There’s always a silver lining if you look hard enough. Santa Fe was ours.

Portugal and Spain were on our spring calendar for a three-month stay, but the pandemic got in the way. After being fully vaccinated, our wanderlust kicked into high gear, and we searched for a travel fix closer to home. A road trip was the answer.

At first, we focused on Yosemite or the Grand Canyon only to discover that everyone else in America was heading for our national parks. After a little more thought, Santa Fe became the obvious choice. We had visited this one-of-a-kind New Mexico city twice and were charmed. This time we wanted to stay longer and explore more, to discover what makes Santa Fe tick, how it works its magic on residents and visitors alike.

Yes, Santa Fe has a rich and fascinating history, colorful markets, a vibrant culinary scene, significant museums, and a thriving art community. But other great cities have those things. Perhaps what sets Santa Fe apart is its earthy elegance, a celebration of its bold landscape, rich history, multi-cultural influences, and dramatic style. Plus, there’s something about the light here: Everything seems remarkably vivid, vibrant, and vital.

Our senses kicked into overdrive in Northern New Mexico. Food seemed to taste better, margaritas definitely were more potent. During the day, skies seemed bigger and bluer, while at night, they glowed brighter with clear stars and moonlight. A lively soundtrack of street musicians, Indian drums, and church bells greets your ears as you wander the plaza in the old town. Santa Fe is both exotic and familiar.

Santa Fe’s complex cultural mix is key to its enchantment. At its heart are Native Americans from 19 surrounding Pueblos, Spanish families that have called the city home since its founding, and pioneering European settlers. Then add savvy entrepreneurs, culinary magicians, artists of every stripe, musicians, and a dash of rich and famous and you have the Santa Fe of today.

Santa Fe has been around for a long time. The Spanish conquistador Don Pedro de Peralta built a small European-styled community here in 1609, more than a decade before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth. It’s the oldest capital city in the United States and the oldest European community west of the Mississippi.

A walk through the streets of old Santa Fe is a walk through its history. Around every corner, there are pieces of the city’s past, some among the oldest buildings in America. Built during the Spanish colonial period, the De Vargas Street House is the city’s, and perhaps the country’s, oldest residence. Right across the street is the oldest church in America, the San Miguel Chapel, dating from 1610 and still functioning. Just up the road, on the plaza, is the oldest public building in America, The Palace of the Governors.

In 1926 the city established the Old Santa Fe Association to preserve and maintain the ancient landmarks, historical structures, and traditions of Old Santa Fe. The association would also guide its growth and development to maintain its unique charm. A 1958 zoning ordinance move that effort forward by mandating the preservation of the city’s distinctive Spanish-Pueblo style architecture. All buildings within these zones must comply with historic design and construction.

Today Santa Fe has an outsized reputation for a modestly populated city of 84,000. It is the fourth-largest city in New Mexico after Albuquerque, Las Cruces, and Rio. Unlike its big sister cities, the flood of visitors dwarfs the number of permanent residents. In recent years, an average of two million overnight visitors from around the world have strolled its picturesque streets.

Santa Fe gets a lot of love. It is a winner of the National Geographic World Legacy Award for Sense of Place. The award recognized the city’s commitment to preservation work. In 2005 it was designated a UNESCO Creative City. In 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Santa Fe one of the Trust’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations. The city consistently ranks as a top 10 destination in most travel magazines.

Sitting at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Range, the air is thin, with an elevation of 7,000 feet above sea level. It took us a few days to get used to it. Don’t plan to do anything too strenuous until your body gets acclimated. And stay hydrated, as our Airbnb hostess regularly reminded us.

The weather for our late spring visit was exceptional. Sun and blue skies were the norm, with a few thunderstorms that drenched wisteria, tulips, and lilacs then in full bloom. The city averages 325 days of sunshine annually with an average annual rainfall of 14 inches. Right now the city, like so much of the west, is experiencing a drought. June is the hottest month with highs into the upper nineties, while winters coat the plaza and holiday luminarias with snow. Throughout the year the evenings can be chilly, so light jackets or sweaters should be on your packing list.

During our stay, as the city gradually lightened pandemic-related restrictions, shops and restaurants were open, with masks required for entry. Several public galleries and museums either were closed or had minimal exhibits. During the eight days we spent in town, we were never at a loss for something to do or a place to go.

The Communities of Santa Fe

Like most cities, Santa Fe comprises several distinct neighborhoods or districts, each with its own personality. We visited several of them, mostly those that cater to history, tourism, and the arts.

As part of our goal to immerse ourselves in Santa Fe living, we stayed for eight days in an Airbnb home in the Eastside community made up of charming small adobe homes. The nearly one square mile community is the city’s original barrio with a mix of modest and historic adobe homes along quiet dirt lanes, often so narrow they are limited to one-way car traffic.

The city’s strict historical zoning ordinances are a big reason for today’s barrio charm. Behind the traditional facades are Architectural Digest-worthy interiors. Outside of the older area of the Eastside is a mix of gated estates, condominiums, and apartments. The Eastside also includes much of the famous Canyon Road.

On our first morning, we strolled from our adobe on the Eastside through the Barrio de Analco Historic District, first settled by the Spanish in 1620 to our destination, Santa Fe’s plaza and downtown. This neighborhood is the heart of the city – blocks of winding streets featuring fascinating boutiques, restaurants, museums, historic buildings, and art galleries. It reminded us of the wonderful Spanish-style plazas in Sonoma, California, and Old Town San Diego, complete with a bandstand, memorials, mature trees, and benches.

On one side of the plaza is the Palace of the Governors, the oldest public building in America. This is the place where are Native American artisans gather in the portico’s shade to sell traditional weaving, pottery, and jewelry. During our visit, it was empty, a casualty of covid. Other highlights around the plaza are the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, and the Loretto Chapel.

Dotting downtown are numerous historical plaques, including one dedicated to the Santa Fe Trail. This trade route that connected New Mexico with Missouri brought covered wagon caravans to the Santa Fe Plaza to camp and sell goods. We came across a life-sized sculpture of a burro at the foot of one short narrow street leading to the Plaza. Known as Burro Alley, it welcomed hundreds of the sturdy animals loaded with firewood destined to warm Santa Fe homes. Profits quickly disappeared in the Alley’s infamous saloons and brothels.

Another landmark just a few blocks west of the plaza off of San Francisco Street marks the site of an old Santa Fe jail that housed the infamous Billy the Kid. The outlaw, born William Henry Bonney, spent his teenage years in Santa Fe.

Beyond the history, shopping, and dining, Santa Fe Plaza offers eclectic entertainment, ranging from free concerts on the bandstand to buskers and street musicians with musical fare for all ages and tastes. We enjoyed an energetic and intricate Native American hoop dance performed by students from a local Pueblo.

Annually, during the third week of August, the historic plaza hosts the huge Santa Fe Indian Market. Art lovers, tourists, collectors, and artists from around the world make the pilgrimage to Santa Fe to shop wares by upcoming and nationally Native American artists and craftspeople. The landmark event sprawls across the plaza and into the surrounding streets. Leading up to the market and throughout its long weekend, there are hundreds of gallery openings, art shows, and related events all around town. Many hotels are booked a year in advance, so plan ahead if you’d like to go.

The Railyard

One item on our must-see list was the Santa Fe Railyard. We were drawn there to browse the weekly farmer’s market but found much more when we joined the crowds there on a sunny Saturday. This 50-acre transportation hub for New Mexico Railrunner Express commuter train – blends boutiques, galleries, restaurants with a multiplex cinema and residences.

It took us a while to park our car. We were almost ready to abandon our visit when we decided to follow several cars down a side street and into a multistory parking garage with plenty of available spaces. A short walk took us past the Railyard’s landmark wooden water town and into the bustling market. Vendors, under a long row of market tents and awnings, were selling everything from cheese and meats to colorful crafts and starter plants for tomatoes and peppers. Right away we knew this was a venue aimed at locals, with an appeal to visitors, rather than vice versa. We were tempted by some unusual tomato varieties but opted instead for a suitcase-small wreath decorated with bright red chiles, baby ears of Indian corn, and a crowning turquoise stone.

We were about to leave when we again followed the locals, who were streaming into a large building across the street. Inside we found another busy market, this one filled with booth after booth selling an eclectic assortment of Indian blankets, local paintings, jewelry, cowboy boots, and hats. Ron couldn’t resist a handsome stetson hat he wore the rest of the day. It now sits atop his office bookcase with his Panama and Indiana Jones hats also worn only once.