Southwestern US

Visiting the nation’s oldest capital city – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Pretty much everyone we talked to prior to our New Mexico road trip assured us we would really enjoy Santa Fe. It’s such a cool place, they said. Quirky and artsy and historic. And it definitely is all of those things. But honestly, I didn’t love it as much as I felt like I should have. Maybe that’s because everyone talked it up in advance. Or maybe it’s because art isn’t really my thing, so we didn’t really spend any time wandering through the galleries or art museums. I still enjoyed Santa Fe, and I’m glad we spent the day here, but I’m also glad we only allocated one day for it.

We woke that morning – the day before Thanksgiving – in Albuquerque. It was early and chilly as we loaded up the car and began the 45 minute drive to Santa Fe. Our first stop was the New Mexico State Capitol, located in the heart of oldtown Santa Fe. The capitol building has the unique distinction of being made of adobe. In addition, it lacks the giant dome of other capitol buildings. It was unusual to not see it from afar, towering above the surrounding buildings.

New Mexico State Capitol

The interior, aside from the house and senate chambers, is essentially one giant art museum. There’s so much artwork on the walls. We were able to walk around all four floors and over to the annex, taking time to admire the many pieces of art adorning nearly every surface. Some of my favorites are below.

Inside the capitol
Looking up at the rotunda
House chambers (or senate chambers… I can’t remember which was which)
This photo and the previous are of an exhibit called Weather or Not, by the Studio Art Quilt Associates of New Mexico
Acrylic paint on ostrich eggs, by Ruben Gallegos
I unfortunately did not take pictures of the signs with information about these other three pieces

After wandering through the capitol, we popped into the visitor center to grab a city map. We were also in search of a warm beverage – November mornings at 7200 feet (2195 m) are chilly – and the employees pointed us in the direction of a food truck selling coffee and freshly-made donuts. I’m not a huge donut person, but I did have a bite of the salted caramel one Pat ordered and I will admit it was pretty tasty.

Next, we began making our way toward the Santa Fe Plaza. It was less than 1 mile (1.6 km) between the capitol complex and the plaza, so we left our car where it was (pro tip: parking is free in the capitol garage on Galisteo Street) and set off on foot. On the way to the plaza, we took a slightly meandering route that took us past three historic churches. The first – the San Miguel Chapel – is the oldest church structure in the US, built in 1610. The original adobe walls still stand beneath the stucco exterior, and the altar is original as well. We weren’t able to enter, unfortunately, as it was closed.

San Miguel Chapel

The St. Francis de Asisi church was also closed, but it was still pretty spectacular from the outside.

St. Francis de Asisi church

The most impressive, though, was the Loretto Chapel. Built from 1873-1878, this was the first gothic-style structure built west of the Mississippi River. From the outside, it’s certainly pretty enough to warrant a moment of contemplation. The interior, however, warrants many moments of contemplation. The Loretto Chapel is home to a spiral staircase called the Staircase of Miracles because there is no central support structure. Over the years, various architects and engineers have expressed their disbelief that the staircase was ever able to be constructed, let alone used. Photos of an entire choir standing on the staircase prove that it is, however, plenty sturdy. Today you aren’t allowed to climb it, but you can enter the church for $5/person. It’s worth the cost; the interior is beautiful!


Our next stop was the Santa Fe Plaza, which is really the centerpiece of oldtown Santa Fe. On the north side of the plaza is the Palace of Governors – the oldest public building in the US. It was originally the seat of government for New Mexico – first under Spanish rule, then Mexican, and finally American. It wasn’t all that impressive inside because it’s been mostly emptied out and the first stages of renovation are beginning. The building has not undergone a complete restoration since it was built in 1610, so it’s long overdue. Nonetheless, we’ve now walked around in the oldest public building in the US.

Palace of Governors (right)
Inside the Palace of Governors

Attached to the Palace of Governors is the New Mexico History Museum. There are dozens of museums in Santa Fe; we only had one day, so we chose to only visit this one. Admission is $12/person, which we felt was completely reasonable. The building has three stories and a variety of exhibits, spanning about 5000 years of history. There was an expansive collection of indigenous artifacts and art, information about the colonization of New Mexico by the Spanish and US, the more recent history of New Mexico as a territory and later a US state, and exhibits about the Civil War, WWI, and WWII.

Segesser I – a painting on a bison hide depicting a conflict between the Spanish and Native Americans. The painting was created by indigenous New Mexicans, likely in the early 1700s.
This piano traveled from Pennsylvania to Santa Fe on the Santa Fe Trail in the 1800s, a journey of about 1000 miles (1600 km)!
Horse-drawn hearse (something I didn’t know existed); c. 1900
Indigenous artwork

It was now early afternoon and we were more than ready for lunch. We had kind of a weird schedule for the day and ended up having a very late lunch at Santa Fe Brewing Company. The brewery has three locations, the original of which is near oldtown, but we opted for the southern location which has a large beer hall and on-site food truck. The beer was pretty tasty and I really enjoyed my food as well. Pat wanted to enjoy his food, but it was just a little too spicy for him and his non-existent spice tolerance. He was kind of miserable.

If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering if we managed to spend an entire day in Santa Fe without going to Meow Wolf. Well, fear not; it was our final stop of the day. If you haven’t heard of Meow Wolf, it’s described as an interactive immersive art experience. It’s also expensive, so we debated for quite a while before adding it to our itinerary. We just couldn’t get a good read on whether it was something we’d enjoy. If you ask people about it, most will tell you that they weren’t sure about it initially but were glad they decided to go. If you ask them what it’s like, you’ll pretty consistently get an answer of “I don’t really know how to describe it, you kind of just have to experience it for yourself.”

None of those are useful explanations, but they are in fact accurate. I honestly don’t know how to describe Meow Wolf, other than to say it was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. There are three non-identical Meow Wolf locations in the US, with Santa Fe being the original. This location – called the House of Eternal Return – begins by introducing a mystery that you can theoretically solve as you make your way through the colorfully chaotic labyrinthine experience. But honestly, I’m not sure there actually is a solution. If there is, we came nowhere close to finding it. Admittedly, we also didn’t try very hard.

Even the carpet was chaotic
How many Dianas can you spot in this photo?

Visiting Meow Wolf was certainly an experience like no other. Do I feel the need to go again? No. Am I glad I went? Yes.

We departed Santa Fe the following morning en route to Los Alamos, where we would be spending the remainder of our trip. The two cities aren’t that far apart, so we figured we had time to stop for a hike on the way. It was a short hike that doesn’t really warrant its own post; since it’s not that far from Santa Fe, I’m going to tack it onto the end of this post. The Diablo Canyon Trail departs from Diablo Canyon Recreation Area about 30 minutes north of the city. The last few miles are on a dirt road, but it’s well maintained. I did have to drop a pin in the map in order for my iPhone GPS to get us there, and there isn’t service once you get out of Santa Fe, so screenshot the step-by-step directions in advance just in case.

From the parking area, a trail leads into the canyon… which is really just a wash (and should therefore not be entered if it’s raining or about to rain or has recently rained, due to risk of flash flooding). The trail continues quite a few miles, extending all the way to the Rio Grande. We opted to just walk through the deepest part of the canyon before turning around, and it ended up being a relatively flat but sandy 1.3 miles (2.1 km) round-trip.

Diablo Canyon

If you’re heading between Santa Fe and Los Alamos and looking for a place to camp, picnic, or just stretch your legs, I’d say Diablo Canyon is worth the detour. I’ll be writing all about our time in Los Alamos in an upcoming post. But up next: Bandelier National Monument. Stay tuned!

42 thoughts on “Visiting the nation’s oldest capital city – Santa Fe, New Mexico”

  1. The closest I’ve ever gotten to Santa Fe was driving a Hyundai for 13 years, but I’ve heard the same rave reviews as you. People do seem to love the place! I think I’m content taking a virtual tour thanks to you, though if I ever do find myself in New Mexico someday (unlikely), I’ll be sure to plan a day there.

    I only know of Meow Wolf because there’s one in Denver. Never been, but it sounds like a total trip!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ironically we haven’t been to the Denver one yet, despite living about 20 minutes from there. I’m not sure I’m fully recovered from the Santa Fe one yet, but we do plan to go to the one here eventually since the interiors are not identical.


  2. I’m afraid I’m no art expert either, but there are some really pretty artwork in the State Capitol. I also like The Chapel with its stained glass windows … and was amazed at how far that piano travelled (someone must have loved this very much)! Shame, poor Pat (I’m with him on too spicy food) … at least, it seems the beer was good 😉. Never heard of Meow Wolf – looks interesting … but I would much rather go on the hike (even though it was short, at least it’s outdoors and beautiful).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! I have never been to Santa Fe and honestly had no idea what it looked like, so this was a really interesting read! The History Museum seems like a great place to get an overview of the region and its history, and the Meow Wolf, well, seems unique to say the least! It’s great that you fit in a bit of a walk in nature too!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. There’s so much of New Mexico not yet explored that I’d love to return! Santa Fe is one destination: I think its artsy vibe is right up my alley, as I do appreciate an expressive place inspired by being, practically virtually, in the middle of the desert. The Loretto Chapel and Meow Wolf are certainly on my list of sites to check out should I head my way over the Santa Fe one day, as the blend of historic and experimental offers an eclectic experience that’s unexpected of this US Southwest city!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Meow Wolf must be new since I don’t remember it from my past visits to Santa Fe. I do like art, however. The last time Peggy and I visited we focused on the Georgia O’Keefe museum. Have you been to Taos Diana? That seems more like your kind of town. 🙂 –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I believe Meow Wolf was created within the last 7-10 years. The one in Denver just opened a couple years ago. I have been to Taos, and we really enjoyed our time there as well!


  6. I absolutely loved Santa Fe and spent several days there in the fall of 2021. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it that much. Meow Wolf is quite the experience. I wasn’t sure about going either but like you said was glad I did. Several times I was just laughing at how wacky things were there. One of my favorite things I did in Santa Fe was go hiking. It’s too bad you didn’t have more time for that. I found it to be a beautiful city and loved all of the adobe homes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I mean, I didn’t hate Santa Fe. I just felt like it wasn’t a place I needed to spend more time in than we did. If we did have more time, we for sure would have done more hiking.


  7. Love the capitol building. It truly looks like the people’s place. The architecture in Santa Fe is beautiful. Not having a tolerance for spice food in New Mexico? Poor Pat. The first time I ate Mexican in a Northern state, I darn near died. Now, bring on the heat. That art museum looks like a great experience and so colourful. Thanks for sharing Diana. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Meow Wolf was so so weird. Once I embraced that, it was pretty fun, though! I recently learned they sometimes do adults only nights, which might have been a better experience. There were so many little kids running around that we had to dodge.


  8. The gothic church is beautiful and it is amazing those stairs could hold so many people! I’ve never seen anything like that art exhibit, I think the way you and other people described it looks pretty accurate and it’s a good one and done kind of thing. I would’ve been like Pat with his lunch ha!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow, what a wonderful place to explore and looks like it offers so much to do and see. I love the Loretto Chapel and its beautiful Staircase of Miracles and Indigenous artwork and how you can learn more about Native American traditions, customs, perspectives, and cuisine. Thanks so much for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I really like Santa Fe with its art, architecture and peppers galore. The art prices were way out of my league which was a bummer. Still, when we visited in the ’90s Santa Fe was a magical experience. It was Christmas. The city was so beautiful especially at night. Fresh light snow was falling and luminarias lining the sidewalks accented the Southwestern architecture. Your post brings back great memories.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Somehow we didn’t sample any of the peppers, which was an oversight on our part. I can imagine how beautiful it must have been all decorated for Christmas! Our visit was the day before Thanksgiving and they were already hanging lights in the plaza. We weren’t able to see the finished product, though.


  11. I’ve never heard of Meow Wolf. It looks like a funky version of house of mirrors at a fairgrounds when I was a kid. I’ve been to Santa Fe but only as a stop on our way through but I remember the adobe buildings downtown and liked the look of the old square. But didn’t know of any of their historical significance. Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

  12. You captured it well, Diana. We’re also not art aficionados (although the Georgia O’Keefe Museum was fascinating), but between the historical buildings, the amazing chapels and cathedral and the breweries it’s a great city. And Santa Fe Brewing was our favorite although Second Street also has good beer and taproom ambiance. When walking into one of the historic chapels, we discovered there was a small family wedding taking place.
    We were so embarrassed and conspicuous that we just sat down in one of the pews and stayed until the bride kissed the groom! Cheers

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have heard good things about the Georgia O’Keefe Museum; if we’d had more time in the city I think that would have been next on the agenda. If I’m ever back, we’ll be sure to check out Second Street as well.

      Liked by 2 people

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