A History Lover’s Guide to Santa Fe

In the high desert of New Mexico, Santa Fe, one of the oldest communities in the United States, has flourished by blending old and new world cultures.

Jul 2, 2024By Matt Dursum, BA Geography and GIS Systems

santa fe history guide


Few places in North America enchant visitors and locals as much as Santa Fe, New Mexico. When you visit the city, you’ll experience a rich fusion of indigenous, Spanish, and Mexican culture, art, and history that makes it one of the most unique cities in the United States. For anyone wanting to experience early American history, it offers an endless number of destinations and experiences that will transport you back in time.


Sacred Indigenous Sites and Art

Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, New Mexico. Source: Raychel Sanner / Unsplash


Santa Fe’s history dates back over 2,500 years, when Native American tribes first established settlements in the surrounding region. The Santa Fe area was once home to small Native American villages. These settlements were likely abandoned several hundred years before the Spanish arrived, yet in the surrounding region, there were hundreds of permanent settlements, or pueblos.


One of the most famous is Bandelier National Monument. In this stunning architectural site, Indigenous Americans carved defendable structures into the cliffside. Intricate petroglyphs, carvings, art, and beautiful structures remain. Researchers have dated some of these works to over 11,000 years ago.


Just a short drive away are other important Puebloan communities such as the Taos Pueblo, Aztec Ruins, and Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Each of these sites features well-preserved architecture and sacred monuments built by the ancestral Puebloan Peoples of northern New Mexico. Although most sites are now considered ruins, people have continuously inhabited Taos Pueblo for over a millennium.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Museums Celebrating Indigenous Heritage

A Human-Like Sculpture in Santa Fe. Source: Rev. Lisa j Winston / Pexels


New Mexico is home to 23 different Native American Nations and tribes. In Santa Fe’s well-funded museums, you can easily experience their diverse art, languages, and histories. From art exhibits to permanent historical exhibitions, you’ll see a vast number of works that tell the story of the area’s deep-rooted Native American heritage.


One of the most popular museums encompassing the long legacy of Native American history is Santa Fe’s New Mexico History Museum. Situated inside a 17th-century adobe building in the historic heart of the city, the museum is a one-of-a-kind journey into the city’s storied past. You’ll learn about the layers of the city’s and region’s past through curated exhibitions, photo collections, and art. You can also visit the Chávez Library inside, where historical books and documents are kept, maintained, and used regularly by researchers and scholars.


Another must-visit hub for Native American history is the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture. This hugely popular museum on top of Santa Fe’s Museum Hill showcases over 70,000 pieces, many of them classical works and cultural artifacts. Most of the museum’s collections are archeological artifacts, including approximately 8 million stored inside the museum’s repository. Researchers, tribal officials, and historians use these artifacts, the largest collection in the state, to uncover and better understand the region’s history and the diverse cultures that have called it home for thousands of years.


The Historical Central Plaza

Santa Fe’s Central Plaza. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Most first-time visitors to Santa Fe will start their journey around the city in its Central Plaza. For centuries, this historic square has seen famous writers, outlaws, Native American leaders, presidents, and cultural figures stepping out of wagons or dismounting horses onto this historic ground. It has also seen a number of social movements, notably serving as the meeting point of New Mexico’s early-20th-century suffrage movement.


Inside the Plaza you’ll find the historic Palace of Governors, the oldest European-constructed public building in the United States still in use today. Built in 1610 by the Spanish colonial government, it has since been at the center of many historical events and decisions that shaped New Mexico into what it is today. It’s now part of the New Mexico History Museum and hosts daily art walks by Native American artists.


The plaza has not been free from controversy over the years. On Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2020, for example, a group of protestors toppled Soldier’s Monument, a central obelisk that was dedicated to the soldiers who fought during the Civil War and against the Native American tribes of the southwest. The monument was targeted due to a highly offensive inscription that angered the region’s Indigenous people.


Spanish and Mexican Era Architecture

Building in Santa Fe. Source: Cassie Lozuk / Pixabay


Between 1610 and 1821, Santa Fe was the capital of the Spanish colonial frontier province. From here, the Spanish colonizers spread their influence throughout the region. As a political hub, it grew into the region’s largest city yet, because of its remoteness, its connection to other Spanish settlements in Mexico and the western United States remained limited.


In 1821, Mexico gained its independence and acquired the territory. During this time, the Mexican government put more emphasis on building roads and trading with the United States and France. After Mexico’s defeat in the Mexican-American War, Santa Fe and the rest of the American southwest were relinquished to the United States and the city became a hub for western expansion.


Walking through the city, you’ll see beautifully preserved and restored buildings from these eras, including cathedrals such as San Miguel Chapel and adobe structures, including the oldest house in the city.


One of the most famous buildings, erected just after the city became part of the United States, is the Loretto Chapel, built by the Sisters of Loretto and a team of carpenters in the mid-20th century. The chapel is famous for its mysterious staircase, said to have been completed by an unknown builder wielding only a carpenter’s square and a hammer. Legends aside, it is also regarded as one of the finest works of Victorian-Era craftsmanship in the American Southwest.


Culinary Traditions

Spicy chili peppers. Source: Heijo Reinl / Unsplash


Few cities have been at such a crossroads of traditions as Santa Fe, and nothing shows this more than its cuisine. Food tells a story, and the city’s culinary gems are no different. From indigenous ingredients and cooking techniques like smoking meat with mesquite, to Spanish-style stews and dried meats, to the use of Mexican flavors and chilies, sampling the city’s traditional dishes is like stepping back in time.


Indigenous ingredients such as the “three sisters,” corn, beans, and squash, and Mexican ingredients like tomatoes and chili peppers have, since pre-European times, been at the center of New Mexican cuisine. One of the best places to learn about the indigenous origins of the local cuisine is the Santa Fe School of Cooking.


In addition to its centuries-old indigenous, Spanish, and Mexican culinary roots, Santa Fe boasts its own creations. From the famous Frito Pie of the 1960s to green chili stew, the city has influenced American cuisine like few other places. Arguably, the most influential contribution to the culinary repertoire of the United States is the breakfast burrito. Invented by the owners of Tia Sophia Cafe, the dish has since spread around the world.


Experience History Through Art

Sculpture of a horse and a dog in Santa Fe. Source: Brigitte Werner / Pixabay


As with its cuisine, Santa Fe expresses its Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, and American heritage through its art. From thousand-year-old indigenous carvings to modern pieces showcasing the complex social geography of the region, art is one of the greatest windows into the city’s past, and first-time visitors quickly realize that art is everywhere.


To get a good feel for Santa Fe’s famous art history, take time to visit the dozens of highly acclaimed art museums in the city and the surrounding area. Several museums flank the downtown Santa Fe Plaza, including the New Mexico Museum of Art and the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA). From there, you can make your way to Museum Hill just a short drive south of downtown, where you’ll be able to visit incredible museums such as the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, and the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art.


Santa Fe’s museums play a big role in preserving the city’s history and traditions. However, just by walking around town, you’ll see that through art, the town’s history is well preserved. Artisans still practice traditional carving and painting techniques, while jewelers and weavers create tapestries and clothing made using centuries-old techniques and patterns. Even for locals who were born and raised there, Santa Fe’s art and art history is a never-ending experience.


Nature’s Role in Santa Fe’s History

Sunset, Santa Fe. Source: 4169213 / Pixabay


Before being named Santa Fe by the Spanish colonizers, the city’s indigenous inhabitants called it the Dancing Ground of the Sun. For the land’s first people, it was a sacred and respected territory. Even today, one of the best ways to understand and experience the history of Santa Fe is to get out in nature.


The trails surrounding the city, such as the Sun Mountain and the La Tierra Trails, take you through paths that have been used for centuries. Outside the city, the old limestone markers of the original Santa Fe National Historic Trail still stand. Early 19th century Mexican and American traders used this route to move goods and people between Santa Fe and Missouri.


Within the city, the importance of the natural environment shows through parks, gardens, and curated landscapes. One of the most important spaces for learning about the area’s native plants and their significance to the people of the area is the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, which offers educational outreach programs, tours, and well-curated spaces to educate people on the native flora. You’ll get a sense of the importance these plants had to the survival of the area’s early inhabitants.

Author Image

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.