A Weekend in Santa Fe: America’s Oldest Capital

Last Updated on: 3rd April 2023, 02:49 am

Known for its adobe buildings, thriving arts scene and fascinating blend of multiple cultures, Santa Fe is one of the United States’ most unique cities. And it’s also among the country’s most historic, having been established as early as 1610. In the following Santa Fe guide, we’ll be covering the top things to see and do in the city center and beyond.

Santa Fe is by no means a huge city, but it still merits a couple of days to explore. More would always be better, especially considering the various day trips, such as Bandelier National Monument, to experience in the area.

For information on accommodation, transportation and more, be sure to check the end of the article.

Santa Fe's Adobe Architecture

Santa Fe stands out thanks to its brown adobe buildings that were largely inspired by the traditional architecture of the Puebloans, who’ve inhabited the American Southwest for centuries.

After becoming part of the United States, more and more migrants started coming to Santa Fe, constructing new buildings in a wide variety of styles. But locals felt that the city was at risk of losing its unique character, which gave rise to the Pueblo Revival Style in the early 20th century.

And it’s been prevalent ever since. But while traditional adobe structures feature a mud brick interior that’s later covered over in mud plaster, many new buildings are built with typical, modern materials. Nevertheless, they’re still commonly covered over in brown plaster to fit with the rest of the city.

In addition to the ubiquitous brown, flat-roofed buildings, Santa Fe is also home to structures built in the Territorial Revival style that was influenced by architecture from the Spanish colonial period.

Santa Fe Guide
The Cristo Rey Catholic Church, built in 1940

Around the Center

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

Santa Fe’s layout is distinctly Spanish, with its historical district being centered around a central square. And as you’ll also commonly see in colonial towns south of the border, facing it is the Governor’s Palace.

The palace was established in 1610, making it the oldest public building in all of the United States. And right outside, you’ll commonly see local Native Americans selling their crafts.

My trip just happened to coincide with the annual Fiestas de Santa Fe that’s held every September. Originally established in 1692 to celebrate the Spanish retaking Santa Fe from the Puebloans, it’s now a more general celebration commemorating the city and its various cultural influences.

Each evening in the town square, I encountered performances of Spanish, Mexican and Native American song and dance. While I was mainly concerned with sightseeing and missed the other events, another common spectacle of the festival is the burning of Zozobra, a huge marionette effigy meant to represent anxiety.

Just behind the Governor’s Palace, you’ll find the New Mexico History Museum, which we’ll cover in detail below. After that, this Santa Fe guide will focus on other highlights to see around the center, followed by must-sees in the surrounding neighborhoods.

New Mexico History Museum

As mentioned, you can find the entrance to the New Mexico History Museum just behind the Governor’s Palace. At the time of writing, the three-story museum costs $12 to enter and is open Tues.-Sun. from 10:00-17:00.

What follows is a brief overview of the history of Santa Fe and New Mexico as a whole, which you’ll be able to learn about in more detail during your tour of the museum.

Santa Fe Guide

The area of Santa Fe was inhabited as early as 900 AD, when it was settled by a Puebloan tribe known as the Tewa. Later abandoned, the Spanish came to the area in 1598, establishing the province of Nuevo México.

What we now know as Santa Fe was designated in 1610. And though it wouldn’t be taken by the US for another couple of centuries, Santa Fe is still widely regarded as the oldest US state capital.

The 17th century saw frequent fighting between the native Puebloan peoples and the Spanish conquerors, with the Puebloans even managing to take control of the city between 1680-1692.

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

While the Spanish controlled a huge amount of land throughout the Americas, they preferred to keep their colonies isolated. Following the American Revolution, the Spanish strictly forbade outsiders from entering New Mexico, as they were concerned about revolutionary ideas taking hold.

But that didn’t prevent revolution from happening anyway, with the Republic of Mexico winning independence from Spain in 1821, inheriting New Spain’s former borders.

After that, the region was finally open to trade with the United States, with traders coming along the Santa Fe Trail, a long trading route connecting New Mexico with Missouri. The trail was later replaced with a railroad, though it was ultimately decided that the train route would bypass Santa Fe, greatly hurting the city economically.

Following the Mexican-American War (1846-48), which saw the United States emerge victorious, Mexico was forced to cede the entirety of what’s now the Southwest US in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. New Mexico would remain a mere US territory for decades until it was finally granted statehood in 1912.

But before that, the region saw yet more tragedies carried out against the native population. In 1863, the US military forced around 9,000 Najavo and Apache Indians from their traditional homelands to a reservation known as Bosque Redondo. Known as the Long Walk, many died during the journey.

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

After achieving statehood, New Mexico started to become fashionable during World War I, when wealthy families couldn’t take their regular vacations to Europe. 

Local tour companies emerged that guided visitors from the east to the stunning landscapes of the Southwest while introducing them to the exotic Native American cultures.

And as we’ll cover below, Santa Fe would also become a prominent artistic hub from the early 20th century, a status which it maintains to this day.

Loretto Chapel

As one might expect from a former Spanish colonial city, central Santa Fe is home to a number of notable churches. Among them is Loretto Chapel, constructed between 1873-78 upon the request of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy.

It was then managed by the Loretto Sisters, a teaching order from Kentucky, who were invited by the bishop to come and establish a girls school.

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

Modeled after Saint Chapelle in Paris, the Loretto Chapel was the first Gothic building ever constructed to the west of the Mississippi River.

But the chapel is most known for its unique spiral staircase, which was built without nails and only held together with square pegs. And amazingly, it features no supports in either the center or sides.

Comprised of a symbolic 33 steps, according to legend, it was built by a stranger who mysteriously disappeared after completing the project.

The Loretto Chapel currently costs $3 to enter and is open daily from 9:00-17:00.

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

As with the Loretto Chapel, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi was commissioned by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. Constructed between 1869 and 1886, it replaced an older adobe church.

Built in the Romanesque Revival style, it stands out amongst the brown adobe buildings of central Santa Fe. Nevertheless, it remains one of the city’s most beautiful structures.

Santa Fe Guide

New Mexico Museum of Art

As mentioned, Santa Fe has been an art hub since the early 20th century. And while there are plenty of locations to experience art throughout the city, the New Mexico Museum of Art provides the best introduction to the local art scene over the past century.

Open Tue.-Sun. from 10:00-17:00, the museum costs $12 for out-of-state visitors.

Santa Fe Guide

The building which houses the museum was completed in 1917, and is a prominent example of the Pueblo Revival Style. Stepping inside, on the bottom floor you’ll find the St. Francis Auditorium, which has long hosted a variety of musical and cultural events.

Then it’s time to explore the various exhibitions spread out across the first and second floors.

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

New Mexico was a popular destination for many early modernist painters, who were inspired to develop new palettes reflecting the natural colors of the region. 

Numerous artists were also inspired by the region’s native inhabitants, along with traditional Pueblo architecture and pottery. 

Of course, Native American artists themselves have always been an important part of New Mexico’s art scene, and they sometimes depicted important rituals and ceremonies that outsiders didn’t have access to.

Santa Fe Guide
Portrait of Dieguito Roybal by Robert Henri

On the upper floor, you’ll encounter the former reception hall for the Women’s Board, a local hospitality group. The room is now host to some of the museum’s most striking art pieces.

Back on the ground level, don’t miss the well-manicured interior courtyard, which was clearly inspired by traditional Spanish architecture.

Santa Fe Guide

The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Among the many artists who settled in Santa Fe, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is arguably the most famous. Often regarded as the Mother of American Modernism, she was among the first artists of her era to experiment with personalized interpretations of the world around her instead of simply copying it.

After spending much of her early career in New York, she’d later become enamored with New Mexico, whose unique landscapes and colors greatly inspired her work.

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

Though she spent most of her time in the town of Abiquiú, she’d later move to Santa Fe in her final years. Somewhat confusingly, there is a Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio Museum in Abiquiú, while central Santa Fe is home to what’s simply known as the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. This Santa Fe guide only features the latter.

The museum was established in 1997, and as one might expect, features a variety of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings from throughout her career, including some earlier works that she painted of New York City skyscrapers.

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

But the main focus, of course, are the paintings she completed in New Mexico. Subject matter includes local landscapes, animal skulls close-ups of flowers, and some pieces that are purely abstract.

While obviously a must-visit for Georgia O’Keeffe fans, you’re unlikely to regret a visit even if you don’t know much about her work.

Note that before you go, you’re supposed to purchase a ticket in advance for a particular time slot, which you can buy here. At the time of writing, tickets cost $20.

In my case, I arrived early but the staff didn’t seem to care. It appears that the timed entry system is not strictly enforced as long as the museum’s not too crowded.

More Around the Center

In such a historical city like Santa Fe, it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s still plenty more to see around the center. Another highlight is the Chapel of San Miguel. Established as a military chapel in 1610, it’s the oldest church in the US that remains in use.

Constructed by Tlaxcalan laborers from Mexico, it was later burnt down during the Puebloan revolt of 1680. But the Spanish eventually rebuilt it when they retook the city a dozen years later.

Santa Fe Guide

While pretty from the outside, the door was locked during my visit and I was unable to see the interior.

Right around the corner is another historical monument. The Oldest House Museum was established in 1646, and as the name suggests, is considered the oldest surviving residence in the United States. 

But despite having shown up during the stated opening hours, I encountered the museum locked with no staff in sight.

Santa Fe Guide

Another architectural highlight of Santa Fe is the New Mexico State Capitol. While Santa Fe is now only the fourth largest city in the state, it remains New Mexico’s capital as it has for four centuries.

The original seat of the New Mexico government was the Governor’s Palace, while this Territorial Revival structure was built in the 1960s.

Santa Fe Guide

Fort Marcy

About fifteen minutes on foot from central Santa Fe is Fort Marcy, a historical fort that was constructed by the US Military at the start of the Mexican-American War. 

While Santa Fe was still technically part of Mexico at the time, the US military quickly captured the city and set up an outpost here.

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

There’s hardly anything left of the fort itself, though you’ll find ample informational signage detailing the hill’s history.

After the US’s victory in the war and its subsequent annexation of New Mexico (and the entire Southwest), there was no more need for such a fort. As such, it was quickly abandoned. 

And already by the 1850s, it had become something of an archaeological site that was even studied by prominent local archaeologist Adolf Bandelier.

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

Even if you’re not a history buff, the main reason to come is for the clear views of the historical center below. While it’s a popular spot for viewing sunsets, I happened to visit on a cloudy and gloomy evening. Hopefully you’ll have better luck.

Museum Hill

About a ten-minute drive southeast of the city center is Museum Hill, home to a plethora of different museums. But if you only have a weekend in Santa Fe, you probably won’t have time for all of them.

While I only visited one museum, I had no regrets about choosing the Museum of International Folk Art.

The Museum of International Folk Art

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

The International Museum of Folk Art first opened in 1953 and houses several different exhibitions. But the top highlight here is the one called Multiple Visions: A Common Bond, whose items were all part of the collection of Alexander Gerard.

Alexander Girard (1907-1993) was born in New York but raised in Italy. He eventually moved to Santa Fe in 1953, the same year that the museum opened. Throughout his travels, he’d collected tens of thousands of folk art objects, a large portion of which he later donated to the state government in the 1970s.

The Multiple Visions exhibition was then opened in 1982 to showcase the highlights of the collection.

Santa Fe Guide

The displays lack signage or labels indicating where the items come from. There are, however, laminated guides near the entrance that provide this info.

I missed this upon entering, however, and spent most of my time trying to guess the origin of each section. As an avid traveler, I enjoyed this guessing game, but I still would’ve preferred to have the guide with me had I known!

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

The Museum of International Folk Art also hosts regular temporary exhibits as well. At the time of my visit, there was a showcase of art depicting various yokai, or monsters and supernatural beings from Japanese folklore.

As with many of the other museums in this Santa Fe guide, this museum is closed Mondays and costs $12 to enter for out-of-state visitors.

More Around Museum Hill

Just outside the Museum of International Folk Art is a large public plaza featuring various monuments. Among them is what appears to be a simple circle paved with brick.

While I initially didn’t think anything of it, a local recommended I stand in the very center and say something. Amazingly, the sound of my own voice bounced back at me as if I were hearing it through a speaker!

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

As the name suggests, Museum Hill is also home to numerous other museums. While I was interested in the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, time restraints, along with the fact that photography isn’t allowed, caused me to skip it.

Other museums include the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, while the Santa Fe Botanical Garden is also in the area.

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

Canyon Road Art Galleries

In the Santa Fe guide above, we went over how Santa Fe has been attracting prominent artists since the early 20th century. But it still remains an art hub in the 21st century, which is evidenced by the countless art galleries along Canyon Road.

Santa Fe Guide

In fact, there are no less than a hundred galleries stretched out along a half-mile. And if you’re having trouble figuring out which ones to visit, something like this curated tour can help you out.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I only had time for a brief walk around, but art lovers should definitely add extra time to their trip to fully explore the area.

While the galleries take on Santa Fe’s distinct Pueblo Revival style, the area’s atmosphere reminded me somewhat of Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende that I’d just visited a few months prior.

Santa Fe Guide
Santa Fe Guide

Additional Info

As you might expect, the most convenient area to stay in Santa Fe would be the historical center. Top-rated hotels include the Guadalupe Inn and the Parador, which both include free breakfast.

The further out from the center you’re willing to stay, the cheaper the hotels will get. With prices soaring throughout the United States, there’s certainly no true ‘budget’ accommodation anymore, but the Motel 6 on the outskirts of town is perhaps the closest thing.

That’s where I chose to stay, with the room costing about $75 per night. There are actually two different Motel 6’s in Santa Fe, and while I stayed at the one farther from the center, it was still a relatively easy drive.



Booking.com

If you’re interested in an in-depth guided tour of Santa Fe, there are plenty of options to choose from. But this one, led by local historian Ana Pacheco, appears to be the most interesting. And it even has over 100 positive reviews.

If you’re flying in, the nearest major airport to Santa Fe is Albuquerque, about an hour’s drive from Santa Fe. You can easily book a rental car online with sites like Discover Cars.

There’s also a train connecting the two cities called the New Mexico Rail Runner Express.

Being one of America’s oldest cities, central Santa Fe is very walkable. And you can easily get to many of the locations mentioned in the Santa Fe guide above on foot.

You’ll need a vehicle of some sort, however, to visit more distant places like Museum Hill and Canyon Road. Supposedly, public buses connect the historical center with Museum Hill, though renting a car will still be your best bet.

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