Home Destinations New Mexico gems: 12 ways to enjoy Santa Fe and Albuquerque, destinations unlike any others

New Mexico gems: 12 ways to enjoy Santa Fe and Albuquerque, destinations unlike any others

by Lisa Mowry
Apache Spirit Dancer in front of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture

The otherworldly charms of New Mexico are enchanting at every turn. Vast stretches of desert and mountains hint at centuries of life that came before us, and the pueblo-style architecture and multi-cultural arts scene immerse you in other cultures.

Where else can you hike for petroglyphs, travel from 70 to 30 degrees in a span of 15 minutes, view mind-blowing art, and shop for “Breaking Bad” merch in the same day? Not to mention savoring the beloved green and red chiles and a margarita.

The area is so easy to explore that our group had 20-some experiences over four days and I’m already looking forward to a return trip.

A neighborhood in Albuquerque. (Photo by MarbleStreetStudio.com)

A few fun facts: These cities are high in elevation, with Santa Fe topping out at 7,000 feet and Albuquerque at 5,300 so, make sure to allow time to adjust to the climate, and watch the tequila consumption.

Most days are sunny. Red and green chiles are a base for so many dishes, and if you’re ever asked whether you want red or green chile sauce, feel free to respond “Christmas,” which means a mix of red and green.

You’ll learn a lot on a visit to either of these places; both cities reflect a mix of Native American, Hispanic, Mexican and Anglo cultures in a way few other cities can offer.

Here are a dozen ways to jump into this wonderful western experience.

See our related story: Mother-Daughter Weekend to New Mexico at Tamaya Resort


Hotel Chaco, a few blocks from Old Town and the Sawmill district, offers the authenticity you want in a place to stay. The architecture from award-winning firm Gensler helps tell the story of design in the area, through masonry walls, wood accents, and art that’s reflective of the region. The lobby always has visitors looking up and around to take it all in. (Photo by Lisa Mowry)

• Explore Old Town.
Many journeys to New Mexico begin with a flight into Albuquerque’s airport, so this metropolitan city is an ideal first stop. Head to Old Town, a hub of history, culture, good food and some quirky activities.

We checked into Hotel Chaco, a AAA 4-Diamond property full of architectural wonders and local art. It’s across the street from the area’s first food hall, Sawmill Market, and a few blocks from charming Old Town.

Old Town was settled in the early 1700s by a group of Spanish families. Adobe-style architecture and colorful doors define this quintessential New Mexico area. The walkable area is a must-do for any visitors to Albuquerque. (Photo by Lisa Mowry)

Shops, restaurants, street musicians, and historic buildings are situated around a square and side streets in the Old Town area, all in an unmistakable New Mexico architecture.

Albuquerque excels at the quirky, and a prime example is this small but fascinating museum. The Rattlesnake Museum & Gift Shop has live specimens of snakes (safely behind glass!), pop culture references to snakes, and all sorts of biological info about the area. (Photo by Lisa Mowry)

Have breakfast at Blackbird Café, tucked into a courtyard with a fountain and colorful tiles all around. Albuquerque Museum in Old Town features exhibits that celebrate indigenous cultures and contemporary art coming out of New Mexico; its first-rate gift shop is a good stop for souvenirs.

Petroglyphs—carvings found on rocks from a variety of past cultures—are available to see on several hikes around Albuquerque. The Rinconada Canyon Trail is a two-mile easy hike through one of the sites.

• See ancient art.
More than 20,000 images – some mysterious, some recognizable – are carved into stone at the Petroglyph National Monument. It’s close enough to Albuquerque to keep you in the general area, but the two-mile walk along Rinconada Canyon Trail feels like you’re farther out of town.

The path leads you through hilly areas covered in volcanic rock, desert plants, fascinating vistas, with well-marked signs and information about what to look for.

The Sandia tramway takes visitors high above Albuquerque for a thrill ride and amazing views. (Photo by Dirt Road Travels/Visit Albuquerque)

• Soar to 10,000 feet above sea level.
The Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway is the number one attraction on Tripadvisor for New Mexico, and it’s easy to see why. Riders check in to the visitors center in its desert setting, board the tramway and experience a 15-minute semi-harrowing ride, traveling above acres of city and mountains as the topography changes. The 10,378-foot peak is surrounded by rocky crevices, snow-topped ski areas, and a stunning vista of the city.

Calling all “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” fans! See Albuquerque through the eyes of film buffs who bought a replica RV and take you to  the BB/BCS hot spots in a tricked-out meth lab RV. You even get a snack at Los Pollos Hermanos (now operating as Twisters). (Photo by Lisa Mowry)

• Enter “Breaking Bad” territory.
Fans of “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” know that the action took place in Albuquerque, so what better way to see the city than through an official “Breaking Bad” TV Tour?

For three crazy hours, you can tour in a replica RV just like Walt and Jesse had, and tour filming sites from around the city such as Los Pollos Hermanos, Jesse’s and Walt’s house, various nefarious places of drug business and the car wash. You end the tour at the official “Breaking Bad” store and museum in Old Town, full of memorabilia and photo opps that will please all BB/BCS fans.

Blue-plate specials and the best milkshakes around are what you’ll want to eat at 66 Diner, but the retro interiors and Art Déco exteriors at this stop along famed Route 66 also make it a must-see. (Photo by Lisa Mowry)

• Explore Route 66.
The 66 Diner along historic Route 66 offers a step back in time at this one-time Phillips 66 station that’s now a diner, full of all the good nostalgia feels (and food). Vinyl booths, a vintage jukebox, plenty of ‘50s memorabilia, and workers dressed of the era are part of the treat. Make sure to get a milkshake.

Santa Fe

Drive the turquoise trail.
Head up to Santa Fe, but skip the highway and traverse the rugged, off-beat sights found along Highway 14, aka the Turquoise Trail. This 50-mile stretch links Albuquerque and Santa Fe, offers beautiful vistas of central New Mexico, and also passes by the artsy town of Madrid, well worth a stop.

The most photographed hotel in Santa Fe is easily the Inn and Spa at Loretto, a luxury destination celebrating the pueblo-style architecture that defines New Mexico. The 136 guest rooms and cozy lobby, restaurants, and shops make it the kind of place where you don’t even have to leave to feel the Santa Fe vibe. (Photo by Lisa Mowry)

Savor an inn and historic chapel in the heart of Santa Fe.
The pueblo-style architecture of the Inn and Spa at Loretto will win your heart – and if budget allows, ask for a suite that comes with a wood-burning fireplace and balcony for an extra treat.

The inn is ideally situated among all the sites of Santa Fe, including the beautiful Loretto Chapel next door. It’s a spacious, friendly hotel with lots of areas in the building to explore.

Canyon Road is a marvelous testament to creativity with its 100+ art galleries—some fine art, some folk art—found on one street in the heart of downtown Santa Fe. (Photo by Lisa Mowry)

Browse for art, visit a museum.
Santa Fe is an art lover’s paradise, and certainly the epicenter of southwestern arts culture. Canyon Road includes a half-mile of adobe-style art galleries – more than a hundred – representing a variety of art styles and budgets, so make sure to browse this fascinating street.

The Georgia O’Keeffe museum takes a look at her art journey over a span of decades. (Photo by Lisa Mowry)

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum pays tribute to one of the art world’s leading women artists, while the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture goes deeper into the perspectives and creations of indigenous peoples of the southwest. But that’s not all…the Railyard Arts District is a newer section with warehouse-sized galleries full of thought-provoking art – some of our favorites in the city.

The Santa Fe Margarita Trail passport suggests 40 specialty margaritas spread out over town, including the Swirl shown here—a mix of margarita and sangria—found at Tomasita’s near the Railyard. (Photo by Lisa Mowry)

• Have a margarita and dive into southwestern cuisine.
The Santa Fe Margarita Trail is a passbook that illustrates the many varieties of margaritas around town, where to find them, and even gives you a $1 discount on each one.

• Indulge in local cuisine.
A good place to start is Café Pasqual’s (so good we went twice on our trip), where the locals head for breakfast, lunch and dinner, sampling specialties such as Mole chicken enchiladas, Catalan stew and plantain chips with avocado sauce. Join a group at the communal table like we did, and make new friends.

Meow Wolf is a popular, trippy attraction in Santa Fe. (Photo courtesy of Meow Wolf)

• Experience Meow Wolf.
Yes, maybe Meow Wolf could be included in the art category, but it goes beyond art as a sensory activity like no other. The 70 rooms in the House of Eternal Return (the title for Santa Fe’s version, which is the original) are somewhat like a haunted house-within-an-art-warehouse vibe.

The whole family can go since it’s all-ages, although prepare to get lost from your peeps, since there are secret portals and doors that lead to areas you had no idea existed…and once you’re there, it’s a cacophony of sound, video, interactive objects, and so much to look at.

Make a reservation in advance because it’s popular. You’d hate to come home and have your friends say, “What?! You didn’t go to Meow Wolf?”

For more information, Visitalbuquerque.org, Santafe.org

– Lisa Mowry

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