Nestled in New Mexico's sangre de Cristo mountain range is Santa Fe (Spanish for Holy Faith), a small city of 70,000 that has been in existence since Spanish settlers took root in 1610. The oldest capital city in the U.S. as well as the location of the nation's oldest house and oldest church structure, the San Miguel Mission Santa Fe is home to traditions that stem from its colonial history. These emerge with great fanfare during the annual Santa Fe Fiesta. The festival celebrates its 300th anniversary this year, from Sept. 6 to 9. Events range from the picking of the fiesta's queen and king and the evening candlelight parade a somber religious procession that begins in the center of town and winds up a hill to the Cross of the Martyrs to the burning of a 15-m tall papier-mâché puppet called Zozobra, or Old Man Gloom.
Native American culture is also very much in evidence (several of New Mexico's 19 surviving pueblos are located within day-trip distance north of Santa Fe), as is a longtime enclave of artists and photographers. Many come, lured by the indigo blue skies, bright desert light and otherworldly sunsets, and never leave. Let that be a warning to you to book some extra days if you're planning to swing by. Here are five great reasons why you should, at fiesta time or otherwise.
1. The Plaza
This historic square is the heart of the city, with a 17th century building that was once a center of Spanish administration running along one side. Grandly named the Palace of Governors, but built of humble adobe, it is thought to be the oldest continuously occupied public building in the U.S. Today it forms part of the New Mexico History Museum (nmhistorymuseum.org) and features rooms appointed in period style, as well as changing exhibitions.
Pick up some jewelry and pottery from the Native American craft workers who set up shop in the long, covered arcade in front of the museum, then explore some of the plaza's surrounding blocks, which feature some of the city's loveliest historical sites. These include the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (Santa Fe's patron saint), the nearby Loretto Chapel and La Fonda on the Plaza hotel (lafondasantafe.com), where Willa Cather stayed in the 1920s while she wrote the literary classic Death Comes for the Archbishop.
2. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), one of the most influential female artists of the 20th century, helped give birth to American modernism. Her namesake museum (okeeffemuseum.org) houses over 3,000 of her works, including many inspired by New Mexico, where she spent over four decades of her life following the death of her storied photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz. On display are several earth-toned abstractions that echo the landscape as well as other paintings with subjects that are more recognizable, such as her famous flower and skull pieces. The museum also owns her rustic home in Abiquiu, located in northern New Mexico, which may be toured during certain parts of the year.
3. The Food
Red and green chilies thrive in the climate of New Mexico, so it's no surprise the local cuisine gives much more emphasis to chili than either traditional Mexican or Tex-Mex culinary styles. The most famous variety is the Hatch chili, which gets its own festival in Hatch, N.M.
The vegetables that are staples of regional pueblo pantries (squash, beans, chilies and corn) are very prominent in New Mexico cuisine. Among meat-based dishes, carne adovada, a traditional red-chili-pork stew, is universally loved. For authentic examples of local fare, visit the family-owned Café Castro on Cerrillos Road, tel: (1-505) 473 5800. Rancho de Chimayó (ranchodechimayo.com), a century-old restaurant located a half-hour north of Santa Fe in the historical village of Chimayo, serves superlative burritos, tamales and mixed platters.
4. Canyon Road
This 1.6-km stretch is famous for its restaurants, bars and art galleries. The fine-dining restaurant Geronimo (geronimorestaurant.com) is housed in an adobe structure built in 1756 and known for its elk tenderloin and grilled prawns. El Farol (elfarolsf.com) has burnished its roadhouse reputation in recent years. It's still known for live music, but these days tapas and fine wines are on the menu too. Artwise, check out the Frank Howell Gallery (frankhowellgallery.com), which specializes in Native American paintings, jewelry and sculpture. Red Dot Gallery (red-dot-gallery.com) stocks pieces by local art students working in everything from textiles to photography.
5. The Santa Fe Opera House
Tucked into the foothills 11 km north of town, the Santa Fe Opera House (santafeopera.org) lures music lovers with a striking, open-air design that offers a sweeping stage and views of the night sky. Such international opera stars as soprano Judith Blegen and bass Samuel Ramey spent parts of their early careers there. Although you've just missed the summer season, which runs in July and August, look out for other high-profile concerts. September fare includes Wilco and Bonnie Raitt.