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Santa Fe - The Most Interesting City in New Mexico

Updated on April 11, 2014

Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico and the seat of Santa Fe county. The city is in the north-central part of the state, on the Santa Fe River, which flows into the Rio Grande 22 miles (35 km) west of the city. It is situated at an altitude of nearly 7,000 feet (2,000 meters) in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Southeast of Santa Fe are the Ortiz Mountains, to the south are the Sandia, and to the west the Jemez Mountains. The city is 62 miles (100 km) northeast of Albuquerque, the state's largest city.

Santa Fe is one of the oldest settlements in the United States. Although it has been a state capital only since 1912, it has been the seat of a government since 1610. The city, which is built around a central plaza, has retained much of its Indian Spanish heritage. Old adobe houses, with tiled roofs and shady patios, and Native American and Spanish shops still line the narrow, winding streets, lending an air of Old World charm. Many of the newer buildings are also of Spanish colonial and territorial architecture, and the new state capitol, a high pillbox building, is a modern adaptation of the Spanish colonial tradition. In 1958 the city voted to preserve historical buildings and mandated that new construction follow the distinctive Spanish-Pueblo style of architecture, which is based on the adobe (mud and straw) and wood construction of the past.


A large number of the city's residents are of Spanish descent, and both Spanish and English are spoken in the city. A number of Native American villages cluster on the edge of the city. Santa Fe's mingling of American, Spanish, and Native American cultures, bilingual tradition, and unique atmosphere have earned it the nickname of "the city different," making it attractive to tourists.

Santa Fe derives much of its income from tourism and from the sale of Native American arts and crafts. The state government operations also contribute greatly to the economy. The city has a little light industry that makes electronic instruments, textiles, aluminum ware, gypsum, and pumice products.

Santa Fe is a thriving center of the arts. The city's chief cultural attraction is its summer opera season. The Santa Fe Opera offers some of the most ambitious works in any repertory. Although standard works also are presented, each year the company produces one or more works as world or American premieres. The season, which runs through June and July, is attended by audiences that come from all parts of the world.

The operas are performed in a modern, partly roofed, open-air theater built into a mountainside 5 miles (8 km) north of the city. It was constructed in 1968 to replace one that had burned down a year earlier. Musical festivals, featuring a wide variety of performers, take place throughout the year.


The arts and crafts colony was begun in 1923. Most of the city's artists gather there to work and display their creations. Weavers, potters, and other artisans work in the colony. The city boasts the country's third largest art market, with some 300 galleries and dealers.

Near the city are many Indian pueblos of interest to anthropologists. Santa Fe itself was an Indian village before it was settled by Europeans in 1609 or 1610, and artifacts are still being uncovered there. One of the most interesting of the ancient sites is Bandelier National Monument, 41 miles (66 km) west of the city.

A number of museums display Indian arts and crafts and Indian ways of life, and many are located in an area called Museum Hill. These include the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian (formerly, Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art); the Museum of New Mexico, which encompasses four museums -the New Mexico Museum of Art (formerly, Museum of Fine Arts), the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the Museum of International Folk Art, and the Palace of the Governors, housing the History Museum; the Institute of American Indian Arts; and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, showing exhibitions of her work and the work of some of her modernist peers. The School for Advanced Research on the Human Experience (formerly, School of American Research) also is located in the city. A living-history museum representing Spanish colonial life is located on the outskirts of Santa Fe.

Higher education includes the Santa Fe University of Art and Design (formerly the College of Santa Fe) and St. John's College (a 1964 extension of the original St. John's campus, which is located in Annapolis, Md.). Both offer four-year degree programs. The city is home to Santa Fe Community College as well.

Santa Fe is full of reminders of its rich history. The Mission of San Miguel of Santa Fe, although it has a remodeled facade, is believed to be the oldest church in the United States. Construction was begun on it in 1621. The Cristo Rey church is said to be the largest adobe structure in the United States. The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi -the first church between Durango, Mexico, and St. Louis, Mo., to achieve the status of cathedral- was built between 1869 and 1886 by Archbishop John Baptist Lamy, who was the model for the principal character in Willa Cather's novel Death Comes for the Archbishop.

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The Palace of the Governors, on the plaza, is a long, low building with massive walls that was built about 1610 as the Spanish capitol of the Southwest. For 300 years it served as a seat of government for Spanish, Mexican, Confederate, and American administrations. Lew Wallace stayed there while he was governor of New Mexico Territory (1878–1881) and writing part of his novel Ben Hur. It is reputedly the oldest public building still standing in the nation.

Other places of interest include the Scottish Rite Temple, a replica in part of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain; Our Lady of the Light Chapel; and the old Santa Fe National Cemetery.

The mountains around Santa Fe offer many opportunities for recreation. Aside from hunting and fishing, there are facilities for skiing at the Santa Fe Ski Basin, 16 miles (25 km) from the city through the Santa Fe National Forest.

On Labor Day weekend, a three-day festival is held to commemorate the reconquest of New Mexico from the Indians in 1692. During the fiesta, which has been celebrated since 1712, the events of the historic event are reenacted. Each summer the Santa Fe Indian Market, the largest Native American art showcase in the world, presents the work of some 1,200 artists from about 100 cultural groups; the exhibits include paintings, pottery, jewelry, and more. The Rodeo de Santa Fe, which takes place in July, attracts many visitors.


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