Don’t be alarmed, San Francisco, but there exists another “S.F.” outside your fog-shrouded imaginations. This high-desert city 900 miles east is lacquered in adobe and has nary a skyscraper. Its citizens prefer cowboy hats to hoodies, and people were living there about, oh, 1,000 years ago.
San Francisco and Santa Fe, N.M., have plenty in common: a love of the arts, great food, liberal politics, the same patron saint and more alternative lifestyles than you can shake a rain stick at. And both cities also have world-class operas.
Aficionados will appreciate the uniqueness of the Santa Fe Opera, which has a gorgeous open-air performance house and a season that runs when most others do not: in the heat of summer. Attitudes are relaxed, and so is the attire. Even if opera is not your thing, it is worth a visit.
This year’s season opened, fairly spectacularly, in late June. With the sun setting over the opera’s customarily festive tailgaters and then fading behind stage, a youthful company put on a fierce, dramatic retelling of Bizet’s “Carmen,” set in mid-20th-century Mexico along the U.S. border. Passions soared, hearts were rent and blood was shed. In the end, with stars overhead, the audience rose ecstatic.
But besides such exhilarating performances, one can find a lot to like about this desert oasis.
For a state capital, Santa Fe’s humble architecture, blending with the natural features of the land, makes it feel more like a small town. Its wealthiest residents live mostly on the north and east sides, amid the rising slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with the working class along the more level neighborhoods below. Artists and artisans, whether affluent retirees or aspiring young creatives, are omnipresent — and so are their admirers.
The city’s ancient center, the Plaza, once a Pueblo village before Santa Fe was taken by the Spanish around 1600 (and later by Mexico and the U.S.), is now laden with tourist shops, hawkers and surrounding hotels, restaurants, museums and art galleries. Farther southwest, The Railyard, which has grown in recent years into an arts and cultural district, is the site of a popular weekend farmers market.
The other main commercial area, Cerrillos Road, leads out of old Santa Fe, past strip malls and chain stores and the occasional gem of an eatery, south of the city along what is called the Turquoise Trail. Former mining towns there are now havens for artists, craftspeople, ranchers and those who simply wanted to get away.
A city of quirks
Santa Fe itself has been dubbed “The City Different.” Just off the Plaza, one of the city’s most distinctive sights, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, bears an odd memento of its construction in 1887. It’s an inscription of a Hebrew name of God above the entrance. A local guide attributes it to one of the church’s prominent donors, Abraham Staab, a wealthy and influential 19th century Jewish businessman who immigrated to Santa Fe from Germany.
And a short walk away, the Staab House, a Victorian mansion that Staab built for his family in 1882, now occupies an interior portion of the exquisite and sprawling six-acre La Posada de Santa Fe hotel property. Over the years several adobe casitas were added around the mansion and La Posada became an inn that also served the local artist community. Some of the quirks of this older construction are now combined with the accoutrements of modern luxury.
The hotel has over 150 unique rooms, incorporating artwork and features such as traditional kiva fireplaces and wooden ceiling beams called vigas, irregularly sloping floors and skylights. La Posada’s restaurants offer high-quality New Mexican and Latin-inspired recipes, from fresh tamales handmade in the kitchen by “Mama Mary” to posole and buffalo rib-eye, several dishes, of course, featuring the ubiquitous New Mexico green chile — which any chef here could be run out of town for not offering.
Some nights, a local cowboy singer will strum, whistle and croon to visitors. The first floor of the Staab House, now a bar serving a delicious and powerful array of margaritas, may (or may not) contribute to the hotel’s well-known ghost tales, which are rooted in Staab history.
The days of local hotel ownership seem to be fading into history. La Posada earlier this year became somewhat nebulously associated with hotel behemoth Starwood, but management say they intend to maintain its distinct character and make upgrades.
Many of Santa Fe’s fantastic museums, such as the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, are also within walking distance of the Plaza. One less-well-known one is tucked away just across the street from the St. Francis Cathedral.
The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts is focused purely on showcasing the work of present-day Native American artists, and is said to be the only one of its kind in the world. Inspired, often defiant voices are behind artistic creations as varied as Native American basketry, painting, sculpture and film. The works are living and breathing reminders that the past which shaped much of what early settlements like Santa Fe became — violent, visionary, earthy, poor and struggling to be inclusive — is still very much present.
If you go: Santa Fe, N.M.
Santa Fe School of Cooking: Learn how to cook traditional New Mexican, Native American, Spanish and Mexican dishes. Demonstrations and hands-on classes in the school’s modern, professional kitchen will have you preparing everything from tamales to tapas. 125 N. Guadalupe St.; www.santafeschoolofcooking.com
Historic Walks of Santa Fe: Stroll through Old Santa Fe with a knowledgeable guide offering history, insight and little-known facts about the oldest capital city in the U.S. Tours can be customized to fit your interests. www.historicwalksofsantafe.com
Museum of Contemporary Native Arts: This museum is focused exclusively on contemporary Native American art, history and culture. Its several galleries include paintings, sculpture, art installations and film. 108 Cathedral Place; www.iaia.edu/museum
Santa Fe Farmers Market: Every Saturday, year-round, Santa Fe’s historic Railyard district overflows with locally grown fruits and vegetables and hordes of dried chiles, along with freshly baked breads, jams, honey, medicinal remedies and even that old favorite, yak meat. There is also a separate artisan market nearby. 1607 Paseo de Peralta; www.santafefarmersmarket.com
Santa Fe Opera: Santa Fe’s truly unique open-air opera, located on the northern outskirts of the city, has performances in July and August. Come early and celebrate in the parking lot with the other tailgaters, dressed in everything from cowboy boots to opera-themed costumes and tuxedos. 301 Opera Drive. www.santafeopera.org
La Posada de Santa Fe: This luxury resort hotel’s 6-acre campus, located near the historic Plaza, has 158 uniquely decorated rooms and suites, excellent restaurants Fuego and the Patio, a spa, a curated art collection, and a history that stretches back to the original 1882 Staab House, which is still part of the hotel. Rooms from $199. 330 E. Palace Ave.; www.laposadadesantafe.com
The Compound: One of Santa Fe’s most popular upscale restaurants, led by a James Beard Award-winning chef, offers contemporary cuisine with Southwestern and Mediterranean influences. 653 Canyon Road; www.compoundrestaurant.com
La Casa Sena: Just off the main Plaza, this restaurant has its own historic courtyard, Sena Plaza, on the grounds of an old adobe hacienda, with tables set amid native trees and flowers, and a menu of Southwestern favorites and more. 125 E. Palace Ave.; www.lacasasena.com
Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at openskylight.blogspot.com.