Editor’s note, 2/21/20: This article has been updated with 2020 dates and information.
If you thought New Mexico’s state capital was a destination for retirees, it’s time to reconsider. From March 1 through April 15, some of Santa Fe’s best hotels, restaurants, museums, and galleries are offering deals and discounts for Kids Free Spring Break, a citywide initiative allowing families of all ages to craft their ideal getaway.
“This is an opportunity to discover the one-of-a-kind Spanish, Native American, and Anglo culture that is one of the reasons we’ve been called The City Different for over a century,” says Cynthia Delgado, marketing director for Tourism Santa Fe. Here’s a look at some of the many adventures awaiting families in an eclectic little mountain town five-and-a-half hours south of Denver.
See the Sights
Time your drive right, and you’ll be climbing toward the foot of the glowing Sangre de Cristo mountain range just in time to watch the waning sun paint the sky with colors that swirl together like sand art. The stargazing isn’t bad either, and the viewing’s prime at Cross of the Martyrs, a 25-foot, 76-ton reinforced concrete cross on the fringes of the city’s downtown district.
The cross commemorates the death of dozens of Franciscan friars and Spanish colonists, and is a reminder that our nation’s second-oldest city is defined, today, by its incongruities. Christianity and Native spirituality; traditional and contemporary art movements — even the local grub is filled with complexities.
Try the Local Cuisine
We know Christmas is long gone, but when you’re seated at a round four top in a drafty corner of the Shed, and your server leans over to ask the state question — “Red or green?” — “Christmas” is a smart answer for newbies.
“We’re one of the rare places that has its own regional cuisine,” explains John Feins, public relations manager for Tourism Santa Fe. Founded on indigenous techniques and tweaked by Spanish colonists, Northern New Mexican fare is defined, first and foremost, by the chile pepper, which grows better in New Mexico than anywhere else in the world.
“Peppers have been refined into sauces, but nobody calls them sauces,” Feins continues, adding, “They’re just chile.” And with chile, it’s not about heat. “It’s all about flavor,” says Feins, recommending that guests sensitive to spice (such as children) order their chili on the side when lunching at Tia Sophia’s, another legit, family-operated joint the locals love, and the place where the term “Christmas” was originally coined by waitress Martha Rotuno in the 80s.
Learn a Little History
Historical tidbits — truths and rumors alike — are hidden throughout the town, but you’ll have to chat up the natives to find them. After brushing up on your state and regional history at the Palace of the Governors — the 400-year-old adobe on the Plaza, a designated National Historic Landmark and American Treasure housing New Mexico’s history museum — mingle with indigenous craftsmen hawking their work on the sidewalk. Santa Fe’s Palace Portal Program gives tourists a chance to “meet a potter making pots the way her Pueblo family has made them for centuries,” as Feins puts it.
“If your kids are ready to learn about first peoples,” Feins continues, “Santa Fe is the best city to discover native culture.” More indigenous people live on their original land in Northern New Mexico than anywhere else east of the Mississippi. And, your visit isn’t complete without a day trip to one of northern New Mexico’s eight pueblos. Most popular is Taos Pueblo, where a few hundred Native Americans live and work in their ancestors’ thousand-year-old village. If you play your cards right, the woman selling fry bread will tell you all about her people over a cup of piñon java.
After you’ve sampled the state’s nutty coffee, look for the piñon pine in the foothill slopes, where active Colorado families can hike, bike, and ski. “There are 1.6 million acres of national forest next to us,” says Feins. His top pick for a family-friendly hike is the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, located 40 miles southwest of Santa Fe. More adventurous families might try the 6-mile out-and-back Atalaya Mountain trail.
In March and early April, plan to make the short half-hour drive to the slopes on a Wednesday, when kids ski free with any two paying adults.
Explore the Art Scene
Proximity to art, by the way, is what makes Santa Fe skiing unique — and it’s the town’s robust arts scene that drives most visitors to the area. There are 250 galleries within city limits — eighty of which are situated within three-quarters mile of each other on Canyon Road, Santa Fe’s most iconic arts district, an enchanting lane that was originally a residential neighborhood for artists.
Canyon Road was Santa Fe’s inaugural art district, but it’s no longer the only one. “There’s downtown, the Railyard Arts District, and the Midtown Innovation District,” Feins says.
Located downtown off the Plaza, the infamous Georgia O’Keefe museum is a must-see for art lovers. But if you only go to one of Santa Fe’s 19 museums, make sure it’s Midtown Innovation District’s Meow Wolf, an experiential and immersive exhibit that’ll have you feeling like you’ve crawled inside a Pink Floyd video. Built in an old bowling alley, the main event is a two-story Victorian house crammed with mystery, magic, and a whole bunch of secret passages. Plan to spend at least half a day at this House of Eternal Return, and swing through the David Loughridge Learning Center, too, an on-site nonprofit initiative where inspired kiddos can create their own art under the auspices of a parent or guardian.
When you’re ready to unwind after a long day, check into the economical Santa Fe Sage Inn & Suites, or one of the hotels participating in Kids Free Spring Break. Get a good night’s sleep — you’ll need it for tomorrow’s jam-packed agenda.
Your Santa Fe Spring Break Bucket List
- Peruse the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market on Saturday; frequently ranked in the top 10 markets nationally, this exchange is located in the Railyard district, and flaunts a variety of high quality, locally grown produce.
- Head to Museum Hill, featuring four museums plus Santa Fe Botanical Garden.
- Visit Meow Wolf, Santa Fe’s art collective, and fall into more than a few rabbit holes in the House of Eternal Return.
- Before exploring the contemporary galleries in the Railyard, let your kiddos run off some energy at Santa Fe Railroad Park, a gem of a green space features creative climbing, sliding and play objects made from mostly natural materials.
- Catch a show at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, Santa Fe’s 821-seat theater, which hosted the likes of Judy Garland and Roy Rogers in its heyday.
- Treat yourself to dinner at the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, an upscale spot with a top-notch food and beverage program. Before you eat, order a cocktail in the hotel’s cozy hearth room while your children browse a vast collection of board games and books.
- Visit one of New Mexico’s Pueblos on a Feast Day, and witness traditional dancing before partaking in bona fide native cuisine. Reservations required.