When Tiffany and I started planning out our trip across the country, we had no idea what New Mexico had to offer, aside from alien crash sites and Breaking Bad filming locations. While we didn’t have a ton of time to spend in the Land of Enchantment, we discovered more than enough places to go and things to see to keep us entertained, without being abducted or cooking any meth.
Our few days in Santa Fe were particularly enjoyable. From some really great food to an absolutely mind-bending experience in an old bowling alley, Santa Fe captured our imagination and quickly made our list of places we’d like to visit again. With that thought in mind, we put together a list of the best things to do in Santa Fe.
Best Things To Do in Santa Fe — #7: Visit the Loretto Chapel and see the Miraculous Staircase
I will fully admit to being skeptical about this. After seeing the San Miguel Chapel and the St. Francis Cathedral, just about the last thing I wanted to do was visit another church. But this one harbors a truly beautiful work of art, even if its otherworldly origin story (and subsequent movie version) is actually a load of malarkey.
One of our friends who knows Santa Fe well told Tiffany and I we had to go see the “floating staircase” at the Loretto Chapel. With my childish mind, I imagined a staircase built into the side of a wall that didn’t go anywhere. Instead, we saw a very pretty piece of woodwork that has some interesting, yet completely unverified, claims attached to it.
The staircase spirals from the floor to the choir loft, making two full turns along the way. Many suggest it was built without the use of nails, any support system, and that the carpenter was somehow divinely inspired. While I tend to side with the staircase truthers who say it’s just another staircase, it’s still a very pretty piece of carpentry.
There’s a nominal fee to enter, as the site is now run as a for-profit museum. It’s up to you whether or not it’s worth the few dollars to enter and see the “miraculous” staircase at Loretto, but I enjoyed seeing it, even if I was technically bilked out of some cash.
Best Things To Do in Santa Fe — #6: The de Vargas Street House and San Miguel Chapel
Located right next door to each other near downtown Santa Fe, the de Vargas Street House and San Miguel Chapel represent two of the oldest-known structures in the continental United States. An easy walk from the downtown Plaza gets you to the house and the mission. Once there, you can explore both historic sites in quick succession.
A bit of a caveat here: the De Vargas Street House claims to be the “oldest” house in Santa Fe, and possibly the United States, but this assertion seems to be dubious at best. I’m going to say that it’s super old, but probably not the oldest.
You heard that here first (even though I linked somewhere else). This is why I get paid the big bucks.
The San Miguel Chapel, however, truly is the oldest church site in the country, dating back to 1610. This is pretty crazy when you think about it. This church was standing for more than 80 years before the Salem Witch Trials began, more than 150 years before the United States became a country, and for more than 300 years before New Mexico was granted statehood.
From the outside, both sites simply feel old. The adobe exteriors give off an aged appearance and the interiors also provide evidence of the buildings’ long lifespans. However, only the de Vargas Street House is free to enter. There’s a small charge to visit the San Miguel Mission, which I decided was not worth the money.
Best Things To Do in Santa Fe — #5: Visit the Plaza
In the heart of downtown Santa Fe lies the Plaza. Like any good city square, it’s the hub of activity for many local businesses, art festivals, and concerts. What makes Santa Fe’s so unique, however, is its historical significance. Listed on the US National Register of Historic Places, the Santa Fe Plaza is home to the Palace of the Governors, the oldest continually occupied public building in the country.
While you’re exploring the Plaza, check out the Five and Dime General Store on E. San Francisco St. It’s full of all the crazy crap people buy on vacations that makes you shake your head in disgust. It’s also home to the Frito pie, which is chili and cheese poured into an open bag of Fritos. We were primed to try one out, until our new friend Carlos from a nearby gas station told us not to. He said that they’ve gone seriously downhill and weren’t worth trying any longer.
I don’t know why, but I trusted him implicitly.
There’s pretty much something for everyone down at the Plaza. Restaurants of all kinds abound. High-end boutiques rub elbows with kitschy gift shops. Historical buildings dot the roadways in each direction. Plenty to eat, plenty to see, and plenty to buy.
Just a block or so off the main square of the Plaza sits the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. With carved bronze doors and a beautiful sanctuary, it’s worth popping your head in, even if you’re not Catholic. Just remember to take off your hat (as I was kindly reminded as soon as I stepped inside.)
As for places to eat near the Plaza, you might as well check out:
Best Things To Do in Santa Fe — #4: Eat at The Shed
I’m not going to go too in-depth, as we have an entire post dedicated to our love of the Shed.
But for those who haven’t read that one, here’s the nitty gritty. The Shed is close to the Plaza, has great Mexican food, and even better margaritas. If you’re interested in having some great grub from a local restaurant, head to the Shed.
Established in 1953, it’s been serving Santa Fe awesome food ever since. Check out our full post on the Shed to see why it’s one of our favorite places.
Best Things To Do in Santa Fe — #3: Take a Stroll Down Canyon Road
In case you weren’t aware, Santa Fe is an artists’ haven, and Canyon Road is the epicenter. In just over a half of a mile, Canyon Road boasts over 100 shops and boutiques featuring the work of local artists. From contemporary paintings to bronze sculptures and everything in between, this area of town is culturally significant and wildly diverse.
It’s not uncommon to find giant, cartoon-like sculptures in one yard and a life-size bison in the next. Every step promises something new and different from an artistic perspective. If there wasn’t several inches of snow on the ground and we weren’t getting sprayed by slush every time a car drove by, I am certain we would have spent much more time hopping in and out of the shops on Canyon Road.
Of course, now that we live in a van, we don’t have a lot of room for artwork. But that’s a different story altogether.
Best Things To Do in Santa Fe — #2: Head Over to Bandelier National Monument
Okay, so this might be cheating. Bandelier National Monument isn’t in Santa Fe. But it’s super close. And definitely worth the drive. Located less than 50 miles from the Plaza in Santa Fe, Bandelier is an accessible, and awesome, series of petroglyphs, cliff dwellings (cavates), and Ancestral Pueblo home sites.
On our trip through Colorado, we ended up getting snowed out of our drive toward Mesa Verde National Park. We also heard that much of park was closed anyway, due to falling rock concerns.
Instead, we were delighted to learn about Bandelier National Monument, which is basically Mesa Verde Light. We visited Bandelier on a nice, sunny late February day, which was absolutely perfect. The crowds were minimal, we were able to climb some of the ladders into the cavates, and we really enjoyed hiking around the park.
Be warned, however, that crowds increase substantially in the summer. In fact, from May through October, visitors to Frijoles Canyon (where the good stuff is) are required to take a shuttle from the visitors center.
Our advice would be to come early or come late in the year. It’s much more enjoyable when you don’t have to wait forever to climb into one of the cliff dwellings. (Even though we did have to endure a very impatient kid behind us named Micah that kept trying to jump ahead in line. I only know his name because he kept getting reprimanded by his sister. Quite loudly.)
Best Things To Do in Santa Fe — #1: Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return
We simply cannot say this enough. Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return is awesome. Yes, we did a full blog post about this just the other day. And yes, the House of Eternal Return is an art exhibition that needs to be experienced rather than read about, but it is absolutely our number one thing to do in Santa Fe.
This surreal, interactive, immersive artistic explosion will melt your mind in all the good ways. It’s a kick to the teeth for your senses, with enough soft spots and melting couches to sit back and try to take it all in.
Read our full write-up of our experience at Meow Wolf to get a better description of just wait awaits you in that renovated bowling alley.
Best Things To Do in Santa Fe: Final Thoughts
Granted, we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked in Santa Fe, so we will obviously be missing some things on this list. Let us know in the comments what your favorite things in Santa Fe are!