Step Back in Time in Santa Fe

Oct 20, 2021

Santa Fe is a city with a soul. Here, 7,000 feet above sea level and set against the dramatic backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the crisp air, adobe buildings, open landscapes and sheer charm of it all have a way of creating an inexplicable fondness even among first-time visitors. When you're here it becomes clear that the centuries of Spanish, Mexican and Native American influence have imprinted themselves onto "The City Different," leaving behind a magical city that is so completely itself. 

Many pieces of the past have stood the test of time: from Ancestral Puebloan ruins to centuries-old churches to recipes passed through the generations. Read on to learn more about Santa Fe's history and the places that will allow you to step back in time when you visit.

Santa Fe Plaza and Palace of the Governors

Palace of the Governors

Much of your time in Santa Fe will be spent wandering the quaint, winding streets around the downtown Santa Fe Plaza—an historic landmark itself. Here there are charming boutiques, restaurants, bookstores and art galleries mixed in with the churches and centuries-old adobe buildings.

On the plaza's northern side, you'll see a long adobe building with a shaded portico where Native American artists sell hand-crafted items including pottery and jewelry. This adobe building, the Palace of the Governors, was built as a home for New Mexico's first Spanish governor in 1610 (about 70 years after the Spanish first claimed New Mexico) and is the country's oldest public building in continuous use.

The Palace of the Governors was among the only survivors of the fires set in Santa Fe during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, wherein the Pueblo people drove out the Spanish who sought to subjugate and convert them. The Puebloans took the building and occupied it for the following 12 years before it was retaken by the Spanish. The building was later inhabited by the Mexican government after they won independence from the Spanish and took New Mexico as a province.

In 1909—three years before New Mexico graduated from American territory to state—the building was designated for use as the Museum of New Mexico. Today the building is a National Historic Landmark and part of the New Mexico History Museum.

La Fonda

Just off of the south side of Santa Fe Plaza, you'll find the site of the town's first inn (known then and today as La Fonda); an inn has stood in this spot since the city's Spanish founding in the 1600s. This is also at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, considered America's first commercial highway. The trail was established in 1821 and ran from Missouri to Santa Fe. During its heyday (prior to the completion of the Santa Fe railroad), traders, gold-rushers, pioneers and the American military traveled the 900-mile trail, contributing to America's westward expansion. 

The Santa Fe Trail's first travelers (exactly 200 years ago) are said to have stayed at La Fonda at the end of their journey from Missouri. In the decades that followed, politicians, trappers, soldiers and travelers from the trail frequented La Fonda and it became a Santa Fe landmark. The pueblo-inspired structure where guests stay today was built in 1922. Stop in to adore the nearly 100-year-old hand-carved beams, terracotta tile and stained glass skylights.

Cathedral Basilica

Across the street (a block east of Santa Fe Plaza) is the site of the city's first church, built in 1610, the same year that the city was founded. The original church and its successors were made from adobe, and a small chapel that survived fires of the Pueblo Revolt remains there.

The current church, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, was built in the late 1800s by French architects and Italian stonemasons. Its Romanesque architecture stands out among the adobe structures. It also is unique because it’s one of few buildings in the Historic District taller than three or four stories. Visit at sunset for a photo of the tawny-hued cathedral set against a cotton-candy-colored sky.

Loretto Chapel

Modeled after Sainte Chapelle in Paris, Loretto Chapel was designed and built by the same architect and builders as the Cathedral a block away. It has gothic-style architecture and is perhaps best known for its 20-foot tall spiral staircase that leads from the ground to the choir loft above.

Dubbed the "Miraculous Staircase," it has two complete 360-degree turns but no center pole for structural support—a feat that is celebrated by architects and carpenters today, particularly given the limited tools (and lack of electricity) that the builder would've had in the 1800s. Many legends surround the identity of the builder and the construction of the staircase itself, but no matter the historic truth, the staircase is remarkable.

Today, the chapel is a private museum and open to visitors most days (when a private event is not booked). 

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Located on the other side of Santa Fe Plaza, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum provides a glimpse of more recent history. Praised for her vibrant abstractions of animal skulls, skyscrapers, flowers and southwestern landscapes, O'Keeffe is considered the mother of American modernism and one of the most successful American artists of the early 20th century—a notable accomplishment for a female artist in a male-dominated industry—eventually elevating her to feminist icon.

At the museum, you'll learn about O'Keeffe's life and work and see her unique vision expressed in paint, pastel, watercolor, and pencil. The museum currently requires reservations; tickets can be purchased 30 days ahead of visiting.

You're also able to visit the artist's home—which served as inspiration for dozens of paintings—in northern New Mexico (Abiquiú) where she moved permanently after the death of her husband. Plan well in advance for this; tickets for the 2021 season are sold out.

Bandelier National Monument

If you can't snag tickets to visit O'Keeffe's home, instead make the 50-or-so minute drive northwest of Santa Fe to Bandelier National Monument. Here you'll find 600-year-old homes of Ancestral Pueblo people carved into volcanic rock. As you observe the carved arches between rooms, consider the difficulty of chiseling rock using only stone tools. Brilliantly, many walls within the homes were plastered and ceilings smoked to add stability and cut down on crumbling stone falling from overhead. 

To see the archaeological sites, take the easy (and mostly paved) 1.4-mile Main Loop Trail. About halfway through the loop (if you're not squeamish about heights) take a detour to reach Alcove House. Located 140 feet above the floor of the canyon, this site is accessible by four wooden ladders set against the cliffside.

Culinary traditions

Santa Fe autumn ushers in golden aspen leaves, cool air and a new harvest of New Mexico's most famous export: the green chile. This time of year green chiles are picked (before they turn red) and roasted, filling the air with the scent of blackening peppers.

Peppers were first introduced to the area during Spanish expeditions in the late 1500s, but cultivation took off when the Spanish began settling here in the decades that followed. It's thought that many varieties of pepper were planted, but the environment was especially friendly to the green chile we know and love. Today, the peppers are planted in some of the same fields where their ancestral chiles grew centuries ago.

Lest you think of the chile as an export alone, let us assure you that residents themselves adore chiles. Many a restaurant menu in town includes the option to add chiles to nearly anything on the menu (burger, burrito, enchiladas, soup and even pizza)—if it's not already included, that is. You'll almost certainly be asked, "red or green?" Red chiles are a bit sweeter, so if you're looking for some heat, your answer is green (although, if you can't decide "Christmas" is a perfectly acceptable reply.)

To try the famous chiles with every meal (not uncommon around these parts), start with the handheld breakfast burrito (with eggs, potato, gruyere and roasted green chile) at Café Pasqual's.

For lunch head to The Shed (their red is often considered to be the best in town) and have the Frito pie, which is made with red chile, ground beef, onion, cheddar cheese and beans. The Shed is also famous for its green chile stew; it's a simple concoction (potato, green chile, garlic and lean pork) that's bursting with flavor.

Then for dinner, try the green chile cheese dosa (imagine a savory crepe filled with jack and cheddar cheese and, of course, green chile) at South Indian restaurant Paper Dosa

When the night is coming to a close and you're ready to bid the day adieu, go for a nightcap at rooftop bar and restaurant Coyote Cantina, and order the Norteno Margarita (made with green chile, of course).

Ready to go? Read about where to stay, things to do and places to eat, then start planning your Santa Fe escape.

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