Santa Fe has been a gathering place for centuries. It’s a city of paradoxes: eclectic but emphatically regional; glamorous yet traditional. For anyone who has ever felt that America’s cities and towns were becoming disappointingly uniform, a trip to Santa Fe might provide temporary relief.
Santa Fe’s distinctiveness is more than chamber of commerce hype. Buildings in the Pueblo and Spanish colonial styles are impressively dominant and created from real adobe bricks. Shops and restaurants—even some McDonald’s restaurants—in Santa Fe look like traditional adobes.
Older buildings, some of which are 100 years old, are also found in and around Santa Fe. Many of these buildings are developed as tourist destinations, but others are private houses, hotels, or adobes slowly crumbling by the side of the road. Perhaps only in New Mexico could “the oldest house in the United States” belong to a jewelry and curio shop. When it comes to adobe in the United States, Santa Fe is the Vatican, the Mecca, the Julliard.
Besides looking different, Santa Fe also tastes different than other places. New Mexico has its own take on Southwestern food rooted in locally available produce. We’re in this camp, so we relished discovering all the differences between New Mexican cuisine and more familiar Mexican and Tex-Mex fare. There are also fabulous farm-to-table restaurants in historic buildings and a surprising multitude of specialty chocolate shops.
Santa Fe is hard to beat for an introduction to the food, architecture and romance of New Mexico. There is a lot of lore and beauty packed into this small slice of Northern New Mexico.
San Miguel Mission Chapel
Built in the 1610s, San Miguel probably has the strongest claim to “oldest church in the United States.” San Miguel’s church bell (mentioned in Willa Cather’s novel Death of the Archbishop) was cast in Spain in 1356. Like many old adobe chapels in New Mexico, the San Miguel Mission looks modest and unassuming on the outside with an unexpectedly awe-inspiring interior. The whitewash of its massive adobe walls highlights intricately carved and painted decorations, executed by local artisans in the 18th and 19th centuries. New Mexico’s historical chapels might not be as grand as old European churches and cathedrals, but the New Mexican houses of worship are very powerful in their own way. It might be that they were built by poor and untrained laborers who managed to create something grand with very the most basic materials.
El Sanctuario de Chimayó
This adobe shrine, built in 1816, sits on the site of a spring where Don Bernardo Abeyta claimed to have experienced a miraculous healing. Following his healing, he built a small chapel at the site, which has become a pilgrimage site for as many as 300,000 faithful every year. A room next to the altar houses the “holy dirt” that the faithful rub on their bodies for its healing powers. Set against the piñon-dotted hills, the adobe sanctuary creates an affecting scene.
La Fonda on the Plaza
This historic hotel masterfully unites modern glamour and New Mexican tradition. The basic plan of the hotel is traditional New Mexican with an added touch of glamour brought by elegant furnishings. La Fonda, Spanish for “the inn,” was built in 1920 on a corner of the Santa Fe plaza occupied by hotels for 400 years. In 1925, the current hotel was purchased by the Santa Fe Railway and revamped as a Harvey House with interior design by the famed Mary Colter. The Santa Fe Railway sold La Fonda in 1968, but subsequent owners have retained its traditions. La Fonda is one of the last remaining Harvey House buildings in New Mexico.
Travelers will work up an appetite exploring the sights. Before they dine, they should become versed in chiles, as servers will ask guests if they want their New Mexican food red or green. Don’t even bother asking servers which is spicier because the answers are inconsistent. The spice of the chile depends on the batch of chiles the restaurant uses, not the color. The difference between red and green is how the chile is prepared. Red chile sauce is made from chilies that have been dried; green chili sauce is created from fresh green chilies. Diners should try both to determine which style they like best. Or, order “Christmas” for half red and half green chile.
The Plaza Café is the oldest restaurant in Santa Fe, founded in 1905. The café offers a retro vibe that is unique within Santa Fe. It is located on the historic plaza, with great views of people enjoying this historic center. The Plaza Café started by serving New Mexican cuisine and has evolved since its inception. Today, the restaurant offers New Mexican, American diner classics and Greek cuisine as an homage to the owners’ heritage. A regional highlight on the menu includes a delicious blue corn and pinion nut pancake with textures and flavors that are classic New Mexico.