SANTA FE, N.M. – There's no doubt this capital city has truly earned its nickname as The City Different. Its skyline is not made of skyscrapers, but rather a collection of flat-topped adobe buildings that has taken more than four centuries to evolve. At its heart, Santa Fe's narrow, unaligned streets are decorated with colorful strings of chile called ristras and quaint mud-plastered homes. The endless shades of brown and turquoise all pay homage to the blending of Native American and Spanish cultures. There are plenty of private and state-run museums that can provide history lessons, but simply wandering the streets, talking to locals and breathing in Santa Fe's mountain air — seemingly always tinged with the sweet smell of burning cedar and pinon — can all be done for free.
A national historic landmark, the plaza has served as the commercial, social and political center of Santa Fe since the early 1600s. It plays host to art markets through the year and is home to the Palace of the Governors, the nation's oldest continuously occupied public building. A webcam offers 24-hour views of the plaza, but there's nothing like strolling under its portals to get a look at the rows and rows of silver and turquoise jewelry and other wares made by Native Americans. The plaza is also a perfect place for people watching.
Just blocks from the plaza, Canyon Road is home to all things Santa Fe-style. The long, winding road once served as an artery to the mountains for residents who needed to gather firewood. Now, it's lined with more than 100 fine art galleries and studios that welcome visitors for free. The galleries feature everything from antiques to traditional Hispanic and Native art and international folk art.
Amid all the adobe architecture is an impressive collection of chapels, cathedrals and mission churches that dates back centuries. One of the largest is St. Francis Cathedral. Aside from being one of the city's most photographed landmarks, Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 declared it the Southwest's cradle of Catholicism. Nearby is Loretto Chapel, which features a legendary spiral wooden staircase that the sisters of the chapel believe was built by St. Joseph himself. Also within walking distance is the oldest church in the nation, San Miguel Mission Church. It's open during the week and regular services are held on Sundays.
STATE CAPITOL ART COLLECTION
During the legislative session, the Roundhouse — it's the only round capitol building in the country — is often crowded with people running between committee meetings and hand-shake sessions. But the building's hallways are also adorned with hundreds of works of art. The Capitol Art Collection was created in 1991 and consists of nearly 600 works exhibited in the building's public spaces and on the grounds outside. The collection is currently valued at more than $5.6 million. Self-guided tours can be taken Monday through Friday. Free guided tours are also available.
SANGRE DE CRISTOS
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains provide a beautiful backdrop to Santa Fe's adobe skyline. A short drive out of the city leads to numerous hiking and biking choices. In the fall, the changing aspens attract thousands of people.
Just be prepared for the change in altitude. Santa Fe sits about 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) above sea level and the mountain vistas can top out around 12,000 feet (3,658 meters).