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Best Things To Do in Santa Fe

AOL PICK from our Editors
Most of the things to do in Santa Fe are conveniently located close to each other, so there’s no time wasted driving between them, and you’re never too far from a good restaurant! Our pick of top Santa Fe attractions tells you where you can touch a 14th century bell from Spain, try to solve the mystery of the miraculous staircase, hear Native Americans tell their stories, or indulge yourself with a hot tub soak in a Japanese spa. There is always more to see in Santa Fe, but these will take you into the soul of this city. Also check current performing arts events, and annual festivals. Venues like the Santa Fe Opera (July and August) and the Lensic Performing Arts Center are attractions in themselves, and the summer arts markets create a street party atmosphere, but what’s hot in town varies each week. Some museums close on Monday or open only seasonally on Monday.

Taos Pueblo

Neighborhood: Taos
Taos Pueblo requires a day trip from Santa Fe, but it’s well worth it for the experience and the scenic drive through the Rio Grande Gorge. The pueblo’s famous multi-storied adobe—apartments’ have stood at the foot of sacred Taos Mountain for nearly 1000 years, and this UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered the country’s oldest continually-inhabited community. We recommend the guided tour led by tribal members for a real insight into the place and people. The 1850 San Geronimo chapel is a favorite with photographers, and artisans sell mica pottery, jewelry, and drums. Afterward, grab lunch in artsy Taos, and stand on the Rio Grande Gorge bridge 650 feet above the river with spectacular gorge and mountain views. Allow at least 1.5 hours to drive to Taos from Santa Fe, but check first that Taos Pueblo isn’t closed for ceremonial purposes.

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Taos Pueblo  

San Miguel Mission

Neighborhood: Santa Fe Plaza/Downtown
The Spanish Colonial mission church, built between 1610 and 1628, is said to be the oldest in the United States. Whatever your religion, it’s hard not to feel awed by the weight of history within these thick adobe walls and beneath the massive vigas (wooden beams). The late 18th-century altar screens are intricately painted, and you can touch the 780-pound San Jose bell on display in the church, cast in 1356 and brought over from Spain. Enter via the gift shop on the right side of the church, which sells unusual and affordable arts and crafts pieces with Catholic iconery.

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Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Neighborhood: Santa Fe Plaza/Downtown
O’Keeffe’s iconic images of flowers, New Mexico landscapes, and sun-bleached animal skulls are shown in a renovated Pueblo-Revival style church that’s as elegantly minimalist as the art itself. The museum holds the world’s largest collection of her work, and we recommend taking a docent tour, or the excellent self-guided audio tour for insights into the ground-breaking female artist who put New Mexico on the map for many of today’s visitors. Also check out photos of the O’Keeffe by her husband Alfred Stieglitz, work by her contemporary modernists, and traveling exhibitions. The gift store is a design-guru delight, and the fancy O’Keeffe Café next door (open to all) is a cut above the average museum eatery. O’Keeffe pilgrims can book a guided tour of her beautiful Abiquiu home and studio about 50 miles northwest of Santa Fe—you drive yourself to Abiquiu. The popular tours, organized by the O’Keeffe Museum, take only 12 people and are limited in number (none in winter), so reserve a few months in advance if possible.

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Ten Thousand Waves

Neighborhood: Greater Santa Fe
Health-seekers have beaten a path to New Mexico’s high elevation sunny climate for at least a hundred years in search of—the cure’. You don’t need any such excuse to destress at this beautiful Japanese-style day spa about 15 minutes drive from the Plaza. Just turn up to soak in the mixed or women-only communal hot tubs (about $19, no time limit). Both have a sun deck and sauna, but we recommend booking ahead for private tubs, or for spa treatments including melt-your-bones massages. Admission includes kimono, sandals, and towels. People strip off in the clothing-optional tubs, although after 8:15PM swimsuits are mandatory in the mixed tub and are available for rent. The spa is exquisitely designed and landscaped, tucked into piñon-studded foothills. You can also stay overnight in Japanese—Houses of the Moon’.

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Ten Thousand Waves  

Museum Hill

Neighborhood: Museum Hill
Four unique museums cluster around a plaza overlooking the city, about two miles from Downtown. If you really dig museums, you could easily spend a few hours here. Start with the world’s largest collection of its kind at The Museum of International Folk Art. You’ll feel like you’ve been around the world after walking through exhibits of African masks, Turkish ceramics, Japanese and Greek textiles, and Romanian wine tankards (to name just a few). And if you’ve got children, they’ll enjoy the toy and doll displays. Enjoy the views at the Museum Hill Café before going on to your next choice. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture leads you on a journey through the lives of the region’s native cultures, including recordings of Native Americans sharing stories and songs. The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, in a John Gaw Meem building, contains colonial treasures spanning five centuries. The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian showcases significant Native American art in an eight-sided building inspired by a traditional Navajo hooghan. There’s also an outstanding gift shop, the Case Trading Post.

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Museum Hill  

Loretto Chapel

Neighborhood: Santa Fe Plaza/Downtown
One of the coolest things about this chapel is the miraculous spiral staircase features two 360-degree turns with no visible means of support. The construction was inventive at the time, and still baffles experts. The sandstone and stained glass 1878 Gothic Revival chapel is a Santa Fe gem, modeled after the 13th century Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Legend says that the sisters of Loretto were told they could only access the choir loft by ladder, as a staircase wouldn’t fit. After they prayed for nine days to the patron saint of carpenters,St Joseph, for a more elegant solution, a stranger turned up on a donkey, built the miraculous staircase, then disappeared without a  trace, and without payment. Was the mysterious carpenter St Joseph himself? Deconsecrated as a Catholic chapel in 1971, Loretto Chapel is now a private museum and popular for weddings.

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St. Francis Cathedral

Neighborhood: Santa Fe Plaza/Downtown
This Romanesque-style cathedral is a spectacular landmark in a city dominated by traditional New Mexican adobes. Built from 1869 and dedicated in 1887, the Cathedral was the brainchild (and now the burial ground) of Jean Baptiste Lamy of France, Santa Fe’s first Archbishop and the subject of Willa Cather’s novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. Lamy imported French architects and Italian stonemasons to create a cathedral in the European style on the site of an earlier adobe church destroyed in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Part of that original church remains as a small chapel, containing the oldest statue of the Madonna in the US, brought from Spain in 1625. Pope Benedict XVI elevated the Cathedral to a Basilica in 2005. Mass is held here daily and there’s a Spanish mass on Sunday.

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Museum of Art

Neighborhood: Santa Fe Plaza/Downtown
We think this museum is a great introduction to Southwestern art, especially by artists who've made their home in New Mexico and those influenced by the region. The collection is housed in a handsome 1917 Pueblo Revival style building and includes works by Gustave Baumann, Elliot Porter, Fritz Scholder, and Georgia O’Keeffe; the powerful sculptures of Luis Jimenez, and pottery by renowned San Ildefonso Pueblo potter Maria Martinez.

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Palace of the Governors

Neighborhood: Santa Fe Plaza/Downtown
The Palace of the Governors is the oldest continually occupied public building in the country. It was built in 1610 and while it’s noted as the Palace of the Governors, the governor doesn’t actually live here. You can browse the jewelry and crafts by Native American artists beneath the portal overlooking the Plaza, then explore the period rooms within the palace’s four foot thick adobe walls. The Segesser Hide Paintings depict a 1720 military expedition—kind of a photo-reportage of its day on bison hide.

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Randall Davey Audubon Center

Neighborhood: Canyon Road
If you want to explore the outdoors and have the chance to spot some wildlife, this 135-acre nature cemetery is the place. We like to cool off here on hot city days and with its slightly higher elevation (7,500 feet) in the National Forest the temps are milder. Follow two hiking trails through piñon and juniper (half mile loop) or into a canyon (3 miles for the full round-trip), or just sit in the gardens and watch the hummingbirds. Around 130 species of bird have been spotted at the sanctuary (borrow binoculars at the visitor center) and black bear, mule deer, and coyote. Activities include Saturday guided bird walks and tours of artist Randall Davey’s historic home on Friday (other days by arrangement). There’s also a nature store with gifts. It’s about 5 miles from the Plaza via Canyon Road to Upper Canyon; the last third of a mile is unpaved.

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New Mexico History Museum

Neighborhood: Santa Fe Plaza/Downtown
Cross over the courtyard from Palace of the Governors into the New Mexico History Museum and learn a bit about the Land of Enchantment. Admission is on the same ticket, and the museum leads you through state history from its earliest indigenous people to the present day.

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