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The 18 best things to do in Santa Fe if you love design

The oldest capital city in the U.S. has plenty of pretty to offer

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Though it may be small, the city of Santa Fe knows how to make an impression. Recognized as the oldest capital in the U.S., its sweet Spanish chapels, distinct adobe homes, and historic government buildings are all testaments to that rich history.

Perhaps most importantly for visitors is Santa Fe’s walkability: The city, which began as a Spanish settlement some 400 years ago, is brimming with museums, houses of worship, markets, and other attractions that visitors can get to on foot. Start at the Plaza, and work your way east along Canyon Road, which is sandwiched by the delightful Santa Fe River Park and the acequia madre. Maybe it’s the concentration of important museums, or maybe it’s all that history—the oldest church, and the oldest house in America are both found here—but Santa Fe has a way of inspiring creativity.

“Santa Fe is a place where one can experiment,” says Emily Doyle, who works for the prestigious Santa Fe Opera House, a grand open-air theater on the outskirts of town. Indeed, there’s innovation in abundance here: In addition to Canyon Road’s famous galleries, there are nightly summer concerts in the Plaza, as well as a mind-bending psychedelic haunted house, and a newly revamped arts district.

Here are a few of the best places for design lovers to explore in Santa Fe.

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1. Scottish Rite Masonic Center

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463 Paseo De Peralta
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 982-4414
Visit Website

Freemasons built this Alhambra-inspired, highly Instagrammable landmark in 1912, and it contains a spectacular 300-seat theater with original hand-painted scenic backdrops. These days, the society’s numbers have dwindled to around 700 members in the Santa Fe area, so to keep up with maintenance costs, the building—which has appeared in TV shows like Longmire and Waco—is offered up for weddings and private events. Hot tip: You can rent the Grand Ballroom for $2,300 per day.

2. Santa Fe Opera

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301 Opera Dr
Santa Fe, NM 87506
(800) 280-4654
Visit Website

The Santa Fe Opera House’s season only runs for eight weeks in July and August, but during that time, the stark modern theater, which sits high on a ridge seven miles north of Santa Fe Plaza, hosts five different productions. This summer marks the worldwide premiere of The Thirteenth Child, a new work by Danish composer Poul Ruders. Nature, of course, is part of the show: The theater is open on three sides, making sunsets, twinkling stars, and the occasional lightning storm visible to the audience.

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3. Violet Crown Santa Fe

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1606 Alcaldesa St
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 216-5678
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It’s worth spending an afternoon walking around Santa Fe’s gritty Railyard District but, come evening, you’ll want to end up at the Violet Crown Cinema. Fronted by a dramatic steel cube, the 11-screen theater, which shows indie films and documentaries, blends in with the warehouses in the surrounding neighborhood. Inside, there’s a restaurant and a bar with New Mexican beer on tap.

4. Ten Thousand Waves

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21 Ten Thousand Waves Way
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 982-9304
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Many people come to the Southwest to relax, and this earthy Japanese spa a few miles outside of town has plenty of healing properties. It’s renowned for its soaking tubs heated to 108 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as its immersive massage treatments. If you fancy a longer stay, the ryokan-style suites (with mountain-facing balconies) start at $255. But don’t let the high price tag turn you off: You can also snag a day-pass to the communal hot tubs for just $28.

5. Site Santa Fe

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1606 Paseo De Peralta
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 989-1199
Visit Website

Though it’s modest in size, Site Santa Fe, a contemporary art space with a sleek, arrow-like facade, packs a punch. Thought-provoking exhibits—like Nina Elder’s new geology-focused installation, What Endures—rotate frequently, so it’s worth stopping in even if you’ve recently visited Santa Fe. Admission is free on Fridays and Saturday mornings.

6. Meow Wolf

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1352 Rufina Cir
Santa Fe, NM 87507
(505) 395-6369
Visit Website

If neither traditional nor contemporary art do it for you, try the psychedelic neon tree tunnels and inter-dimensional portals at this interactive “art playhouse.” After drawing 400,000 visitors in its first year, Meow Wolf quickly established itself as one of the top recreational spots in wider Santa Fe (new locations are set to open in Vegas and Denver in 2020), surely making its main benefactor, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, happy with his investment.

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7. Palace of the Governors

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105 W Palace Ave
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 476-5100
Visit Website

Get a glimpse of Santa Fe’s colonial past at this 17th-century structure, which is generally considered one of the nation’s oldest government buildings. Of particular interest is the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, named after a Franciscan Friar priest who in 1954 published a comprehensive genealogy tracing the roots of Hispano (descended from Spanish settlers) families in northern New Mexico.  

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8. The Inn of the Five Graces

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150 E De Vargas St
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 992-0957
Visit Website

If all of New Mexico’s lush, hyper-saturated aesthetic could be compressed into a single hotel, this would be it. The 24 individually designed suites look straight out of a sultan’s palace, with Kiva fireplaces and richly hand-tiled bathrooms so colorful they appear almost cartoonish. This being Santa Fe, there’s plenty of history in these walls: At the entrance to each hotel room, you’ll still find the original apartment numbers from a hundred years ago.

9. Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

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131 Cathedral Pl
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 982-5619
Visit Website

There’s no shortage of drop-dead gorgeous churches in northern New Mexico, but this Romanesque Revival basilica, built of yellow limestone and flanked by two immense bell towers, takes the cake. The dazzling rose window in front, as well as the twelve apostles rendered in stained glass, are all imported from Clermont-Ferrand, France—a quaint reminder that Santa Fe’s trans-Atlantic roots run deep.

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10. San Miguel Chapel

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401 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 983-3974
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While you’re still in a pious mood, be sure to check out the compact but charming San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in the continental U.S. Encompassed by the historic district of Barrio de Analco, just a few blocks from the Santa Fe Plaza, this chapel makes a wonderful excuse to stroll around the neighborhood admiring traditional adobe family homes, many of which were destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt in 1680.

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11. Oldest House Museum

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2703, 215 E De Vargas St
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 988-2488
Visit Website

Opposite the San Miguel Chapel, you’ll find what many believe is the oldest house in America, hence its name. Don’t be put off by the ground-level souvenir shop: The adobe walls and traditional wooden ceiling beams (also known as vigas) help set the scene for what must have been a very cozy crib back in the 18th century.

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12. El Rancho de las Golondrinas

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334 Los Pinos Rd
Santa Fe, NM 87507
(505) 471-2261
Visit Website

Hanging out with mariachis and cowboys is part of the routine at this living history museum, which was originally a paraje, or rest stop, along the Camino Real. Spread over 200 acres in a rural farming valley south of Santa Fe, the ranch offers an up-close look at the heritage and culture of 18th-century New Mexico, with hide-tanning and blacksmithing demonstrations. At the very least, the spartan adobe shacks will make you extra glad to return to your hotel or Airbnb at the end of the day.

13. Shiprock Santa Fe

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53 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 982-8478
Visit Website

The elegant displays at this second-floor shop overlooking Santa Fe Plaza are a cut above the usual art gallery bric-a-brac. Sure, there are the usual Navajo rugs and colorful jewelry, but proprietor Jed Foutz, a fifth-generation trading post owner, has an eye for the best kinds of souvenirs. Take your time wandering through the shop’s five rooms, all of which retain their original 19th-century vaulted ceilings and hardwood floors.

14. International Folk Art Market

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620 Cerrillos Rd
Santa Fe, NM 87505
(505) 992-7600
Visit Website

If you can, be sure to time your visit to this three-day folk art festival, which takes over Museum Hill, a 10-minute drive from the Plaza. No other folk art festival in the world is as large, or as rewarding—90 percent of the earnings go back to the artists, who hail from over 60 countries. All manner of hand-made objects are on display, from toys to jewelry to traditional clothing to dishware. As one writer put it, “Every stall brings a story.”

15. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

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217 Johnson St
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 946-1000
Visit Website

Visiting Santa Fe without spending an hour or two honoring the woman who immortalized New Mexico’s stark, arid landscapes is like vacationing in the Caribbean and avoiding the beach. Sure, you could. But why? There are nine galleries inside this iconic museum, divided into different phases of O’Keeffe’s life, like “Abstract Nature,” “My New Yorks”, and “O’Keeffe’s New Mexico.” There’s a shop too, hawking calendars, Taschen coffee table books, and pewter cow skull paperweights.

16. Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe

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198 NM-592
Santa Fe, NM 87506
(505) 946-5700
Visit Website

The location of this 57-acre contemporary resort, which fits snugly into the canyon, 20 minutes north of the city, is what makes it so desirable (the luxury casitas don’t hurt, either). For the full panorama, show up for the daily guided hike at 7 a.m. From the trail, the views stretch as far west as Pedernal, the flat-topped volcanic mountain that frequently appeared in O’Keeffe’s paintings, which is also the spot where her ashes were sprinkled.

17. Bandelier National Monument

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NM-4
Los Alamos, NM 87544
(303) 969-2500
Visit Website

Volcanic explosions in this region millions of years ago resulted in a porous rock that allowed Native Americans to build remarkable cliff dwellings, for which the site is still famous. In all, you’ll want to budget five hours to get out here and spend time exploring the painted caves and ancestral pueblo homes—all of which had a significant influence over the Santa Fe architecture we know and love today.

18. El Zaguán

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545 Canyon Rd #2
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 983-2567
Visit Website

This Spanish pueblo-style home, built by a Santa Fe Trail merchant in the center of Canyon Road, is a wonderful example of how Santa Fe’s unique historical architecture can be put to recreational use in the 21st century. The building has private apartments, but its Victorian gardens around the back (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday) that will stop you in your tracks. Criss-crossed with neat dirt paths and enshrouded in poppies, roses, irises, and phloxes, it’s a heavenly place to stop and be seduced by the city.

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1. Scottish Rite Masonic Center

463 Paseo De Peralta, Santa Fe, NM 87501

Freemasons built this Alhambra-inspired, highly Instagrammable landmark in 1912, and it contains a spectacular 300-seat theater with original hand-painted scenic backdrops. These days, the society’s numbers have dwindled to around 700 members in the Santa Fe area, so to keep up with maintenance costs, the building—which has appeared in TV shows like Longmire and Waco—is offered up for weddings and private events. Hot tip: You can rent the Grand Ballroom for $2,300 per day.

463 Paseo De Peralta
Santa Fe, NM 87501

2. Santa Fe Opera

301 Opera Dr, Santa Fe, NM 87506
Shutterstock

The Santa Fe Opera House’s season only runs for eight weeks in July and August, but during that time, the stark modern theater, which sits high on a ridge seven miles north of Santa Fe Plaza, hosts five different productions. This summer marks the worldwide premiere of The Thirteenth Child, a new work by Danish composer Poul Ruders. Nature, of course, is part of the show: The theater is open on three sides, making sunsets, twinkling stars, and the occasional lightning storm visible to the audience.

301 Opera Dr
Santa Fe, NM 87506

3. Violet Crown Santa Fe

1606 Alcaldesa St, Santa Fe, NM 87501

It’s worth spending an afternoon walking around Santa Fe’s gritty Railyard District but, come evening, you’ll want to end up at the Violet Crown Cinema. Fronted by a dramatic steel cube, the 11-screen theater, which shows indie films and documentaries, blends in with the warehouses in the surrounding neighborhood. Inside, there’s a restaurant and a bar with New Mexican beer on tap.

1606 Alcaldesa St
Santa Fe, NM 87501

4. Ten Thousand Waves

21 Ten Thousand Waves Way, Santa Fe, NM 87501

Many people come to the Southwest to relax, and this earthy Japanese spa a few miles outside of town has plenty of healing properties. It’s renowned for its soaking tubs heated to 108 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as its immersive massage treatments. If you fancy a longer stay, the ryokan-style suites (with mountain-facing balconies) start at $255. But don’t let the high price tag turn you off: You can also snag a day-pass to the communal hot tubs for just $28.

21 Ten Thousand Waves Way
Santa Fe, NM 87501

5. Site Santa Fe

1606 Paseo De Peralta, Santa Fe, NM 87501

Though it’s modest in size, Site Santa Fe, a contemporary art space with a sleek, arrow-like facade, packs a punch. Thought-provoking exhibits—like Nina Elder’s new geology-focused installation, What Endures—rotate frequently, so it’s worth stopping in even if you’ve recently visited Santa Fe. Admission is free on Fridays and Saturday mornings.

1606 Paseo De Peralta
Santa Fe, NM 87501

6. Meow Wolf

1352 Rufina Cir, Santa Fe, NM 87507
Shutterstock

If neither traditional nor contemporary art do it for you, try the psychedelic neon tree tunnels and inter-dimensional portals at this interactive “art playhouse.” After drawing 400,000 visitors in its first year, Meow Wolf quickly established itself as one of the top recreational spots in wider Santa Fe (new locations are set to open in Vegas and Denver in 2020), surely making its main benefactor, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, happy with his investment.

1352 Rufina Cir
Santa Fe, NM 87507

7. Palace of the Governors

105 W Palace Ave, Santa Fe, NM 87501
Shutterstock

Get a glimpse of Santa Fe’s colonial past at this 17th-century structure, which is generally considered one of the nation’s oldest government buildings. Of particular interest is the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, named after a Franciscan Friar priest who in 1954 published a comprehensive genealogy tracing the roots of Hispano (descended from Spanish settlers) families in northern New Mexico.  

105 W Palace Ave
Santa Fe, NM 87501

8. The Inn of the Five Graces

150 E De Vargas St, Santa Fe, NM 87501

If all of New Mexico’s lush, hyper-saturated aesthetic could be compressed into a single hotel, this would be it. The 24 individually designed suites look straight out of a sultan’s palace, with Kiva fireplaces and richly hand-tiled bathrooms so colorful they appear almost cartoonish. This being Santa Fe, there’s plenty of history in these walls: At the entrance to each hotel room, you’ll still find the original apartment numbers from a hundred years ago.

150 E De Vargas St
Santa Fe, NM 87501

9. Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

131 Cathedral Pl, Santa Fe, NM 87501
Shutterstock

There’s no shortage of drop-dead gorgeous churches in northern New Mexico, but this Romanesque Revival basilica, built of yellow limestone and flanked by two immense bell towers, takes the cake. The dazzling rose window in front, as well as the twelve apostles rendered in stained glass, are all imported from Clermont-Ferrand, France—a quaint reminder that Santa Fe’s trans-Atlantic roots run deep.

131 Cathedral Pl
Santa Fe, NM 87501

10. San Miguel Chapel

401 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87501
Shutterstock

While you’re still in a pious mood, be sure to check out the compact but charming San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in the continental U.S. Encompassed by the historic district of Barrio de Analco, just a few blocks from the Santa Fe Plaza, this chapel makes a wonderful excuse to stroll around the neighborhood admiring traditional adobe family homes, many of which were destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt in 1680.

401 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM 87501

11. Oldest House Museum

2703, 215 E De Vargas St, Santa Fe, NM 87501
Shutterstock

Opposite the San Miguel Chapel, you’ll find what many believe is the oldest house in America, hence its name. Don’t be put off by the ground-level souvenir shop: The adobe walls and traditional wooden ceiling beams (also known as vigas) help set the scene for what must have been a very cozy crib back in the 18th century.

2703, 215 E De Vargas St
Santa Fe, NM 87501

12. El Rancho de las Golondrinas

334 Los Pinos Rd, Santa Fe, NM 87507

Hanging out with mariachis and cowboys is part of the routine at this living history museum, which was originally a paraje, or rest stop, along the Camino Real. Spread over 200 acres in a rural farming valley south of Santa Fe, the ranch offers an up-close look at the heritage and culture of 18th-century New Mexico, with hide-tanning and blacksmithing demonstrations. At the very least, the spartan adobe shacks will make you extra glad to return to your hotel or Airbnb at the end of the day.

334 Los Pinos Rd
Santa Fe, NM 87507

13. Shiprock Santa Fe

53 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87501

The elegant displays at this second-floor shop overlooking Santa Fe Plaza are a cut above the usual art gallery bric-a-brac. Sure, there are the usual Navajo rugs and colorful jewelry, but proprietor Jed Foutz, a fifth-generation trading post owner, has an eye for the best kinds of souvenirs. Take your time wandering through the shop’s five rooms, all of which retain their original 19th-century vaulted ceilings and hardwood floors.

53 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM 87501

14. International Folk Art Market

620 Cerrillos Rd, Santa Fe, NM 87505

If you can, be sure to time your visit to this three-day folk art festival, which takes over Museum Hill, a 10-minute drive from the Plaza. No other folk art festival in the world is as large, or as rewarding—90 percent of the earnings go back to the artists, who hail from over 60 countries. All manner of hand-made objects are on display, from toys to jewelry to traditional clothing to dishware. As one writer put it, “Every stall brings a story.”

620 Cerrillos Rd
Santa Fe, NM 87505

15. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

217 Johnson St, Santa Fe, NM 87501

Visiting Santa Fe without spending an hour or two honoring the woman who immortalized New Mexico’s stark, arid landscapes is like vacationing in the Caribbean and avoiding the beach. Sure, you could. But why? There are nine galleries inside this iconic museum, divided into different phases of O’Keeffe’s life, like “Abstract Nature,” “My New Yorks”, and “O’Keeffe’s New Mexico.” There’s a shop too, hawking calendars, Taschen coffee table books, and pewter cow skull paperweights.

217 Johnson St
Santa Fe, NM 87501

16. Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe

198 NM-592, Santa Fe, NM 87506

The location of this 57-acre contemporary resort, which fits snugly into the canyon, 20 minutes north of the city, is what makes it so desirable (the luxury casitas don’t hurt, either). For the full panorama, show up for the daily guided hike at 7 a.m. From the trail, the views stretch as far west as Pedernal, the flat-topped volcanic mountain that frequently appeared in O’Keeffe’s paintings, which is also the spot where her ashes were sprinkled.

198 NM-592
Santa Fe, NM 87506

17. Bandelier National Monument

NM-4, Los Alamos, NM 87544

Volcanic explosions in this region millions of years ago resulted in a porous rock that allowed Native Americans to build remarkable cliff dwellings, for which the site is still famous. In all, you’ll want to budget five hours to get out here and spend time exploring the painted caves and ancestral pueblo homes—all of which had a significant influence over the Santa Fe architecture we know and love today.

NM-4
Los Alamos, NM 87544

18. El Zaguán

545 Canyon Rd #2, Santa Fe, NM 87501

This Spanish pueblo-style home, built by a Santa Fe Trail merchant in the center of Canyon Road, is a wonderful example of how Santa Fe’s unique historical architecture can be put to recreational use in the 21st century. The building has private apartments, but its Victorian gardens around the back (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday) that will stop you in your tracks. Criss-crossed with neat dirt paths and enshrouded in poppies, roses, irises, and phloxes, it’s a heavenly place to stop and be seduced by the city.

545 Canyon Rd #2
Santa Fe, NM 87501