We Bostonians tend to think that within the U.S., terms like “oldest” and “most historic” belong almost exclusively to us, with Johnny-come-latelies like Philadelphia and New York bringing up the rear. Rarely, if ever, do we look farther west—a tremendous mistake, given that New Mexico’s capital was founded in 1607, a good 23 years before Boston was incorporated. Not only is Santa Fe the oldest state capital in the country, it’s also the highest, with an altitude of 7,199 feet. But superlatives aside, it’s a magically captivating place that delights at every turn, with tremendous natural beauty, one of the most vibrant arts and culinary scenes in the country, and a unique charm found nowhere else in the American West. Art lies around every corner in Santa Fe, whether it’s a brilliantly painted arcade off the main plaza, a large public sculpture or a temporary installation made of organic materials that will wash away at the next rainfall. However, the art scene’s ground zero is indisputably Canyon Road, a half-mile stretch that boasts more than 100 galleries, as well as artists’ studios, co-ops and cafes and restaurants to offer the sustenance necessary to take it all in. Our top pick for food: The Teahouse, a popular gathering spot (owned by a transplanted Bostonian, no less) with a staggering collection of teas from around the world and an extensive menu of superb food that includes options like eggs Benedict made with brisket instead of ham. To absorb the myriad riches Canyon Road has to offer, we suggest an afternoon with Santa Fe Art Tours, founded by art historian Elaine Ritchel, who takes an interactive approach accessible even to youngsters. The Santa Fe native asks each member of a tour to choose a favorite piece in a gallery and explains methodology for critiquing art—like the “Feldman Method”—while providing an entrée to artists’ studios and collaboratives that tenderfoots would never stumble upon on their own.

PICTURESQUE: Santa Fe mixes natural beauty with a vibrant arts scene.

The city’s patron artistic saint is Georgia O’Keeffe, and a trip to the museum named for her is a mandatory pilgrimage. Opened in 1997, 11 years after the artist’s death, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum boasts a collection of 3,000 works that give insight into her art, creative process and inspirations. Equally a must is the New Mexico History Museum, which hems in one side of the Santa Fe Plaza and not only tells the city’s history from Neolithic times to the present but also houses the Palace of Governors, one of America’s oldest public buildings and the seat of government since the early 17th century.

Santa Fe has been a thriving artists’ colony for more than a century, but lest the city’s gallery and museum offerings seem a tad traditional and staid, one of the most mind-bending and unique art experiences in America can be found at Meow Wolf. Created by a group of young artists working in a variety of mediums that don’t fit within conventional exhibition parameters—think musical lasers—the group banded together to take over what was once a bowling alley in an industrial part of town. The attraction is an art installation called the House of Eternal Return. Upon entering the interactive space, visitors are confronted by a re-creation of what seems like a standard suburban home, except that small things seem slightly off. Upon closer inspection, portals to “another dimension” are accessed by walking through the fireplace or crawling into the washing machine, exposing visitors to experiences like standing inside a giant mastodon skeleton whose rib cage can be played like a xylophone and interacting with aliens. Appropriate for all ages, it’s a haunted house meets art installation, and it’s as cutting edge and avant-garde as anything to be found in Berlin, Tokyo or New York.

Photo credit: Monica Meehan

No trip to Santa Fe can be considered complete without sampling the cuisine—a fusion of Spanish, Mediterranean, Pueblo, Native American and Cowboy Chuckwagon influences—including a taste of a green chili cheeseburger at Santa Fe Bite, where the burgers are cooked to order and the selection of local brews to wash it down is impressive. For traditional New Mexican cuisine, a favorite among the cognoscenti is The Shed, a rowdy, always-crowded eatery squeezed into a rabbit’s warren of rooms right off the plaza. However, for those in search of a more elevated dining experience, head to Eloisa. Owned by award-winning chef Rivera Sedlar and named after his grandmother, it’s located in the (otherwise unprepossessing) Drury Plaza Hotel. The ultra-contemporary restaurant offers a tasting menu known as the O’Keeffe Table: Sedlar’s great-aunt (Eloisa’s sister) was Georgia O’Keeffe’s personal chef at her legendary Ghost Ranch, and for $70 per person, Sedlar creates a multicourse feast based upon the artist’s life and work, served in a highly artistic and dramatic fashion such as caviar atop a cow’s skull.

Everything in Santa Fe takes place against the backdrop of the heart-stoppingly beautiful Sangre de Christo Mountains, and whether you want to spend your days shopping, people-watching, or just soaking it all in, the visuals are never short of arresting, which is undoubtedly why the city is such a hotbed of creativity. ◆

Canyon Road, visitcanyonroad.com; Eloisa, eloisasantafe.com; Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, okeeffemuseum.org; Meow Wolf, meowwolf.com; New Mexico Museum of History, nmhistorymuseum.org; Santa Fe Art Tours, santafearttours.com; Santa Fe Bite, santafebite.com; The Shed, sfshed.com; The Teahouse, teahousesantafe.com

Traveler’s Checks

  • – Located about an hour’s drive from Santa Fe is Abiquiu, where Georgia O’Keeffe’s famed Ghost Ranch is open to visitors. The area is also home to the ghost town of Santa Rosa
de Lima, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert and the Echo Amphitheatre.
  • – Only 45 minutes outside of town, Ski Santa Fe is a charming ski mountain that offers world-class schussing from November through March. A regular shuttle leaves from downtown, and full facilities make for an easy and and convenient day on the slopes.

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