Discovering Southwestern Culture in Santa Fe

Santa Fe, New Mexico, sits below the beautiful Aspens of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Santa Fe, New Mexico, sits below the beautiful Aspens of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Santa Fe, New Mexico, is one of those cities that has its own vibe, its own way of doing things. And that vibe draws people in from across the country and around the world. I’m sure the city has plenty of natives, but on a recent visit to the New Mexico capital, more times than not my conversations were with Santa Fe transplants.

An artist here, a shop owner there, even Steve Lewis, a public relations liaison at the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau. With a background in television journalism, Steve followed his wife home to Santa Fe, where the two set up a clothing store before settling into a New Mexico life they could call their own.

As Steve and I enjoyed coffee and conversation during the first morning of my family’s four-day stay in Santa Fe, he talked about what makes the city so unique. People come to Santa Fe to create art, to finish a book, or just to find themselves, he said. It seems in one way or another, people come to Santa Fe looking for something. And I guess we were no different.

Our search didn’t have some great philosophical or existential reason behind it; we wanted to learn about a unique local culture that’s one part Native American, one part Mexican, and one part American, with a touch of hippie thrown in. We were hoping we’d find that and more in the city’s art scene, recognized as one of the country’s leading art markets. We also looked for it in the wealth of museums about art and local culture, in the outstanding New Mexican cuisine, and in that unmatchable adobe architecture that plays a central role in everything that is Santa Fe.

The St. Francis Cathedral with its beautiful adobe architecture sits just off the historic Santa Fe Plaza

What did we discover in Santa Fe? It began with the people, some of the friendliest we’ve encountered in any American city. At 7,000 feet, the city is the nation’s highest state capital. Numerous travel publications have recognized Santa Fe as one of the great cultural centers of the United States. A place is made by its people, and the people who call Santa Fe home, even the city’s many transplants, make visitors feel welcome.

If the heart of a community can be felt in its food, Santa Fe’s heart is healthy—even if some of its food tends to be too much for one meal.

The huevos rancheros Christmas-style at Tia Sophia’s

The most pressing question in New Mexico is “red or green?” Pretty much every New Mexican dish comes with red chile, green chile, or Christmas (both). One is spicy, and the other is spicier. Don’t be surprised when the “mild” green chile ends up being one of the hottest flavors you’ve tasted. It’s a part of the New Mexican culture you should take in stride—and just go along for the hot ride.

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum celebrates the great American artist

Since we returned home from our week in New Mexico, we’ve heard one question more than any other: Why would a family of three from Memphis, Tennessee, decide to visit the mountainous cities of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos in Northern New Mexico? The answer is simple: It all began with Georgia O’Keeffe.

My wife is an art lover, and for years she’s been fascinated with the beautiful flowers and colorful Southwestern scenery O’Keeffe brought to life in her own unique way. To understand the classic American artist, not to mention all the great artists of the early 20th century who made up the Taos Society, Santa Fe is a good place to start.

Our introduction to the art in Santa Fe came with a stop at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which has rotating exhibits from the permanent collection. When we visited, the focus was on art O’Keeffe painted while spending time in Upstate New York. Visiting museums ended up dominating a large part of our visit.

We discovered the work of many of the state’s great artists at the New Mexico Museum of Art, the state’s oldest art museum, which is housed in a unique adobe structure on the plaza.

The New Mexico Museum of Art celebrates the state’s great artists

We also learned about the history of the state—from the rich Native American culture and Mexican influences to its cowboy culture days and role in the Santa Fe Trail—at the New Mexico History Museum. The state’s role in the nuclear era is also explored at this museum, located just behind the historic Palace of the Governors on the plaza.

The historic Palace of the Governors is lined with local Native Americans selling their art

We explored Native American and folk art in the city’s Museum Hill area just off the Old Santa Fe Trail. Highlights there include the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the Museum of International Folk Art, both stops that provide unique educational opportunities for children.

The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on Museum Hill is in a beautiful area of Santa Fe

Our art experiences continued along Canyon Road, an uphill stretch of pavement just east of the historic plaza that has what’s said to be the highest concentration of art galleries of any street in the United States.

Canyon Road contains an abundance of art galleries

The galleries along Canyon Road are welcoming, even when it’s obvious a customer isn’t walking out with an $8,000 painting. Again, this goes back to the fact that it’s the people who help make Santa Fe so enjoyable. Santa Fe has several art markets throughout the year, and it’s obvious why art is such a focus—just step outside and enjoy the views.

Santa Fe sits at the base of the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains

The landscapes around Santa Fe, from the deserts south of town to the mountains to the east and north, are inspiring no matter what you’re seeking.

The art, food, shopping, and history are all fantastic in Santa Fe, but there is plenty to see and do in the great outdoors, too. Drive just a couple of miles north of the historic plaza and find yourself in the beginnings of the Rocky Mountains. It’s only about five miles up where beautiful trails begin. Just a few minutes farther up are the beautiful Aspens and the Aspen Vista Trail.

The drive up the mountain toward the Santa Fe Ski Basin is worth the journey

And, if visiting during the winter months, head 14 miles up the mountain where snow skiing opportunities at the Santa Fe Ski Basin await. No matter the time of year, or type of travel experience you’re seeking, Santa Fe is likely to have it.