A Walking Tour of Santa Fe
Image by Backroads Travel Santa Fe under Creative Commons License.

New Mexico, Santa Fe Guide (A): A Walking Tour of Santa Fe

Santa Fe is a walker’s town, and setting out on foot is the best way to find its hidden charms. The Plaza is the heart of Santa Fe, where locals meet and tourists explore the shops surrounding the grassy square. Santa Fe–La Villa Real de Santa Fe–was established in 1608, making it the oldest continuous capital in what is now the United States.
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Walk Route

Guide Name: A Walking Tour of Santa Fe
Guide Location: USA » Santa Fe
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 11
Tour Duration: 2.0 hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.3 km
Sight(s) featured in this guide: New Mexico State Capitol   San Miguel Chapel   The Oldest House   Loretto Chapel   La Fonda de Santa Fe   Palace of the Governors   New Mexico Museum of Art   Georgia O'Keeffe Museum   109 East Palace Avenue   Saint Francis Cathedral   Canyon Road  
Author: Steve Larese
Author Bio: Writer and photographer Steve Larese is editor of GuestLife New Mexico.
Author Website: http://stevelarese.com
1
New Mexico State Capitol

1) New Mexico State Capitol

The New Mexico State Capitol building isn’t just the state’s seat of government; it houses one of the state’s best contemporary art collections. Dedicated in 1966, it was built in the shape of New Mexico’s symbol, the zia, a sun symbol found at Zia Pueblo. Because of this, the capitol is often called the “roundhouse,” and is the only round capitol in the nation. Works acquired by the Capitol Art Foundation adorn walls on all four floors. And on the fourth floor, just outside of the governor’s office, is the Governors Gallery. Here, art shows from across the state rotate. Also, here’s a valuable Santa Fe tip. Parking in the City Different can be difficult and expensive. Do what the locals do and park in the free P.E.R.A. lot across the street from the state capitol building. Once parked, follow the signs to the Visitors Center, where you can gather maps, use the restroom and speak with the attendant about happenings occurring at the time of your visit. Our next stop is just a few steps away.
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San Miguel Chapel

2) San Miguel Chapel

San Miguel Mission, also called San Miguel Chapel, was constructed between 1610 and 1626 and is called the old extant church in the United States. Actually, the oldest church on U.S. territory is the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Puerto Rico, which was built in 1521 and became a part of the U.S. in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. San Miguel Chapel became a part of the U.S. 50 years earlier in 1848 when New Mexico Territory was taken by the United States after the Mexican-American War. At any rate, San Miguel is a wonderful example of Spanish missions that were built in New Mexico. Enslaved Native Americans, Tlaxcala Indians brought from Mexico in this case, were often forced to construct the churches. In 1680, the Native Americans in New Mexico finally had enough of Spanish domination and revolted. They destroyed the Spanish missions, including San Miguel, and chased the Spanish south to El Paso. The Spanish returned 12 years later and were allowed back after agreeing to treat the Native Americans better. San Miguel Mission was rebuilt in 1710 and has undergone several renovations and reinforcements since. It is made of adobe bricks covered in mud plaster, and wooded beams called vigas that support the roof. You may enter the building through a door on the south side, and admission is $2. Services conducted by the Christian Brothers, the owners of the chapel, are still held on Sundays.
Image by M.Bucka under Creative Commons License.
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The Oldest House

3) The Oldest House

Along East de Vargas Street just north of San Miguel Chapel, you'll find a two-story adobe structure called the Oldest House in the United States, or La Casa Vieja de Analco. This structure is believed to have been built atop the foundation of a 13th-century Pueblo Indian building by the later-coming Tlaxcaltecan Indians who arrived with the Spanish from Mexico. The people who lived in this former home probably helped build nearby San Miguel Chapel. During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Pueblo Indians forced the Tlaxalans and Spanish to retreat from New Mexico, and they occupied the building. Upon the Spanish return to Santa Fe in 1692, Spanish Territorial Governor Chacon Medina Vilasenor lived in the Oldest House while San Miguel Chapel was rebuilt. In 1878, the Christian Brothers gained ownership of the Oldest House and San Miguel Chapel from Archbishop Lamy. The next year, Harper's Weekly published an illustration of the building and called it "The Oldest House in the U.S.A.," making it a tourist destination. Over the next decades, the Oldest House was leased to many tenants, including some who were believed to be brujas, or witches. Today, a coffee and snack shop occupy the Oldest House, and visitors are allowed into the back rooms to view the construction and artifacts on display that include the simple furniture, pottery, tools and cooking utensils typical of Territorial Spanish occupation. It is also believed the ghosts of former tenants are still here as well. Look for the photo taken in 1984 that supposedly captured the image of a spirit.
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Loretto Chapel

4) Loretto Chapel

Completed in 1878, the Loretto Chapel took five years to construct as was built for the Sisters of Loretto, nuns originally from Kentucky who traveled to Santa Fe to teach at the behest of Archbishop Lamy. Loretto was constructed in Gothic Revival style, possibly modeled after the historic Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Loretto's most famous feature is its staircase. The 22-foot tall staircase makes two 360-degree turns with no center support. Only square wooden pegs are used to fasten the wood. The construction still amazes architects and is called the Miraculous Staircase. Loretto’s builder died before its completion, and it was unclear how he intended the nuns to reach the choir loft. Legend attributes the nuns to praying for a way to reach the choir loft as a ladder would be inappropriate for them, and there wasn't enough room for a traditional staircase. After nine days of praying, a mysterious man appeared and offered to build the staircase. Working alone with only simple tools, he worked for months. When he was finished, he presented the staircase to the ecstatic nuns, and left without payment. While the nuns believed the mysterious builder was no other than Saint Joseph answering their prayers, it was most likely a traveling itinerate named Francois-Jean "Frenchy" Rochas, a devotedly religious French carpenter who traveled through the southwest, and was later murdered in his cave home in southern New Mexico for unknown reasons. His skill, kindness and dedication live on in this unique structure, and regardless of miracles, the staircase is a sight to behold. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 6 p.m. in the summer. Admission is $3.
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La Fonda de Santa Fe

5) La Fonda de Santa Fe

La Fonda de Santa Fe has been described as the living room of Santa Fe. Even if you don’t stay here, definitely stop in for a drink or bite, check out the artwork and soak in the atmosphere that is pure Santa Fe. Located at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, for centuries it's been a gathering place for locals, the trail tired and eccentric characters. Early records show that the Spanish built an inn, or fonda, on this site soon after their arrival in Santa Fe in 1607. When Capt. William Becknell blazed the Santa Fe Trail trading route from Missouri to Santa Fe in 1821, they found La Fonda waiting for them at the end. After American occupation of New Mexico in 1848, trappers, traders, cowboys, prospectors, soldiers, gamblers and a motley crew of others gathered here to trade stories and drinks. During the Civil War, the Confederate Army briefly used La Fonda as a headquarters until they were turned back to Texas after the Battle of Glorieta Pass. The current building was built in 1922 and owned by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Fred Harvey leased it from the railway and it became one of his famous Harvey Hotels, until 1968. Today, little has changed at La Fonda. There's an excellent restaurant, La Plazuela, and people still enjoy refreshments at the Fiesta Lounge in the lobby and the Bell Tower Bar overlooking Santa Fe. You'll notice most of the glass windows in La Fonda have been artistically painted. This is the work of employee Ernesto Martinez.
Image by Richie Diesterheft under Creative Commons License.
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Palace of the Governors

6) Palace of the Governors

Just around the corner from the New Mexico History Museum is the Palace of the Governors. Built in 1610, this iconic building on the Santa Fe Plaza is the oldest capitol building in the United States. Made of adobe, it was designated a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1960 and an American Treasure in 1999. It served as the capitol building for Spanish, Mexican and Territorial U.S. governors. Gov. Lew Wallace penned his epic book Ben Hur while serving here in the 1870s.

Today, the Palace of the Governors is part of the New Mexico History Museum and displays more than 15,000 artifacts from the Spanish colonial (1540-1821), Mexican (1821-1846) and U.S. Territorial (1846-1912) periods of New Mexico's history. Weapons, armor, documents, clothing, furniture and items of daily life from the Spanish through U.S. statehood in 1912 are proudly displayed. Outside under the portal, Native American artisans representing many tribes sell their jewelry and pottery daily.
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New Mexico Museum of Art

7) New Mexico Museum of Art

Built in 1917, the New Mexico Museum of Art shows Santa Fe's long commitment to artists and their work. The building itself is a work of art, a blend of Pueblo and Spanish design that is oft photographed. The church at Acoma Pueblo is cited as a major influence. Inside, the museum's permanent collection shows the work of Georgia O'Keeffe, Gustave Baumann, Maria Martinez, Eliot Porter, Gerald Cassidy, E. Irving Couse, and other monumental artists who lived and/or were inspired by New Mexico. True to the museum's mission, contemporary artists are shown as well in several changing exhibits that span traditional painting to contemporary sculpture and photography techniques.
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Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

8) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

About 2/10th of a mile from the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum pays homage to this artist whose paintings of desert flowers and sun-bleach bones have become synonymous with New Mexico. Her early sketches, paintings of New York cityscapes and her most famous New Mexico creations are displayed here. The work of her friends and contemporary artists, including Eliot Porter, Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz, are displayed at times as well. O’Keeffe lived in Abiquiú, moving to Santa Fe in her later years. She often painted the red-rock landscape of Ghost Ranch, which is about 65 miles north of Santa Fe on U.S. 84. Tours of her Abiquiú home can be arranged at the museum. O’Keeffe became known in the 1920s for her art, which is classified as American Modernist. She first visited New Mexico in 1929, purchasing her Abiquiú home in 1940 and moving here permanently in 1949. She died in Santa Fe in 1986 at the age of 98. Much of her estate was transferred to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the mission of which is to honor O’Keeffe’s artistic legacy.
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109 East Palace Avenue

9) 109 East Palace Avenue

This next stop is a must for history buffs. The building at 109 East Avenue was once a secret portal to the Manhattan Project, the Top Secret endeavor at Los Alamos that developed the world's first atomic bomb during World War II. Scientist and other personnel reporting to Los Alamos arrived in Santa Fe and checked in at this inconspicuous building that now houses the home décor shop Onorato. Robert Oppenheimer's personal assistant, Dorothy McKibben, issued security passes and handled logistics from this secret office. In fact, all working at Los Alamos had the mailing address of "109 East Palace Avenue." The only mention that this building played an important role in world history is a plaque on the back wall of the courtyard to the left of 109. Placed in 1963, it reads "All the men and women who made the first atomic bomb passed through this portal to their secret mission at Los Alamos. Their creation in 27 months of the weapons that ended World War II was one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time." For more information, check out Jennifer Conant’s book, 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos.
10
Saint Francis Cathedral

10) Saint Francis Cathedral

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, commonly known as Saint Francis Cathedral, was built in 1869 under the direction of Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy. It was built in Romanesque Revival style (Lamy was from France) and is the center of New Mexico's large Catholic population. At first to some, its gothic presence may seem out of place compared to the surrounding adobe-style architecture. The Santa Fe downtown actually looked far more Victorian than it does now. With eastern U.S. influence, and the railroad now bringing supplies such as glass for windows, Santa Fe in the late 1800s was modeling itself after the style of the day. It was in the 1970s that an effort was made to bring Santa Fe architecture back to its pre-U.S. occupation style. This amalgamation of styles today all lend themselves to what is called Santa Fe style. If you look at the top of the massive doorway to St. Francis, you'll see the Hebrew tetragrammaton. This was place here by Lamy to honor Abraham and Julia Stabb, wealthy Jewish merchants who donated funds toward the building of the church. The Stabb's house is now La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa, a Victorian-adobe compound that is a wonderful place to get a drink and appetizer even if you're not staying there. Visitors are welcome to enter the church and view the impressive altar and other religious artwork. You'll also see the statue of Our Lady of the Rosary, or La Conquistadora, which is paraded around Santa Fe during Fiestas in early September to commemorate the Spanish return to Santa Fe after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The public may also attend services here.
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Canyon Road

11) Canyon Road

Quiet Canyon Road is Santa Fe’s best-known secret, hidden in plain sight just blocks from the historic plaza. Only about a mile long, the road winds east and eventually ends at the Santa Fe River that flows through Santa Fe Canyon from the Pecos Wilderness, hence the name. Once homes dating back to the 1750s, many of the buildings along Canyon Road are now art galleries. In contrast to the age of the buildings, Canyon Road is internationally known for its contemporary art. There are more than 100 galleries in this square mile area, making the Canyon Road area the largest concentration of art galleries in the world. Santa Fe is the second largest art market in the United States, and claims the largest percentage of artists, performers and writers per capita of any U.S. city. AmericanStyle magazine has voted Santa Fe the top small art city in the nation, and both Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast rank Santa Fe in their top ten of travel destinations. A few blocks down on the north side of the street, you’ll come across El Zaguan and the Bandelier Gardens. El Zaguan is the office of the Santa Fe Historic Society, and often has art exhibits. The public is welcome to enter the gardens, named for a famous archeologist from the 1880s and for whom Bandelier National Monument is named. Christmas Eve is a particularly special time to visit Canyon Road. Locals line Canyon Road with glowing farolitos–brown paper sacks filled with a little sand and candles–and gather around small bonfires sipping cider and singing carols.