Free Things to Do in Santa Fe

10 Best Free Places to Visit in Santa Fe

The best things in life may not be free, but some of the best things in Santa Fe are. Each summer the historic Plaza hosts annual events such as Indian and Spanish Markets as well as Santa Fe Bandstand concerts four to five evenings a week. Or you can just sit in this vibrant town center that’s been a gathering place for centuries and people-watch or strike up a conversation with a stranger. There are some interesting characters out there! There are times at the state-run museums where entry is free to all and other times when admission is free to New Mexico residents. The city has over 200 galleries to explore. Window shopping and browsing are free and The City Different is chock full of boutiques offering a range of eye-candy from Native American silver and turquoise jewelry and pottery to flowing clothing and unique accessories. Walk around the downtown area and adjacent Eastside. Santa Fe is one of the oldest cities in the USA and boasts a few “oldest.” The oldest house and oldest church in the country are here as well as the historic Palace of the Governors, the oldest continuously occupied public building in the country. Take a ride into the countryside and see the landscape that inspired Georgia O’Keeffe and other artists and still does today. The great outdoors offers hiking, biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and remarkable sunsets. You don’t have to spend money to have a great time in Santa Fe.


Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

People are drawn to ghost towns. Some are bare bone remains of long deserted towns and some like Madrid, NM (pronounced MADrid) have been revitalized. This old coal-mining hub turned ghost town after WWII has morphed into a vibrant enclave of over 40 unique galleries and shops. Located on New Mexico Highway 14 (the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway), the colorful village is a popular tourist attraction. It was put on the map by the 2007 John Travolta/Tim Allen comedy, "Wild Hogs," about middle-aged, middle-class bikers on a zany ride west. The small hamlet is a draw for bikers (many from around the world) traveling iconic Route 66. Stop by the Madrid Old Coal Town Museum.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Walking around Madrid, a revitalized ghost town, is a great way to get a bit of a feel of the old west.

Billie's expert tip: On your way to Madrid, check out another ghost town, Cerrillos. Once a gold-mining town, it was also known for its Turquoise. Head to Cerrillos Hills State Park where you can walk trails that go past long-abandoned gold mines.

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Historic East Side
Cross of the Martyrs Park
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Love great sunsets? Head for Cross of the Martyrs Park atop a Santa Fe hill on the historic Eastside. The site commands one of the best west-facing views in the city. It's adjacent to Prince Park, once home to Fort Marcy which was built by the US Army in 1846. The fort was built to be "a symbol of American Military control" after New Mexico Territory was officially ceded to the USA under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American War. You can reach the Cross, a monument to 21 Franciscan Fathers killed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, via a walkway off Paseo de Peralta just north of Marcy Street. Read the historic plaques placed along the way to get a sense of local history. Don't want the mild uphill hike? You can also access the park by car from Artist's Road.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Besides being historically significant, the sunset views from the Cross of the Martyrs are among the best in the city.

Billie's expert tip: You can also visit the original Cross of the Martyrs off at the top of a hill on Paseo de la Loma. It's accessible by wooden steps that are in poor repair. This original cross was dedicated during the 1920 fiesta.

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Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary
Photo courtesy of Audubon New Mexico

The Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary is for the birds and the people who love them. Randall Davey, a Santa Fe artist, left his 135-acre property at the top of Upper Canyon to the National Audubon Society to be used as an educational, cultural and historical center. The site, bounded by National Forest lands and protected Santa Fe River Watershed land, is home to over 200 species of birds. They live in various ecosystems throughout the sanctuary. The site is a great place for a hike. You can easily access Santa Fe's extensive Dale Ball Trail from the center. Sit quietly while observing birds, butterflies and other wildlife. Artists sometimes set up their easels and paint the woodland splendor. Visit the native plant and pollinator gardens where you can view native bee houses. The site is also available to rent for special events. Admission is free; donations are appreciated.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: It's great to get out in a beautiful and peaceful setting and see birds and other wildlife up close in their natural habitats.

Billie's expert tip: Take advantage of special activities offered. On Saturday mornings there's a bird walk with an expert at 8am. Randall Davey's house is open for tours ($5 per person) on Fridays. They offer periodic guided nature walks, butterfly classes, star parties and lectures. Some of these have fees.

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Music on the Hill
Photo courtesy of St. John's College

On Wednesday evenings in June and July, Santa Feans flock to the St. John's College campus for the free Music on the Hill concert series. There are six of them each season. 8pm. These weekly offerings, held from 6 to 9pm on the school's grassy athletic field, are more than concerts, they are events. People arrive early with food and wine and set up on the lawn. Don't want to bring your own? Local food vendors set up shop here. The diverse crowd, composed of families, friends, couples and singles, comes out for a great time. The 2015 season brings a new format to the formerly all-jazz line-up. The new concept: local bands performing danceable music. Promoters want the crowd to get up and dance. It's all lawn seating, so bring a blanket or chairs. You can find a full concert schedule on the college's website.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Free summer music is a great resource for locals and visitors. Music on The Hill has been a popular event since 2005.

Billie's expert tip: Parking is limited. If you want a close space, arrive early. There's also parking at nearby Santa Fe Prep or the IMH Retreat Center complex and walk over. For the convenience of concert attendees, there's free shuttle service from Museum Hill from 5:30 to 8:30pm.

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New Mexico History Museum
Photo courtesy of Kitty Leaken

Friday evenings between 5 and 7pm are free at the New Mexico History Museum as well as the New Mexico Museum of Art just around the corner on West Palace Avenue. These two state-run gems are part of the Museum of New Mexico along with the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the Museum of International Folk Art, both on Museum Hill. The history museum's permanent exhibition, "Telling New Mexico, Stories from Then and Now," is a timeline of the state's rich history starting with the indigenous peoples through the present. They also host temporary exhibitions and special programs, some free, throughout the year. While there, stop off at their gift shop which features a well-curated selection of made in New Mexico-made items, books about the area and Native American hand-crafted pottery, jewelry and kachinas. Sundays are always free for New Mexico residents as are Wednesdays for NM seniors.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The New Mexico History Museum and the other three state-run museums are great assets for the city. Getting in for free: priceless.

Billie's expert tip: Make sure to stop at the Palace of the Governors, part of the history museum. It's the oldest, continuously occupied public building in the USA. Among its permanent collection is a not-to-be-missed collection of Spanish Colonial Art.

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Canyon Road Arts District
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Santa Fe is an art town with over 200 galleries. The largest concentration is on historic Canyon Road. Stroll this charming byway and check out the galleries that call to you. Know what genres interest you? The Santa Fe Gallery Association lists their members by category. Many galleries showcase sculptures out front or in sculpture gardens out back. These art houses welcome visitors and are staffed by knowledgeable people who can answer any questions. For serious collectors, the galleries may be able to arrange meetings with their artists if they live in the area. Friday evenings, especially during summers and holidays, bring artist openings which are generally held between 5 and 7pm. Some offer refreshments and even live music. There are also clusters of galleries on Lincoln and Palace Avenues downtown as well as other scattered locations. The Railyard District has become home to a number of contemporary galleries.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Gallery hopping in Santa Fe is part of the overall experience in this city, one of the most vibrant art markets in the USA.

Billie's expert tip: Canyon Road goes uphill. Start at the top and walk down – it's easier. Santa Fe Pick-up, a free shuttle service, goes from the Railyard through downtown to the top of Canyon Road. Check the city's website for pick-up spots and times.

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Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis de Assisi, begun in 1869 and completed in the mid-1850s, is at the end of San Francisco Street a block from the historic Santa Fe Plaza. You may recognize it from B-roll footage for any TV show ever shot in Santa Fe. It was built by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy (immortalized in Willa Cather's classic novel "Death Comes to the Archbishop"), a controversial figure in Santa Fe's history. The church is an interesting blend of traditional Romanesque Catholic Church elements fused with New Mexican touches such as the Stations of the Cross done as retablos (devotional paintings) and bultos (carved saints). As you enter, note the Hebrew symbol for God (the Tetragrammaton) above the door. There are many stories of why it's there, but none have been conclusively verified.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis de Assisi is an important part of Santa Fe history and should not be missed.

Billie's expert tip: Visit La Conquistadora (Our Lady of the Rosary) in the original 18th century parrochia. The oldest statue of the Blessed Virgin in the USA, she arrived in Santa Fe in 1625, was rescued from the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and returned with the Spanish in 1692.

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La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site
Photo courtesy of Outspire Hiking and Snowshoeing

New Mexico's American Indian heritage is strong. Many visitors ask about visiting a pueblo while in Santa Fe. Visit one of the ancestral pueblos, abandoned for centuries, or a site where you can view petroglyphs. These messages carved on rocks by indigenous people long ago were rich with meaning: a kind of ancient graffiti that conveyed messages. One of the most accessible and prolific sites is the La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site about 20 minutes southwest of the Plaza. They've recorded over 5,000 glyphs in this area. Look for a gravel parking lot identified by a small BLM (Bureau of Land Management) sign. Most of the petroglyphs are located at the top on the edge of the escarpment, though you'll pass some on the way up. These are archeological treasures. Don't climb on the rocks or write on them. Don't take any souvenirs from the site – just look and marvel.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The indigenous culture is an important part of the local story. This is the closest, most accessible and prolific petroglyph site in the area.

Billie's expert tip: Bring your camera. There are great photo opportunities here. Don't forget to bring water – it's important to keep hydrated in the dry high desert, and perhaps a snack or picnic lunch. Just remember, whatever you bring in, take out with you and leave what's there alone.

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Santa Fe Bandstand
Photo courtesy of Santa Fe Bandstand

Santa Fe Bandstand has been bringing diverse music to the historic Santa Fe Plaza, a gathering place since 1610, each summer since 2003. Outside In, a non-profit organization produces over 70 free concerts four to five nights a week, from June until the end of August. Concerts, from 6 to 9pm, feature both local and national bands, and playing a range of diverse genres including Americana/Indie, Blues/Pop/Rock, Country and Bluegrass, Jazz, Latin and Salsa and World Music. Occasionally, well-known names appear. Arrive by 5:30pm, folding chair in hand, to score a prime spot. You can also bring a blanket and park on the grass. Want to strut your stuff? There's a dance floor. Bring a picnic or buy food from one of the vendors on the Plaza. There are a few Saturday night concerts on the Southside at San Isidro Plaza. Check their website for their schedule.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Free music on the historic Santa Fe Plaza is a great way to spend a balmy summer night. Santa Fe Bandstand is a winner.

Billie's expert tip: Want to be above it all? Get a table at one of the second story restaurants that overlook the Plaza. Eat and drink while enjoying the show. Arrive early; these are prime spots.

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Santa Fe Railyard
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Take a walk in the Santa Fe Railyard. This trendy area, home to the Santa Fe Farmers Market and SITE Santa Fe famous for its cutting-edge art exhibitions, has been attracting development, including a park, for the last half-decade. When the Santa Fe Farmers Market Pavilion opened in 2008, the area took off, attracting boutiques, galleries and restaurants. A new movie theater is slated to open in 2015. On Saturdays in winter and both Saturdays and Tuesdays during warmer weather, the Farmers Market is a hub of locally grown and produced foods, body products and more. Visit the contemporary galleries that are moving to the Railyard from other parts of the city. The last stop for the Railrunner, the light rail train that connects Santa Fe and Albuquerque, is a short walk to the north.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Railyard is a vital part of Santa Fe offering art, local food and more and is a popular spot for both locals and visitors.

Billie's expert tip: On Sundays from 10am to 4pm, browse the Railyard Artisan Market and meet local artists and artisans. You'll see a range of locally created art including paintings, photography, pottery, fiber arts, jewelry, sculpture, hand-blown glass, and herbal body products. Treat yourself to something special to remind you of Santa Fe.

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Meet Billie Frank

Billie Frank is a freelance travel, food and feature writer based in Santa Fe New Mexico. Her blog, Santa Fe Travelers, is a treasure trove of information on the oldest capital city in the...  More About Billie