I don’t often plan to return to destinations I visit; there’s just so much to see in the world, that I always feel compelled to go somewhere new. But some spots just yank at my traveler heartstrings, and I just know I’ll be back. Much to my surprise, Albuquerque, New Mexico, was one of them. Albuquerque rarely pops up on must-visit travel lists, but the biggest city in New Mexico (it has about eight times the number of people as Santa Fe) is a seriously dreamy destination.
“Albuquerque has a culture unlike any other,” said Brenna Moore, public relations and communications manager for Visit Albuquerque. “It is a city that truly exhibits the confluence of old and new. ...People are...often surprised to see how contemporary and youthful Albuquerque is. While the existence of southwestern landscape and architecture is a part of the city’s character, Albuquerque is also rife with modern, innovative, contemporary influences.” Sure, I expected beautiful scenery and picture-perfect pueblo architecture; but I wasn’t prepared for the depths of the city’s rich history, the options for trendy shopping, the extent of the outdoor activities available, or the opportunities for blissful R&R.
1. Hotels with style and character
In some destinations, your hotel may be little more than a place to sleep. In Albuquerque, it can be a special and memorable part of your experience. Hotel Andaluz, in the heart of downtown, combines elegance, character (the property, which dates back to 1939, is on the National Register of Historic Places and has preserved many of its historical elements), and sustainability (it’s the second hotel in the U.S. to receive LEED Gold certification). And about 15 minutes down the road is Los Poblanos, a ridiculously country-chic hotel and lavender farm that now sits comfortably near the top of my personal favorite hotels in the world list. Everything about the property — from the bright and welcoming guest rooms to the relaxing saltwater pool, farm shop with countless homemade lavender products, delicious on-site restaurant and actual goats and peacocks roaming the grounds — looks like it’s straight out of the pages of a magazine and feels supremely luxurious.
2. Countless ways to become one with nature
If you wanted to, you could spend your entire Albuquerque vacation being active and enjoying the stunning scenery; there are countless opportunities to do so. You can take a bike tour through the city, along the peaceful trails, and across the Rio Grande; experience the 10,000-foot elevation Sandia Mountains via the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway; or hike the trails at the Petroglyph National Monument; among many other activities. The latter, “found on the west side of the city, protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America, featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago,” Moore said.
But perhaps the most famous way to see the sights in Albuquerque is from the sky, via hot air balloon. Albuquerque is known for its ballooning — it’s home to the annual International Balloon Fiesta; and you can hop a ride with a company like Rainbow Ryders for an experience that’s unforgettable from the start of the fascinating balloon inflating process, throughout the sky-high flight, and to the celebratory toast upon landing. Rainbow Ryders offers tours at various times of day; I did the sunrise ride, and the feeling of floating up into the sky just as the sun is doing the same was well worth the early-morning-in-the-dark wakeup call. The Balloon Fiesta takes place every year in October, but Moore noted that the entire season of fall is a great time to visit. “The temperatures are mild, the fall foliage is in full-effect, and the skies are filled with hot air balloons,” she said. “Even if you can’t make it for the [Fiesta], the weeks leading up to and after the world-renowned event are some of the best of the year. It’s also a time of many local events and festivals, including beer and wine festivals, music festivals, and more.”
3. Gems just beyond the city
There’s more than enough to do in Albuquerque proper, but for those willing to drive a bit (about an hour of stunning scenery in a couple directions), there are a few stops that are well worth it. Consider heading about an hour northeast of Albuquerque to hang out and go stand-up paddleboarding at Cochiti Lake and hiking through the awe-inspiring Tent Rocks National Monument (you’ll also get the coolest slot canyon pictures ever). Or you can drive an hour northwest to Jemez Springs for a day of culture and rejuvenation. There, visitors can stop by the Pueblo of Jemez Welcome Center and Jemez Historic Site to learn about the Pueblo of Jemez — a Native American tribe and one of 19 remaining pueblos in New Mexico — and see village ruins dating back to the 1600s. When you get hungry, the historic Los Ojos Saloon will make for a tasty, low-key lunch option; and once you’ve filled up, you can head to the Jemez Hot Springs: Home of the Giggling Springs for an afternoon of R&R. The Hot Springs includes four natural outdoor mineral water pools (naturally heated geothermally) set among the mountains. You’ll have the chance to soak in the various pools (all different temperatures) and absorb the therapeutic benefits of the minerals, and hang out in the peaceful and picture-perfect cabanas with a drink in-hand between each dip. I’ve always been a bit more of a beach than a mountain person; but when the mountains include luxe, gorgeous pools full of good-for-my-skin water that I can enjoy while taking in the scenery, it really evens the playing field.
4. Flavor for days
Every restaurant you go to in Albuquerque is bound to have one ingredient in common: chile peppers. “No chile is like New Mexican chile,” Moore said. “Albuquerque is surrounded by areas rich in chile production, and the residents of Albuquerque have integrated the ingredient into just about every bit of the food culture. From traditional uses, such as smothering enchiladas and burritos, to more creative uses, like ice cream, chocolate and sushi.”
You can experience the famous flavors on a plate of huevos rancheros while brunching on the patio at Casa de Benavidez; in pickled form with your ceviche or in oil form in your roasted sunchoke soup at Los Poblanos’s Campo; or on El Pinto’s Famous Red Chile Ribs while dining in the cantina or on one of the five patios at their 12-acre property. (That land includes El Pinto’s “Hen Hotel” where 200 hens produce pasture-raised eggs used in the restaurant.) “Green and red chile for us is not a spice, like in most restaurants or places, but rather an integral part of the main dish,” said John Thomas, co-owner of El Pinto. “Without the chile, you don’t have the recipe.” El Pinto is so passionate about chile, in fact, that they’ve also been making and selling it in the form of jarred salsa and chile sauce since 2000. Most restaurants in Albuquerque have both red and green chile options — not sure which to go with? Thomas pointed out that one is not always spicier than the other. “When ordering, ask what is hotter or milder today depending on what you desire,” he said. “Heat is not caused because it is red or green, but rather because of the seed and the weather while it was growing.” And if you, like me, are a wimp when it comes to spicy foods, fear not: There really are mild chiles that add sharp flavor without setting your mouth on fire.
And if you want a break from chile, the above restaurants and many others offer dishes without the signature ingredient, too. Consider adding spots like Farm & Table which overlooks the actual farm where they get many of their ingredients, to your dinner itinerary; and the Native American-owned Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. for some refreshing local brews.
5. Shopping that gives new meaning to souvenirs
One of the most fun things about traveling is picking up local goods you can bring home as a reminder of your experience. If you want authentic Native American art and handicrafts, the aforementioned Pueblo of Jemez Welcome Center offers a solid selection. Back in Albuquerque, you can shop your way through the Sawmill District, a growing food, entertainment, and shopping hub adjacent to the historic Old Town Albuquerque. Spur Line Supply Co (which opened in fall of 2017) features an expertly curated selection of New Mexico-born brands (including beauty products, clothing, botanicals, home decor, and more) in a stunning, Insta-worthy space. While you’re shopping, you can satisfy your sweet tooth with a freshly made doughnut (perhaps a classic chocolate or an adventurous prickly pear; I tried both — and then some — and you really can’t go wrong) from Bristol Doughnut, which has a spot inside the market. Outside of Spur Line, the city is currently working on the development of the Sawmill Market, a converted warehouse that will open as a 25,000 square foot food and market hall in the fall of 2019.
The Turquoise Museum, which is set to reopen in the spring of 2019 in the 8,500-square-foot Gertrude Zachary Castle after outgrowing its previous space, offers the chance to see and buy beautiful stones. “Turquoise is tied to New Mexico due to the turquoise mines found in and around the state, making it an inherent mineral to the area,” Moore said. The museum is home to an expansive collection of turquoise from around the world, including the 6,888-carat George Washington stone, which is named for its resemblance to the former president. While there, you can check out the stunning collection and exhibits about turquoise; and of course, buy your own jewelry and decor. “To ensure you’re getting real, authentic turquoise, you can visit The Turquoise Museum’s three galleries...that offer everything there is to know about imitation turquoise and how to distinguish the differences,” said Jacob Lowry, executive director of The Turquoise Museum.
We already know I’ll be heading back to Albuquerque; so the only remaining question is: How many times will you get drawn into this southwestern dream?