City of Light: A Holiday Getaway to Santa Fe
Let’s face it: it’s been a long, tumultuous year for America, and now we’ve officially entered the frenzied holiday season home stretch. It’s understandable if you want to skip town, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the ideal destination to cure what ails you. Bonus: the low season is November through March, so there are lodging deals to be had.
Santa Fe’s aesthetic allure doesn’t lessen when the temperature drops. Minus the summer crowds, visiting historic sites and museums becomes a much more intimate experience, and the snow makes the adobe architecture even more dramatic. You can hit slopes at Santa Fe Ski Basin or go snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or fat-biking, and if you’re on a budget, you don’t need a car. Santa Fe is one of America’s great walking cities, with a compact downtown full of historic, cultural and architectural attractions, as well as shopping and dining.
Traditions first introduced by Spanish explorers in the 16th century commingle with Native American culture from the surrounding pueblos, and the result is a month-long celebration of lights.
The best reason to visit over the holidays, however, is because Santa Fe’s vibrant Hispanic culture kicks into high gear in December. Traditions first introduced by Spanish explorers in the 16th century commingle with Native American culture from the surrounding pueblos, and the result is a month-long celebration of lights (more on that in a moment), art and food. Don’t think these events are staged for tourists, however. One of the most appealing things about Santa Fe is its sense of community. In 20 years of solo trips to the city, I’ve never felt like an outsider or interloper, which isn’t always the case with international tourist meccas.
Here’s how to holiday in Santa Fe this December:
On a recent visit, I stayed at El Paradero, a homey B & B located in a renovated 200-year old farmhouse in the historic downtown (it’s Santa Fe’s oldest inn). Despite my plans to try a new place for breakfast every day, I was unable to resist the homemade pastries and granola and made-to-order daily specials- and you shouldn’t, either. Be sure to save room for the housemade sweet and savory snacks, served each afternoon. If you’re on a budget, the nearby Santa Fe Sage Inn has attractive, comfortable rooms from $84 (low season), and is located in the happening Railyard Arts District.
Lights play an important role in Santa Fe during the holidays. From luminarias (paper Christmas lanterns, also known as farolitos) to bonfires, the city holds events that celebrate illumination both literally and figuratively.
From December 16 to January 1, the Botanical Gardens hosts GLOW, an outdoor display of “winter lights and kinetic light sculptures.” Las Posadas, on December 11, is a candle-lit processional (representing Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to give birth to the Baby Jesus) around the historic Plaza, culminating with carols, free cookies and hot drinks. The local pueblos also host indigenous dances that are open the public, but do note that these are religious events and visitors are expected to follow etiquette guidelines, found here.
On Christmas Eve, Canyon Road- a three-quarters-mile stretch of world-renown galleries, boutiques, restaurants and artists’ studios- is the site of the annual Farolito Walk. Thousands of lanterns and small bonfires line the streets, and locals and visitors sing carols and enjoy hot chocolate, cider and bizcochitos (a type of cookie). New Year’s Eve on the Plaza features live music, dancing, food trucks, hot drinks and bonfires. Click here for the full calendar of events.
By day, there’s a different kind of cultural scene. Even if you’re not an inveterate museum-goer, Santa Fe has some of the finest Southwestern, Hispanic and Native American collections in the country. My favorites are the Museum of International Folk Art, the Georgia O’Keefe Museum and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) -the latter houses over 7,000 works of fine art by contemporary Native American artists.
Soak museum and gallery-fatigued feet in one of the public or private wooden hot tubs at Ten Thousand Waves (from $24), located in the mountains 10 minutes from town. Modeled after a traditional Japanese onsen, the spa also offers a number of treatments, including herbal wraps, massage and Japanese facials, which incorporate shiatsu. There’s also an on-site restaurant and lodging, but even a day visit will leave you feeling invigorated and ready to face 2017.
Eat & Drink
New Mexican food is an amalgamation of indigenous, Mexican and Spanish cultures and ingredients, and Santa Fe is known world-wide for iconic restaurants like The Pink Adobe, Geronimo’s and El Farol. Still, it would be a mistake not to pay homage to mom-and-pop places that serve up no-frills regional cuisine. To be honest, it’s hard for me to eat at any other type of place when I visit Santa Fe, because I never stop jonesing for earthy, satisfying dishes like posole and green chile.
For breakfast, hit El Parasol for excellent everything (I’m partial to the adovada burrito, stuffed with red chile-marinated pork)- you can’t go wrong at this family-owned franchise based out of nearby Española.
The year-round farmers market (one of the nation’s best) at the Railyard is another breakfast fave of mine- I’m addicted to the insanely delicious stuffed flatbreads from Intergalactic Bread Company. There’s also excellent pastries, tamales and breakfast burritos sold at the market’s takeaway café. After you fuel up, pick up holiday gifts like dried or ground chiles grown by local Native American growers, or farmstead cheeses or jam.
If you need a detour from New Mexican cuisine, Modern General is one-stop shopping, serving up the best coffee in town, exquisite pastries, and all-day breakfast with a nod to local sourcing (think heirloom purple barley porridge or pho enriched with poached egg and hominy). While there, peruse the thoughtful curation of artisan-crafted kitchenwares and specialty foods- great gifts for the cooks on your gift list.
Speaking of gifts, The Hive, is a specialty food shop dedicated to honey. The tasting bar offers samples of different varietals of New Mexican high desert honey, pick up a gift box to go Another must-visit is Kakawa Chocolates. This cozy, Old-World-style shop serves up different styles and varietals of hot and cold drinking chocolate “elixirs” that have amazing restorative properties when you’ve overdone it on the sightseeing . Don’t even think about leaving without purchasing a few confections- my pick are the red chili caramels dipped in dark chocolate).
It wouldn’t be Christmas without tamales, and Johnnie’s Cash Store, located in a quiet neighborhood near Canyon Road, has been making them since 1946. For lunch, I love Plaza Café for green chile or posole, and a side of greaseless sopapillas. Save room for the housemade pie.
The best cocktails in town are at Secreto Lounge, in the Hotel St. Francis. Well-executed, intelligent cocktails like the Smoked Sage Margarita (Azuña Reposado Organic Tequila, O3 Brazilian Orange Liqueur and lime juice, in a sage-smoked glass garnished with a hickory-smoked salt rim) feel festive, holiday or no.
Speaking of bars, The Compound restaurant, on Canyon Road, is something of a local’s secret. The venerable fine-dining establishment has a decadent- but affordable- bar menu. Try the wild mushrooms with organic, stone-ground polenta, black truffle relish and shaved parmesan ($15) or the famous Compound Burger (Lone Mountain Ranch Wagyu beef, avocado, tomato, griddled onions and aioli, with French fries), which will set you back just $14.
Recently, I dined solo at The Compound’s sunken bar for the first time. Every seat was filled, with a mix of locals and tourists, and within minutes, I was welcomed into the group conversation and soon we were all trading tastes of one another’s dishes. Three hours later, I was still there. It’s not often a dining experience turns communal, but that’s the thing about Santa Fe. It treats you like family.
Laurel is a Basalt-based food and travel writer, cheese consultant and the editor of Edible Aspen magazine. When not sitting in front of her computer in her pj's, Laurel can be found enjoying the outdoors, or backpacking around the world eating street food and acquiring new and exciting tropical diseases.