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Chasing Art, History & Chocolate in Santa Fe – Things to Do & Travel Guide

Last updated on February 25, 2024

Santa Fe’s been on my bucket list for a long time. With old adobe structures, a prevalent Native heritage, and a thriving art scene, it drew me in as a different place to explore within my own homeland. I finally got to go for a few days and discover what this cute town has to offer!

Santa Fe

A Brief History of Santa Fe

Santa Fe’s history goes way back 1,000 years, to when many Indian pueblos lived in the area. From my understanding, there were roughly nine pueblos living in this area that shared the Tewa language, which is a branch of the Tanoan language. They started inhabiting this particular part of New Mexico around the 10th century.

That was of course severely disrupted in the mid-late 16th century when colonizers came to surrounding areas to claim land for the Spanish crown. This area was called “New Mexico” but it expanded much farther than the current state does today. Conquistador Don Pedro de Pertalta founded Santa Fe in 1607 and it became the capital of New Mexico only a few years later. You’ll notice below that 1610 is the year many important structures were built, like the Palace of the Governors. Santa Fe is said to be the oldest capital city in the USA.

The Pueblo people revolted and actually reclaimed Santa Fe, which they had control of from 1680-1692, before it was reconquered by the Spanish. As New Mexico shifted identity in the next few centuries, from becoming a part of an independent Mexico to becoming a state in 1912, Santa Fe shifted as well but also remained very much the same. Many of its buildings today are said to be some of the oldest in the United States and Santa Fe is one of the country’s gems frozen in time.

Things to Do in Santa Fe

Santa Fe Santa Fe

The city of Santa Fe has quite a few landmarks to see. Off of Santa Fe Plaza is one of the most important buildings, the Palace of the Governors. It was built in 1610 and even though the word “Palace” makes it seem like a residential building, it was actually always used as a government office. The Palace can only be accessed through the New Mexico History Museum, which has a political history of New Mexico from the colonial era to present day.

Santa Fe

Santa Fe

Honestly, the Palace was underwhelming. It’s quite bare and not decorated to reflect how it would’ve looked in its heyday. I don’t think admission is not really worth it, but I was so excited to see the Palace and it was one of the blandest parts of the city.

Santa Fe Santa Fe

Santa Fe Santa Fe

Some of the other most popular landmarks are the Cathedral of St Francis, which was closed when I visited, and the Loretto Chapel, which cost money to enter so I didn’t bother. I can’t speak from experience but online, the two looked a bit bland.

Santa Fe

Santa Fe Santa Fe

Santa Fe

However I went to San Miguel Chapel, which was built in 1610 and is said to be the oldest church in the USA. It is obviously old and very stunning. The structure is exactly what I think of when I think of old New Mexican architecture, and it’s just the charm I was looking for when I came to Santa Fe. It’s free to enter, and it’s definitely a must-see.

Santa Fe Santa Fe

Santa Fe

While you’re there, you can head right next door to the De Vargas Street House which is said to be the oldest house in the United States. Their material goes on about how the structure existed in the late 16th century and was changed over time (on their website they say it was established in the 1200s), but it doesn’t provide much info other than a claim. But it is probably quite old and still a cool place to check out. It’s small and free so it doesn’t hurt to visit.

Santa Fe Santa Fe

Santa Fe

I was also drawn to Santa Fe because they have a ton of museums. One I visited was the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which is obviously one of former New Mexico resident Georgia O’Keeffe. (Note that her home studio is a museum as well but is outside the city and not in Santa Fe itself.) The museum that’s in the city has a display of her works and lots of descriptions about her life as it interacted with her art. They also had an exhibit on the woman herself, with many of her personal affects to help bring the artist to life.

I’m personally not a fan of O’Keeffe’s artwork but I really appreciated learning about her life and what she was like as a person, and how that made its way into her art. Take note that timed entry is required.

Santa Fe

Santa Fe Santa Fe

Santa Fe

There is also the New Mexico Museum of Art which is housed in a beautiful building. It looks like an ancient building but is actually a Pueblo Revival building built in 1915 – just beautifully done. A lot of the artwork there is of local artists from the 20th century, and they have a lot of exhibit space. When I was there, they had exhibits on glass and wood. I didn’t find the artwork to be particularly compelling but as I said, the building is absolutely stunning and their courtyard is so lovely. It was one of the prettiest places I visited during my time in Santa Fe. They also opened a new building shortly after I visited.

Santa Fe Santa Fe

Santa Fe

I didn’t originally plan on visiting the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts but I loved the exterior walkway so much that I just had to visit. The work that they had on display was mostly of one artist named Jean LaMarr but I actually really enjoyed it. They also had a collection of jewellery and a long video (like, an hour and a half) on Native American struggles with representation. It was very educational.

(As an aside, when I got on TikTok I was introduced more into the struggles of American Indians. Obviously we know about the farther past but haven’t learned much about the recent past, like the abuse and mass death at Indian schools that has gone on in recent decades. Also the United States government has not upheld their end of many treaties. It’s eye-opening to understand what these groups still face today, and you can learn more about it here. It also helps put contemporary Native art into perspective.)

Santa Fe Santa Fe

If you like art galleries then add a few days to your stay because there are so many art galleries to visit in Santa Fe! This place is really like an artistic haven for people of many different backgrounds. I personally don’t visit many art galleries but I found a few artists I really liked. And I’m not joking – there are so many in Santa Fe that you will need a lot of extra time to see them all.

Santa Fe

On the topic of museums but moving over to a different section of town, Museum Hill has several great museums. This area is about an hour walk from central Santa Fe, or a short drive. The walk is uphill, though it’s not very steep. If you’re looking to get out into nature a bit, especially if you don’t have a car to drive to some of New Mexico’s stunning hikes, Museum Hill is a decent option.

I first went to the Museum of International Folk Art, which was a pleasant surprise for me. They have a huge room that’s a not reminiscent of a warehouse, absolutely filled to the brim with different types of folk art from around the globe. You’ll need to grab a guide to understand what you’re looking at since there are no placards. It’s cute but I honestly thought their exhibits were way cooler and a lot easier to understand since they were all themed and went more in-depth to each culture. When I visited, they had exhibits on Alaskan Native art, Mexico City-area folk art, and Japanese ghost/monster art. Their exhibits were so interactive, and their Japanese exhibit even had a haunted house inside! I really enjoyed it.

Santa Fe

Santa Fe

Next door is the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture which houses pottery over 1000 years old, and a long-term exhibit displaying a huge array of Native artefacts. Many are from the past but a lot are from more modern times. I thought it was quite educational.

I also ventured to the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian but was a bit disappointed. There’s one room of exhibits and then a collection of jewellery, which is quite beautiful. It was OK but like a small version of the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (which was definitely better). I feel that if you’re short on time and/or money then it’s skippable. It’s just so small and doesn’t have anything unique to offer.

The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art was closed when I visited.

Kakawa Chocolate House, Santa Fe Kakawa Chocolate House, Santa Fe

I was so excited to visit Kakawa Chocolate House, which currently has three locations in Santa Fe and one in Salem, MA. I like chocolate but what’s special about Kakawa is they’re historically inspired chocolate, which is an obvious go-to in my book. Some of their recipes are derived from more ancient chocolate of the Native Americans, such as the Aztecs, and some are from more recent times like that pre-revolutionary France and Thomas Jefferson.

Unfortunately when I visited they were “sold out” of flights, which is what I was so looking forward to trying. However they did do free samples and the customer service was beyond great. I got some hot chocolate and truffles. Everything I’ve tried from there so far was different. My palette isn’t super refined but I want to say this chocolate is not as sweet. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed taking my taste buds back in time and if I go back, I’d like to try some other flavors as well.

Santa Fe

Santa Fe

There is a ton of shopping in Santa Fe. It is quite touristy but a lot of the shops are focused on interior design, jewellery, peppers, etc. which I don’t consider to be a type of unattractive tourism. The shops sell useful, pretty things. I was a bit weary looking in a lot of stores because they advertise Native jewellery and crafts but don’t specify if it is actually Native made and the proceeds go to support the local Pueblos and tribes. If you’re not sure, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Santa Fe Fiesta

Be sure to check out the Santa Fe Events Calendar because they have a lot of major events that are fun. I was there during Fiesta de Santa Fe and there was nice entertainment, delicious food, and a ton of local vendors selling their handmade crafts. It was such a lovely time to visit. The Santa Fe Indian Market is said to be one of the biggest events of the year.

Also be sure to get a Biscochito cookie which is the New Mexico state cookie. It’s like a shortbread but with more spices, but not so much that it’s spicy. They also come in many different flavors. They’re quite good so worth having a bite while you’re in New Mexico.

Santa Fe Santa Fe

Santa Fe Santa Fe

Santa Fe is on the smaller side and is quite compact, so it’s easy to see what you want within a few days. It’s filled with unique sculpture and art is so clearly a large part of the city’s fabric. Even though it leans on the touristy side, its personality and history is quite easily distinguished.

Santa Fe Without a Car (via Public Transit)

Lots of places in the USA are unfortunately difficult to get around without your own ride, but Santa Fe is nice and compact, so it’s quite easy to get around. They also have inexpensive bus services.

Flying into Albuquerque: Santa Fe airport is tiny, tiny, tiny, so flying in through Albuquerque may save you a lot of money and potentially a layover. From the Albuquerque airport, you can take a bus to the city center and then a train to Santa Fe’s city center. It’s a bit time consuming but possible. I haven’t been to quirky Albuquerque myself yet, but it looks like a city also worth your time.

Flying into Santa Fe: The bus route does not go all the way to the airport (ugh) but you can get a taxi or an Uber at the airport. Uber is much cheaper. You can also take an Uber/taxi to Cerrillos @ Cielo Court to save money and then take the bus from there.

Bus Services: Santa Fe has nice bus services you can use, and very cheap! $1 for a ride or $2 for a day pass. I like to use Apple Maps to track the bus routes and timetable but you can also find them online. Note that the busses don’t run on holidays.

A note on the bus: Some bus services, like the M route to Museum Hill, are on-demand only. You will need to call 505-955-2001 to schedule a ride. The bus rides are included in your day pass, or cost $1 each, so they are very economical – but you might end up waiting a long time for your bus. Mine took 40 minutes to arrive.

Day Trips: I usually book day trips via places like Viator and GetYourGuide but I didn’t find any day trips out of Santa Fe to places like Chaco Canyon, Taos, etc. There are transit systems to Albuquerque and Taos but those places looked a lot more spread out (i.e. not walkable), so I didn’t bother going. I did find one single tour to Chaco Canyon that cost over $300 so that was out for me. I missed out on seeing a lot of New Mexico’s beauty and splendors this trip, so it’s something to keep in mind.

Getting around Santa Fe via public transit is very doable. Some bus stops were shut down, and the on-demand busses were a bit of a pain, but it was nice to visit someplace and not have to spend a fortune on Uber.

A Note for My Ladies…

I packed shorts and sleeveless shirts for the trip because it was hot and that’s how I always dress in summer at home. It’s never a big deal. I got a lot of stares and a lot of cat-calling, and a lot of men driving up to me and asking if I wanted a ride. I wore knee length shorts and a t-shirt my last day and didn’t get any unwanted attention. I hate that I can’t wear what I want in my own country – a place I considered a “safe space” for shorts – but I just wanted to tell you ladies about what happened so you can be prepared. It was something I definitely didn’t expect.

The Final Word

I enjoyed my trip to Santa Fe and am glad I finally got to see this lovely town. It’s definitely one of the more unique places to visit in the USA and a nice addition to your bucket list.

Santa Fe

Have you been to Santa Fe? What did you think?

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Santa Fe Santa Fe


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About the Author
My name's Lilly and I'm a Baltimore-based travel blogger with a focus on art and history. I work full time and manage to get in several trips a year. Learn more about me.

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