Santa Fe for culture trippers

Friday, June 29th, 2012. Filed under: Architecture Art Destination Guides New Mexico

Santa Fe, New Mexico, has a relaxed sophistication.

There’s a kind of hush over Santa Fe, New Mexico, a hush quite remarkable for a UNESCO Creative City and the third-largest art market in the U.S. (after New York and Los Angeles). Located at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at an elevation of 7,000 feet, the color and beauty of New Mexico’s high desert is all around. Serenity and a reverence for beauty infuse the city, borne on sage-scented breezes and the magical desert light that has drawn so many artists to live and create here.

Bella Donna (1939), Georgia O'Keeffe, oil on canvas, collection O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe.

With 400 years of Spanish and Mexican rule and the Pueblo cultures here even longer, Santa Fe’s complex history has shaped the city’s distinctive aesthetic. To wander winding lanes, admiring the old adobe architecture, is one of the city’s great pleasures.

While Santa Fe’s museums are some of the most important in the U.S. and internationally, I found their jewel-box size make them manageable both stamina- and schedule-wise.  There are many, though, so plan ahead where you’d like to linger.

Culture Tripper top picks:

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum:  In 1917, artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was on a train that stopped in Santa Fe for repairs. This was her first glimpse of northern New Mexico, a place she would forever be associated with.  With over 3,000 works, the museum is the largest repository of O’Keeffe’s work in the world and the most-visited museum in New Mexico. Regularly changing exhibits include the abstractions, large-scale flowers, leaves, rocks, shells, bones and unusual landforms for which she is most famous. O’Keeffe always used the best materials she could get and the brilliant glow of her oil paintings belie their age. Tours to her home and studio at Abiquiu are also arranged through the museum; book online and well ahead.

Native American artisans sell jewelry, pottery and more in front of the Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe.

New Mexico History Museum: Santa Fe’s newest museum is tucked in behind the Palace of the Governors on the Plaza. State-of-the-art exhibits and fascinating artifacts guide visitors through 400 years of New Mexico history, weaving individual stories of indigenous people, Spanish colonists, the Mexican Republic, Santa Fe Trail traders, pioneers, nuclear scientists, artists and other contributors to the state’s complex tapestry. Whether you know a little or a lot about New Mexico, this museum will greatly enhance your understanding and experience.

The Voice of the Water (1934), fresco by Will Shuster, New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe.

New Mexico Museum of Art: Inspired by the adobe structures at Acoma Pueblo, this museum is as interesting for its architecture (early Pueblo Revival, 1917) as for the works on display. Its fine regional collection includes pieces by Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, the Taos Society of Artists and Santa Fe’s own Cinco Pintores (five painters). I especially enjoyed the courtyard frescoes by one of the five: Will Shuster. Painted at the height of the Depression as part of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) program, the murals depict the spiritual, ceremonial and agricultural traditions of the Pueblo peoples.

Museum Hill:  Four world-class museums anchor Museum Hill, a complex on the Old Santa Fe Trail. Paths wind between the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, the delightful Museum of International Folk Art and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (the Santa Fe Children’s Museum is nearby, too). Several spectacular statues adorn the grounds and there is often music in the plaza. The Museum Cafe offers interesting sandwiches and other light fare; it’s worthwhile to schedule lunch here. The museum shops offer some of the best shopping in the city. I was impressed by the fine artist-made jewelry sold at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture shop. Christmas ornaments have Southwest charm; I picked up a trio of hand-carved spotted ponies.

Canyon Road:  Canyon Road was once an ancient route between the Rio Grande pueblos and the Pecos pueblos. Now it’s one of the world’s top commercial gallery districts. Handsome old adobe homes house upscale restaurants, shops and galleries offering a variety of art from antique Navajo weavings to pricey contemporary paintings and sculpture. Canyon Road begins centrally and climbs for two miles into the foothills; most of the galleries are in lower half mile, an easy walk on a moderate incline. Friday evening gallery hopping is a Santa Fe tradition. El Farol is de rigueur for food and music. Pick up the brochure entitled The Collector’s Guide to Canyon Road at your hotel; it contains a useful map and details on individual galleries.

Friday night gallery hopping on Canyon Road, Santa Fe.

The Railyard: If Friday nights are spent on Canyon Road, Saturday mornings should be spent at the Farmers Market, another Santa Fe tradition and a main anchor of the Railyard. This historic warehouse and rail district has been revitalized with restaurants, shops, live/work spaces for artists, a picnic-perfect park and art venues like the teen-oriented Warehouse21 and SITE Santa Fe (contemporary art). A restored scenic train as well as the Rail Runner commuter train to Albuquerque have put the old rail depot back in use.  I especially enjoyed talking to the craftspeople offering their wares at the open-air Artists Market.

New Mexico Culture Pass:  This $25 pass allows you to visit 14 state monuments and museums.  In Santa Fe, that includes the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors, the New Mexico Museum of Art, plus the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture and the Museum of International Folk Art on Museum Hill.  Order online.

When to go:  Summer sees the performing arts join the city’s legendary Indian, Spanish and Folk Art Markets in creating critical tourist mass. Santa Fe is also a prime Christmas destination, with farolitos (paper bag lanterns) glowing on paths and snow-topped adobe walls. Crowds are lighter in fall and spring but fabulous eco spas, a hopping culinary scene, Southwestern cooking classes, art and photography workshops, day trips to Pueblos, artist studio tours and endless opportunities for outdoor adventure make Santa Fe a true year-round destination.

Inn on the Alameda, Santa Fe, is one block from Canyon Road and three blocks from the Plaza.

Where to stay:  The closest hotel to Canyon Road, Inn on the Alameda offers the luxury of one of the Southwest’s best small hotels with the secluded ambience of a country B&B. A super breakfast buffet (including gluten-free and vegan options), generous wine-and-cheese afternoon receptions and free wi-fi add value and pleasure to a stay. Staff know Santa Fe well and can assist with restaurant reservations, concert and theater tickets, tours and sporting expeditions. The Inn also offers packages themed OK O’Keeffe, Fresh Santa Fe (weekend Farmers’ Market), Check-in to Chocolate (Santa Fe’s chocolate trail), Taste the City Different (cuisine and culture) and Muy Sabrosa (Santa Fe School of Cooking). Check the Inn’s website for current offers. The Inn on the Alameda is a completely non-smoking hotel.

For more links, a full calendar of events and to order a Santa Fe Visitors Guide, see the  Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau.

And for more trip-planning inspiration, see New Mexico Tourism.

Santa Fe Farmers Market, Saturday mornings at the Railyard.


Chile wreaths for sale at Farmers Market, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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