By Saul Schwartz
Although my wife Fern and I had been to New Mexico for work trips, this was our first opportunity to see the sites of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. In March, the daytime temperatures were quite pleasant, but the mornings and evenings were cool. As our base, we stayed a VRBO walkable to Old Town Albuquerque.
With a population of around 545,000, Albuquerque is New Mexico’s largest city. ABQ was founded as a Spanish colonial outpost along the Rio Grande River. The city fills a valley between the Sandia Mountains and a sweeping plateau. Although we were not in ABQ at the time of the internationally famous hot air balloon festival, we did see three colorful balloons in the sky during our stay. The Albuquerque airport also displays several historic hot air balloons.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
A Walking Tour of Downtown Albuquerque
The Albuquerque Historical Society offers two-hour tours focusing on the historic sites in “New Town.” Our guide Trudy was full of local information. There is no set charge for the tour. The tour begins downtown at the corner of 1st and Central Avenue, S.W. Donations to the Historical Society are encouraged. The tour covers about one mile.
In 1880, when the railroad arrived, its tracks were laid one- and one-half miles to the east of Old Town to avoid the Rio Grande River, which regularly flooded. The heart of New Town lay along Railroad Avenue, now known as Central Avenue. The remaining buildings in the modest skyline evidence a creative divergence of architectural styles. Presently community leaders struggle with making downtown a successful mix of housing, retail and commercial.
Some of the highlights on the tour included the Alvarado Transportation Center which was built to resemble to old Alvarado Hotel at 100 First Street, S.W., the Sunshine Building, a Renaissance Revival style “skyscraper” which houses a theater at 120 Central Avenue, S.W., the intersection of Route 66 in two different directions, and the Kimo Theater opened in 1927 at 419 Central Avenue, S.W. with its elaborate southwestern design themes. Trudy explained the buildings in great detail, and we went inside the Hotel Andaluz, built in 1939, which became one of the first Conrad Hilton hotels. The interior of the Spanish style hotel contains beautiful artworks and information about Conrad Hilton. About – Albuquerque Historical Society (albuqhistsoc.org).
Old Town Albuquerque
Old town was first settled in 1706. We enjoyed several strolls through Old Town’s narrow streets, hidden patios, and winding brick pathways. At the heart of Old Town sits a tree- shaded plaza with a gazebo. Several informal musical performances took place in the plaza during our wanderings. Over 150 boutique style stores feature Native American jewelry, wood carvings, New Mexico memorabilia and southwestern art. On the plaza’s east side, Native Americans display their own wares for sale, including jewelry and art. Throughout the Old Town, hanging strands of red chile peppers decorate the area.
Old Town became livelier in the evenings. We enjoyed spending time within the Breaking Bad store which features a wide variety of merchandise related to two shows set in ABQ, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul (with my namesake, Saul Goodman). The store has fun props for taking pictures based on the sets of both shows. At one end of Old Town sits a large equestrian statute of the city founder, Don Francisco Guermo Y Valdes. A fountain with cascading water sits behind the statue.
The major historical structure on the plaza’s north side is the San Felipe de Neri church. The oldest church is ABQ was founded in 1706 by a Franciscan priest. The present abode building in the shape of a cross dates from 1793 and is designated as a national historic place. The exterior features twin bell towers. Admission to the church and gift shop is free (when there are no services) with donations accepted. San Felipe de Neri Parish | Albuquerque, NM.
Indian Pueblo Cultural Center
At the Center, we learned the fascinating history of the 19 pueblos of New Mexico. The Center is located at 2401 12th Street, N.W. The $10 admission fee included a one- and one-half hour guided tour of the museum and Center. The guided tour led by the Center’s extremely knowledgeable Cultural Educator provided us with a wealth of information about the Indian pueblo legacy and the Native American culture in New Mexico. The permanent exhibit, opened in 2016, takes about one hour to explore and covers history, art, and culture of New Mexico’s pueblos.
The Center includes an extensive gift store which features Native American jewelry and art. In the courtyard, talented Native American artists displayed their original, handcrafted artworks and talked to us about their works. The courtyard contains a series of large murals by great Pueblo artists. The grounds also include several sculptures.
Inside the Center, you can experience the flavors of traditional and contemporary cuisine in the Indian Pueblo Kitchen. We opted to purchase an intriguing desert, the pumpkin pueblo pie. https://indianpueblo.org.
Located at 2601 Central Avenue, N.W., alongside the Rio Grande River, the ABQ Biopark Botanic Garden is open daily. The $14.50 ticket includes admission to the small Aquarium nearby. A series of specialty gardens feature different themes. We particularly liked the Spanish-Moorish Garden which in March had more colorful plants and flowers than the more informal gardens or the Sasebo Japanese Garden with its koi pond, tiered waterfall, and bell tower. Many of the gardens showcase the native New Mexico habitat. The gardens also feature indoor Mediterranean and desert conservatories, and a children’s fantasy garden. For several hours, we enjoyed strolling along the numerous paths which cover 1.5 miles. This attraction is consistently ranked in the nation’s top botanical gardens. https://www.cabq.gov/artsculture/biopark/garden.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Santa Fe has been New Mexico’s capital even before it became a state. We took a day trip from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, which is located about one hour north. Since the weather was problematic, we focused on several indoor activities. The downtown area is pretty compact for a city of about 70,000 residents.
New Mexico State Capitol
The New Mexico state capitol is the seat of government of the state. It is the only round state capitol building in the U.S. and is informally known as the Roundhouse. Free parking for visitors is available right outside the building, located at 490 Santa Fe Trail. Visitors – New Mexico Legislature (nmlegis.gov).
With reservations, we were able to be escorted on an in-person 45-minute tour of portions of the four-floor capitol building. The tour was free. During the tour, we learned that legislative sessions last for 60 days and that the citizen-legislators receive no money for their services! Our tour included a visit to the first-floor house chambers.
The current building is one of the newest capitols in the U.S., dedicated in 1966 and renovated in the early 1990s. The 49-foot in diameter Rotunda in the center of the building features an inlaid turquoise and brass mosaic of the great seal which includes the Zia sun symbol on the floor, inspired by a design from the Zia Pueblo. It represents a circular sun with linear rays extending in four directions. The symbol stands for the four directions of the earth, the four seasons of the year, the four times of the day and life’s four divisions of childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. The stage flag includes the Zia symbol, as well.
After the tour, we were able to wander around on our own to view the art displayed. The capitol building features an amazing permanent collection of about five hundred pieces of contemporary artwork and furnishings either handcrafted by New Mexicans or related to New Mexico. The collection was created in 1991 when the legislature founded the Capitol Art Foundation to exhibit contemporary local and regional art. The collection contains a very wide variety of media, styles, and traditions.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assissi
Located one block south of Sante Fe Plaza at 131 Cathedral Place, the majestic cathedral was built to serve Santa Fe settlement’s Catholic community. This became the first church in New Mexico to obtain the status of cathedral basilica. The parish was founded in 1610. The present church building built in 1869 is Santa Fe’s most recognized landmark with its sharp French Romanesque lines featuring round arches and two square towers. Its yellow limestone is in stark contrast to the adobe structures in the plaza nearby. The church is surrounded by a lovely tree-shaded park.
As services were not being held, we were able to view the display of religious art in the sanctuary. The beautiful rose window in the front came from France. In the center of the nave, is a large baptismal font made of granite, in black and brown. The artwork along the walls features the stations of the cross. Sitting inside was a very peaceful, spiritual experience.
The outside portico contains a statue of St. Francis, a statue of the first North American native American to be canonized Saint Kateri, a bronze statue of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, and a stations of the cross prayer garden. Donations are accepted.
To get out of the rain, we stopped briefly inside this four-star hotel which is just off the Santa Fe Plaza. The first floor features original artwork and a nice mix of boutique shops which offer clothing, handmade textiles, folk art and kitchen accessories. Built in 1922, the architecture features the design of Mary Jane Coulter whose works stand throughout the Grand Canyon. In the 1920s, this was one of the Harvey House hotels, a hotel chain known for high standards and staff of Harvey girls’ waitresses. Historic Santa Fe Hotel | La Fonda on the Plaza (lafondasantafe.com).
Georgia O’Keefe Museum
The Museum is dedicated to the life and art of Georgia O’Keefe. This story is told through connecting galleries, tracing her twentieth century journey. The artist’s best-known works include many inspired by New Mexico’s stark beauty and by the objects, places and experiences that informed her life. The permanent collection consists of paintings, drawings, pastels, and watercolors. We learned that she painted so much more than her most famous flowers. It takes about one hour to stroll through the collection. The current temporary installation features work of the Museum’s first artist in residence, Josephine Halvorson. Current plans are to expand from the modest current building into a larger facility, in the Santa Fe historic district.
The exceptional audio tour of the current installation works off your phone. The audio tour focuses on about twenty pieces of art and stops in several parts of the collection to discuss different periods of O’Keefe’s life and works. The museum is divided into nine permanent thematic galleries (including her first American abstract art works, paintings depicting the wonders of the natural world and the artist’s New Mexico landscapes), two areas for a special exhibition, a lobby and a gift shop. Advanced ticket reservations are required, may be purchased 30 days in advance and cost $18 per adult. The current building is located at 218 Johnson Street in downtown Santa Fe. A relocation of the Museum is being planned. Although the Museum does not have a dedicated parking lot, there are many parking lots and street parking nearby. okeeffemuseum.org.
New Mexico Tips
- The weather is variable from day to night; bring a coat!
- There is a large homeless population in Albuquerque, so be safe.
- Weekdays are much quieter at the sites than evenings or weekends.
- Although there were plenty of attractions for four days in ABQ and Santa Fe, there aren’t a huge number of sites to see.
- The Albertsons grocery store chain stores offer many options for meals.
- Although we did not have time to explore it, the bike path along the Rio Grande looked amazing!
- The ABQ airport is easy to navigate.
- The ABQ sites are not geographically far apart, so it does not take long to tour around.
- Prices of accommodations and attractions are very reasonable.
- These two cities in New Mexico are very scenic, but the cultural attractions are modest, so four days provide sufficient time to enjoy the highlights.