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Travelzoo Experience: A Few Days in Santa Fe

One of the most coveted perks at Travelzoo is the Travelzoo Experience, in which Deal Experts and other employees take advantage of the same travel, entertainment and local deals we publish to our subscribers and report back on their experience.

Santa Fe is one of those destinations that many people have on their list of places to visit, a crossroads of Native American, Spanish and American West cultures, architecture and history. That said, we probably wouldn’t have put the New Mexico capital on our travel list, except for the fact that my sister moved out there a few years ago and kept raving about the city and area. After making the trip, we’re happy we spent a few days in Santa Fe.

Because Santa Fe is world-renowned as an artistic and culinary destination, it’s also a relatively pricey city to visit, especially in peak season -- the spring and summer months. I’ve been researching hotel prices in Santa Fe for some time, hoping to make a trip out there, but deals can be hard to find. Hotel rooms near the Plaza, the center of town since its founding by Spanish conquistadores in 1610, can often fetch $250 or more per night. So we jumped on a deal that Travelzoo published in the Top 20 for The Eldorado, a 4-star hotel that was offering rooms as low as $99 per night in the late fall and early winter, the city’s off season.

With two young boys, we decided to upgrade to a one-bedroom suite to give everyone a little more space. Even with the upgrade, we were still able to book the suite for less than the regular rate of an average 4-star hotel room. We were very impressed by the suite -- it had plenty of space, a fireplace (which we put to good use) and a balcony that gave us a great view of Santa Fe’s historic district, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. We enjoyed the hotel’s little touches, including a Santa Fe travel planner that arrived in the mail a few weeks ahead of our trip and a carrying case for the kids with a coloring book and crayons that was quickly put to use after check-in.

There were definite advantages to visiting Santa Fe in the offseason -- beyond the deal we got at the Eldorado. We found the downtown, with its shops, galleries, restaurants and museums, wasn’t crowded at all. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast without a wait at one popular restaurant, Café Pasqual. During Santa Fe’s busy months, this eatery would normally have a line around the block. November weather was mild enough -- even with the season’s first snowstorm in the forecast.

We spent much of the first day exploring the very walkable downtown, from the Plaza to the Palace of Governors, which is now a history museum. While it may not have been the boys’ favorite, we found it interesting to learn about a town that played a key role in the growth of the American Southwest, from the time of Spanish settlement to New Mexico’s statehood. Outside the Palace of Governors is an open-air market in which Native Americans from the surrounding area sell art and other goods. There are numerous other museums and world-class art galleries downtown -- including the Georgia O’Keeffe museum and Chuck Jones Gallery, the artist behind Looney Tunes. (This could explain why the Roadrunner and Wily E. Coyote were always dueling amid the rock formations of the Southwest.) With our two boys, we didn’t go overboard on the museums, preferring to stop in for storytime at a local bookstore and walk around to see the adobe architecture prevalent throughout the historic district and stop in the Cathedral of St. Francis Assisi, which is still the tallest building in Santa Fe at about five stories tall.

Our trip gave us two full days in Santa Fe, so we spent the second day exploring the area around Santa Fe, including a hike in Tent Rocks, this amazing natural rock formation and slot canyon on the Chochiti Pueblo, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. You’ll feel like you’re driving to the middle of nowhere, but there’s a payoff. The only cost was a $5 per car entrance fee and we spent a few hours hiking to the top of the canyon for an awesome view of the mesa and surrounding mountains. The ensuing photos ended up being our Christmas card, so it was worth the trip. For our boys, it was a challenging 1.5-mile hike with definite uphill climbs – make sure to bring plenty of water – but they were troopers, and with a little Halloween candy as motivation, they kept pace. (Mom and Dad may have needed that motivation too.) Living in the East and Midwest all of our lives, the slot canyon and rock formations were something out of this world. It was narrow enough in spots where you could reach both walls with your arms and you could see where years of wind and water erosion had sculpted the canyon.

A few more tips for planning a Santa Fe vacation:

  1. Santa Fe is a very walkable downtown that is best explored without an agenda. Pop into the galleries and shops to see one-of-a-kind art with a mixture of influences, from Native American to Spanish and classic Western. While the Plaza itself was less than compelling, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi was definitely worth the visit. Because of a longstanding custom that nothing in town is built taller than the Basilica, most buildings in downtown Santa Fe are 2 to 3 stories. We had a “skyline” view of Santa Fe from the balcony of our rooms at The Eldorado. I would highly recommend staying near the Plaza, it gives you the best location for seeing the historic area and proximity to most of the galleries and museums. We really liked the Eldorado, but have heard good things as well about La Fonda on the Plaza, Inn at Loretto, La Posada and Inn of the Four Graces.
  2. Santa Fe has a burgeoning culinary scene, with local favorites such as Café Pasqual. Wherever you go, chances are the chile pepper will play a central role in the menu. (New Mexico is the No. 1 chile-producing state in the U.S.) Our palates weren’t necessary prepped for all the peppers, but it definitely adds some flavor to the food out in the Southwest. Red chiles generally have more heat, while green chiles offer more of a smoky flavor. It’s not really a good idea to ask someone who’s from New Mexico if something will be spicy – they’re kind of used to it. As one waitress said, “when in doubt, you can’t go wrong with Christmas on the side.” We learned this means to order your red and green peppers on the side. When even your mac ‘n’ cheese has peppers, it’s good advice. You can always cool the mouth down with beer from Santa Fe Brewing Company or Marble Brewery, both local brews are highly recommended.
  3. We spent two full days in Santa Fe, which was a good amount of time. In hindsight, we probably could’ve used another day or two in order to visit a few more museums or branch out to visit nearby Pueblos or spend a night or two in Taos, but we hope to do that on a return trip. Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos are close enough together that they can be easily combined into one trip over the course of five or six days. If our boys were older, we might have tried to see and do more on the trip, but we wanted to make sure to build downtime into our vacation.
  4. From the East Coast, Santa Fe is not the easiest city to fly to. We ended up flying to Albuquerque through Houston, and then driving the hour up to Santa Fe. While there were some connections into Santa Fe airport, they were at least $100 more expensive. Multiplied by four tickets, we stuck with ABQ instead. Even then, tickets were $400 from NYC. We used Fly.com in order to search multiple airline sites at once to find the best deal, and ended up using miles to help offset the cost of the trip a bit.
  5. The evenings can get pretty cool in the desert and with the altitude, so make sure to pack a light jacket and dress in layers regardless of the time of year you visit. There’s very little humidity, which is nice when you’re planning to be outside a lot.
  6. Make sure to schedule some time for outdoor activities. Tent Rocks was a highlight of the trip for us, and there’s a lot more to do in the area – the nearby Pueblos, Puye Cliffs, skiing during the winter months in Taos or nearby Sandia, white-water rafting on the Rio Grande, offroad driving and more.

Make sure you get to spend a few days in Santa Fe.

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Deal Expert, New York
Friday, January 17, 2014
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Andrew Young