SD › Best Places in Santa Fe
Updated: October 30, 2020
Best Area to Stay in Santa Fe
The city of Santa Fe likes to market itself as the “City of Enchantment”, but the locals joke it’s really the “City of Entrapment” because once you arrive, it’s hard to leave. Fortunately, Santa Fe happens to be incredibly enticing for visitors as well. It was one of the first US cities to adopt enforced preservation codes of historic sites — best seen in the Old West adobe architecture of the Historic District, easily the best neighborhood to stay and visit. It dominates the downtown area which is convenient and easy to navigate.
When looking at Santa Fe on a map, the borders of the city almost resemble the shape of a high-heel shoe with the Historic District at the top and the Railyard District, Canyon Road, and Museum Hill just south of it. Further southwest is Midtown, an older area revitalized almost entirely by the ambitious Meow Wolf art installation. The rest of the “shoe” is mostly residential and also where you’ll find newer homes and shopping. As one Lyft driver put it, “sometimes you need toothpaste more than you need turquoise jewelry”.
The Historic District is so small and easy to explore on foot, bothering with a car is almost more hassle than it’s worth. The neighborhood is highly recommended for first-time visitors with both the Railroad District and Canyon Road within walking distance. Uber and Lyft are active in Santa Fe and an inexpensive option for getting around town, especially for a detour to Museum Hill or Midtown to see Meow Wolf. The Railyard District is more hipster and modern. Canyon Road is all about art (although really, the entire downtown area feels like one big art gallery).
Much of Santa Fe hasn’t changed much over the years, and that’s part of the appeal. All of the hotels in the Historic District are renovated from old buildings and share a common look that frequently includes Native American art, fireplaces in the lobby, and strong wooden beams in the ceiling. Santa Fe is so charming, it’s easy to forget that it is actually the capital city of New Mexico. The Capitol Building is on the southern edge of Downtown, but is only noticeable if you go out of your way to look for it. The sense of history overwhelms any image the city has of being a hub for political power brokers. Nightlife is virtually non-existent with the party crowd sticking to cocktail lounges and dive bars, much like the saloons of the old days. Sundays are also surprisingly quiet with restaurants and galleries often closed for the day. Santa Fe may not be a hot destination for weekend brunch, but between the art scene (one of the largest in the country) and local dining, visitors will find plenty to do and see any day of the week. Keep in mind, at an elevation of about 7,000 feet, Santa Fe is generally about 10 degrees cooler than nearby Albuquerque.
Best Places to Stay in Santa Fe
- Best Luxury Hotels in Santa Fe
La Fonda on the Plaza • Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi • Eldorado • Four Seasons
- Best Boutique Hotels in Santa Fe
Drury Plaza • Hotel St. Francis • Hotel Santa Fe, The Hacienda & Spa
- Best Cheap Hotels in Santa Fe
The Parador • Luxx Boutique Hotel • Pueblo Bonito
Where to Stay in Santa Fe for…
- Best Neighborhood in Santa Fe for Sightseeing: Historic District
The Historic District is the oldest part of Santa Fe. The strictest preservation regulations are in the centralized Plaza area, and relax quite a bit the more you expand outward into other parts of the city. All of the buildings share the same clay-like, pale-brown tones and while it’s not exactly colorful, it’s beautiful and engaging in a way that’s very different from other tourist destinations. The Plaza is the heart of the action, surrounded by restaurants, bars, art galleries, and historic sites. Culturally significant churches include St. Francis Cathedral, Loretto Chapel, and San Miguel Chapel (the oldest church in the continental United States). The Georgia O’Keefe Museum is an easy visit — you could duck in and out in less than an hour — with collected works by the artist who spent much of her time in New Mexico.
- Best Neighborhood in Santa Fe for a Local Vibe: Railyard District
The Railyard District is where tourists tend to mingle with locals a bit more. The Railyard itself is an arts and entertainment plaza renovated from an old train station and hosts the popular weekend farmers market and artisan market. Grab coffee made with single-origin beans at either the low-key Sky Coffee or the more lively Ikonic. See an independent movie at one of two theaters: the Violet Crown or Jean Cocteau Cinema (which is owned by George R.R. Martin and has a slight Game of Thrones theme). The former has beer and wine; the latter has coffee and cocktails. Beer lovers will be eager to grab a pint at the Santa Fe Brewing Company, Second Street Brewery, or New Mexico Hard Cider Tap Room. The art galleries tend to be more contemporary than many in the Historic District and on Canyon Road.
- Best Neighborhood in Santa Fe for Walking: Canyon Road
Even though the entire city celebrates the art community, Canyon Road is something special, condensing more than 80 galleries within a half mile. It’s a great stroll and an opportunity to explore a variety of styles (from contemporary to abstract) in a number of formats, including paintings, watercolors, photography, and more. Even if you don’t step inside a single gallery, the parade of outdoor sculptures are worth a visit alone. Begin your walk at the intersection of Paseo de Peralta and wrap things up with a visit to El Farol, the oldest bar in Santa Fe, which serves up Spanish-style tapas (perfect to share) with live Flamenco performances.
- Best Neighborhood in Santa Fe for Nightlife: Historic District
Santa Fe isn’t a place for nightclubs or staying up late past midnight. Most of the nightlife is connected to bars, restaurants, and the local craft beer scene. The Matador is a local legend — a basement-level dive bar with live music that covers everything from punk rock to old country. The city is big on margaritas and in recent years, has marketed a “Margarita Trail” (in the form of a printed passport or smartphone app) featuring 40 bars and restaurants. Obviously, you can’t try them all in one night (or even in one weekend), but to save some time, the Smoked Sage Margarita at Secreto Lounge is the best in town. Due to the high elevation, visitors are often advised to go easy on drinking, since one cocktail can feel like two. (Although contrary to popular misconception, the elevation doesn’t affect blood alcohol levels.)
- Most Eclectic Neighborhood in Santa Fe: Midtown
Santa Fe’s affection for local art is taken to a new level with Meow Wolf, an interactive art installation renovated from an old bowling alley. Guests explore the main part of the attraction — the House of Enchanted Light — much like a haunted house and the less said in advance, the better. Just enjoy the experience as it unfolds, but take up the offer to wear 3D glasses which accentuate small things along the way. Lines used to be long, but a new hourly ticketing system has cut down on much of the wait time. Meow Wolf has its own bar in the lobby for unique, colorful cocktails, though it’s also worth checking out the food and drink at nearby Tortilla Flats or the newest taproom for the Second Street Brewery.
- Most Romantic Neighborhood in Santa Fe: Museum Hill
If strolling through a quiet museum sounds like a romantic date idea, this neighborhood has you covered with institutions dedicated to Spanish colonial art, international folk art, and Native American art, culture, and history, all within steps from each other. Museum Hill is also home to the Santa Fe Botanical Garden which is illuminated in decorative holiday lights between late November and New Year’s Eve. The added elevation makes for a fantastic photo spot with sweeping city views below.
- Safest Areas of Santa Fe
Most of Downtown is very safe with minimal concern walking around during the day. However, the area gets quiet at night and some of the streets are very dark or dimly lit. Stick to active areas — busy restaurants, hotels, and the central Plaza — after dark and you’ll be okay. The same applies to the Railyard District and Canyon Road.
- Unsafe Areas of Santa Fe
Much of Santa Fe can feel old and tired, although not necessarily dangerous. Those areas will have little interest for tourists anyway. Be careful while exploring quieter areas of the Railyard District, Midtown, and anything south of the Santa Fe River (the southern edge of Downtown) beyond established restaurants and attractions. The Santa Fe Railyard Park, Frenchy’s Field, and the Santa Fe River Trail are engaging spots during the day, but there’s no reason to visit after dark.
The 6 Best Neighborhoods in Santa Fe for Tourists
The Historic District is the heart of any visit to Santa Fe — the place you’ll spend most of your time and likely book a hotel. The entire neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to a determined effort to preserve its Pueblo adobe-brick architecture. Historic sites include the Palace of the Governors, the Plaza, St. Francis Cathedral, and too many others to count. The district is small and easy to navigate on foot. Every block is a unique mix of Native American, Old West, and Spanish colonial culture with plenty of independent bars and restaurants.
The Railyard District and Guadalupe neighborhood names are often used interchangeably, but some consider the former to be south of Montezuma Avenue and the latter north of it. Regardless of what name you call it, the area marks a shift from the vintage feel of the Historic District to more contemporary architecture and businesses with taprooms, coffeehouses, movie theaters, and the popular weekend farmer’s market. Hotel Santa Fe is the most notable hotel in the area and includes The Hacienda, a separate luxury component with a spa. A few blocks away is a hub for smaller hotels and charming bed-and-breakfast accommodations, including the Parador and El Farolito. The Railyard District also has the northernmost station for the Rail Runner Express, a train that shuttles passengers back and forth between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
There’s really one main reason to visit Midtown: Meow Wolf. The eclectic, interactive art installation is giving new life to older restaurants and bars that happen to be nearby and newer ones taking advantage of the crowds, including the latest tap house for the Second Street Brewery. Otherwise, is there really much in Midtown beyond Meow Wolf? Not really. But that could change as the identity of the neighborhood continues to evolve in the years ahead. A few chain hotels could help save a few dollars compared to nicer accommodations in and around the Historic District.
4. Canyon Road
Canyon Road is an easy walk from the southwest corner of the Historic District, and while many of the structures share similar Pueblo architecture, the neighborhood has a distinctly more residential feel. The area has one of the greatest concentrations of art galleries in the country. Make a point to visit one of two fine dining restaurants (The Compound and Geronimo) and Kakawa Chocolate House, a busy Santa Fe favorite known for house-made candies and chocolate elixirs. Among the two closest hotels, the Drury Plaza offers great value while retaining higher-end accommodations. The resort is redesigned from an old hospital and includes free breakfast, free evening happy hour, and a social fifth-floor rooftop pool.
5. Museum Hill
The name says it all. Museum Hill is worth a detour for the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Museum of International Folk Art, and Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian all clustered together. Make a point to also enjoy the scenery of the Santa Fe Botanical Garden which is decorated in lights for the winter holidays. Museum Hill is just south of the Canyon Road and the Historic District, but requires a car or cab/ride-share to reach. It carries a distinctive serenity which may hold appeal for repeat travelers worn out on most of downtown. Aside from the museums, the area is mostly residential with no hotels. The added elevation makes for a great photo opportunity of the city below. Grab a bite at the Museum Hill Café, especially during Sunday brunch.
The remote areas beyond the city of Santa Fe have plenty to offer, especially for nature lovers and return visitors looking for something new. The slopes of Ski Santa Fe are less than 20 miles up the mountain, taking about a 40-minute drive to reach. There’s no overnight lodging, but it’s an engaging place to spend the day. Explore the beauty of Santa Fe National Forest with year-round hiking trails. North of downtown Santa Fe is Tesque, a cozy village with a market, galleries, and a popular gas-blowing studio. The Santa Fe Opera is a gorgeous indoor-outdoor structure, although its season is short, running from June to August. The Four Seasons will appeal to the luxury traveler while further north is Buffalo Thunder, a Hilton property with a Native American-operated casino. Ten Thousand Waves, northeast of Santa Fe, is an unexpected Asian-themed resort and spa that’s perfect for a quiet, romantic retreat. Those fascinated with Cold War history may want to drive about 45 minutes to Los Alamos which has museums and sites dedicated to the town’s role in the nuclear arms race.
Best Restaurants to Visit while in Santa Fe
Aside from its art and history, Santa Fe is best known for its exceptional dining scene. In a welcome change of pace, the main tourist areas aren’t overrun with national chain restaurants, giving visitors a unique opportunity to explore the local cuisine without the need to dig around too much.
- Best Local Vibe: The Shed (Historic District)
This long-time institution is famous for its drinks menu (divided between margaritas and mezcal craft cocktails) and southwest cuisine. Sister restaurant La Choza offers a similar experience in the Railyard District.
- Best Italian: Sassella (Historic District)
A newer restaurant that features the regional Italian cuisine of Chef Christian Pontiggia in a sophisticated, modern setting. The gin and amaro selection is exceptional.
- Best Whiskey List: Radish & Rye (Railyard District)
The restaurant has a cozy, at-home living room feel with New American classics made with farm-to-table ingredients. It also has a deep bourbon, rye, and whiskey list with cocktails prepared with a signature barrel of Buffalo Trace.
- Best Quick Bite: Burger Stand (Historic District)
Burgers are made from Angus or American-style Kobe ground beef in fun, unusual recipes. There is also a selection of hot dogs, salads, and interesting specials, like a recent creamy green chili chicken soup.
- Best Fine Dining: The Compound (Canyon Road)
The food by Mark Kiffin, one of the most acclaimed chefs in New Mexico, is served in a space that reflects the arts and culture of Canyon Road. Special attention is given to the sourcing of steaks and other meats.
- Best Breakfast: Modern General (Railyard District)
Small restaurant-and-retail hybrid has fresh juices, eggs from free-range hens, and a combination of sweet and savory pancakes made with healthy ingredients — all served in a brightly lit dining room with a rustic décor.
- Best Cocktails: Secreto Lounge (Historic District)
If you pick just one spot for craft cocktails, check out Secreto Lounge in the lobby of the St. Francis hotel. The margarita is the best in town, wonderfully prepared with smoked sage. Food can be ordered from the Market Steer Steakhouse next door.
- Best Healthy Dinner: Dr. Field Good’s Kitchen (Midtown)
Intriguing mix of BBQ, burgers, sandwiches, and wood-fired pizzas, often prepared with meats from an in-house butcher shop. Freshly-made mocktails are a nice alternative for those looking to avoid alcohol.
- Best Steaks: Geronimo (Canyon Road)
Meals are served among eclectic artwork inside an adobe home built in 1756. The menu is a mix of cuisine and cultures. You may be eating tuna sashimi one moment and elk tenderloin the next.
- Best Dining Room: La Plazuela (Historic District)
The restaurant feels like a hidden secret, buried deep inside La Fonda hotel underneath a 2-story skylight. Grab a seat by the fountain and order from a menu of traditional Mexican favorites and a few surprises like the Winter Tart combination of root vegetables.