How to: Experience Albuquerque & Santa Fe in One Trip (Part I)

by  Christine Wei | Dec 28, 2015
Old Town Albuquerque
Old Town Albuquerque / Christine Wei

Beautiful red rocks and outdoor adventure, mountain cuisine and handmade crafts, Native American heritage and organic Adobe architecture -- these are the classics that attract countless travelers to the Southwestern U.S. year after year. New Mexico in particular has all of this in spades, with a not-so-subtle offbeat lifestyle to boot. To make the most out of a trip to the curious state, here’s how to plan a getaway that encompasses two of its most popular cities, Albuquerque and Santa Fe.


Old Town Farm, which hosts bike-in coffees on weekends and is a stop along the Bosque Trail tour / Christine Wei

Day One: Getting the Lay of the Land

Fly into Albuquerque International Sunport, just four short miles from downtown. From the East Coast, JetBlue offers nonstop service from New York City. Several airlines like American, United, and Alaska operate direct West Coast flights from cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco -- in addition to other routes in the midwest, where Southwest and Delta also fly nonstop.

Most travelers opt to rent a car at the airport, best for seeing the sites outside of Old Town -- but the city is very bike-friendly and has plenty of Uber and Lyft drivers if you’d rather not get behind the wheel.

Once you’ve sorted out your transportation, get the lay of the land on a bike tour with Routes Rentals & Tours. While the "Breaking Bad"-themed tour is highly popular, we love the riverside tour along the bike- and pedestrian-only Bosque Trail for easy maneuverability and scenery factor alike ($35 with rental). And don’t forget to take time to get to know the guides. In this town, everyone seems to have second lives, and your tour leader just might be an aerialist, female fighter, or community organizer.

For lunch, get a taste of the state’s famed green chiles -- and figure out if you prefer that to the red variety. We have many favorite eateries for spicy meals, among which the circa 1962, family-owned El Pinto is always a good bet.

In the afternoon, explore Old Town’s shops, cafes, and galleries. The very walkable neighborhood is characterized by easy-to-find as well as more hidden plazas, so give yourself plenty of time to wander and get off the main streets. If you're looking for a souvenir, stop by the San Felipe Street side of Old Town Square, where you can browse jewelry, pottery, and other handmade goods from the region's Native American residents -- often at lower prices than other similar markets that are popular in New Mexico. You'll feel good knowing that you're buying directly from the artists, each one of whom is officially registered with the city and can explain their family craft.

End the night with another chile-filled meal, or tuck into Southwestern classics at Standard Diner, made famous by its feature on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.”


Golden Crown Panaderia / Christine Wei

Day Two: Hot Air Balloons & Museums Galore

If there’s one reason to get up bright and early in Albuquerque, it’s crossing a hot air balloon ride off your bucket list. Try Rainbow Ryders, which has been in business for more than 30 years and whose chief pilot clued us into some fantastic hot air balloon tips. His number one advice is also why we recommend booking for your first early morning in town -- rides are entirely weather dependent, so it’s best to leave some room for rescheduling if needed. (From $159 per person.)

For lunch, visit Golden Crown Panaderia, perhaps one of the most interesting establishments in town, in or out of the food category. The bakery, run by father-and-son duo Pratt and Chris Morales, uses recipes from as long as 200 years ago that the Moraleses have collected from local families. And it’s no typical neighborhood bakery; in addition to its beloved green chile bread, you’ll also find blue corn crust pizza, the state’s best latte art, more local beer than you can drink in one trip, and even wines on tap. That said, there’s an undeniable community feel here. Spontaneous music performances frequently pop up, and Chris himself has been known to cut the rug with some salsa moves (he was a dance pro in a former life).

This afternoon is a good one for an afternoon nap, given your early start to the day, before exploring more that Old Town has to offer. Depending on whether you’re a history buff or an adventurer or a science nerd, you can head to institutions like the Albuquerque Museum, Rattlesnake Museum, Explora Science Center, and the Turquoise Museum.

For dinner, head 6 miles out from downtown to Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm. The farm-fresh breakfasts are sadly reserved for guests only, but anyone can make dinner reservations at the rustic chic retreat. Arrive a little early to browse the farm shop, open till 5 p.m., that sells signature gourmet goods and spa products from the lavender farm.


Garduno's at Hotel Albuquerque / Christine Wei

Day Three: Farm Life & Native American Culture

If you didn’t need to reschedule your balloon ride, start your last full day in ABW at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center ($6), a great place to learn about the 19 pueblos in New Mexico. The museum encompasses a historical overview, contemporary arts and crafts, and a mini theater. Short of visiting the pueblos, the center's Pueblo Harvest Cafes is one of the best places to sample scratch meals made with traditional ingredients.

In the afternoon, ride the Sandia Peak Tramway that runs along the Sandia Mountains on the eastern border of town. An observation deck brings sweeping views from the 10,378-foot peak, and you can get active with everything from skiing to biking, depending on the season.

You can’t leave town without catching one of Albuquerque’s “watermelon sunsets” -- named after the reddish glow reflected on the green conifer-rimmed Sandia Mountains. The sunsets are best viewed from the east; try the rooftop at the Hotel Parc Central, or find other elevated views in the hip Nob Hill neighborhood.

For a memorable last night, the historic Hotel Albuquerque delivers delicious New Mexican eats, smooth drinks, and trendy nightlife all in one. Garduño's has everything from fish tacos to blue corn enchiladas. Its "frost bar," which features a chilling countertop strip to keep drinks cool, boasts the most tequilas of any bar in the state. After dinner, QBar is a popular night club most evenings -- but if your trip falls on a Friday, nothing's cooler than partying at Casa Esencia -- a standalone 8,000-square-foot home that’s otherwise members-only ($20 cover).


Weems Gallery / Christine Wei


Old Town Albuquerque / Christine Wei


El Pinto / Christine Wei
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