A History Lover’s Guide to New Mexico

New Mexico is an unrivaled destination for any history lover, with protected monuments, rich traditions, and preserved historical wonders ready to be experienced.

May 11, 2024By Matt Dursum, BA Geography and GIS Systems

history lovers guide new mexico


Throughout the beautiful, high desert landscapes of New Mexico are some of the most historically rich destinations in the United States. From Pueblo ruins, ancient petroglyphs, and sacred Indigenous lands to Spanish, Mexican, and frontier settlements, the state is full of historical treasures.


Fortunately, it’s easy to visit these wonderful places and landmarks by road. With a little time and a trusty map, you can easily visit the historical places scattered throughout the state. Below are the best places in New Mexico to visit to get the most out of this historical region.


Dive into New Mexico’s Capital, Santa Fe

santa fe photo
Santa Fe. Source: 12019 from Pixabay


New Mexico’s capital is a breathtaking patchwork of historical places that are easy to visit. As soon as you set foot in the city, centuries of architectural styles surround you. From Spanish cathedrals, 17th-century adobe houses, and 19th-century Mexican haciendas to historical cathedrals, you can spend days just experiencing the buildings.


After thousands of years of Indigenous history, the colonizing Spanish established Santa Fe as a European settlement in 1610. Until 1821, the city was the capital of the Spanish colonial frontier and remained relatively cut off from the rest of the Spanish political territory because of its remoteness. After Mexico won its independence from Spain, Mexico expanded trade with the United States, using the city as the hub for a series of roads linking the city with Missouri that became known as the Santa Fe Trail.

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Throughout the city are well-curated museums that chronicle the city’s rich and complex history and mixture of cultures. Downtown’s New Mexico History Museum, Museum Hill’s Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, and Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian educate visitors on the area’s long Indigenous history.


Throughout the city, you’ll see relics of its past as the crossroads of the American West. First, browse through the centuries-old avenues surrounding the historic Santa Fe Plaza. Then, walk south down Old Santa Fe Trail Road to see the Loretto Chapel, San Miguel Chapel, and the Oldest House Museum. Finally, take some time to walk through the historic Santa Fe Railway Park.


Visit and Experience Taos Pueblo

taos pueblo photo
Taos Pueblo. Source: Rob Robinson from Pixabay


Just over an hour and thirty minutes north of Santa Fe is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Taos Pueblo. The town is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States and is a regional center for indigenous culture and cultural preservation.


Nestled on the Rio Pueblo de Taos River, Taos Pueblo has been the home of the Pueblo Indian community for at least 1,000 years. Many of the town’s well-preserved multi-story buildings were likely built between the 11th and 15th centuries.


When you enter the town, you immediately see the towering smooth walls of the adobe complexes. The ancestral Pueblo people built their adobe buildings from bricks or large walls made from soil, water, and straw. Today, each building has doors and windows, however before the modern era, people entered their adobe homes through the roof.


Taos Pueblos is the perfect destination to learn more about this historic region and its beautiful architecture. After parking at the parking facility on Pueblo Street, you can walk into the large open space in the center of town. Here, you can take your time to enjoy the beautiful original adobe buildings such as Hlaukwima and Hlauuma and the 17th-century St. Jerome Chapel. Afterward, you can shop for local jewelry or art pieces around town to take a piece of this incredible destination home with you.


Wonder Through Aztec and Gaze at Ship Rock

aztec ruins samantha demangate
Aztec Ruins. Source: Samantha Demangate


In the northwest corner of New Mexico is the town of Aztec, where you can visit the Aztec monument. Ancestral Puebloans built these stunning stone complexes in the 12th century and abandoned them for unknown reasons several hundred years before the Europeans arrived.


Today, you can easily visit the expansive UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll walk through the grounds, enter the buildings, and learn about Puebloan culture and architecture through curated exhibits.


The Aztec monument consists of several stone buildings, including a massive three-story central complex. Inside are hundreds of rooms with windows and hallways. Next to the main building is the Great Kiva, a large circular structure that was likely used for ceremonies and spiritual gatherings.


Just an hour and thirty minutes from the town of Aztec is the massive natural landmark known as Ship Rock. The 600-meter-high rock formation was formed by an explosive volcanic eruption that happened around 30 million years ago. The landform is sacred to the Navajo people, who call it Tsé Bit’ a’í, meaning a rock with wings. Because of this, hiking is not permitted, however, the monument is well worth viewing from the Indian Service Route 13.


Experience the Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Source: Raychel Sanner on Unsplash


About three hours west of New Mexico’s capital, Santa Fe, is the UNESCO World Heritage Site Chaco Culture National Historical Park. This large complex of Ancestral Puebloan ruins is a popular place for anyone looking to learn about the area’s original Indigenous cultures.


The Ancestral Pueblo, also known as the Chacoan People, built the complex in the 9th century, making it one of the oldest examples of Pueblo architecture to date. For centuries, it remained a center of trade and religious practices for the entire region. During this time, a massive urban complex of buildings sprung up from the dry landscape, featuring intricate masonry and roadways that led to other urban centers in the region.


When you visit this sacred landscape, you’ll get to walk through the grounds and visit the buildings and kivas. You’ll find magnificently carved stone and brick structures, petroglyphs, and curated exhibits at the Chacoan Museum.


Outside of its beautiful buildings and museum are several wonderful hiking trails. If you want to get even more out of this wonderful landmark, consider taking a guided tour led by a park ranger. You’ll get to walk around the sacred site and learn about its history and the complex culture that evolved here.


There are also exciting special events you can attend throughout the year. Visit in the summer to experience the special summer solstice celebration. During this event, held for several days around June’s summer solstice, you’ll see traditional dancers, speakers, and other special events throughout the day.


Hike the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

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Image of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Source: Laura Seaman on Unsplash


In the forested mountains of southwestern New Mexico are the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The  Mogollon People built these impressive complexes deep into the towering cliffs and caves between the 12th and 14th centuries.


Visiting these structures and the beautiful landscapes surrounding them is an experience unmatched anywhere else in the country. You’ll get the full perspective on the craftsmanship and ingenuity it took to build these structures inside the limestone caves.


Inside the complex of houses are a series of rooms and hallways that the ancient Mogollon People called home. The structures provided protection from the unforgiven landscape and allowed them to survive for almost two centuries before they abandoned the site.


Around the grounds are several wonderful hiking trails. These trials will take you through the Gila wilderness and give you plenty of views of the ruins and the flora and fauna that call them home. If you want, you can take a guided tour of the monument and its hiking trails to learn even more about the people who once lived here.


Visit Los Alamos for Nuclear History

los alamos landscape
The countryside near Los Alamos, New Mexico. Source: Jonathan Saleh on Unsplash


The hit movie Oppenheimer from 2023 showed the complex and nail-biting story of the inventor of the Atomic Bomb that was dropped on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of World War II. This moment in history took place in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and you can see firsthand the places where it all happened.


A team of scientists and engineers led the Manhattan Project, including the famous J. Robert Oppenheimer. This famous military project was put in place to develop and test the world’s first atomic bomb, with its headquarters in Los Alamos. You’ll be able to visit landmarks such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the project took shape starting in 1942.


Throughout Los Alamos are museums and monuments dedicated to this moment in world history. At the Los Alamos History Museum, you can learn about the project through exhibits and view documents, photos, and other artifacts that bring you up close to the people behind the influential event.


In addition to the town’s Manhattan Project, landmarks are other places celebrating the town’s historical achievements. One of the top places is the popular Bradbury Science Museum. Here, you can learn all about the scientific discoveries that occurred here.


Other Must-See Historical Places in New Mexico

albuquerque new mexico
A Bird’s-eye view Albuquerque. Source: Enlightening Images from Pixabay


The state of New Mexico is full of hundreds of historical landmarks, towns, and ruins that are easy to get to and experience. Below are other impressive historical landmarks and places just a short drive from New Mexico’s largest cities.


1. Bandelier National Monument


Just an hour outside of Santa Fe is Bandelier National Monument, a large complex of Ancestral Pueblo structures built right into the large limestone cliffs. You can hike the trails and see these impressive structures, petroglyphs, and artifacts that are some of the oldest in the region.


bandelier national monument photo
Bandelier National Monument. Source: Enlightening Images from Pixabay


2. Salinas Pueblo 


An hour south of Albuquerque is Salinas Pueblo National Monument. There are three impressive Ancestral Pueblo ruins to visit. In this region, early Spanish soldiers and the Indigenous tribes of the area encountered each other. Soon, the Spanish built missions which led to several conflicts and land disputes.


3. Albuquerque


New Mexico’s largest city is not without its fair share of historical places. While visiting, check out museums such as the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science and the Albuquerque Museum, which feature plenty of memorabilia and artifacts from the city’s long history.

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By Matt DursumBA Geography and GIS SystemsMatt is a freelance writer and journalist from Michigan who’s currently living in South America. When he’s not writing, Matt is studying languages — so far Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and French — visiting museums, surfing, and traveling.