The air is crisp and cold as you step out into the Santa Fe evening. Strings of hanging lights add a romantic glow to the trees and adobe buildings, some as old as 400 years, surrounding the city’s historic district. But it’s the signature farolitos lining the sidewalks and buildings, brightening the Plaza, that signal the holiday season. Just don’t call the brown-bagged votives luminarias if you want to try to appear local. The sound of Christmas carols drifts in from the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, and people scurry by bundled in coats and hats. Yes, you’ve come south, but don’t forget that Santa Fe sits at 7,199 feet in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The air carries the smell of burning piñon, as hotels and homes light fires and chimeneas for warmth and cheer. Just a block and a half off the Plaza, step inside the historic Hotel St. Francis, where you’ll find more glowing candles illuminating the gracious lobby and guests mingling with cocktails. They may be waiting to head to dinner, or perhaps going to mass at the Saint Francis Cathedral, as worshipers have done in the city’s French Romanesque Revival-style mother church since it was built from 1869 to 1886.
But you’re headed to the left side of the lobby to the Gruet Tasting Room, a chic outpost of the New Mexico winery that specializes in sparkling wines. The award-winning winery grew from the experimental transplanting of a French Champagne maker and his family. Inside, you’re sure to find a local man strumming a Spanish guitar in the corner. Take a leather seat at the bar or among the couples sitting at tables, sipping wine, laughing and enjoying the easy music.
It’s an intoxicating environment in general, thanks to the artistry, history, centuries-old culture and cuisine of the nation’s second-oldest city, founded in 1607. Add the candlelit magic and festivities, and Santa Fe, aka the City Different, is an exceptional place to spend the holidays.
Even the world-class food follows the spirit of the season. Can’t decide between New Mexico’s famous red or green chile? It’s common to hear people order their food topped “Christmas style,” half red chile, half green chile. Yes, you’ll find the culturally-defining food on almost every menu in town in some form or another. And the warm, comforting, hearty cuisine pairs perfectly with the seasonal chill—as well as the plentiful tangy margaritas.
If you’re in the market for unique gifts, you’ll find no shortage of creative and cultural offerings. The Native American influence on the area is strong, with multiple pueblos close by. Displays of turquoise jewelry, wooden hand-carvings and landscape paintings fill the windows of shops and galleries along the Plaza and beyond. Brightly colored wall-hangings and ornaments reflect Hispanic influences, and there are abundant leather goods and Western wear. With over 300 galleries ranging from ancient to contemporary art, Santa Fe is a haven for artists and collectors.
Come dusk on Christmas Eve, you’ll be fortunate to join residents and visitors on Canyon Road, just a mile from the Plaza, to walk and sing beneath the incandescence of thousands of holiday lights. The popular Farolito Walk follows the route among hand-lit farolitos and holiday lights on adobe homes, businesses, trees, statues—everywhere. People stop to warm themselves at bonfires or to drink hot chocolate. The much-loved community tradition draws crowds in snow or starlight and spills over into the surrounding area. The radiating glow rises from the heart of the city, carrying the spirit of Santa Fe and of the holidays into the night beyond.
Where to Stay
Hotel St. Francis
Named for the city’s patron saint, this hotel founded in 1924 stands as something of the city’s patron hotel, and one of its oldest. The beautiful open lobby is candlelit, and the California Mission style is all traditional elegance. A block off of the Plaza, the St. Francis offers a quintessential Santa Fe experience. hotelstfrancis.com
La Fonda on the Plaza
Sitting on the site of the town’s first inn from the early 1600s, this is a landmark for lovers of history and art. Paintings cover the walls, creating a museum-quality collection that has been curated since the current adobe structure was built and decorated in the 1920s. And rooms feature hand-painted headboards, handcrafted furniture and unique artwork as well. lafondasantafe.com
Ten Thousand Waves
For something different, this traditional Japanese spa offers a unique “Japanese-adobe” aesthetic. Surrounded by 20 acres of piñon pines, the resort features communal and private pools, hot tubs, saunas and spa suites—plus an upscale restaurant, Izanami, that draws raves. Downtown is only a 10-minute drive away, but you may be tempted to wear your kimono and stay on-site the whole time. tenthousandwaves.com
Don’t-Miss Holiday Festivities
Christmas at the Palace
Visit the Palace of the Governors, the 17th-century seat of Spanish rule, for warm drinks, holiday cookies and live entertainment. The great family-friendly event blends vibrant culture and history with holiday cheer. palaceofthegovernors.org
Join the candlelight procession around the Santa Fe Plaza to the Palace of the Governors courtyard for carols and refreshments. The traditional event re-enacts Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to give birth to the Christ child. nmhistorymuseum.org
Winter Indian Market
Browse or purchase your last-minute holiday gifts during this Native American market at La Fonda on the Plaza. More than 130 artists sell pottery, paintings, jewelry and weavings. There’s live entertainment, as well as a Native Santa. swaia.org
Canyon Road Farolito Walk
Start at the base of Canyon Road to stroll and admire the festive light of farolitos and bonfires. Dress warm, and bring a hot drink to hold. Santa Fe’s signature seasonal event is always on Christmas Eve. farolitowalk.com
Where to Eat and Drink
If you’re looking for fine dining…
While the rooftop patio features small plates and a taco menu, the main dining room serves decadent dishes from mesquite grilled lobster with pappardelle to Colorado rack of lamb with mole negro. You’ll want to make reservations for this chic hot spot. coyotecafe.com
The thick “global eclectic” menu changes seasonally but remains interesting with the likes of risotto with truffles and burrata, or elk tenderloin. The ambiance is traditional New Mexico with kiva fireplaces and wood beams. geronimorestaurant.com
If you want a taste of traditional food…
As most restaurants in New Mexico do, The Pantry claims to have the best chile in town. Theirs makes a strong case for the claim. Order anything smothered in it! Or just get a cup of green chile stew on the side. pantrysantafe.com
This is one of the few restaurants that has genuine chicos on their menu. Chicos are kernels of ripe corn that have been dried and then turned into a soup. We think they’re better than pozole. tomasitas.com
If you like Margaritas…
This favorite of tourists and locals is lauded for its red chile—and boasts a James Beard award from the mid-2000s. But it’s worth dropping in simply for the potent margaritas. Just beware, they come tart due to fresh lime and lemon. Look for the colorful hacienda just off the Plaza. sfshed.com
Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen
If you don’t mind a short drive from the Plaza—or 2-mile walk—Maria’s has an entire menu for margaritas. Their secret ingredient is lemons instead of limes, which they claim make for a more consistent—and delicious—marg. marias-santafe.com
Beyond the Holidays
It’s always a good time of year to visit these Santa Fe specialties.
Santa Fe Opera
Taking in a performance in the stunning, open-air, mesa-top theater is an experience in itself. But fans come from worldwide for the quality of the performances, especially during the summer opera festival. santafeopera.org
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
While Georgia O’Keeffe’s art included New York cityscapes, her starkly beautiful flowers, bones and landscapes that propelled her to the top of the American Modernism movement are nearly synonymous with Santa Fe. The museum offers insight into O’Keeffe and her art that explored “the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.” The collection includes thousands of her pieces. okeeffemuseum.org
Hip, funky, weird, kaleidoscopic, DIY and now New Mexico’s No. 1 attraction. The 35,000-square-foot choose-your-own-adventure is immersively entertaining for adults and children alike. Walk through a refrigerator into another realm, or create music by touching the branches of a tree. You can explore for hours. The collective is expanding to Denver in 2020, but this is where it all began. meowwolf.com