Santa Fe, New Mexico, the country's oldest state capital, is definitely one of them. A visit will immerse you in the unique Mexican-Spanish-Native American heritage that has blended seamlessly over the years, one that is punctuated today by a prolific art scene and robust culinary stage that has no equal.
Located at an elevation of 2,134 metres against a dramatic backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Santa Fe is known for its quondam adobes of earthly tinge and clear turquoise skies. It's a pinon-juniper oasis suffuse with colour, culture, and cuisine.
Park the car and walk
The best place to start any Santa Fe sampler is in the middle at Town Plaza, a square of authentic Spanish-American colonial-style architecture that comes alive with music, art, and iconic turquoise and silver jewelry. Each season brings its own special sparkle and beauty.
After perusing Native American jewelry vendor's wares, step inside the New Mexico History Museum and Palace of the Governors. As the oldest public building in the U.S., it also served as the seat of government for New Mexico from its beginning days. Now it tells the story of the region's legendary history.
Next stop is St. Francis Cathedral Basilica, a Romanesque Revival style building where inside the chapel resides the oldest Madonna statue in North America. Close by is renowned Loretto Chapel, home of a wooden spiral staircase (a.k.a. Miraculous Staircase) built between 1873 and 1878 by a mysterious carpenter who utilized a strange but enduring helix-shaped spiral with no nails and no visible support. Some say the staircase is the most photographed image in Santa Fe.
Canyon Road and museums for the art vibe
Located only two blocks away is Canyon Road (visitcanyonroad.com), once a Pueblo foot trail and now a bustling kilometre with some elevation ascent of world-class galleries, artisans and their art. It is artistic genius and expression ranging from traditional Native American textiles and pottery to contemporary work and boutique jewelry.
Santa Fe is abundant with museums, including those that focus exclusively on art. Southwestern artists are prominently displayed at the New Mexico Museum of Art (nmartmuseum.org) while the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (okeeffemuseum.org) is chock full of the namesake artist's iconic works.
For an interactive and immersive art experience, drive to Meow Wolf — The House of Eternal Return Experience (meowwolf.com). This art installation opened in March of 2016 and feels like an Alice in Wonderland trip. You never quite know what may be up the fireplace, inside the fridge, or behind a closet door. Interactive, colourful, and multi-sensational, hidden discoveries constantly challenge the mind. Great for all ages.
Flavours of the Southwest
Save several hours for a morning or afternoon cooking session at Santa Fe School of Cooking (santafeschoolofcooking.com) where you will perfect the art of cooking local favourites. I chose Traditional New Mexican II which included: carne adovada, flour tortillas, chiles rellenos, frijoles refritos, calabacitas (green chile, squash, corn), and sopaipillas. Chef Pat Mares shared his secret: "Cooking is all about layering flavours." The demonstration-style class includes instruction, recipes, as well as a sit-down lunch.
Where to Drink and Eat
While there is no shortage of great drink and food within Santa Fe, I confess to having a few favourite haunts. For drinks, these include the Staab House Bar at La Posada de Santa Fe for their jalapeno margarita and El Secreto for their spicy Agave Way, a pseudo margarita with grapes and green chile.
My all-time budget favourite for breakfast or lunch is Tia Sophia's (tiasophias.com), a family restaurant that has been serving traditional Northern New Mexico Style favourites since 1975. Be prepared for crowds as this haunt is a hangout for locals and even an occasional celeb. La Plazuela Restaurant is located in La Fonda on the Plaza and serves up delicious meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The hotel's covered interior courtyard is filled with light and hand-painted tiles that decorate the perimeter Dine at Luminaria Restaurant at The Inn and Spa at Loretto for al fresco dining during warmer months. The style is international cuisine with New Mexico's novel flavours. The bonus? Seating comes with close-up views of Loretto Chapel.
Where to Stay
Located in the heart of downtown, La Fonda on the Plaza (lafondasantafe.com) is about as convenient as it gets. Within walking distance of most Santa Fe's treasures, the hotel is located on what is considered the oldest hotel property in the United States. Today it embodies Santa Fe style through its southwestern architecture, design, and artistry throughout the hotel.
Equally convenient and only a couple of blocks farther is La Posada de Santa Fe Resort & Spa laposadadesantafe.com, the only resort in downtown Santa Fe. An oasis of comfortable luxury, it also harbours a resident ghost according to some.
IF YOU GO:
Visit Santa Fe www.santafe.org