Located just over an hour’s drive from Albuquerque is the capital of New Mexico, Santa Fe. It makes for a perfect day trip with plenty to do within the city and along the way.
As the capital of New Mexico, Santa Fe is the highest elevation (7,199 feet) of any state capital in the United States and also the oldest state capital as it was founded in 1610 as the capital of Nuevo Mexico, well before New Mexico became a state.
With a mixture of history and art, there is a lot to see in Santa Fe.
Downtown Santa Fe
Downtown Santa Fe is a very walkable area, park your car in one of the many parking lots or garages and set out for a walk to explore this historic city.
Founded in 1610 by the Spanish, this city has a long history and has done a great job at preserving the historic buildings in the city. The oldest building in the city and also the oldest public building in the United States is the Palace of the Governors. This building has been occupied by 58 Spanish Colonial Governors, 16 Mexican Governors and 17 Territorial Governors. The building housed the state museum up until 2009 when the New Mexico History Museum opened across the street.
The Palace of Governors is located in the center of downtown across from Santa Fe Plaza, the main gathering spot in town. I visited on a cool fall day, and it had a beautiful autumn feel to it that day.
As with many older cities, the historic churches are a must see. Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis Assisi was built between 1869 and 1886. Prior to this cathedral, there stood two other churches, a small mission church that was burned down in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and then a larger adobe style church that served on this site for almost 200 years.
The current cathedral was built with stone over and around the prior adobe church. When the main part of the building was finished, they tore down the old church that was under it. This was definitely an interesting way to replace a building. A law was put into effect, that no other building downtown can be higher than the bell tower of the Cathedral.
The oldest church in the United States is located right here in Santa Fe. San Miguel Mission was built in 1610. While the church has been rebuilt a couple of times, the original adobe walls remained intact and were used in the remodels.
One of the things I loved about Santa Fe was that it was not just the older historic buildings that were beautiful. The newer buildings in Santa Fe were also made of adobe and just had that southwestern style to them. Walking thru the city seeing the buildings, made me feel like I was walking in a city outside of the United States.
Considering the amount of beautiful adobe buildings in downtown Santa Fe, I was surprised to see that the state capitol building was not in the same style. The building is definitely worth seeing though.
The capitol building has been known as the Roundhouse, it’s the only round capitol building in the US. From above, the top of the building resembles the same sun symbol that is on the New Mexico state flag. This symbol is said to represent not only the sun’s rays but also the four seasons, four directions and four phases of life.
But the capitol building is not just used for government offices, it also houses art collections and includes a sculpture garden.
Art in Santa Fe
Art is one of the many reasons why people visit the city of Santa Fe. It’s right behind New York City and Los Angeles when it comes to major art cities in the US. It has the highest concentration of galleries in a city of its size. In fact, the majority of the galleries are within a 2-mile radius downtown.
On the grounds of the New Mexico Capitol Building is a beautiful sculpture garden. From sculptures of the ancient pueblo people to the children of New Mexico, it’s a beautiful spot to explore in this capital city.
I’m not a huge art fan, but sculptures are something I really love. The sculpture garden at the capitol building is not the only place in Santa Fe to see some really great sculptures. There are also many galleries throughout town where you can see some wonderful sculptures.
If you are big art lover, make sure to visit some of the many art museums located in Santa Fe. Some of the more popular ones are:
- Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
- Museum of International Folk Art
- Museum of Contemporary Native Arts
- Museum of Indian Arts & Culture
For a more modern type of art, make sure to visit Meow Wolf. This immersive art experience takes you thru 70 rooms of art that follows a creative and interesting story.
Founded in Santa Fe, Meow Wolf has since expanded to Las Vegas and Denver. The art starts in the parking lot with some large art sculptures.
Once inside, the story at Meow Wolf starts at a house with a story to be solved. In the house there are clues and hidden doors in strange places like the refrigerator that take you to other rooms with some interesting art. There are multiple rooms in the art installation, and you can definitely end up spending hours here.
It was an interesting experience, even though I didn’t really understand a lot of it (as is typical with me and art), it was an interesting way to spend a couple of hours. If you do go, make sure to pay the extra dollar for the glasses that make all the black light art look 3D. Have you been to Meow Wolf, did you solve the story?
Poeh Cultural Center
History is more my thing than art. If you also enjoy history and learning more about the people of the area you are visiting, I highly recommend heading about 20 minutes north of Santa Fe to visit the Poeh Cultural Center.
The Poeh Cultural Center shows the history and culture of the Pueblo people in New Mexico. The center consists of both a museum and gift shop.
The museum is self-guided and includes both permanent and temporary exhibits. The permanent exhibit is called Nah Poeh Meng which translates to “Continuous Path”. This exhibit explores Pueblo history. One of the things I really loved about this exhibit, is how it went thru the different time periods of Pueblo history thru the different seasons of the year. This really helped to break it down and made it very interesting.
The temporary exhibit when I was visiting in October 2022 was Di Wae Powa, which explores the Pueblo pottery which dates back over 100 years. There were films which explored the process of making the pottery and then some of the finished pieces were on display. The exhibit mentioned how important this pottery is to the Pueblo people. Some of the pieces that their ancestors created were put into private collections but will soon be returned home to the descendants of those that created them. It really opened my eyes as to how a piece of art can connect and be so important to the families of the artist and have such a cultural impact on its people.
Who doesn’t love a great roadside attraction. Well on the drive from Santa Fe to the Poeh Cultural Center is Camel Rock. This 40-foot high and 100-foot-long natural rock formation looks just like a camel. While there is a spot to park off the highway and walk up towards the rock, the best view of it is definitely from the highway. So, if you are a passenger in the car, have your camera at the ready. But also stop and take a walk up to it, although your best view off the highway will be from the parking lot. It’s just one of those things where the closer you get to it, the less it looks like a camel.
La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs
The southwestern US and specifically New Mexico is known for petroglyphs. A petroglyph is a carving in a rock left by prehistoric people. The petroglyphs in New Mexico are just another example of the Pueblo history and culture within the state.
If you do not get a chance to visit Petroglyph National Monument while in Albuquerque, try visiting La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs which is just south of Santa Fe on the way to and from Albuquerque. The petroglyphs at La Ceineguilla are estimated to be from the 13th to 17th centuries.
There is a small parking lot at the site and then you just follow the path up to the rocks up top. The hike up is a bit more than I was expecting. We made a last-minute decision to stop here so as I wasn’t planning on hiking, I was wearing sketchers which were an awful choice. While the hike isn’t difficult at all, there was definitely some rock scrambling, so I really could have used something with more traction and some ankle support, since sketchers pretty much have zero ankle support. If you do plan on going here, pack your hiking shoes or at least a good supportive pair of sneakers.
It was definitely worth the hike up though to see the petroglyphs and just think of how long they have been there. They were interesting to see, and I can’t help but try to think of what story the petroglyphs were trying to tell.
Another thing that makes the hike worth it is the gorgeous views from up top. New Mexico is definitely more beautiful than I had imagined it would be.
A day trip from Albuquerque to Santa Fe is definitely a great idea and also a very full day with lots to see.
Make sure to check out my prior post on Great Things To Do in Albuquerque.
If you are looking to book a trip to New Mexico, Beyond The Miles Travel would love to help you.
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