESCO’s first designated Creative City and in a host of Top 10 lists. Though we are variety seekers, we go annually in mid-August to combine the Santa Fe Opera, Indian Market, and more.

Palace of the Governors - Plaza colonnade

Palace of the Governors – Plaza colonnade

A small city of 80,000 people nestled in the high plains at 7,000 feet altitude along side the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it enjoys a mild and sunny, four-season, desert climate, yet there is abundant greenery. Each tourism area is walkable. The Plaza, Canyon Road, and The Railyard are close together so that many will walk from one to another. Museum Hill is further afield but connected to the others by the free Santa Fe Pick-Up Shuttle.

Tourism in Santa Fe was built on the Native American and Mexican cultures through its distinctive jewelry, pottery, and blankets. Later, contemporary art blossomed, and finally, opera became an unexpected main draw. Even if you don’t like opera, or think you don’t, please at least read the section on opera below, because Santa Fe presents something very special.

Santa Fe interior design style

Santa Fe interior design style

Founded by Spanish explorers in 1610, it is the oldest city among state capitals in the United States. A strong Mexican heritage persists in its customs, food, and architecture. The ubiquitous Santa Fe pueblo style abounds, characterized by ochre-toned boxy adobes with rounded edges, flat tops, Saltillo tiles, and vigas (log exposed beams and columns).

At its heart is the Plaza, a center for entertainment, shopping, and promenades. The north side remains a colonnade on which Native Americans display their jewelry and assorted wares on blankets. The other sides house shops that have become increasingly tony. At one corner is the La Fonda Inn. Built in grand adobe style in 1922, it became one of the Harvey House group of hotels that brought refined hospitality to the Southwest in the early 20th Century.

The two traditional cuisines of Santa Fe were Mexican and diner food. Seminal ingredients in the region are the three sisters – corn (in many forms, including blue), beans, and squash, which when grown together create a symbiotic relationship called the holy trinity. Primary animal proteins were beef and game, but with today’s logistics, all is available, including fresh seafood. Other building blocks include the mild and fruity Hatch green chile, pumpkin, avocado, and pinion nuts.

Jambo's lunch - friends Gerry and Bea from Albuquerque, James and Emmeline from Los Angeles

Jambo’s lunch – from left, friends Gerry and Bea from Albuquerque, James and Emmeline from Los Angeles, Karin and Vic

Change began in 1987 when chef Mark Miller opened his still sensational Coyote Cafe near the Plaza and gave birth and excellence to Southwestern cuisine by refining local recipes and fusing elements from other cuisines. Everything is delicious, but try the signature Tellicherry peppered elk tenderloin. The city is now a foodie’s paradise. Other great innovators have built on Miller’s efforts. Geronimo Cafe on Canyon Road has an enviable reputation for the finest in food and service. A tip on making it more affordable is to eat in the cozy lounge with an appealing list of small plates and some 1/2 portions of entrees. The fiery sweet chile and honey prawns are to die for. The Compound, another award winner, is nearby, and unlike the two just mentioned, is open for lunch, so that you can enjoy everything from a juicy burger to sweetbreads & fois gras.

For less celebratory traditional cooking, Cafe Pasqual’s and The Shed provide scrumptious New Mexico cuisine, and you can’t leave without trying honey laced sopapillas and blue corn something – preferably enchiladas. Old timers Harry’s Roadhouse and Santa Fe (formerly Bobcat) Bite focus on American comfort food, and the Bite’s green chile cheeseburger is the initiation ceremony to becoming a Santa Fean. One last citation is the most unlikely – Jambo, an African and Caribbean restaurant in a strip center on Cerillos Road. We pay homage there every visit. The combination plate with goat stew, chicken curry, and coconut lentils is a great introduction. Or try our favorites, coconut peanut chicken stew and ginger mango lemonade.

Truth is, there are too many great places to eat in Santa Fe than we can mention. Look around. You may encounter the courtyards of Santa Cafe or Inn at Loretto, French pastry dominated Clafoutis, tapas with flamenco at El Farol, or fine dining at Restaurant Martin.


Squash blossom necklace - traditional design

Squash blossom necklace – traditional design

Jewelry making is a vast cottage industry among the Native Americans of the Southwest, and the beauty and artistry of their products is quite telling. You will find much traditional styling highly attractive, but the contemporary designs can be mesmerizing. Silver is the fine metal used almost to the exclusion of any other. Turquoise is dominant among stones and insets, but all manner of others are represented from jasper to lapis lazuli to spiny oyster.

Inlaid earrings - contemporary

Inlaid earrings – contemporary

Jewelry shops are everywhere, but to orient yourself to the scope available, there is no better place to start than the Plaza. At Ortega’s you will find over 50 display cases, each carrying the artistry of an individual designer. You will pay more for the name, but you can be assured of acquiring a quality piece. Across the Plaza, Malouf’s, carries a distinguished inventory. We actually opt for the scruffier marketplaces, preferring the Tesuque Flea Market near the Opera House. There is wide range of quality and price, but a diamond in the rough is Buddy Lee’s large bracelets and necklaces that often riff on Picasso, fish, and animal designs. We’re talking $600 to $1,000 a pop, but expect to pay twice as much downtown.

Many assume that Santa Fe is a market mostly for Western and/or Native American art. However, it is the third largest retail art market in the U.S., and offerings are predominately American contemporary. The emergence of mainstream art in New Mexico can be traced to one giant, Georgia O’Keeffe, who made the area around the capital her home. The migration of other artists and arts oriented retirees and tourists fueled the boom.

Three main gallery areas are of note. Santa Fe’s art fame is built on nearly a mile of galleries strung along Canyon Road. Rather than naming names, we’d recommend starting anywhere and going in either direction on either side of the street for a satisfying look at contemporary art and jewelry. Anchored by the exhibition center SITE which is noted for its biennial contemporary art exhibitions, the Railyard is a newer, more condensed area of galleries. It is also the terminus of the Rail Runner commuter train from Albuquerque. A third area is in and around the Plaza, which offers a broader window shopping experience, with retail, museums, and hotels. All areas have food and other options to take a break from the art experience. Finally, be on the lookout for public art displays. There are over 75 spread around the city.

Indian Market

Indian Market with Basilica in background

Indian Market with Basilica in background

Around the third week of August, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) sponsors the oldest and largest Indian Market in the country. The Plaza and blocks around give way to hundreds of booths offering jewelry, pottery, paintings, fabrics, and many other forms of arts and crafts. Exhibitors are all Native American, and while most are regional such as Navajo and Hopi, you will find Mohawk from New York, Eastern Cherokee from North Carolina, and many others from far away.

The formal retail street market is only on the weekend, but there are events throughout the week, many free, some pricey. In conjunction with SWAIA, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian shows Native American themed movies each day for free at the New Mexico History Museum. We appreciate gaining better insights into Native American character and conditions through these events. There are also receptions, awards ceremonies, and other selling events associated with the market. Concurrent but unrelated, many art galleries have wine and cheese artist receptions, particularly on Friday, the eve of Indian Market.

We really shouldn’t be sharing this information, lest more people converge on Santa Fe for our favorite week, but there you are. For more specifics, check


Pueblo style in New Mexico History Museum

Pueblo style in New Mexico History Museum

Santa Fe hosts 17 well presented museums that are mostly found around the Plaza and Museum Hill. Together, they gloriously represent the cultures and Culture of the city and state. Each is distinctive in its own right, but several are more prominent. Museum of International Folk Art has the largest folk art collection in the world, with an emphasis on holdings from native peoples of the American Southwest. Of the fine arts museums, Museum of Contemporary Native Arts and Georgia O’Keeffe Museum each hold unique positions in the world of art collections, as indicated by their names. For those interested in local history, New Mexico History Museum and Palace of Governors offer a combined admission. The Palace occupies the special position of being the oldest continuously occupied seat of government power in the United States.

It seems unfathomable that 400 miles from a “major league” market and with only a two month summer season that Santa Fe could have one of the 10 largest opera companies in the U.S. But with a stunning 2,100 seat open-sided opera house that communes beautifully with nature, it attracts top artists and opera lovers to the finest summer opera around. If you’ve never seen opera or haven’t gotten into it, this is the ideal place to give it a try.

The summer apprenticeship is the most vaunted in this country and is for back stage artists as well as singers. But lest you think these are novices, most are well into their 20’s and beyond with experience in principle parts with smaller companies. Apart from offering five full productions in repertory, two Sunday nights in August that correspond to Indian Market are dedicated to Apprentice Scenes – fully-costumed, partially-staged excerpts from eight different operas. The performances are noteworthy, and if you don’t care for one opera, another will come along momentarily. Oh, and unlike the regular fully-staged operas with price ranges similar to large markets, Apprentice Scenes cost $15 – an incredible bargain.

For those less experienced with opera, the 2017 season will include two highly accessible operas. “La Traviata” is one of Verdi’s most melodious and heart-rending operas. And Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus” is a fun-filled package that is often performed on holidays. Unlike conventional operas, it allows for the inclusion of highlight numbers from other operas, which presents delightful surprises.

By dint of charm and convenience, many choose to stay near the Plaza. La Fonda, Inn and Spa at Loretto, Inn of the Anasazi, and Inn of the Governors all fill those qualities, but are clearly priced accordingly. Moderate chain motels run along Cerillos Road, a few miles from the Plaza. Another interesting alternative is renting a casita or other private arrangement through Airbnb, VRBO, or the like. Many are dog friendly (as is much of Santa Fe) and provide a better view of life in Santa Fe at a reasonable cost.

Day trips

There is almost as much to do near as in Santa Fe.  Especially worthwhile are Taos and Albuquerque.  See our review on Santa Fe Day Trips for details.

For more information on Santa Fe, check