Santa Fe has a reputation for being pricey, what with all the art galleries, boutiques, jewelry stores, restaurants, and hotels. And while it’s true you can blow a wad of cash there without even trying, it’s just as easy to enjoy Santa Fe if you’re on a budget. It just depends upon your priorities.
If you can live without purchasing a life-sized bronze sculpture of a bugling elk or Native American art, and you’re more interested in a cultural experience than shopping, Santa Fe is infinitely more affordable than many holiday hotspots. Even on a shoestring, you don’t have to miss out on the many incredible sights and experiences this small city has to offer, with the possible exception of a spa treatment or an overpriced, underwhelming meal.
Unlike many cities with a lot of money and cultural attractions, Santa Fe is all about casual. Locals are more concerned with comfort and self-expression than trends, so don’t worry about buying a new wardrobe for your trip or lugging lots of clothes with you. Bring a pair of beat-up cowboy boots and jeans or a long skirt, and you’ll fit in just fine.
Read on for tips on how to do Santa Fe right, local-style.
The biggest secret to saving money in Santa Fe is staying at one of a handful of little-known hotels in the downtown area. Sure, you can crash Super 8 or Motel 6 on the outskirts of town (I’ve done it), but you’re going to wind up paying just as much for a crappy, generic room that requires a car in order to see any of the sights.
Instead, spring for a stay at an adorable, pueblo-style hotel, like the following:
- The Old Santa Fe Inn is a family-owned property just four blocks from the historic Plaza. A single queen averages $89-$209 low/high season, and includes a full breakfast and complimentary parking; pet friendly.
- The Santa Fe Sage Inn (free parking, continental breakfast, shuttle, and pet-friendly; double queen $45-$135 low/high season) is located across the street from the thriving Railyard Arts District/farmers market near downtown and the Plaza.
- The Santa Fe Motel & Inn has free parking and full breakfast, and is a homey little gem near the Plaza and Convention Center, for $89 to $145 a night (standard room; low/high season rates).
Note that low season in Santa Fe is between November and March, excluding major holidays, but can start earlier, depending upon the hotel property. Be sure to ask when making reservations; click here for information on year-round specials.
Eating and Drinking
Everyone loves to splurge on a great meal, but New Mexican cuisine is about as rustic and homely (in the true sense of the word) as you can get. It’s also insanely delicious, addictive, and filling, so those with small appetites can easily get by on one big meal a day (if you count your free hotel breakfast). Gluttons like me still have to work at finding room for three squares, but given the plethora of excellent restaurants in town, you’ll want to pace yourself. And be aware that the hole-in-the-wall spots are where the locals prefer to eat on a regular basis. The farmers market, which runs Saturdays year-round, is world-class.
Don’t miss these classic, uber-affordable spots:
- Johnnie’s Cash Store: Serving Santa Fe’s best tamales since 1946, for under $3 a pop.
- Bobcat Bite: The best green chile cheeseburger in town.
- Santa Fe Farmers Market in the Railyard: The adovada breakfast burrito is a $6 bit of heaven, and coffee is only a dollar. Located inside the Market Pavilion, at the Farmers Market Cafe concession stand; open Tuesdays and Saturdays, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.
- Tia Sophia’s: Escape the tourist hordes at this under-the-radar, just-off-the-Plaza eatery, beloved for its posole, green chile and breakfast burritos. Breakfast and lunch, only.
- Pantry Restaurant: It’s not near the Plaza, but this down-home diner is a local favorite for all things New Mexican.
- Casa Chimayo: Owned by a long-established local family, the posole is delicious, and service warm and friendly.
- Roque’s Carnitas: A long-standing food cart on the Plaza, and a great lunch stop.
- Evangelo’s: About the only true dive downtown (although regrettably, it’s been spiffed up a bit so it’s not as skanky as it once was) with strong drinks and live music most nights. Always a host of local characters (some more derelict than others). There’s also The Matador, right across the street and down a flight of stairs. If it’s Happy Hour specials you want, talk to your hotel concierge or front desk.
Things to do
- Go museum hopping: Many of Santa Fe’s museums offer a free or discounted day; check individual websites for details. Two of the most popular, the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors, and the New Mexico Museum of Art, are free on Friday evenings, from 5-8 p.m.
- Take a cooking class: The Santa Fe School of Cooking is relocating this week to a new, much larger space, which means more classes. Hands-on classes and workshops start as low as $50.
- Hike or ride: There’s hiking and mountain biking in Santa Fe proper, on the Dale Ball Trail System, and Nature Conservancy Trail. if you really want to get out into the woods, however, try the Santa Fe National Forest, Hyde Memorial State Park, or Santa Fe Ski Basin.
- Go for a walk: Santa Fe is one of the nation’s most walkable cities, with miles of creekside bike/pedestrian paths and enclaves of adorable neighborhoods made up of adobe homes festooned with chile ristras and flowers. I’ve literally whiled away entire days wandering the city. The city also offers a multitude of free walking tours focused on everything from coffee and chocolate to literary landmarks.
- Dance: The Plaza is buzzing most evenings during high season with live music, festivals, and often, dancing. When I was in Santa Fe in August, the gazebo was full of couples practicing tango. You never know what you’re going to find, but call the Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-777-2489 if you want to plan ahead.
- Windowshop: Even if you’re not in looking to buy, Santa Fe offers world-class window shopping, especially amidst the galleries and boutiques of Canyon Road.
- Visit a pueblo: Although not walking distance, there are eight pueblos located just north of Santa Fe. Spend a morning or afternoon talking to the various tribes, explore the dwellings, purchase handicrafts, or attend one of the weekend Indian Markets, seasonal pow-wows, or other cultural events. Be open to talking to the residents; when I visited the Taos Pueblo, I ended up helping to construct a traditional adobe horno, or outdoor oven.
Skip the rental car (which is unnecessary if you’re staying downtown). The shuttle from the Albuquerque airport, an hour away, is just $47/pp/round trip. Ultimately, it comes down to what you’re planning to do while you’re in town.