Best Sightseeing in Santa Fe

Santa Fe Sightseeing: Art, History, Culture and Natural Beauty

Choosing 10 best places for sightseeing in and around The City Different is a daunting task. The city has a rich history and many important cultural sites are an integral part the essential  Santa Fe experience. The city with its rich history boasts some of the oldest buildings in the USA such at The Palace of the Governors on the Santa Fe Plaza as well as the oldest church and house in the country. There are over 10 museums, a lot for a relatively small city, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum downtown and four museums on Museum Hill. There’s also a lot to see within an hour of Santa Fe. Visitors are often interested in the history of the Pueblo people. Visiting the cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument or Puye Cliffs gives insight into how they lived. The area was ruled by Spain for hundreds of years. El Rancho de las Golondrinas, a living history village, gives visitors a peek at life as it was lived during the Spanish Colonial era. If you don’t have time to see it all, pick the sights that interest you most. At the end of the day, don’t forget to look west for the glorious high desert sunset.


San Miguel Mission is the oldest church in the United States. It was originally built in the early 1600s by Tlaxcalan Indians from Mexico under the direction of Franciscan Friars. It was destroyed during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. It was rebuilt in 1710 after the Spanish reconquest. The high ceiling shows a perfect example of vigas (log rafters) used in Spanish Colonial buildings. The colorful reredos (altar screen) dates from 1798. The bulto (wooden carving) of San Miguel, believed to be the oldest carving of the Saint in the U.S., was brought from Mexico in 1709. There's one Mass at week on Sundays at 5pm. Cross DeVargas Street where you'll find what's claimed to be the oldest house in the country dating to 1646. It's believed that some of the foundation dates back over 1,000 years. While there explore the Barrio Analco, the neighborhood established in 1598.

Recommended for Sightseeing because: San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in the USA, is a great example of early New Mexican church architecture.

Billie's expert tip: Before you leave, ring the brass bell suspended from a wooden structure with the hammer provided. No one knows how old this bell is. The bell is inscribed with a date that some believe is 1356 and others believe is 1856.

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Museum of Indian Arts and Culture
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Santa Fe has four museums devoted to American Indians and their influence is felt in others. The state-run Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) showcases the art, culture and history of the Pueblo and other native peoples. Their mission is "to inspire appreciation for and knowledge of the diverse native arts, histories, languages, and cultures of the Greater Southwest." There are two long-term exhibits. Here, Now, and Always, a journey through the history and culture of the native people of the southwest from pre-Columbian times to the present. Take the time to listen to the recorded perspectives of 50 Native Americans. The Buchsbaum Gallery Southwestern Pottery, opened in 1997, has about 300 pieces spanning the history of the pottery tradition of the Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona. Traditions Today, a part of the exhibit, highlights contemporary pottery. In addition, changing exhibitions spotlight Native American art and culture.

Recommended for Sightseeing because: American Indian history, art and culture are an integral part of Santa Fe's cultural legacy. The Museum of Indian Art and Culture expertly showcases it.

Billie's expert tip: Looking for handcrafted American Indian items such as jewelry, pottery or other hand-crafted traditional objects? The Colleen Cloney Duncan Museum Shop is a great place to look. They offer an expertly chosen selection. Ask about new artists. You may discover one whose work will appreciate in value.

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Santuario de Chimayo
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Santa Fe is a deeply religious city. Founded as the La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi (The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi), it's been a Catholic stronghold for over 400 years. Some early settlers headed for the hills. Chimayó, on the High Road to Taos, is a small village with an important church. The Santuario de Chimayó was built to commemorate a miracle. Some believe that the dirt found in "el Pocito" (a tiny, candle-lit room to the side of the altar) is healing. This belief is so strong the town's been called the "Lourdes of North America." You can even take some of this tierra bendita (sacred earth) home with you. An annual Good Friday pilgrimage brings tens of thousands of people to this mountain hamlet. Also walk the Stations of the Cross down the hill.

Recommended for Sightseeing because: The Sanctuario de Chimayó is part of local history. The reported healing miracles attract visitors from all over the world.

Billie's expert tip: No trip to Chimayó is complete without visiting one of the weaving shops. The town is known for its distinctive weaving style passed down through generations. Also visit some of the town's shops and galleries and enjoy lunch at Rancho de Chimayó.

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El Rancho de las Golondrinas
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Spanish Colonial history is a big part of the area's heritage. El Rancho de las Golondrinas, a living history village southwest of Santa Fe, recreates life in Spanish Colonial New Mexico. The property was originally a parejo (camping stop) on the historic El Camino Real, between Mexico City and Santa Fe. The original hacienda has been rebuilt and buildings were brought here from other New Mexico locations including a schoolhouse, mills, a blacksmith's, and a recreated Morada (a Penitente meeting house). On summer weekends Golondrinas comes alive with fairs and festivals. Docents wearing period attire demonstrate long-gone life skills including spinning, weaving, bread baking in ornos (outdoor clay and mud ovens), tin- and black-smithing, grain milling and other period activities. They raise heirloom crops and heritage livestock breeds. They're open Wednesday through Sunday from May through September. Hours are 10a.m. to 4p.m.

Recommended for Sightseeing because: Santa Fe has a rich and diverse history. The Spanish Colonial era is part of the city's cultural foundation.

Billie's expert tip: Their most popular event is their annual Renaissance Fair where they put a Spanish spin on that historic era. If you want to, don a period costume and join the fun. There are loads of activities for the entire family.

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Georgia O'Keeffe Home and Studio
Photo courtesy of Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

People often associate Georgia O'Keeffe with Santa Fe. In fact, the iconic artist didn't live in the city until her last years. She lived in Abiquiu, about an hour northwest of Santa Fe. Her original home was at Ghost Ranch, a former dude ranch turned conference center. In 1946 she bought a second home in the village. She wanted to grow vegetables but the soil at Ghost Ranch was too arid. Her village home (The Georgia O'Keeffe Home and Studio), open from March to November, can only be visited on a guided tour. These fill up so book well in advance. On the hour-long tour, docents guide you through O'Keeffe's garden and into the courtyard where you'll see the black door she often painted. Parts of the house are in fragile condition and can only be viewed through windows. You will go into the kitchen, pantry and separate studio building.

Recommended for Sightseeing because: A must-visit for Georgia O'Keeffe fans. Seeing how and where she lived and learning a bit about her life give insight into her art.

Billie's expert tip: If you want to go behind the black door, inside more rooms than on the standard tour and visit the fallout shelter O'Keeffe had built into the hillside in the 1950s, take the Behind the Scenes Tour offered on Wednesday and Friday evenings from June to September.

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Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

Tent Rocks National Monument (Kasha-Katuwe) is a spectacular series of rock formations on the Pajarito Plateau southwest of Santa Fe. The conical rock formations resulted from volcanic eruptions six or seven million years ago. Some of the tent-like rocks, called "hoodoos," have round capstones perched on top. These serve to protect the softer pumice and tuff inside. Rocks range in size from a few feet tall up to 90 feet. Observe these amazing formations from the road or you pay a fee and walk around the site; even hike if you're ambitious. The slot canyon hike is amazing. There are also less strenuous trails. The area is scattered with "Apache Teardrops" formed from rounded black volcanic glass (obsidian). Pick them up and check them out but put them back where you found them. Taking souvenirs is not allowed.

Recommended for Sightseeing because: Tent Rocks (Kasha-Katuwe) is an amazing geological wonder seen in few other places on earth. It's worth a trip.

Billie's expert tip: If you visit during summer, especially if you walk into the slot canyon, pay attention to the weather. Severe thunderstorms can occur accompanied by dangerous lightning and even flash floods. Take water with you, it's high and dry in New Mexico and there's no water at the site.

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Bandelier National Monument
Photo courtesy of Joy C. Frank-Collins

If you're interested in seeing cliff dwellings, head to Bandelier National Monument. Signs of human presence date back at least 10,000 years. The Tyuonyi Pueblo and cliff dwellings, ancestors to the current-day Cochiti Pueblo, were inhabited between about 1,400 and 1,500 AD. Other Pueblo peoples with ancestral ties to the monument's over 33,000 acres are San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo and Zuni. Walk the Main Loop Trail past the remains of Tyuonyi and along the cliff dwellings. Ladders lead to caves and you can even crawl inside some. Kids and adults love it. Feel adventurous? Climb the three long wooden ladders to the Alcove House 140 feet above Frijoles Canyon. The park is open from dawn to dusk every day except Christmas and New Year's. Hours vary seasonally. In summer and fall, mandatory shuttles run from the White Rock Visitors Center from 9a.m. to 3p.m.

Recommended for Sightseeing because: Many visitors to Santa Fe want to know about the area's Pueblo history and this is one of the important sites to visit.

Billie's expert tip: After exploring Bandelier National Monument, check out Valles Caldera, a 13.7-mile wide volcanic bowl formed millions of years ago. If science interests you detour to Los Alamos, home of the WWII Manhattan Project, and the Bradbury Science Museum.

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Canyon Road
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

A walk up (or down) historic Canyon Road is a must. This charming, narrow thoroughfare is home to about half of the city's over 200 galleries. Artists have been living on this street at least since the late 1880s. Discover unique boutiques and a few eateries. The former homes here, mostly galleries now, represent distinct architectural styles including Pueblo Revival, Territorial and Arts and Crafts. Most Friday nights, especially in season, there are gallery openings and great people watching. Art runs the gamut from European Impressionists to contemporary covering a wide range of mediums. Special events including the annual Paint Out and the Edible Art Tour are held throughout the year. On Christmas Eve, it turns into fairyland for the annual Canyon Road Farolito Walk. Farolitos (candles in paper bags, as well as the plastic, electrified versions) and luminarias (piñon wood bonfires) light up the street. It's magical!

Recommended for Sightseeing because: Santa Fe is major art market. This is the most important gallery area in the city. It also has a wonderful history.

Billie's expert tip: Explore the back alleys as you walk Canyon Road. There are hidden sculpture gardens and some galleries are tucked back off the street. Allow at least an hour to explore the entire gallery mile, though if you plan on stopping to browse, allow more time.

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The Santa Fe Plaza
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

If you only had time to go to one place in Santa Fe, it should be the historic Santa Fe Plaza, the center of life in this city for over 400 years. Every day you'll find food vendors, buskers and great people-watching year 'round. The Palace of the Governors, built in the early 1600s and the oldest continuously used public building in the country, sits on the north side of the square. Daily, American Indian artists and artisans sell their handcrafted wares under the portal (overhang). The other three sides are filled with shops, galleries and restaurants. In summer it's hoppin' with weekend fairs and markets, including Spanish and Indian Markets. There are free Santa Fe Bandstand concerts most evenings. During the Christmas season the Plaza becomes a winter wonderland. Join the procession at the annual Las Posadas on a mid-December Sunday. It's a long-standing tradition.

Recommended for Sightseeing because: The Plaza has been the center of life in Santa Fe and no trip would be complete without a visit here.

Billie's expert tip: If you're planning to attend a concert or event held on the Plaza, arrive early. Nearby parking is at a premium or be prepared to walk from farther away. In summer, three sides of the Plaza are closed to vehicle traffic; plan your route accordingly.

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Cathedral Park
Photo courtesy of Steve Collins

This delightful pocket park, adjacent to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, provides a tranquil opportunity to relax while exploring downtown 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