New Mexico

Top 5 things to see in Santa Fe

A UNESCO Creative City

oldest church in U.S.

Santa Fe, which means Holy Faith, was founded in 1610 by Don Pedro de Peralta at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Santa Fe remained an isolated outpost of the Spanish empire and changed little when the Americans took control in 1846. Even the establishment of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, a wagon road connecting Franklin, Missouri, to Santa Fe, did little to change the city. It was Colonel Edwin Sumner of the U.S. Army in 1848 who described Santa Fe as “barren, drab, dusty and poor. . . that sink of vice and extravagance.” Santa Fe has certainly changed its image over the past four centuries.

This small city of approximately 70,000 is the oldest capital in the United States. Today Santa Fe is a government city which serves the state, but the historic and cultural heart of the city is its arts community. The arts reflect the multicultural character of the city. Over the decades, city officials have undertaken to maintain and construct a city based on the Spanish pueblo revival style. All buildings must be constructed in adobe style with earth-tone colors and not exceed the height of the St. Francis Church. The official websites of the city uses the term the City Different, and Santa Fe meets that definition.

What is different about Santa Fe?

1. The Santa Fe Plaza

Under the Spanish, the central plaza was a walled presidio (fort) with residences, barracks, a chapel, prison, blacksmith shop and other necessary artisans. The presidio was constructed to protect the inhabitants against the Indians, who eventually defeated the Spanish in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Today the central plaza is a National Historic Landmark, containing buildings such as the Palace of the Governors (the oldest government building in the U.S.), adobe hotels, shops, a park and the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi.

Native American Indians sell  turquoise and silver jewelry as well as other handcrafted items, all under the portal of the Palace of the Governors. The streets are lined with galleries, restaurants, Western apparel shops, fashionable boutiques and more jewelry stores. Also within the central plaza are street musicians, food vendors and many tourists milling about.

2. Churches

The Spanish empire could never have sustained itself without the Roman Catholic Church. There are three remarkable churches in Santa Fe. The San Miguel Mission is considered to be the oldest church in the United States, dating back to 1610. 

The most impressive church near the plaza is the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Constructed between 1869 and 1886, the church’s architectural style is called Romanesque Revival. For those who like trivia, the left tower has one extra row of bricks—a mistake? 

The Loretta Chapel, completed by 1878, is unique because of its 23-foot spiral staircase. The legend is that a mysterious carpenter appeared, took six months to complete the project and then disappeared, leaving no trace. The secret of who designed and built the circular staircase is claimed to be either a miracle or a mystery.

3. Art galleries

The city is only one of nine cities in the world that was honored by UNESCO as a Creative City in the areas of design, crafts and folk art. There are 275 art galleries in Santa Fe, with approximately 70 galleries on Canyon Road, about a mile southeast of the central plaza. It is a narrow road with one-way traffic and lined with homes that have been turned into art galleries. The works range from oil and watercolour paintings to weaving, granite and bronze sculptures, ceramics, wood carvings, glass, pottery, chic home furnishing and lawn art. Genres range from traditional to the avant-garde. If you are an aficionado of the arts, start with Canyon Road.

4. Museums

Between the central plaza and Museum Hill there are 14 major museums. The U.S. Travel Association ranks Santa Fe no. 3 for museums after New York and Boston. In the central plaza area are the New Mexico Museum, Museum of Art, Institute of American Indian Arts, New Mexico History Museum and the Santa Fe Children’s Museum. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is one of the most popular, as she is considered a local artist. Known as the mother of American Modernism, O’Keeffe painted the colorful landscapes of the state.

Across the city on Museum Hill are four more: the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Museum of International Folk Art and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.

5. The Roundhouse

This term is usually associated with trains, but in New Mexico this is the state legislature. The round shape resembles the Zia Indian symbol for the sun, with four entrance wings representing basic directions. Surrounding the roundhouse is a 6.5 acre garden boasting 100 varieties of native plants. Inside is a skylight which resembles an Indian basket. What is impressive is that the building is really a three floor art gallery featuring New Mexico artists, and it is all free. 

Santa Fe is not short on places to explore. We did not visit the Opera House, San Miguel Mission, Railyard/Guadalupe District, the Santa Fe Trail, the Oldest House in the United States, or take in one of the 40 festivals and fiestas. These will have to wait for a return visit.

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