Dean Clough

November 7, 2021

Portico Darwin: Santa Fe Travel Guide

Most people either understand why Santa Fe is a big deal, or they don't.  Put me in the former camp, and maybe this Travel Guide will inform the latter. 

My experience in Santa Fe dates to the mid-1980's, when Arthur and I would pretend to be grown-ups and come down from Boulder to party.  That was then but this is now, and this is a Travel Guide written during and after an extended, 3 week stay in the heart of New Mexico's state capital.  It may take as long to read or even download given its prodigious bulk.  But let's go. 

What is unusual about Santa Fe is its casual sophistication.  People don't show off here, despite there being very wealthy people everywhere.   Instead, it's a place where the Diamond Certified-nature of the restaurants, art, bars, museums, and outdoors - and lifestyle in general - are more sublime than flash.

I'd urge a Fall visit, which is what we did; for the record, for us, it was October 17 - November 6 of 2021.  Most consider it the best time of year, but remember that Santa Fe gets 300+ days of sunshine a year, so it's tough to really blow it.  Our weather consisted almost uniformly of sunny, warm days in the 50's and 60's, and cold, crisp nights in the 30's.  Just perfect, and when you add in stunning Fall foliage, the ginormous skies, and the nightly aroma of pinon logs burning across the city, Santa Fe takes on a singular, ethereal quality that's tough to find elsewhere.  Remember, at 7,200 feet in elevation, Santa Fe can get chilly at any time of the year.  But oh, that mountain sun!


The two big events of the year, and when crowds are at their peak, is during the Santa Fe Opera season and during Indian Market.  In 2021, they were held July 10 - August 27, August 21 - August 22, respectively.   Great things, both, although I typically shy away from big events that draw tourists.  But that's a personal preference.

Whenever you come, access is easier than you may think, with a smattering of flights from American and United from DFW, PHX, or DEN into SAF.  But we flew into ABQ (perhaps my favorite airport in America?), which is 60 miles south of Santa Fe, to pick up the car we'd use for the duration.   Rocket scientist and Julie's brother Biff Fladgate was kind enough to offer a spare vehicle of his and we were off.

In words you've seen before here,  your choices boil down to renting a place of your own via Airbnb and the like, or going the hotel route.  We went the former, and never looked back.  We loved our condo (via Airbnb) and its location; in fact, the overall experience bordered on flawless.

But there are some real-deal hotels in Santa Fe and its immediate environs.  That includes a Four Seasons (about 20 minutes away in the foothills), a Rosewood (the Inn at the Anasazi), and the independent-ish St. Francis.  There is also La Posada (from Marriott's Tribute brand), and the Inn & Spa at Loretto.  Or The Eldorado, and for those looking for something more sedate, there's a long-standing (but pretty nice) Hilton.

We did not stay at any of them (although we visited most); I provide them to help in your own research.  I seriously doubt a grave error would be made by staying at any, and each one I've listed is in a perfect location.

I will say this:  location matters in Santa Fe.  While no doubt the remote Four Seasons would be extraordinary, the fun in Santa Fe is walking and exploring.  Airbnb or hotel, I'd suggest a place within this area, below.  If you are fit and like to walk, staying in any of these neighborhoods puts you within walking distance of The Rail Yard District, The Plaza, the Capitol, the Rail Trail, and Canyon Road - which means pretty much everything you'd want or need.   


As above, the weather is conducive to walking and hiking and I heartily recommend that as your default mode of transportation.  Obviously, you're not going to walk to the foothills or to The Jemez Mountains, but whilst in Santa Fe proper, ditch the car.   Let's start in Santa Fe itself, and then we'll expand outwards.

You'll find exploring Santa Fe's many alleys and walking its backstreets to be a thing unto itself.  Get lost on a warm Fall day bombing around The Plaza, The Capitol and Canyon Road, and you won't care.  Believe me.

If you like a bit more structure, do not miss the The Rail Trail.  This is a beautiful urban hike that is 15 miles in length.  We'd walk out its first 3 miles from the South Capitol station and turn around each morning; it's a great start to any day.


Sticking with a train orientation, next up is exploring The Santa Fe Rail Yard, which is a mixed-use repurposing of the old Santa Fe Railway's freight railroad yard.  So instead of gritty trains, there are galleries, brew pubs, restaurants, cafes, a Farmer's Market on Saturday's and Tuesday's, and - well, you get the picture.  It's very nicely done and also a great place for a picnic.

Still in town, the hike up to The Cross of the Martyrs is worth it for some nice, panoramic views of Santa Fe.  But the next hike is better for that.

Just barely outside of town, and in the gorgeous foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, is the Dale Ball Trails complex.  This is a network of over 25 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails.  For a moderate, 1.8 mile taste to decide if you want more, park at the Sierra del Norte Trailhead and then go 9->8->6->5->10->7->8->9.  You are very welcome, and yes, that's a 360 degree hike.

After you check out the Dale Ball Trails, you might want to combine the hike with a private tub at the famous Ten Thousand Waves, which is just up the road.  This is a luxurious Japanese bath house located in the foothills, with all outdoor private hot tubs, cold plunges, saunas, etc.  If you wanted to go really crazy, you'd hike at Dale Ball, take a soak, and then dine at Izanami (see below), which is also at Ten Thousand Waves.  A must, one way or the other.  Be sure to book any visit here far in advance.

Of the many fairly astounding aspects of Santa Fe, one is its proximity to some Killer or better National Park Service properties.  There are 3 that are all in The Jemez Mountains, which lie approximately 50 miles to the west of Santa Fe.  You could do these all in one day, or break it in to two, depending upon the amount of hiking you'd like to do.   These are all worth the effort and could be considered must-do's:

The duration of our trip meant we went out - a lot.  A whole lot.  We also made the conscious decision to not eat many meals at our loft, apart from the 5 tubs of amazing carne adovada prepared for us by the conservative icon Marilyn Millan Fladgate.

Some notes on eating and drinking in Santa Fe.  Despite its sophistication, Santa Fe is not London or Chicago.  Meaning many restaurants and bars are closed at least one or two days a week, and even then, hours can be odd, or change without notice, including whilst you're inside.   Perhaps it's a pandemic/labor shortage thing, and I'd imagine things are more regular during Opera season, but it's something to know before coming.  I would also not call Santa Fe a bar town - there are plenty, but there's not a culture around it like in SF or Chicago or Boston.

Next, the food itself.  As you'll see below, there's everything in Santa Fe, and standards approach SF levels, so I had some of the best pizza and Indian food I've had in a while.  No kidding. 

But of course, that's not the main attraction.  The main attraction is the red and green chile and its inclusion in the New Mexican cuisine that is everywhere in Santa Fe.   New Mexican food is decidedly not simply Mexican food, but it's not not Mexican food either.  There are tacos, burritos and enchiladas, but I doubt you've had them like this before.  Unless you've been to Albuquerque or Las Cruces - although even the cuisine there is a bit different.  Plus, here the quality is better (sorry Dr. Davis Fladgate).  It's best if you enjoy food with a spicy kick, but what differentiates NM cuisine from the rest is the depth of the flavors and the spice.

Given the sheer volume of places we visited, I'm minimizing the detail, and only including more info when it's vital.  But I have provided links.

El Chile Toreado and Andale Food Trucks:  Textbook
  • Ordering is quick, but getting your food can take 20 - 30 minutes - but it's worth it
  • East Coast quality Buffalo wings
  • Nice outdoor seating and excellent food
Izanami:  Killer
Bosque Brewery:  Serviceable
Second Street Brewery - Rail Yard:  Serviceable
Maria's:  Serviceable, bordering on Bogus
  • This used to be a go-to for us for New Mexican food; food is OK, the rules and service were not
Opuntia Café:  Killer
  • Nice views of The Rail Yard from the second floor deck
Sky Coffee:  Killer
Santa Fe Brewing:  Killer
  • Outdoor picnic tables and a food truck
  • Arguably our favorite bar in Santa Fe
Pink Adobe:  Killer
  • But my NY strip steak was awfully tough one night at this Santa Fe institution
Paper Dosa:  Killer
  • Fantastic South Indian cuisine in New Mexico?  Believe it.
Anasazi Bar:  Bogus
  • Amongst the worst experiences we had over 3 weeks, and in a Rosewood Hotel! 
La Fonda La Plazuela:  Diamond Certified
La Fonda Lobby Bar:  Diamond Certified
La Fonda Bell Tower Bar:  Killer
  • Closes late October; it's a 5th floor rooftop bar
  • Nice second floor deck overlooking The Plaza
  • Also has a nice second floor deck overlooking The Plaza!
Bull Ring Steakhouse:  Textbook
Tiny's:  Textbook
  • But often empty
Tomasita's:  Killer
Paxton's Taproom:  Serviceable
  • If you say closing time is 8PM, don't start tossing us out at 7:30
Il Vicino Pizza:  Bogus
  • Worst service over the course of 3 weeks in Santa Fe
Cowgirl BBQ Bar:  Killer
  • Live music and a great scene
Paloma:  Diamond Certified
  • The best restaurant of any we visited during our stay; we went twice
Bathtub Row Brewing Co-Op (Los Alamos):  Killer
Dolina's:  Killer
  • Great breakfast spot if the line at Pasquale's is too much for you
Del Charro Bar:  Textbook
  • Superior green chile cheeseburgers in an old-school politico pub
La Choza:  Textbook
Tesuque Village Market:  Textbook
  • Don't miss this quirky store/restaurant just outside of town
  • While still kind of a cliché kind of place, the fact is the bar was excellent
Upper Crust Pizza:  Diamond Certified
  • Focused on green chile cheeseburgers
Secreto Bar at Hotel St. Francis:  Killer
  • Great people-watching
  • SF-class dive bar; it's even cash-only

I took these at the Visitor Center exhibit at Bandelier National Monument, the site of an ancient Native American cliff and cave dwelling community that existed for centuries.  These motivated me to read Roxanne Dumber-Ortiz's "An Indigenous People's History of The United States"; it's excellent, while also horrifying. 


Here are some other cultural stops we made over 3 weeks.

SITE:  Serviceable
  • Free, tiny and worth popping in to for modern art; cool building
New Mexico Museum of Art:  Killer
Meow Wolf:  Diamond Certified
  • A must-do experience unlike few others, although "Euphorium" here in the aughts was close
New Mexico State Capitol:  Diamond Certified
  • More like a beautiful art museum
Canyon Road:  Diamond Certified
Georgia O'Keefe Museum:  Serviceable - barely
  • Thoroughly underwhelming
  • Favorite museum of the trip
  • Tiny but interesting visitor center/exhibit
  • Was expecting something like Alamo Draft House, but it was more akin to screen 7 at a generic AMC

As usual, my guidance here will be paltry, but this time, it doesn't matter.  Santa Fe is famous for shopping. 

If you simply cruise around downtown Santa Fe and its storied Plaza, you have all of the shopping you could possibly handle.  There's everything, but of course with a focus on jewelry and art.  Do not miss the Native American craftsmen and craftswomen selling their handmade wares on the sidewalk outside the Palace of Governors on The Plaza.

A couple of specific spots I loved were the funky vinyl/coffee/t-shirt/book shop at Café Vinyl (corner of Guadalupe and W. San Francisco), and the Textbook bookstore (no pun intended) Collected Works (corner of Galisteo and W. Water).

And then, if you want to get very serious, cruise the length of Canyon Road, famous for art galleries and the opportunity to spend the big money that comes with them.  It is beautiful to stroll under the giant trees while at the same time seeing world-class art at every step.  Although we did not eat at either, there are two white-tablecloth places out on Canyon Road, The Compound and Geronimo.  Either might make a nice compliment to a Canyon Road cruise, assuming they're open when you're there (not a given) and you can get a reservation (also not a given, as we learned).


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