Must-See Attractions in Santa Fe and Beyond

Must-See Attractions in Santa Fe and Beyond

Santa Fe’s sophisticated art galleries, award-winning restaurants and luxury lodgings are major draws for travelers, and this captivating Southwestern town is loaded with attractions for families. But the area’s appeal extends beyond the city’s limits, where the great outdoors of northern New Mexico beckons.

Think of it as a two-for-one vacation destination, where your clan can visit art galleries or kid-friendly museums one day and go whitewater rafting on the Rio Grande the next. To make the most of New Mexico in just one trip, check out this guide to discover art and history in Santa Fe and explore the great outdoors with a high-desert getaway.

How to Get to Santa Fe

If you’re not in a rush, take the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway (State Road 14), which connects Albuquerque to Santa Fe, serves up views from the top of Sandia Crest and winds through old mining towns now booming with local arts and crafts, museums, culture and more.

Experience History & Art in Santa Fe

The Plaza & Downtown

The Santa Fe universe revolves around its centuries-old Plaza. By day, the leafy town square buzzes with tourists, street performers and locals grabbing lunch. In the evenings in July and August, the Plaza’s free Santa Fe Bandstand concerts make for fun family nightlife, featuring food vendors and tunes of all types. 

Across the street, dozens of Native American vendors sell handmade jewelry, pottery and art on the porch of the adobe-style Palace of the Governors. Completed in 1610, the original capitol of the Spanish colonial Nuevo México province is the oldest public building in the U.S. and houses the New Mexico History Museum, featuring special, rotating exhibits.

Other must-see downtown attractions include the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the New Mexico Museum of Art and the iconic Romanesque St. Francis Cathedral. Art fans will enjoy the half-mile stretch of upscale galleries along the famed Canyon Road, where kiddos might also get a kick out of the outdoor kinetic wind sculptures at the Mark White Fine Art Gallery & Sculpture Garden.

Canyon Road Roam through high-end galleries and around outdoor sculptures and mobiles as you explore Santa Fe’s art-packed Canyon Road. Photo courtesy of Richie Diesterheft, Flickr.

Next, turn your crew loose in downtown’s old-school Five & Dime General Store to spend their allowance on souvenirs, trinkets and toys. Afterward, walk around the corner to Señor Murphy Candymaker for gourmet chocolates and specialty treats like piñon-flavored toffee. Save room for some Southwestern cuisine at Tia Sophia’s. Since 1975, the causal downtown diner has been the go-to spot for chile-smothered breakfast burritos and New Mexican classics like fork-tender carne adovada — pork marinated in red chile — with additional options for kids like cheese quesadillas and PB&Js.

South of Downtown

For families traveling with young kids, the Santa Fe Children’s Museum, located about 1 mile south of the Plaza, features more than 35 interactive exhibits, activity workshops and an outdoor education garden to keep little ones’ hands and minds busy for hours.

Drive about 2 miles southeast of the Plaza to the four art museums crowning Museum Hill. The top choice for families, the Museum of International Folk Art, houses more than 130,000 dolls, dollhouses, masks, puppets and dioramas from around the world. Alternatively, about 5 miles southwest of downtown, the otherworldly Meow Wolf art installation invites all ages for some mystery solving, sci-fi jungle gym climbing and psychedelic neon forest exploring.

Railyard District

Comprising the southwest side of downtown (about 1 mile from the Plaza), Santa Fe's historic, revitalized Railyard district has a fun children’s playground in its Railyard Park. The district, a hot spot for hip galleries and boutiques, also hosts a weekly farmers market brimming with food and craft vendors. For a sit-down meal, head to Cowgirl BBQ and start with a seared chile-dusted taco, or try Second Street Brewery for northern New Mexico-style enchiladas and craft beers.

Railyard District Drive to the historic Railyard district for dinner, or to catch a performance at the Railyard Performance Center. Photo courtesy of Geoff Livingston, Flickr.

Where to Stay

In the heart of town, you’ll find myriad historic hotels and boutique luxury inns. Opened in 1922, the adobe-style La Fonda on the Plaza is the grand dame of Santa Fe’s historic lodgings, where guests will discover handcrafted furnishings and original artwork throughout its rooms. If you’d rather save on lodging, the Best Western Plus Inn of Santa Fe on Cerrillos Road, about 5 miles southwest of the Plaza, features an indoor pool and a daily breakfast spread.

Get Adventurous at Nearby National Monuments & More

Hike at Bandelier National Monument

When northern New Mexico’s magical, high-desert landscapes lure you from the city for a brush with nature, drive about 40 miles northwest to the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings of Bandelier National Monument. See some of the park’s key attractions from the 1.2-mile Main Loop Trail, which leads you past the ruins of the canyon-bottom pueblo. Wooden ladders provide a closer look at the petroglyphs and cliff dwellings above.

Explore Tent Rock, Horseback Ride and See Living History

A short 15-mile drive south of Santa Fe’s Plaza, El Rancho de las Golondrinas breathes life into 18th- and 19th-century Spanish colonial culture on the grounds of a 200-acre village. Along its easy 1.5-mile loop trail, you’ll see costumed historians demonstrating old-fashioned ranch chores such as blacksmithing, weaving and sheep shearing.

Alternatively, roughly 40 miles southwest of Santa Fe, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument  offers an adventurous change of pace and scenery. Among this beautifully bizarre landscape of rock formations, sculpted by erosion into cone shapes, hike the 3-mile round-trip Canyon Trail, which travels through a narrow slot canyon to an overlook with sweeping views of the Rio Grande Valley and Jémez Mountains.

After Tent Rocks, saddle up for a horseback ride among the gulches and dry creek beds of Cerrillos Hills State Park. Broken Saddle Riding Co. offers one- to three-hour trips.

Tent Rocks Revel in the scenic view of incredible rock formations at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

Discover New Mexico’s Great Outdoors in Any Season

In spring and summer, go whitewater rafting on the Rio Grande, or relax on a scenic float trip down the Rio Chama. Kokopelli Rafting Adventures offers half- and full-day trips, including transportation from Santa Fe.

In winter, hit the slopes at the gorgeous Santa Fe ski area, which has runs (and lessons) for all skill levels, equipment rentals and even a kids-only ski area named Chipmunk Corner.

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About the Author

Eli Ellison is a travel writer who specializes in the American Southwest. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, AAA.com and WorldHum.com.