Just North up the highway from Albuquerque, New Mexico, about 50 minutes, is neighboring Santa Fe, known since the early days of Route 66 which passed through it by the nickname “the City Different.” These two cities are as different as right brain versus left.
Santa Fe, with a population of about 70,000, has the largest concentration of writers and artists of any community in the U.S. In contrast, Albuquerque, a city of almost a million, has the largest per capita concentration of Ph.D.’s, attracted as they are by the great outdoors and two large research facilities, Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Still, the city itself is known to be home to some of the poorest populations among major cities. Even the sky-high salaries of the scientists working at the renowned research facilities here do not skew the averages.
Whereas Santa Fe is about art, has a boatload of exceptional museums, a wide range of fine dining, a citizenry that avidly supports a world-class opera company, and a population that is said to be pretentious; Albuquerque might aptly be called, “the City Indifferent,” for its complete lack of concern for fashion, fads, and fanciful things important to its Northern neighbors. Santa Fe has its patron art saint, Geogia O’Keeffe, whose work brought national attention to the beauty of New Mexico as the Land of Enchantment. Albuquerque has bohemian Central Avenue, mostly preserved as it was built when Route 66 was the latest and greatest in thoroughfare connectivity. It also has an old town section that competes nicely with Santa Fe’s downtown.
Both of these two very different places are fascinating to visit. Both have ample influences from their abundant indigenous and Spanish-heritage populations which add a great degree of color and culture to their already contrasting mix. Santa Fe happens to be the capital of New Mexico. When its legislature meets each January for a sixty-day session in odd-numbered years or a 30-day session in even-numbered ones, the temporarily residing elected officials add their own special blend of pomp and inflated importance to the area.
The capitol in Santa Fe, appropriately named the Roundhouse after its shape and after the indigenous meeting area for which it is modeled, contains an exquisite art collection making it the best free museum in town. Santa Fe is at once the oldest state capitol and one of the newest. Although New Mexico was admitted to statehood in 1912, and the Roundhouse opened in 1966, the current New Mexico State History Museum, formerly the Palace of the Governors, built in 1609, is the oldest capitol building in the U.S. having served as a seat of power for Spanish, Mexican, and American governments.
Santa Fe today is one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. while Albuquerque is one of the least expensive. It is hard to see why anyone would choose to live in Santa Fe and pay its exorbitant prices when other options exist so close. That itself attests to something special about the city. According to the many artists struggling to live in Santa Fe to whom I posed this question, the fact that Santa Fe is second only to New York City as the largest art market in the country is its draw—and it’s still a cheaper place to live than New York.
Besides art, Santa Fe claims (among others) to have the oldest house in the U.S. and the oldest church. There is a lot to say for Santa Fe and its neighbor to the south, Albuquerque. Don’t miss either.