Classic cars parked around the square in Old Town Albuquerque

14 Great Reasons to Visit Albuquerque and Santa Fe

This trip holds a special place in our hearts because it’s the first time that we traveled together. Who knew back in March of 2018 what would come of that unexpected, last-minute adventure when Heather and I decided to visit Albuquerque and Santa Fe?!

[H} Every time I read this piece I tear up a little bit. This really was the trip that started it all!

I (Julianne) had found a well-priced flight — less than $100 round trip — to Albuquerque from Denver. (March is a great time for flight deals, by the way.) A well-traveled friend suggested I add a few days in Santa Fe, a short train ride north, to round out the trip, so I booked it. My significant other doesn’t fly, so this was going to be a solo trip. I had made a few solo trips around the United States by this point and felt pretty good about it. 

But as I was posting about my plans on Facebook, my former advertising-industry colleague Heather, an acquaintance from Fort Wayne, expressed interest in a trip to visit Albuquerque and Santa Fe someday. I suggested she just join me — I had already booked the hotels, and she could stay with me. She said, why not? We met up at the budget Best Western I’d booked in north Albuquerque, and then talked our way through the Albuquerque Museum, actually getting to know each other for the first time. 

[H] I love when people ask how Julianne and I officially met for the first time, and I say “in the hotel lobby of a Best Western in Albuquerque, New Mexico.” It’s such a ludicrous thing to say, since we grew up and worked in the same town, and industry for quite some time before Julianne moved away. But it’s true. The first time I had any kind of conversation with her was … well, see above. If you are wondering about the longitude-latitude numbers on some of our merchandise.. It’s Albuquerque. A nod to our first adventure together.

[J] I have to admit to fan-girling: Heather is smart, strong, stunning and a very popular woman in Fort Wayne — and no doubt worldwide, given the chance. I was more than a little intimidated! But she’s also as warm as can be and super funny, and we traveled well. Not only did we have the same interests in attractions in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but it seemed like we could each expand the trip for the other in different ways. 

[H] We have a strong mutual affection for each other. Both being single moms, working in a stressful industry, I admired Julianne’s career and passions for social justice and the environment. I also knew we would have a heck of a time hanging out, and we did!

[J] The next winter we took a short jaunt to Traverse City, Michigan, together, during our “maybe let’s run a motel together” phase. (Check out our blog on things to do in Traverse City, by the way.) We next traveled together when she invited me to join her on a November 2019 trip to Bryce Canyon and Zion, which I had just visited a few months earlier with my mom and dad, as well as Las Vegas, which was totally new to me.

And we each took countless domestic and international trips in between, with friends and family or solo, always excited for the other’s adventures. Always sharing a sense of fenweh. But this first trip, a short but impactful meetup to visit Alburquerque and Santa Fe was the one that launched it all.

I’m super stoked to take many more trips with Heather as a part of Journey Here Travel. But today I lit some incense that I bought in Santa Fe during our first trip, and it reminded me of the awesomeness of this very first toe in the water, when we decided to visit Albuquerque and Santa Fe on a whim. If you are lucky enough to have such a kindred travel partner, you might want to meet up in Albuquerque too and make some memories. These were our adventures.

14 Reasons to Visit Albuquerque and Santa Fe

  1. The Albuquerque Museum was a perfect first stop for my first trip to New Mexico. Its scope is “Art. History. People.” and it introduces the culture of the area exceptionally well through each of these lenses. 
  2. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is a museum with a distinctly Native American take on art, history and people. The exhibit on the “Indian schools” and how children were forcibly removed from their homes to be reprogrammed in white ways of doing things was especially moving. There are a lot of events here; plan your visit around one if you can. 
  3. We honestly didn’t spend a significant proportion of our trip in museums, but we did take a Lyft to one more: the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. It’s one of the things that puts the “quirky” in Albuquerque—you don’t talk about nuclear physics and secret government facilities with your driver in every city. This was both a head and heart experience for me: Not only did I learn a lot about science, but I also felt heartbroken for the victims of the first atomic bombs, as well as the scientists troubled by the knowledge that their work contributed to mass destruction.
  4. Right after we toured the Albuquerque Museum on our first day in the city, Heather and I wandered through Old Town Plaza. It’s the perfect place to scope out unique gift shops, slip inside the historic San Felipe de Neri Church (the first of which was constructed in 1706) and enjoy a beer on a gardenlike patio. When I returned to Albuquerque with my parents in 2019, we got to witness teens in tuxedos and glittery gowns celebrating a quinceanera, ogle classic cars lined up around the square like a photo shoot, and sample traditional dishes at Garduño’s at Old Town Restaurant & Cantina. A visit to Albuquerque really isn’t complete without a trip to Old Town. 
  5. One of the surprise hits of Heather’s and my stay in Albuquerque was a stroll to Bike In Coffee on Old Town Farm. It was a pretty walk from our Best Western Plus Rio Grande on a brisk, sunny morning. We enjoyed coffee, eggs and pastries with the locals while the farm dog begged us to play with his ball and horses grazed in the pasture. 
  6. We also strolled along the river in Rio del Norte Picnic Area for sunset, admiring the sculptural artwork. This might have been within walking distance of our hotel too, but we were warned that there are some sketchy neighborhoods along the way, so we took another Lyft there and made sure to leave as soon as dusk fell.
  7. Hot-air ballooning had long been on my bucket list. But I’m not a morning person at all, and fibromyalgia sleep issues mean I can count the number of sunrises that I’ve seen on one hand. Yet Heather convinced me that a sunrise hot-air ballooning adventure would be great (I think the sunset cruises were full, if memory serves me well). And it WAS. I’ve solo parachuted out of an airplane; ziplined over a Honduran waterfall; gone parasailing in Michigan and North Carolina; and probably done a few other things that people usually deem bonkers. But this was the most peaceful, seemingly safe and lovely experience among them all. Our balloon captain, a former sheriff, told great stories as we sailed over the city, then skillfully lowered our basket just low enough to dip the bottom in the iconic Rio Grande River. This was one of my highlights from our visit to Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
  8. The other highlight of our trip for me was Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. This was a stop that both my hairdresser, an Albuquerque native, and Heather said were must-sees. I heartily agree. It’s hard to have words for Meow Wolf. What is it? An experience that you need in your life. Allow several hours, wear comfortable shoes and try the absinthe.
  9. We got from Albquerque to Santa Fe via the Rail Runner Express, an experience in itself. This commuter train winds north through the stunning New Mexico scenery of the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains, including some of the earliest settlements. (Native American communities ask you to refrain from taking photos while passing through.)  
  10. We stayed at the coziest spot in Santa Fe, La Posada de Santa Fe, which was magically affordable thanks to a Travelzoo deal. I think about this place more than any hotel in which I’ve ever stayed. Rooms were clustered in fours in stucco huts around the property, which was surely even more gorgeous in warmer days when the gardens are in bloom. The main building housed the lobby, always home to a crackling fire; a cozy bar and library made for relaxing with a beverage and a friend; brilliantly colorful artwork by local artists; and intricate, dark wooden details everywhere you looked. I took a photo of a doorknob, if that tells you anything. The staff was also great, and there was shuttle service, even though the resort is located within walking distance of downtown Santa Fe. That came in handy to and from the train depot with our luggage.
  11. Of course we visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. It’s short enough to go through in a morning, and you come away with a new appreciation for what she had to overcome as a female artist. 
  12. And while we stumbled into the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts because of its place on the plaza, we were smitten by what we found inside. Full of color and variety, this museum brings voice to people who will challenge your thinking and perspective in all the best ways.
  13. Loretto Chapel is a quintessential stop in Santa Fe. The miraculous staircase there not only defies engineering; it’s also stunningly beautiful. For this Catholic schoolgirl, it brought back all kinds of memories. It’s a short visit with a small fee; tack on the nearby cathedral for more architecture to admire. 
  14. During both my trip with Heather and my trip with my parents to visit Albuquerque and Santa Fe, I wanted to explore the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe. Its story and history captured my imagination. But during both trips, it was closed. Maybe you’ll have better luck! Instead, my mom and dad and I drove out to the Sandia Peak Tramway. (This was part of our grand trip west through the national parks, an adventure I’ll always treasure since my dad was diagnosed with cancer the following spring and passed away just a year later.) Take a jacket — it’s windy up there. But it’s well worth the view for miles in every direction.
Atop Sandia Peak in Santa Fe with what would turn out to be the last trip with my dad
Atop Sandia Peak during what would turn out to be the last trip with my dad. He’d recently turned 70 here.

I caught some kind of 24-hour flu virus in Santa Fe, and actually ended up tossing my cookies on the train back to Albuquerque. Thank God I was traveling with Heather. Did I mention that she’s as nice as can be? She helped me navigate the streets from the train to our final stop, the Hyatt Regency in downtown Albuquerque. She got us checked in; found dinner by herself while I slept upstairs; and negotiated for a later checkout for me when she left early the next morning to fly back to Fort Wayne. 

I was mortified — here I was hanging with this cool new friend; and, like sunrises, I can count the number of times that I’ve thrown up on one hand. But she was super caring, which is why everyone should travel with us. If you run into a situation, Heather is an awesome, nurturing, mama bear type. (And I have a strong stomach for blood, guts and needles. We got you.)

I hadn’t eaten since the day before, but when checkout time rolled around, I decided that I needed to see the rest of Albuquerque before my evening flight back to Denver. I’m in the habit of walking, which is sometimes stupid — I took 21,000 steps during my first day in Las Vegas, and led my daughter through some questionable neighborhoods in Palm Beach, Florida, on a layover from Indiana to Jamaica to get to the beach. This was another such situation.

I walked all the way east to Nob Hill, past the University of New Mexico, to the district where some remaining Route 66 diners and gas stations still stood. It was hot, and some areas through which I passed were clearly not designed for pedestrians — particularly female ones walking alone. Tired, woozy and nervous, I took a Lyft back to the hotel. Always trust your gut when you’re a solo female traveler.

I have so many fond memories of my first adventure with Heather (despite the flu). They come flooding back when I light the Incensio de Santa Fe that I bought during my visit to Santa Fe with my mom and dad, thought the scent of mesquite and piñon sparks thoughts instead of Old Town Albuquerque and wild gardens within adobe walls. I’m especially thrilled that a spontaneous trip to visit Albuquerque and Santa Fe resulted in both a business and a friendship that allows me to further my passion to see the world, and to bring you along with us.

Although we strive to provide the most current information, bars, restaurants and attractions mentioned may close at any time, operate with a limited menu or reduced hours, or have takeout options only. We recommend checking individual websites for operating hours, updates, and social distancing measures before visiting.

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