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Don’t get confused: New Mexico is not like Arizona. Or West Texas. Or Southern Colorado. New Mexico – especially Northern New Mexico – is a place all its own, with a unique climate, geography, and culture even within the Southwest. This means that the cities that exist there today – many dating back centuries to ancient indigenous settlements then co-opted by the Spanish upon their conquest of the region – are unlike anywhere else you can find in the United States.
Santa Fe, which embraces the nickname “The City Different,” is the best example of this, yet has managed to fly a bit under the radar with most travelers… maybe they’re all making the same assumption that it must be like somewhere else, and not worth a visit.
Don’t make that mistake! Northern New Mexico, and especially Santa Fe and neighboring Taos, are two communities that are perfect for travelers of all styles; planning a Santa Fe itinerary is also relatively easy since it’s not far from a major airport, and has lots to offer travelers – from hotels and restaurants to museums and sights to see.
I visited Santa Fe in September 2022 as part of a Northern New Mexico road trip that also included stops in Los Alamos and Taos. I enjoyed my visit so much that I almost immediately texted my best friend from college to consider swapping my “it’s too late” “bachelorette” party (we got married in 2020!) from New Orleans to Santa Fe. That’s how cool Santa Fe is!
If you already know – or at least suspect – this, and are planning a trip to Santa Fe, you’ve come to the right place to get your trip plans sorted out. Below you’ll find all the important info: what to do, where to stay, and how to fill the days of your Santa Fe itinerary. Don’t be surprised if you, like me, come home wanting to plan a return trip right away!
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Pueblos people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
How to Travel to Santa Fe
If you’ve decided to visit Santa Fe, you’ve got a couple of ways to get there. By far the most common way is by flying into Albuquerque (ABQ), renting a car, and driving to Santa Fe. The drive takes just over an hour and is pretty scenic as you cross the land – you’ll be surprised as it is neither flat nor arid, and usually quite green with rolling hills. If you don’t want to (or can’t) rent a car, you could also take the Rail Runner, but having a car helps a lot with some of the suggestions I have for making the most of your time in Santa Fe.
You could also choose to fly into Santa Fe (SAF) directly; there are flights daily to Dallas, Denver, and Phoenix, and both Hertz and Avis offer car rentals at the airport. (There is no taxi service, so if you don’t rent a car, you’ll need to arrange a transfer into town in advance.)
Obviously, my recommendation is what I consider the easiest: fly to ABQ and drive. That’s what I did, and it was convenient and cost-conscious.
The 5 Best Things to Do in Santa Fe
If you’re wondering whether there’s enough to do in Santa Fe to even fill 2-3 days, I’ve got you covered. Take a look at this video I made, then read about the top five things to do in Santa Fe during your visit.
Read on for even more detail about some of these activities and sights.
1. Explore Santa Fe’s Historic District & Plaza
Northern New Mexico is home to cities and towns with some of the strongest still-evident Spanish influence. When the Spanish arrived, they established a town plaza (after relocating and/or destroying any Native settlements in the area) and built out from there; Santa Fe’s historic district and plaza are a perfect example of this.
If you decide to stay in one of the hotels I recommend below, you’ll be within walking distance of the Plaza and within the historic district. This means you can easily walk around to do the majority of other things I recommend in Santa Fe, including…
2. Visit Santa Fe’s Oldest Buildings
Santa Fe is home to some of the oldest buildings in the United States. As previously mentioned, the Spanish arrived in Northern New Mexico and left an indelible mark; the first contact occurred in 1540!
If you love old buildings, you should definitely check out two particular sites:
- The Oldest House Museum occupies the longest-standing residence in the city, dating back to 1740-67. But wait, you think, that’s not as old as some homes on the East Coast! Right you are, dear reader, except that archaeological evidence, found under parts of the house shows it has been a residence since the 1200s. Mic drop on those post-Mayflower homes out east!
- The San Miguel Chapel is located between the Plaza and the New Mexico State Capitol. It holds the title as the oldest Catholic Church of which any original walls are still standing; the walls date back to 1610 and were originally built by indigenous people of the area.
- On one corner of the plaza, the Palace of the Governors also dates back to 1610. Today there’s a small museum you can tour to learn about the Palace at different points in history.
These buildings are actually right next to one another on the edge of the historic district, and quite close to where you can…
3. Admire the New Mexico State Capitol
Santa Fe is the New Mexico capital city, and there’s a beautiful domed building to prove it. Don’t think of those sweeping Romanesque domed buildings many state capitals further east and north have though; the New Mexico State Capitol is near the Historic District and reflects the architectural style in the rest of the city.
The outside of the Capitol building is beautiful, and surrounded by a number of sculptures by New Mexico artists and that honor New Mexico’s culture. You can also tour the inside; self-guided tours are available 7:30am to 5:30pm Monday through Friday (and Saturdays 9am-5pm through most of the summer), and guided tours are available by appointment.
4. Visit Local Museums
Though the State Capitol might feel like a museum, it’s technically not – and Santa Fe has lots of other museums to explore if that’s your style. Here are a few to inspire you:
- Inside the New Mexico History Museum, you’ll find an excellent multi-story exhibit about New Mexico history dating back to the Ancestral Puebloan people and indigenous groups present at the time of Spanish conquest. You can also access the Palace of the Governors from this museum.
- The New Mexico Museum of Art is a delightfully manageable museum with rotating exhibits on both traditional and modern art.
- The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum honors and displays the incredible works of the late artist who painted so much of New Mexico’s beauty during her career. This is an absolute must-visit for fans of her work.
- Meow Wolf might not be considered a museum, but it’s definitely an interactive art experience, so I’ll put it on the list. Also, Santa Fe is the original location, and by far the most enjoyable I’ve visited. (The other being Las Vegas – still need to make it out to Denver!)
5. Seek Out Urban Art, Murals & Galleries
As you might have guessed, Santa Fe is big on art – from the Capitol to all those museums. The art doesn’t stay within four walls though; there are tons of spots to see other urban art and murals in Santa Fe, as well as more than 250 art galleries around town.
I don’t have specific recommendations for where and how to see art on display in Santa Fe – instead, I’d just encourage you to walk around and see what you find. Pop into those galleries that catch your eye. Stroll over to those murals and snap a selfie. Take a different route back to your hotel and spot a sculpture along the way.
How Many Days in Santa Fe
An important question you might have is: how long should I visit Santa Fe?
I’m assuming you don’t have unlimited time, so my first answer of “as long as you have” isn’t helpful. Instead, I’ll assume you’re either planning a weekend (or long weekend) trip to Santa Fe, or you’re visiting Santa Fe as part of a longer trip (maybe a New Mexico road trip, as I did) and still have limited time.
In either case, 2-3 days is a great amount of time to spend in Santa Fe – as you might guess from the title of this post. It gives you plenty of time to see the best that the city has to offer, but will certainly leave some things undone and leave you wanting to return.
A 2-Day or 3-Day Santa Fe Itinerary
Okay, now that you have all the basics – how to visit, what to do, and how long to stay – let’s jump into my actual itinerary. I know, it’s way deep in this article, but you had to have all that info so you could see how to put it together.
Day 1: Exploring Historic Santa Fe by Day and Night
If you arrive by car from Albuquerque at some point on Day 1, you won’t have a full first day to explore – but you can still pack a lot in during this day.
Start out in the center of it all, by exploring Santa Fe’s historic district and plaza. You can stroll around and admire the Pueblo-style architecture, peep into the art galleries in this area, and make your way over toward San Miguel Chapel and the Oldest House Museum. Along the way, you might want to also visit the Loretto Chapel; this church has an incredible architectural feat: the “miraculous” unsuspended spiral staircase. I didn’t make it into the Loretto Chapel on my visit, though it’s on my list for a return trip.
I recommend grabbing lunch at some point if you haven’t had it yet; there are lots of places around the Plaza, though Plaza Cafe Downtown caught my eye with its lovely outdoor seating area and hanging flower planters.
Next, make your way toward the New Mexico State Capitol. You can take a self-guided tour inside the building, or just explore the grounds admiring all the public art on display. If you decide to take a tour, it will probably take an hour at least, so your morning will be full by this point.
For dinner, I recommend grabbing something fast-casual and with local flavors. Depending on your interest, there are lots of options. Pictured above is the pizza lunch special from Upper Crust (single topping slice – green chiles – with a side salad), a green chile cheeseburger and fries from Shake Foundation, and the original Frito Pie from Five & Dime General Store. (You should eat a Frito Pie at some point during your visit, if not tonight – it’s where Anthony Bourdain ate in Santa Fe.)
For your evening, I recommend booking a ride aboard The Stargazer train by Sky Railway, if it’s available during your visit. This night train ride takes you out of the city and away from the lights aboard historic train cars; the train then stops on a spur line and you have a chance to admire the stars overhead before making your return to the heart of Santa Fe. It’s a late night though, so don’t plan too much tomorrow morning.
Day 2: Hopping through Museum & Hot Springs
If you’re up in time for the sunrise, I recommend walking over to and climbing up to the Cross of the Martyrs. This cross sits on a hill close to the Historic District and offers views across all of Santa Fe and the surrounding region.
Then, it’s time for breakfast! Head to Tia Sophia’s for their green chile stew. This hearty (and spicy) dish has potatoes and beef, and is great for breakfast with tortillas to dip in it and coffee to wash it down.
After fueling up, start by heading to the New Mexico History Museum to brush yourself up on the history of the state and Santa Fe, as well as to step back in time at the nearby Palace of the Governors. I took about 60 minutes to visit both museums, though didn’t spend as much time as other visitors I saw.
If you still want more museum time this morning, make your way to either the New Mexico Museum of Art or the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, depending on your interests. Both of these museums are manageable in 60-90 minutes. You’ll want to grab lunch after this, whether you visit one museum or multiple.
In the afternoon, book a reservation for Meow Wolf if you’re up for something different. This art exhibit slash mystery museum is perfect for visitors of all ages, and can easily take two hours if you want to do it right and try and solve all the puzzles inside – plus take plenty of pictures, since it is insanely photogenic and each room is different.
After that, make the drive out to Ojo Santa Fe Spa Resort, about 15 minutes outside of Santa Fe. The complex has a lovely restaurant where you can have dinner before heading out to soak; purchase your day pass at the spa before dinner.
As the evening wears on, you can then head to the spa, suit up, and go out to explore the various hot springs and soaking pools across the property. These are all spring-fed mineral pools at a variety of temperatures; there’s also a saltwater pool that’s perfect for a cool dip. I stayed until the sun went down and the stars popped out before making my way back to Santa Fe.
(If you still have some energy, you might head out to soak in some of Santa Fe’s nightlife depending on the night you visit. In my quest to try all things green chile, I went to Del Charro for their chile-infused margarita as a nightcap.)
If you only have two days in Santa Fe, your itinerary ends here – you’ve packed a lot into only two days! If you have one more day, read on for my suggestion on how to make the most of it.
Day 3: Exploring Beyond Santa Fe
For the third day of your Santa Fe itinerary – if you have it – start with a hearty brunch, as you’ll need it for the day’s activities. Check out Opuntia Cafe, which overlooks the railyard and is filled with verdant plants and delicious smells.
Then it’s time to head out of town and sample a bit of the best that northern New Mexico has to offer. Since you’re still reading, I’ll assume you trust my suggestion to make the one-hour drive to Bandelier National Monument. (If you’re visiting during the summer months, be sure to check the Bandelier NPS site as you may need to park in nearby White Rock and take a shuttle to the park.)
Evidence of human history in Bandelier dates back millennia, and it’s home to some of the best human-constructed cave dwellings as well as iconic petroglyphs and pictographs. From the Visitor Center, you can set out along the relatively easy 2.25-mile Pueblo Loop Trail, or up the ante and add on an extra mile and ladder climbing to visit the Alcove House. I was able to do the full 3.25 miles of trails in that part of the park before lunch during my visit.
After lunch – which you can bring if you have leftovers, or enjoy at the cafe near the visitor center (opt for the green chile hamburger frybread!) – you can set out on another hike if you’re up for it. I did the Falls Trail which was pretty anticlimactic (the “falls” was more like a trickle in late summer) for another 2.5 miles during my visit. As you can tell, visiting Bandelier is best if you love and are up for hiking!
After spending most of the day in Bandelier, you could head back to Santa Fe for dinner if you already know of somewhere you’d like to eat – but I recommend heading up to Los Alamos high on the mesa above this valley.
This nearby community is best known for Los Alamos National Laboratory and the role it played in the Manhattan Project; today it’s a fun area with some science-focused activities you can enjoy, like the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and Bradbury Science Museum.
For dinner, especially after a day of hiking, here’s what I recommend: start with a sampler of craft beer at Bathtub Row Brewing Co-Op; this small craft brewery has interesting options and the coolest sampler holder I’ve ever seen. Follow it up with dinner at Parajito Brewpub, which has an awesome green-chile stuffed burger with house-made chips (way better than fries, am I right?!). You’ll be fortified after your adventures and ready for the 45-minute drive back to Santa Fe.
And that wraps it up – three solid days, if you have that extra day for your Santa Fe itinerary.
Where to Stay in Santa Fe
Santa Fe has a range of accommodation options, but I recommend staying as close to the Historic Plaza (or at least the Historic District) as your budget allows. Here are some options to narrow down your research:
- I stayed at the Hotel Chimayo, one block back from the plaza. Rooms here were spacious and the Spanish Colonial courtyard-esque construction is immersive. (All pictures above are from my room/the hotel property.) Rooms start from $171/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- The Inn of the Governors is a bit further out (a few blocks); what caught my eye is their delightful and excessive hanging flowers covering the entire building. Rooms start from $179/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- The Inn & Spa at Loretto is a step up, with more conventional/conservative design elements but a nicer experience. (Not to say the others aren’t nice!) Rooms start from $220/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- Finally, if you want to splurge, The Inn of the Five Graces is the place to stay. A bit like Meow Wolf, every room is photo-worthy, with gorgeous design elements and plenty of indulgences. Rooms start from $600/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
With that, you have all the info you need to plan an excellent Santa Fe itinerary where you’ll enjoy the flavors, sights, and incredible artworks of this Northern New Mexico city. Have any other questions about how to plan your Santa Fe itinerary for 2-3 days? Let me know in the comments below!