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Santa Fe

You don’t have to love Georgia O’Keeffe to love the adobe churches, chile–spiked cuisine, and beckoning galleries of this art–smitten haven in New Mexico. But why resist?

O’Keeffe painting, Black Hollyhock Blue Larkspur
Photo caption
Black Hollyhock Blue Larkspur by O’Keeffe, 1930

In the summer of 1929, painter Georgia O’Keeffe set off on a journey that would change her life and her art forever. Invited to northern New Mexico by an eccentric patron, O’Keeffe left behind the muggy skies of Manhattan to discover the windswept mountains, ancient pueblos, and flower–flecked arroyos of the high desert. "This is wonderful," she marveled. "No one told me it was like this."

Travel to Santa Fe today and you may find yourself uttering those same words. You’ve probably heard of the city’s phenomenal gallery scene, fiery Southwestern cuisine, and rich history as America’s oldest capital. But what still takes out–of–towners by surprise is the sheer beauty of the place.

The sky stretches impossibly blue, the adobe walls cast perfectly angled shadows, the flowers unfold in almost too delicate layers. Wandering through the city’s downtown feels like stepping into a certain famous painter’s vision of the Southwest—abstracted, magnified, sensualized, unreal. It is city as art.

Santa Fe has proclaimed 2007 the Year of O’Keeffe, with a packed calendar of lectures, galas, celebrity readings of her letters, even motorcycle rides to the artist’s beloved Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, celebrating its 10th anniversary, expects some 200,000 art lovers to view such iconic paintings as Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory, along with 981 works recently donated by the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, before snatching up O’Keeffe postcards, posters, and recipe books in the museum gift shop. Indeed, more than 20 years after her death, Santa Fe’s adopted artist is thriving.

But while O’Keeffe is the undisputed alpha of Santa Fe art, she is hardly the omega. In a gorgeous pueblo revival building, the city’s Museum of Fine Arts showcases countless others who have recognized New Mexico’s unparalleled palette, from members of the 1920s art collective Los Cinco Pintores to local wood–block legend Gustave Baumann. Don’t miss Baumann’s set of handmade marionettes, including a wide–eyed, camera–toting tourist that pokes fun at Santa Fe’s ubiquitous sightseers.

Just outside, the city’s welcoming heart beats at the plaza’s central square, which over the course of 400 years has served as a crossroads for American Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo societies. Today it provides the perfect place to catch your breath at the lung–humbling altitude of 7,000 feet before succumbing to the siren sizzle of beef carnitas grilling at outdoor stands. Still hungry? Head to Five & Dime General Store for a local specialty known as Frito pie—a bag of Fritos filled with cheese and chili.

Across the plaza, Native Americans sell handcrafted turquoise jewelry in the shelter of the Palace of the Governors, a tradition dating back to the early 1600s. Duck inside the adobe palace—constructed in 1610 as the capitol of Nuevo México—to view Spanish broadswords, wooden stagecoaches, and Native hide paintings that trace the state’s cultures and conquests.

From here it’s just a 20–minute stroll to the famed galleries of Canyon Road—so long as you resist the retail temptations of rhinestone–encrusted jeans, burnished black pottery, butter–soft leather boots, hand–carved kachinas, tin lanterns, and the requisite cow skull or two. Shoppers nearing their credit limit can seek refuge in the Loretto Chapel, a Gothic gem famed for a "miracle" spiral staircase built without nails or central support—a fitting marvel in a city whose name is Spanish for "holy faith."

Once you set eyes on Canyon Road, you’ll understand another miracle: how tiny Santa Fe, population 65,000, holds its rank as the third–largest art market in the country. Winding and tree–lined, it’s the prettiest possible place for an afternoon of gallery hopping, with garden–fronted adobes converted into nearly a hundred SoHo–caliber showcases. Check out Morning Star Gallery’s 19th–century hand–beaded Native dresses, Nüart Gallery’s adventures in magical realism, and the Wiford Gallery’s whimsical wind sculptures—or just wander at will.

Hipsters seeking something edgier can venture to the up–and–coming Railyard District, where abandoned warehouses are becoming pottery studios, performance spaces, and art showrooms. The daring Evo Gallery spotlights large–scale photography and installations by young artists, while the museum–size Site Santa Fe challenges expectations. You might see drawings made from exploding gunpowder or a looping video of a woman cleaning a chicken. Take it all in, but leave time to ride the Santa Fe Southern Railway. The route takes you to the high–desert village of Lamy, and there’s nothing like leaning over the railing of a rolling flatcar, inhaling the scent of piñon and chamisa.

By the time the sinking sun bathes the Jemez Mountains in golden light, Santa Fe’s chefs are at work. At stylish Aqua Santa, Brian Knox performs seasonal improvisations such as organic chicken breast with peach sauce and pine nuts, while at the new La Boca, James Campbell Caruso riffs on savories like grilled calamari with lemon and mint or Majorcan flat bread with chorizo and manchego cheese.

"Santa Fe has a creative culture—creative people who are willing to try new things," explains überchef Mark Miller, who is credited with introducing Southwestern cuisine to the world. His famous Coyote Cafe is relaxed and reliable, with an open kitchen and such unforgettable favorites as rack of lamb stuffed with sun–dried tomatoes and goat cheese. For dessert, take a stroll through the hushed downtown streets or a long soak in an outdoor hot tub at Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese–style spa hidden among cottonwoods.

Come morning, the whole town queues up at Cafe Pasqual’s for huevos motuleños—corn tortillas, over–easy eggs, black beans, sautéed bananas, feta, and peas (yes, peas) topped with green chile or tomatillo salsa. Sit at the communal table and you’ll meet fellow travelers eager to discuss their favorite excursions: hikes in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument, the church in Chimayó.

Whichever adventure you choose, don’t leave town without first driving up to Museum Hill. Here, courtyards and sculpture gardens link four museums covering everything from Indian textiles to Spanish silverwork. Best is the Museum of International Folk Art, home to the offbeat collection of Alexander Girard, a famed textile designer who traveled the world gathering items to inspire future artists—Día de los Muertos figurines, Polish Nativity scenes, British rocking horses, Indian temple toys, and Chinese deities. When security guard Mike Sanchez says, "I’ve been here for five months and I still see something new every day," you believe him.

Afterward, step outside to take in the taupes and siennas of Santa Fe, the purple of the mountains, the turquoise of the sky—all awaiting artists to enchant. "This is wonderful," you say. And before you know it, another love affair has begun.

Photography courtesy Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

This article was first published in July 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.