Warm Up in the Southwest: Why You Should Visit Santa Fe in the Winter
When our vacation itinerary consisted of a week of hiking an outdoor exploring as my boyfriend and I road-tripped through New Mexico, we knew at some point we would be dying to take a break in a larger city, crash in a nice hotel, and stuff ourselves with amazing food. Santa Fe was the perfect place to spend a few days and as one of the oldest cities in the U.S., it’s filled with so much charm, character and history. Almost every building in town features the Adobe-style architecture New Mexico is known for. Even if it’s just a common bank building or a fast food restaurant, the look of Santa Fe is consistently “Southwest”. It's a city that is proud of its heritage and is filled with warm and welcoming people.
I first visited Santa Fe when I was young, and therefore too young to really remember it. The only thing that sticks out in my mind was picking out a pair of turquoise chandelier earrings from a outdoor vendor. I proudly wore those crazy earrings all throughout middle school, even when they didn’t match my outfit AT ALL. I have always wanted to return, especially since Santa Fe is constantly topping lists of best weekend getaways in the country. However, I was a little worried that we’d be missing out on the true vibe of Santa Fe by visiting in the winter. Much to my surprise, the city proved to be the perfect location to explore even with a layer of snow on the ground and a cold winter breeze blowing across our faces.
Stroll Through the Historic District
The historic downtown area of Santa Fe revolves around the Plaza, a one block square radius surrounding open green space with trees, grass and a gazebo. During our winter travels, we saw kids using the snow in the Plaza to build snowmen and makeshift sledding hills...we felt like we were back in Chicago! The street was partially shut down to vehicles during the day making it a central meeting point and hub of the city. The roads that branch out from the Plaza are easily walkable, with plenty of spots for shopping or margaritas. Santa Fe is home to the famous Margarita Trail (reason enough to come to this city) so make sure you indulge in a few. And with the ability to hop in and out of stores in between margarita stops, you can easily peruse gorgeous Native American jewelry made from silver, turquoise and other precious stones (and maybe even pick up a crazy chandelier pair), locally crafted rugs and baskets as well as stunning hand-painted pottery. I dare you not to leave Santa Fe without a few souvenirs. Our apartment in Chicago is now littered with pottery of all sizes...no shame! Santa Fe really caters to local artisans, giving people from all walks of life and from all neighboring tribes the opportunity to put their work on display, most of which is born out of centuries of family traditions.
As we browsed the historic downtown, we encountered the beauty of adobe and terra-cotta buildings in the snow. These warm structures made of rich red/orange clay stand out beautifully against the patches of crisp blue skies of New Mexico winter. When you add fresh snow on top, it's a sight to be seen. You can tell why so many artists have made Santa Fe and New Mexico home for so long; the landscape is both stunning and inspiring. You can immerse yourself in New Mexican art and multiple museums within walking distance of the Plaza including the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, the New Mexican Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.
As you spend more time in Santa Fe you will definitely start to notice long strand of chilis, almost like spicy Christmas garland, hanging from doorways, archways and light posts on every corner. Honestly, some are so big that I almost bumped into a few that were hanging around the Plaza. These are known as Chili Ristras; these bundles of red chili pods are hung as a welcome symbol and are used as symbolic decor in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. They’re just another aspect of Santa Fe culture that naturally brings warmth to the city during winter months. Ristras are one of the most popular souvenirs in Santa Fe and you can easily purchase smaller ones to take home with you in stores around the historic district.
Take in the Ambience, the Vibe, and the Smells
This may sounds strange but Santa Fe just SMELLS GOOD, especially in the winter. You know how New York sometimes just kind of smells like garbage? Santa Fe is literally the opposite and it’s relatively small population density means there isn't as much air pollution to drown out all those darn good scents naturally floating through the air. During the summer you'll most likely smell sage and flowers blooming but throughout the winter, you will be surrounded with the scent of Piñon. Piñon is a type of pine tree that grows in the Southwest and becomes the wood of choice for Santa Fe fireplaces in the colder months. This earthy scent which smells similar to a campground bonfire mixed with spice blankets the entire town and it's AMAZING. As you walk through the main square, you're surrounded by the scent that reignites every time the breeze blows.
Eat ALL THE FOOD
Santa Fe is a food MECCA. Arrive with your heart open and your stomach empty so you can fill up with all the local bites. Fresh ingredients are commonplace in Santa Fe restaurants as chefs put a variety of chilis and chili sauce, as well as sapodillas and blue corn tortillas and more varieties of margaritas than you could ever imagine, on display.
The Compound is the best place for a high-end meal in Santa Fe and I fully believe that you always have to splurge at least once on food while traveling. Located off Canyon Road, The Compound is a bit secluded but the service and strength of the menu deserve the trek. With starters like Pear and Parsnip Soup (with a hunk of Brie cheese in the center…YUM) and Green Lentils and Fall Squash Sofrito, this fusion restaurant that brings the spices of New Mexico subtly into their dishes will be sure to warm you up from the inside out. A main entree of Pan-Seared Duck Breast with brussel sprout leaves and shiitake mushrooms keeps you happy and satisfied.
One of the most popular restaurants in Santa Fe, The Shed, has been open since 1953 and is ALWAYS packed (and for good reason). The original hacienda building was built in the 1600s and the bold colors and boisterous vibe will make you feel like you’re walking into a party with all the Santa Fe locals; like you’re part of the family. Try to arrive for lunch as soon as they open so you don't have to wait for a seat. Known for their burritos and exceptional red and green chile which makes an appearance on all of their dishes, this is an affordable eatery that will fill you up with all the New Mexican deliciousness you could desire. Winter-time also adds the Shed Corn Chowder to the menu which is some of the best soup I've EVER had! Seriously guys, eat here.
Kakawa Chocolate House
There were many times when all I needed to get through the brisk winter walks through Santa Fe was a warm drink in my belly. Instead of falling victim to old habits and going to Starbucks for my signature Cinnamon Dulce Latte, make sure you make a stop at Kakawa Chocolate House. This cute little shop is know for something quite special and oftentimes hard to find in the United States: drinking chocolate. This isn't that cheap Swiss Miss powdered hot chocolate you mix with boiling water. This is straight up melted chocolate which is served at the consistency of a liquid, perfect for slurping up from a small coffee mug. This is heaven on Earth. The beauty of Kakawa is their drinking chocolate offerings: anything from the sugary "American Elixir" to concoctions with chilis or rose and almond. Pair a drink with a truffle, brownie or cookie and your body will be rejuvenated with a decent dose of cocoa and sugar rush.
Find Your Way to Canyon Road
Canyon Road is the place to really take in and experience the art scene in Santa Fe. Spend the afternoon taking a leisurely stroll down this half mile of street, home to over 100 unique art galleries and shops. Many people utilize Canyon Road to walk their dog or go for a jog, making it an incredibly relaxing afternoon vibe. I personally don’t think I could afford anything on Canyon Road but it was fun to peruse everything from paintings, to elaborate sculptures and jewelry.
Explore the Railyard Arts District
Although we didn’t make it to this section of Santa Fe on our trip, we’re already planning to return to discover more of the city and eat more green chili-covered enchiladas. The Railyard Arts District is filled with more contemporary and modern art galleries than Canyon Road. It is also home to the acclaimed Meow Wolf, an extremely interactive art museum/set of art installations that will take your mind on a crazy trip. This place is perfect for a crazy instagram shot and a fun way to spend a cold winter day indoors.
Santa fe is a gorgeous city filled with history dating back hundreds of years…way before our country was even an actual country. The warmth that this city has in it’s architecture, food and people make it memorable no matter what time of year it is. Perfect for a family trip or especially a couple’s or girl’s getaway, the shopping is top notch and the main downtown district is super easy to navigate. There is even a free bus that will take you around between the main areas of town! Make sure to add Santa Fe to your next trip to the Southwestern United States.