If you have only one day to spend in Santa Fe, there’s no better place - really, no other place - to start than on the historic Plaza. The Plaza is the heart of Santa Fe; there’s more than enough to see, do, eat, buy - and otherwise experience - in the surrounding streets and neighborhoods to keep you happily busy all day. You won’t need your car - the downtown historic district is easily (and best) navigated on foot.
Want to start with breakfast? Try Tia Sophia on West San Francisco Street (have the huevos rancheros with Christmas chile). Another local favorite is Café Pasqual’s on the corner of Water Street and Don Gaspar Avenue. Traveling solo? The communal table in the center of the restaurant is a great place to meet locals and other tourists. (Try the huevos motuleños - eggs with black beans, sautéed bananas, feta cheese, salsa, and green chile - outrageous.) Looking for more of a traditional “diner” experience? The Plaza Café, located right on the west side of the plaza, is a perfect place for breakfast with kids who might not be quite as adventurous while still offering authentic local favorites for the grownups.
Okay! Ready to roll? Let’s go back to the Plaza, where locals play and tourists gather. First, take a moment to appreciate that you’re standing in the heart of the oldest capital city in the United States. Can you sense the years? Can you imagine the first Spanish settlers building their homes around this square in 1610? See the building along the north side of the Plaza? That’s the Palace of the Governors, built the same year. Sixty years later, the spot on which you’re standing was the scene of wild riots and bonfires during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Now jump forward a century or two and feel the excitement of the cowboys and traders and settlers who reached their destination after the long, arduous journey across the Santa Fe Trail.
All right - back to the present! There are things to do, sights to see, souvenirs to buy! But where to begin? You may just want to meander the streets, letting the day take you. Nothing wrong with that: a stroll through the streets around the Plaza will lead you to shops and galleries, restaurants and museums, even a few historic churches. But if you’re looking for a bit more focus - and a few insider suggestions - read on!
Who could leave Santa Fe without taking home a keepsake or two? Since you’re right here on the Plaza, the obvious place to begin is right here. Vendors along the Plaza’s northern edge offer jewelry, art, and other items that are worth a look. Be sure to cross the street! Under the portal of the Palace of the Governors, jewelry and pottery made of natural materials by Native Americans are displayed for sale. Prices can be quite reasonable and the vendors are usually happy to talk.
Looking for specific souvenirs? For tee-shirts, try Dressman’s Gifts on the west side of the Plaza. In addition to a nice display of curios, they have the best selection of souvenir tee-shirts in town. The Santa Fe Indian Trading Company next door offers Native American jewelry, kachinas, pottery, and other artifacts. For coffee mugs, you can’t go wrong at the Original Trading Post, a few blocks west on West San Francisco Street. Whether you’re looking for funny souvenir mugs or beautiful one-of-a-kind handmade cups in southwestern styles, they’re sure to have it. It’s also a great place to shop for gifts for kids; don’t forget to check out the clothes in the store’s back room.
There is no shortage of shopping in downtown Santa Fe! Wander up to Marcy Street, north of the Plaza, explore Galisteo and Don Gaspar Streets to the south and west. Is it lunch time already? Try the Blue Corn Café on West Water Street for reasonably priced southwestern food. Or climb the stairs to the balcony (it’s heated in colder months) of the Ore House on the Plaza, found (you guessed it) right on the Plaza, near the southwest corner. In addition to having a great view of the Plaza, they make a mean green chile stew and have a page-long margarita menu.
Santa Fe is an art lover’s paradise. The Museum of Fine Arts, located in a beautiful Pueblo-Revival style building just west of the Plaza on West Palace Avenue, displays paintings, photography and sculpture, with an emphasis on southwestern themes and artists. From there, walk north on Lincoln Street one block to Johnson Street. There you’ll find the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, focusing on New Mexico’s most famous artist. Ready for lunch? The O’Keeffe Café, adjacent to the museum, offers both breakfast and lunch, with outdoor seating available in warmer months. Don’t want to be cooped up inside? Window shop at the many private galleries on Palace Avenue and San Francisco Street.
The Palace of the Governors is the oldest public building in continuous use in the Unites States! Built in 1610 as the seat of Spanish government in New Mexico, it is now home to the state’s history museum. There’s no better place to experience the history of New Mexico than within these walls. It’s got a great gift shop too. Is it a beautiful day? (Well, this is New Mexico: it’s almost always a beautiful day.) Want to combine your thirst for history with a bit of exercise? Head east on Marcy Street then north along Paseo de Peralta [Inside info: Paseo de Peralta is named for Don Pedro de Peralta, the second governor of New Mexico and the man who moved the capital to Santa Fe (from San Gabriel, near the pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh) in 1609] to the foot of the stair-stepped path leading to the Cross of the Martyrs. As you climb, plaques along the way tell the story of Santa Fe. At the top you’ll find the big white cross that commemorates the Franciscan missionaries who were killed in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. You’ll also be rewarded with a spectacular view of Santa Fe and the Jemez Mountains to the west.
Hungry? Head back down to town and try the tapas at la boca on Marcy Street. Or have an elegant lunch experience at Santa Café nearby on Washington Avenue.
And whatever you do, don’t miss…
Just as you can’t experience Santa Fe without visiting the historic Plaza, can you really say you’ve been to Santa Fe without visiting at least some of her historic churches? That large stone edifice at the east end of San Francisco Street is the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, built in the 1880s by New Mexico’s first bishop, Jean Baptiste Lamy (who was made famous in Willa Cather’s 1927 classic, Death Comes for the Archbishop). The cathedral is a beautiful building that contains lovely examples of modern santero artwork as well as relics from Santa Fe’s past. Don’t miss the chapel of La Conquistadora in the back, which contains the altar screen from the old parish church that used to be on this spot, as well as La Conquistadora herself, the oldest statue of the Virgin Mary in the New World.
Just around the corner on Old Santa Fe Trail is the Loretto Chapel, built around the same time by the Sisters of Loretto, who came to Santa Fe to open a school for girls at Bishop Lamy’s request. The chapel itself is lovely enough to merit a visit just for its beauty, but the real reason this is a must-see experience is the chapel’s famous “miraculous stairway,” an elegant wooden spiral staircase built without a center support by a mysterious man who appeared in answer to the good sisters’ prayers, built and designed this perfect marvel of engineering from wood that to this day has not be identified—and vanished when the stairs were complete.
One more church (trust me, you don’t want to miss this one): walk a bit farther south on the Old Santa Fe Trail, cross the Santa Fe River (yes that trickle along Alameda Street is a river) and head for San Miguel Chapel. You can’t miss it; the sign out front says it is the “Oldest Church in the United States.” Built in 1610 by Tlexcalan Indians who came with the first Spanish settlement party in 1598, San Miguel was also the first church built in Santa Fe. Inside you’ll find animal hide paintings dating from Santa Fe’s first days and an altar screen from the early eighteenth century. You’ll get a sense of the years from the displays that reveal the original floor of the old church, as well as the floor of the long-abandoned pueblo over which the church was built. In the back of the church is San Miguel’s controversial bell. Go ahead: take the mallet and give it a whack. They say all those who hear its beautiful peal will someday return to Santa Fe.
The “Oldest House in the United States” is next door to San Miguel Chapel. Its low doorways and tiny rooms give an idea of what it must have been like to live here, in Santa Fe’s oldest neighborhood, during its earliest days.
Still haven’t had lunch? No, that’s not the oldest pizza parlor in the United States, it’s Upper Crust Pizza, a local favorite. Right across the street is the Pink Adobe, the oldest restaurant in Santa Fe. Relax over an iced tea at its famous Dragon Room bar. Try their Gypsy Stew (delicious) or, if you’re not in the mood for spicy food, the chicken salad.
Well, I know you couldn’t possibly have done everything mentioned here. Still, maybe you’ll just want to wander through the shops at La Fonda Hotel, across from the southeast corner of the Plaza. Check out the mercados, the little indoor mini-malls along San Francisco Street, or the shops at the Seña Plaza on East Palace. Or head back to the Plaza and rest on a park bench for awhile. Watch the people, the families and teenagers, the camera-toting tourists, the locals enjoying a quiet moment under a tree. Close your eyes and dream about the conquistadors and the cowboys, the missionaries and the madams. When you wake up, it’ll be time for dinner!
If this is your only day in Santa Fe, you’ll want to try the local fare. The Shed is a good choice. They serve great southwestern food in small old adobe building located through a courtyard on East Palace Avenue. You might want to call or stop in and make a reservation: this place gets busy. What? You had green chile for breakfast? And lunch? Not to worry, there are many other restaurants downtown: Osteria de Assís on the corner of Federal Street and Washington Avenue, or at Il Piatto on Marcy Street.