On a plateau at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains—at an elevation of 7,000 feet—Santa Fe is brimming with reminders of nearly four centuries of Spanish and Mexican rule, and of the Pueblo cultures that have been here for hundreds more.
The town's placid central Plaza has been the site of bullfights, gunfights, political rallies, promenades, and public markets since the early 17th century. A one-of-a-kind destination, Santa Fe is fabled for its chic art galleries, superb restaurants, and diverse shops selling everything from Southwestern furnishings and cowboy gear to Tibetan textiles and Moroccan jewelry. If Santa Fe had a somewhat provincial, regional vibe at one time, the scene has changed considerably of late, with more and more retail and dining mixing local with international, often cutting-edge, styles.
La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asísi (the Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi) was founded in the early 1600s by Don Pedro de Peralta, who planted his banner in the name of Spain. During its formative years, Santa Fe was maintained primarily for the purpose of bringing the Catholic faith to New Mexico's Pueblo Indians. In 1680, however, the Indians rose in revolt and the Spanish colonists were driven out of New Mexico. The tide turned 12 years later, when General Don Diego de Vargas returned with a new army from El Paso and recaptured Santa Fe. To commemorate de Vargas's recapture of the town in 1692, Las Fiestas de Santa Fe have been held annually since 1712. The nation's oldest community celebration takes place on the weekend after Labor Day, with parades, mariachi bands, pageants, and the burning of Zozóbra—a must-see extravaganza held in Fort Marcy Park just blocks north of the Plaza.
Following de Vargas's defeat of the Pueblos, the then-grand Camino Real (Royal Road), stretching from Mexico City to Santa Fe, brought an army of conquistadors, clergymen, and settlers to the northernmost reaches of Spain's New World conquests. In 1820 the Santa Fe Trail—a prime artery of U.S. westward expansion—spilled a flood of covered wagons from Missouri onto the Plaza. A booming trade with the United States was born. After Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821, its subsequent rule of New Mexico further increased this commerce.
The Santa Fe Trail's heyday ended with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in 1880. The trains, and later the nation's first highways, brought a new type of settler to Santa Fe—artists who fell in love with its cultural diversity, history, and magical color and light. They were especially drawn to the area because eccentricity was embraced, not discouraged, as it often was in the social confines of the East Coast. Their presence attracted tourists, who quickly became a primary source of income for the proud, but largely poor, populace.
Santa Fe is renowned for its arts (both visual and, increasingly, performing), vibrant tricultural (Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo) heritage, and adobe architecture. The Pueblo people built their homes using a "puddled-mud" method (liquid mud poured between upright wooden frames), which melded well with the adobe brick construction introduced to the Spanish by the Moors. The Hispanic culture, still deeply rooted in its ancient ties to Spain and Catholicism, remains a strong influence on the easier pace of this city.
Cosmopolitan visitors from around the world are consistently surprised by the city's rich and varied cultural offerings despite its relatively small size. Often referred to as the "City Different," Santa Fe became the first American city to be designated a UNESCO Creative City, acknowledging its place in the global community as a leader in art, crafts, design, and lifestyle.
Orientation and Planning Humorist Will Rogers said on his first visit to Santa Fe, "Whoever designed this town did so while riding on a jackass, backwards, and drunk." The maze of narrow streets and alleyways confounds motorists; however, pedestrians delight in the vast array of shops, restaurants, flowered courtyards, and eye-catching galleries at nearly every turn. Park your car, grab a map, and explore the town on foot.
Interstate 25 cuts just south of Santa Fe, which is 62 miles northeast of Albuquerque. U.S. 285/84 runs north–south through the city. The NM 599 bypass, also called the Santa Fe Relief Route, cuts around the west side of the city from Interstate 25's Exit 276 to U.S. 285/84; it's a great shortcut if you're heading from Albuquerque to Abiquiú, Taos, or other points north of Santa Fe. The modest flow of water called the Santa Fe River runs west, parallel to Alameda Street, from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the open prairie southwest of town, where it disappears into a narrow canyon before joining the Rio Grande. There's a dicho, or saying, in New Mexico: "agua es vida"—water is life—and every little trickle counts.