The Perfect Santa Fe Weekend Trip: Food, Culture and Hiking Nearby
May 13, 2021
Table of Contents
Santa Fe, the capital city of New Mexico, is full of Pueblo-style architecture, renowned art and delicious food. Santa Fe is the highest state capital in the US by elevation, located just 1.5 miles from the foothills of the Southern Rocky Mountains. It is the second oldest US city, founded between 1607 and 1610, and one of the few UNESCO Creative Cities in the US - a designation given to cities who use creativity as a major factor in their urban development.
Santa Fe is a charming city that is small enough to enjoy in a day, but also has enough culture and food to spend weeks exploring. This itinerary has recommendations for one day exploring Santa Fe and one day exploring incredible hiking destinations within a couple hours of the city. It’s a lot to pack into a weekend, but also a lot of fun. If you’re visiting Santa Fe from far away and want to make the most of your time, this is the way to do it!
Santa Fe is known for their chile! You’ll see bundles of dried chiles hanging in the town square and the Santa Fe Plaza. Hanging the pods this way serves as decor and as a drying method to preserve the chili pods for future cooking.
I stayed at Hotel Santa Fe, the only Native American owned hotel in the city. As you arrive, you’ll see a beautiful pueblo style building with sculptures among landscaped grounds, and as you enter, the lobby is full of a nice collection of art. There are two parts to the hotel - the main hotel and The Hacienda. The Hacienda is the more luxurious portion offering fireplaces, hand crafted furnishings and Native American artwork. The Hotel Santa Fe portion offers more basic rooms that still have everything you need with Southwestern touches.
The hotel has been open since 1991 and The Hacienda portion was added in 2001. It offers a pool, a spa, a nice restaurant and a great location. I enjoyed my stay in the Hotel Santa Fe portion of the hotel.
Hotel Santa Fe is located very close to the Santa Fe Railroad Park, a 10-acre park located on the grounds of a former railroad. It’s a great place for a walk or run.
There are also a number of other hotels in the city and Airbnb’s for any budget!
One of the best parts of Santa Fe is the delicious Southwestern food. These are the foods that you must try while visiting Santa Fe!
Chile: When you order a dish like an enchilada, you’ll often be asked whether you would like red or green. This refers to the type of chile pepper sauce that will be served with your food! The red and green peppers are actually the same - the green peppers have been picked sooner and the red chiles have been left longer on the vine. If you would like both, you can ask for Christmas style. If you don’t love spicy food, ask about the spice level and get the chile on the side, as many dishes can be quite spicy.
Sopaipillas: Sopaipillas are fried pastry dough that are often served with honey for dessert. They are typically sweet, but can also be savory. You can stuff them with meat, cheese and peppers. They are often served alongside meals and I enjoyed every single one that I had in Santa Fe.
Frito pie, Green Chile Cheeseburger and Posole Beans: I’m a vegetarian so I didn’t try these three dishes, but you should be aware of them. Frito pies began in Santa Fe and one iconic place to get them is the Five & Dime General Store. The green chile cheeseburger consists of green chiles as a topping on a cheeseburger.
Tomasita’s is a family owned restaurant and is one of the oldest restaurants in Santa Fe. They are known for having some of the best red chile, green chile and margaritas! They put so much care into their food by sourcing the best chile available, using raw honey for their sopaipillas and sourcing the best tortilla chips. Their margaritas are strong and I really enjoyed my veggie quesadilla.
The Pantry has been open since 1948 and serves a large menu of New Mexican breakfast and lunch options along with American comfort food. I had the breakfast burrito, which was full of veggies and came with a side of pinto beans and red chile. It was very filling and delicious. The sopaipilla here was also good, it was a bit thicker than other sopaipillas I had in the city.
La Choza is a popular destination in Santa Fe known for serving traditional southwestern food since 1983. It’s located inside a large adobe building and also has an outdoor patio. I recommend going here only if you have a reservation. I waited a very long time for a table and the service wasn’t great. However, I really enjoyed my spinach enchilada with red chile, strawberry margarita and sopaipillas.
Clafoutis is a French restaurant that serves delicious breakfast and pastries in a classic space decorated with black and white tiles. I really enjoyed my croissant sandwich with egg, cheese and avocado (it was also plated beautifully!). You can sit down and order a meal or visit the counter for a wide selection of baked goods.
Paper Dosa is a delicious restaurant serving South Indian food, it’s the only South Indian restaurant in Santa Fe! A dosa is a thin crepe that originates from South India. When you order a dosa, it comes wrapped around veggies, spices or meats like a burrito. I really enjoyed the peas and paneer dosa along with the onion rings appetizer made up of fried kale and red onions.
Del Charro is a casual watering hole serving drinks and light bites. It has been consistently voted one of the best bars in Santa Fe. They serve a variety of food like nachos, quesadillas, burgers (including a veggie burger) and desserts. Go here to enjoy a strong margarita and crispy fries in the heart of downtown.
Above are all of the restaurants that I visited in my two days in Santa Fe. A few others that you should consider are La Plazuela At La Fonda for fine dining in the center of downtown, Modern General Feed and Seed for brunch (check out their savorycakes!), Kakawa Chocolate House for small batch chocolate and hot chocolate and Tia Sophia’s for classic Mexican food.
The Santa Fe airport is a small regional airport located right outside of the city. All of the major airlines fly there but there are only direct flights from Dallas, Denver and Phoenix. You may be able to find a better flight into Albuquerque. The Albuquerque Airport is larger and only an hour away from Santa Fe.
It easy to get around central Santa Fe on foot. The city was rated one of America’s Most Walkable Cities. Rideshare and bus services are also available. However, for this itinerary you will need to rent a car to explore outside of the city.
Spend your first day enjoying the art and culture that the city has to offer.
Meow Wolf is an incredible immersive art space that is fun for all ages. It includes 70+ rooms of interactive art and where you choose your own adventure as you explore. The permanent exhibit is called ‘House of Eternal Return’ and is centered on a Victorian manor. You can pick up clues along the way to piece together a story, or just freely explore and admire all of the colors, textures, lights and sounds. There are many places where you can directly interact with the art. Some notable interactions include drumming on dinosaur bones to make music, dialing knobs to create a psychedelic rainbow all around you and pressing buttons to create a disco dance party.
I don’t want to give too much away, but highlights for me included walking through a lifesize aquarium with neon trees, entering the closet of a kids bedroom to find a tiny village and exploring the backyard area full of greenery, glowing mushrooms and a jungle gym for kids and adults alike.
To visit Meow Wolf, be sure to reserve your tickets in advance. They are currently only allowing guests with tickets purchased in advance and time slots often fill up, especially on weekends. I was very impressed with the Covid precautions when I visited in May 2021: masks were required, they socially distanced the entrance line and there was hand sanitizer throughout the space. The hand sanitizer stations were even decorated to blend in with the art! As of this writing in July 2021, masks are no longer required if you have been vaccinated.
I recommend allowing at least two hours to explore Meow Wolf. You could easily spend longer if you really enjoy it, there is just so much to see. Ticket prices vary depending on time of year, ranging from $35-$40 for adults and $20-$25 for kids. You cannot bring in any backpacks, strollers or large items into the exhibit but lockers are available in the lobby at an extra cost. There is also a gift shop and cafe in the lobby outside of the exhibit.
Canyon Road is a beautiful street on a hill located just east of downtown Santa Fe. The path has over 100 art galleries that you can ease in and out of as you walk the half mile. There are outdoor sculptures, greenery and boutiques along the way. At the top of the hill, visit The Teahouse. The restaurant has a large menu but is known for their tea and desserts. They create their own teas and have a beautiful outdoor patio to relax at after an afternoon of gallery hopping!
The Santa Fe Plaza is a beautiful public square surrounded by shops and restaurants. The historic city center maintains the feel of a traditional Spanish Plaza. There are often events in the square such as markets with art, food and more.
About a block from the Plaza, be sure to visit the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. This beautiful church was built in the 1800’s and stands in contrast to the surrounding adobe architecture with its Romanesque Revival style. It’s a beautiful building on the outside but you can also go inside when it is open.
There are several fantastic museums in downtown Santa Fe. One great option is the Georgia O’ Keeffe Museum, an impressive museum dedicated to the legacy of Georgia O’Keeffe. The museum's collections include over 3,000 works by the artist comprising paintings, drawings and more.
Santa Fe is full of art, so it doesn’t end there. Also downtown, you can visit the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, a museum dedicated to Native American contemporary art plus history and culture. Finally, there is the New Mexico Museum of Art, an art museum dedicated to New Mexico art. It has been open since 1917 and was the first building in New Mexico dedicated to art.
If history is more your style, visit the New Mexico History Museum. The museum occupies three different buildings that are connected through a lobby and courtyard. One building is the Palace of the Governors, an impressive structure sitting right on the Santa Fe Plaza. It is the oldest continuous-use public building in the continental United States, dating back to 1610 when Spanish settlers built it for colonial administration. The museum complex has exhibits on the development of New Mexico and the relationships that connect New Mexico with the rest of the world.
If you prefer to learn about local culture through food rather than museums, a local cooking class is a great activity. The Santa Fe School of Cooking offers classes on many aspects of southerwestern cooking. Their classes include workshops on green and red chiles, tamales, mole and many more. They offer hands-on experiences, demos and tours.
Day two focuses on three incredible places to explore to the West of Santa Fe. These three spots are less than two hours from the city and definitely worth visiting if you enjoy hiking.
Bandelier National Monument protects historic cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and masonry walls that go back 1000’s of years. The monument is located just under an hour from Santa Fe. The Ancestral Pueblo People lived among these cliffs from about 1150 CE to 1550 CE. They used the surrounding area to build homes out of volcano tuff, an easy to break apart soft rock. In addition to homes on the canyon floor, they carved out cavities inside of the cliffs and linked some together to create various clusters of dwellings.
The most popular thing to do at the park is the Main Pueblo Loop Trail. The trail is 1.4 miles and relatively flat. It is paved for part of the way, and then ascends up next to the cliff and many of the dwellings. The path gets narrow at times but there are railings throughout. There are three different ladders on this loop where you can climb up and have a look inside of the actual dwellings.
I was really sad to see recent handprints all over the inside of Cave Kiva, the last cave with a ladder on the main loop. Apparently, the park service has to remove graffiti from here often. Please leave no trace when exploring the outdoors, especially in a place with so much history.
I highly recommend continuing on the Main Loop Pueblo Trail on the trail to the Alcove House. The Alcove House will make your hike 2.6 miles total. When you reach the end, you can ascend up 140 feet on four different ladders to see a large cave that was once home to 25 Ancestral Pueblo people. Inside the house, there is a reconstructed kiva and further homes carved into the cliff side. There is also a beautiful view from here. The ladders are not difficult for people of most athletic abilities, but I wouldn't recommend it if you’re very scared of heights.
Besides the Alcove Cave and Main Pueblo Loop Trail, there are many more overlooks and hikes to explore (the park is 33,000 acres!). If you have more time, here are a couple more short trails that I recommend. The Frey Trail is a 3.1 mile hike that shoots off from the Main Pueblo Loop and has amazing canyon views, and the Upper Falls Trail is 2.9 miles. The trail starts from the visitor center and leads to a waterfall.
On your way in or out of the park, be sure to stop at Tyuonyi Overlook for expansive views of the Frijoles Canyon!
At the start of the Main Pueblo Trail, there is a visitor center, gift shop and restaurant with everything you need. Parking often fills up in this main parking area during peak months, so a shuttle from the nearby town of White Rock is also available at certain times of year. Entrance is $25 per car for a week’s entrance, or included if you have the America the Beautiful national park and Federal Lands pass. Camping is also available inside of the park.
Jemez Springs is a beautiful area known for hot springs, forest trails and unique rock formations. It is located an hour and a half west of Santa Fe in the Santa Fe National Forest. If you come from the north, you’ll likely need to pass through the checkpoint in the Los Alamos National Laboratory. You’ll have to show your ID, say where you’re going and pass straight through the laboratory area without stopping. When you reach the national forest, you’ll drive by the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The Caldera was formed by a volcanic eruption 1.25 million years ago and is 13.7 miles wide today. The nearby hot springs are powered by the same volcanic activity. In addition to hot springs, there are fumaroles and volcanic domes dotting the caldera floor. The Caldera is also home to the second largest elk population in New Mexico. There are several viewpoints where you can pull off and look for them.
The Valles Caldera is one of the three supervolcanoes in the United States. The other two are Yellowstone in Wyoming and Long Valley in California.
After the caldera, the next several miles are packed with wonderful hiking trails, hot springs, waterfalls and other outdoor adventures. Three popular hot springs that you can hike to and swim in are the San Antonio Hot Springs, the Spence Hot Springs and McCauley Hot Springs. I hiked to the McCauley Hot Springs. It is a 3.5 mile round trip hike with 839 feet elevation gain that leads to three pools of warm spring water. If you visit, be sure to download the trail on All Trails. The path is not well marked and has a couple of confusing turns that are easy to miss. When you reach the spring, multiple pools of varying sizes are nestled on a hillside under tall trees. The water is not very hot but it’s still fun to swim in the natural spring. This area gets crowded so come early if you would like to enjoy the pools without many others. Also be sure to pack out any trash and leave no trace while visiting this beautiful place.
A few miles south of the trailhead to McCauley Springs, it’s worth a quick stop at the Soda Dam. This unique rock formation is right off of the road. A grouping of hot springs have merged here to form a unique calcium carbonate and travertine rock build up that spans across the Jemez River. This is an easy and quick stop but note that it also gets very crowded.
South of the national forest area, the town of Jemez Springs has a few places to stay and eat. It is also home to a pool area where you can relax and pay to soak in natural hot spring pools.
If you have more time, another stop to consider is the Gilman Tunnels. These two tunnels were part of the former Santa Fe Northwestern Railway and now serve the traffic on a narrow road. The unique tunnels have been included in movies like the western ‘3:10 to Yuma.’ The drive or hike through the tunnels leads to expansive views of the Guadalupe River Box Canyon. The tunnels are located just 5 miles off of New Mexico State Road 4.
The Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is a beautiful place made up of cone-shaped tent rock formations that were formed as a result of volcano eruptions millions of years ago. There are several hikes that allow you to explore the monument up close. During my trip and as of this writing in July 2021, the monument remains closed to the public due to Covid-19. Check the BLM website for details on reopening. It is located 45 minutes outside of Santa Fe and an hour and a half from Jemez Springs.
If you’re exploring more of Northern New Mexico, check out my guide to Taos! This mountainous city is located an hour and a half north of Santa Fe.
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