Santa Fe: New Mexico’s Historic Capital City

Locals dance and celebrate in Santa Fe's historic plaza. Photo by Richard Khanlian
Locals dance and celebrate in Santa Fe’s historic plaza. Photo by Richard Khanlian

In every town, there is a place where people gather, where the pulse of the city is best seen and felt. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, that place is “la plaza,” the town square that has been the thriving heartbeat of the city for over 403 years.

Today the one-block square continues as the heart of the New Mexican capital. It is surrounded by historic buildings, one of the oldest churches in the United States, art galleries, an Indian marketplace, museums and an endless array of shops and restaurants.

The plaza provides a central location to revel in the city’s many marvels, and it’s where I head to first. Sitting on a green bench in the grassy plaza, I listen to shrieks of children’s laughter and the lazy guitar of a couple sharing their music, all while looking upon the history around me.

The Palace of the Governor’s, the city’s oldest building originally constructed as Spain’s seat of government in a new settlement, lines the entire north side of the plaza.

Artists from local Native American tribes from Acoma, San Ildefonso, Navajo and more showcase expertly crafted jewelry, pottery, and artistic wares rich with history and cultural significance.

Each artist offers a different story, from a different place, if you take the time to ask. I buy a pair of hand-crafted earrings from an artist from the Acoma tribe, whose pottery work has also been displayed in the Smithsonian.

Just a few blocks away is the Loretto Chapel, a beautiful example of history and religion combined with an architectural feat.

The church is home to the unique St. Joseph’s staircase, which makes over two full 360-degree rotations while ascending 20 feet in 33 steps, with no center support. The staircase construction confounds architects and engineers, and climbing the staircase was said to be a testament to the faith of the sisters of the chapel.

The biggest surprise of my visit, though, is the rich depth of the artistic culture in Santa Fe. With the third largest art market in the country, behind only that of New York and Los Angeles, art lovers can explore 250 art galleries of contemporary and traditional art.

Independent art galleries line the plaza, showcasing paintings, sculptures, glass art, jewelry and art installations. Santa Fe is rich with artistic treasures. Just a few blocks from the plaza is the Georgia O’Keeffe museum, Museum of Contemporary Native Arts and Institute of American Indian Arts.

Along the border of the plaza next to the Palace of the Governors local Native Americans sell beautiful artwork, jewelry and pottery.
Along the border of the plaza next to the Palace of the Governors local Native Americans sell beautiful artwork, jewelry and pottery.

But it is the culture of Santa Fe that is perhaps most intriguing. Often called “The City Different,” Santa Fe boasts a unique historical combination of Native American, Spanish, and Anglo cultures. The influence of each culture can be seen in the art, tasted in the food, observed in the architecture and experienced through local traditions.  Today, the cultures have combined to create a contemporary culture that is uniquely Santa Fe.

First inhabited by the Native Americans since 10,000 B.C., Santa Fe attracted the attention of the Spanish when they came in search of gold in 1610. As legend has it, sun glinting off the adobe gave the appearance of gold. While the Spanish did not find the gold they sought, they did find a community to call home. In 1750 Anglo settlers joined the mix, creating the cultural trifecta we see today.

Some of this rich history can still be seen at La Fonda on the Plaza, a historic hotel located right in the heart of Santa Fe. If the plaza is the heartbeat of the city, La Fonda on the Plaza is the anchor.

The 91-year-old hotel has interesting pieces of history, art, and mystery in every corner. The hotel staff are so dedicated to La Fonda on the Plaza that once they become employees, they don’t leave. Several of the staff I meet during my visit have been with the hotel more than 25 years.

In the modern era, employee dedication like this is unfathomable. But after settling in and absorbing the personality of the hotel, it is easy to see why no one left. I wouldn’t either.

With a sparkle in his dark eyes peering over brown-rimmed glasses, and a flash of his thick green turquoise bracelet, La Fonda’s resident historian and concierge Steve Wimmer is a born storyteller. His stories of the spies, spooks, celebrities, local culture, history, and art of La Fonda have me captivated.  And after Steve’s 23 years with La Fonda, not one tale has gone untold.

La Fonda is located near the grounds where the atomic bomb was developed during the Manhattan Project, and top secret military and government officials often stayed at the hotel. When they had their meetings, La Fonda’s usual front desk staff were replaced by spies and security agents who assumed the role of staff, but wrote and spoke in code.

La Fonda has had countless famous guests over the years, both past and present. I like sleeping in my bed knowing that the same halls have housed John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Katherine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Salvador Dali, and Albert Einstein.

Like many older buildings, tales of ghosts and haunts are plentiful. Steve Wimmer tells of a bride who was killed on her wedding night in a fit of jealousy by her ex boyfriend. While standing at the concierge desk, he saw her faint image in a Jean Harlow-esque white gown walking the halls.

But history and stories aside, La Fonda offers a rich, authentic and thoughtful experience to any visitor.

Each room has a hand-painted headboard completed by one of La Fonda’s many resident artists. You can thank Mary Coulter, La Fonda’s architect and one of 60 female architects in the country at the time, for this unique and stylish touch.

Nosh on filet mignon enchiladas and jalapeño margaritas at La Fonda's signature restaurant, La Plazuela. Photo by La Fonda on the Plaza
Nosh on filet mignon enchiladas and jalapeño margaritas at La Fonda’s signature restaurant, La Plazuela. Photo by La Fonda on the Plaza

In La Plazuela, La Fonda’s popular restaurant, are hundreds of painted glass window panes. Each panel was completed by a 90-year-old resident artist who has been working with La Fonda for years.

The New Mexican cuisine served at La Plazuela is excellent. I try the local squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese, and the chile rellenos and filet mignon enchiladas as a tasty entrée.

I wash it all down with a jalapeno margarita. I have sampled margaritas all over town, but none have come close to this. To be absolutely certain though, I sample the jalapeno margarita multiple times during my visit.

From floor to ceiling, La Fonda spouts artful color. Every inch of the hotel offers unique personality by way of antique couches with stuffed leather seats and ornate carvings, paintings by famous artists such as Gerald Cassidy, and historic maps created before La Fonda’s time.

There is even art in the elevator. The ceilings are painted with a turquoise and red abstract design, and the sign for the elevators is carved and decorated with a painted flower.

After an unexpectedly exciting visit to “the city different,” I’m sad to say goodbye to the warm personalities, vibrant art, and rich culture. But every good vacation must come to an end. As we drive away, I watch Santa Fe’s rich color fade into the red landscape of a dusty, dry desert.

If You Go

Santa Fe CVB

La Fonda on the Plaza

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Janna Graber

Janna Graber is an award-winning American travel journalist and current editor of Go World Travel Magazine. Since moving to Austria at age 19 for college, she's been in love with world travel, and has covered destinations around the globe for more than 55 newspapers, magazines and websites. She's the author of three travel anthology books, including "A Pink Suitecase: 22 Tales of Women's Travel".
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