America’s oldest capital city is famed for its long history, great museums, and thriving art community.
By Joann Mazzio
When Spanish colonists arrived in what is now New Mexico in 1607, they found the ruins of an American Indian pueblo at the site where the state’s capital city now stands. Among the colonists were aristocrats who knew how a proper Spanish city should be laid out. So, first, they established the plaza as the heart of the town, the place to which all the trails and, eventually, the roads would lead. And they named the town “La Villa de Santa Fe” “” “City of the Holy Faith.” It became the capital of New Mexico in 1610.
Today the Santa Fe Plaza is still the heart of Santa Fe. From this starting point it is easy walking distance to many of the sights that make Santa Fe a magnet for visitors year-round. Although burnished by centuries of existence, the plaza and surrounding structures are not jewel-boxed to inspire awe. They are part and parcel of this thriving city, along with shops, hotels, residences, the capitol complex, and the daily activity that fills any state capital of this size.
Directly to the north of the plaza is the Palace of the Governors. This is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States and is part of the Museum of New Mexico. Under the shade of its portal, American Indians spread jewelry and other crafts on blankets, tend to the babies by their sides, and explain their arts to passersby as others have done before them for untold years. They speak English to tourists, but converse among themselves in their own ancient tongue.
The Palace of the Governors was laid out at the same time as the plaza. A fortified building, it served as residence, offices, workshops, and storerooms for the representative of the Spanish king; thus, they were called “royal houses.” Within these walls were imprisoned the first American traders who hauled goods on the Santa Fe Trail “” they were jailed for trying to break the monopolistic hold of Spain, and later, Mexico. General Stephen Kearney stayed here when he arrived with troops to claim the territory of New Mexico for the United States. The 54-inch-thick adobe walls, at that time still covered by a sod roof, furnished the quiet needed by Territorial Governor Lew Wallace to finish his novel Ben Hur.
As a museum, the Palace of the Governors houses a permanent collection of artifacts from New Mexico’s history. Especially popular is a collection of bison hides painted between 1701 and 1730 with a pictorial history of Indian life. Pre-Columbian artifacts dating from 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1500 help explain the unwritten history of the area.
A block east of Santa Fe Plaza is St. Francis Cathedral, built by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, who inspired Willa Cather’s historical novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. The cathedral, which copies the architecture of Lamy’s birth country, France, is home to a 375-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary, known as Santa Fe’s patron saint.
Diagonally across from the plaza is the Museum of Fine Arts. The Spanish colonial-style architecture has beautiful details, such as ceilings of split cedar latillas and hand-carved vigas. This museum opened in 1917 soon after academically trained artists discovered the brilliant light and subject matter of northern New Mexico. It houses works by artists who visited or lived in Santa Fe before 1940, and also exhibits contemporary art from all over the United States.
Just two blocks from the plaza is one of New Mexico’s most popular museums: the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which houses more than 120 O’Keeffe paintings, drawings, and sculptures “” the largest collection of her work in the world. The museum also exhibits work by her contemporaries, such as Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Helen Frankenthaler.
The Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, to the east of the Palace of the Governors, offers the National Collection of Contemporary Indian Art and a spectacular sculpture garden.
Two blocks south of the plaza is the San Miguel Mission Church. One of the oldest churches in America, this buttressed adobe building is a favorite with photographers who can snap away both indoors and out. Beautiful Loretto Chapel, with its legendary “miraculous” spiral staircase, is also south of Santa Fe Plaza.
In between and around these destinations near the plaza are shops with merchandise in all price ranges; art galleries showcasing art from around the world; and restaurants whose menus reflect the many cultures represented here. Hotels such as La Fonda (Spanish for “the Inn”) are historical landmarks.
After seeing the Santa Fe Plaza area, a visitor could be forgiven for becoming “museumed out.” But, if your stamina is still there, or another day remains in your schedule, be sure to take a specially marked bus to Museum Hill. The bus, called the “M” route, goes from Sheridan Street to the hill. The fare is only 50 cents each way, or $1 round trip.
The latest museum on Museum Hill, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, opened in July 2002. It contains a spectacular collection of carvings, paintings, sculptures, and elaborate jewelry, among a multitude of items. The museum building is itself a work of art, too.
Also in this cluster of museums is the Museum of International Folk Art, which boasts the world’s largest collection of folk art. Across Milner Plaza sits the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology. A visit is worthwhile for aspiring collectors to see the displays of jewelry, pottery, clothing, baskets, and more. American Indian commentary helps visitors understand the cultural context, uniqueness, and quality of work in this art.
The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, in a building shaped like a Navajo hogan, exhibits contemporary and historic Native American art. Artists such as Benjamin Harjo Jr. and Darren Vigil Gray are featured. All of the museums on Museum Hill are within easy walking distance of each other.
A visit to Santa Fe is not complete without a trip along Canyon Road. The narrowness of this road is a reminder of its past, for at one time it was a principal route from the Rio Grande to the Pecos area. Take your towed car if you plan to see Canyon Road and its “Santa Fe”-style buildings “” all featuring rounded corners and earth tones. These buildings are full of galleries featuring a variety of fine art. The galleries, along with the many others in Santa Fe, have made the city the second largest art market in the country.
The restaurants along Canyon Road are celebrated for variety, elegance, and cuisine. The Compound restaurant has been highly touted, and several other spots along the road serve gourmet fare. Coffee shops and a teahouse cater to many tastes.
If your credit card is not yet maxed out, you can enjoy shopping amid the 40 outlet stores at Santa Fe Premium Outlets. Leading designers and brand names such as Coach, Brooks Brothers, OshKosh, and Liz Claiborne are represented there.
Museum-going and shopping don’t begin to tell visitors why Santa Fe is the City Different. On a sunny day, take time to sit on one of the benches in Santa Fe Plaza. Watch the ebb and flow of pedestrians. Smell the smoke from pinon-stoked fireplaces. Under the stop-and-go vehicle noise, perhaps you’ll hear the groaning of a wood-wheeled oxcart bringing cattle hides to the city. Under a ghostly Spanish flag at the Palace of the Governors, watch the gates swing open. It must be 1659, because you see the carriage of Governor Bernardo Lopez de Mendizabal roll from the safety of the building. Just think! He brought that carriage across more than a thousand roadless miles from Mexico. He should be careful. The only other power in this far outpost is the Catholic Church, and the Office of the Inquisition is watching this proud and greedy governor.
Maybe you imagine a commotion on the narrow street to the north. It’s early in the 19th century. Spanish troops are bringing in close to 20 American military prisoners. It’s Zebulon Pike and his command, who have ventured too far inside the territory claimed by Spain. Crowds follow the mounted men to the Palace of the Governors. Pike has an interview with the governor before being sent south to prison in Chihuahua. The two men speak in French. It sounds like a very civilized encounter in the building, which still has dirt floors covered by the skins of bears and buffalo.
Present-day noises break into your thoughts. A group of young people pass in front of you speaking a form of Spanish that Cervantes would recognize. A couple crosses the street and sits on a bench near yours. They look familiar, but you don’t know anyone in Santa Fe. Where have you seen them before? In a large painting in a gallery on Canyon Road, that’s where. They were the models. In that painting, they wore the ceremonial dress of a nearby pueblo. You feel an urge to speak, to ask about the painting, about their life. Say, “Hello.” They will answer you. It’s okay. That’s the way Santa Fe is, and may be how it got its nickname: “The City Different.”
If you are traveling to Santa Fe from the south via Interstate 25, you can stop at the La Bajada State Visitor Information Center, 17 miles south of town, for maps, directions, and brochures. Similar information is available from the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau, listed below.
Parking that can accommodate motorhomes is available in city lot 9 at Alameda, west of Paseo de Peralta. The parking lot is only two blocks from the Santa Fe Plaza or the access to Canyon Road, so you can park there and not have to move the coach. Do not attempt to drive a motorhome down Canyon Road, as it is far too narrow.
Santa Fe is a bit higher in elevation than Albuquerque “” 7,000 feet above sea level “” in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. It is only a 30-minute drive to the ski slopes. The days may be sunny, but the winds sweeping from the snow-covered mountains are cold. For example, in March, the average high temperature is 55 degrees and the average low is 28. Dress in layers and be ready for any type of weather.
For more information about the attractions mentioned in this article, including a guidebook with a map and campground listing, contact:
The following may not be a complete list, so please check for additional listings in your favorite campground directory or in FMCA’s Business Directory, found in the January and June issues of Family Motor Coaching and online at FMCA.com.
Hyde Memorial State Park
740 Hyde Park Road
Santa Fe, NM 87501
Los Campos de Santa Fe RV Resort
3574 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, NM 87507
Rancheros de Santa Fe Campground
736 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, NM 87505-1409
Santa Fe Skies, C8778
14 Browncastle Ranch
Santa Fe, NM 87508
Trailer Ranch RV Park, C8300
3471 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, NM 87505