Albuquerque may seem overwhelming for first timers but here’s what to do. New Mexico’s largest city lies in the geographic and cultural heart of the state making it a gateway for exploration. Too frequently, visitors depart quickly for other environs and only take in the city as a blur through a car window. From waking in the morning to hot-air balloons, to afternoon hikes, and a perfect evening sipping a local craft brew, there’s much to discover in Albuquerque.
Take in the city’s geography—which stretches from volcanic mesas in the West across the Rio Grande valley—on a ride on one of the Duke City’s most iconic attractions: Sandia Peak Tramway. The cars glide 2.7 miles from the city’s foothills to the crest of the Sandia Mountains, making it one of the longest aerial tramways in North America. It’s a great vantage point from which to see the city’s sights from afar—including Old Town, the West Mesa and the Río Grande. From the 10,000-foot crest, most visitors enjoy striking out on hikes either north or south along the Crest Trail to take in the ponderosa forests at the top of the tram.
For another lofty destination, head to the Anderson Abruzzo International Balloon Museum. Although the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is the city’s largest festival and sporting event, that top-shelf event with some 500 hot-air balloons happens only in October. This city-owned museum gives year-round perspective of ballooning history and introduces you to the Albuquerque locals who have led the sport to its greatest heights.
To get grounded, amble through Albuquerque’s Old Town, where the modern city was founded in 1706. Historic adobe buildings border three sides of the plaza, with San Felipe de Neri church—home to the city’s 300-year old Catholic parish—on the fourth. Today, these low-slung adobes house more than a hundred shops. There’s a hearty helping of souvenir shops, but once you wade in, you’ll also find fine art galleries and colorful boutiques. In the sprawling Casa de Ruiz—an adobe residence with its own fascinating history—Church Street Café remains a local favorite for red- and green-chile smothered New Mexican fare. For more contemporary cuisine, cross Mountain Road to Seasons Rotisserie and Grill. From the second-story cantina, you can watch the Sandia Mountains turn their signature watermelon hue at sunset over a cocktail—may I suggest a green-chile -infused tequila cocktail?
To get outside, venture to the city’s West Mesa, where generations of residents past have made their marks in the black lava of the Petroglyph National Monument. Several trails wend through the volcanic rocks that Native Americans and Spanish settlers carved; today it’s one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America. The site abuts Albuquerque’s growing suburbs, so a walk here is a reminder of the valley’s ancient history amid its bustling present.
Follow these cultural threads to two stellar destinations, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Owned by New Mexico’s 19 Native American Pueblos, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, near Old Town, explores the varied traditions and lifestyles of these modern peoples. The permanent history exhibit reopened in 2016 with Puebloan history told from the perspective of the tribes themselves. Check out the interactive exhibits to here Puebloan languages (there are several) and see beautiful Native art. Don’t miss the weekly—and during peak season daily—dances, and Native fare such as fry bread and mutton stew at the café.
The National Hispanic Cultural Center features an expansive gallery hung with the work of Nuevo Mexicano artists from its permanent collection and rotating exhibits featuring global painters and sculptors; its four performing art venues have become a magnet for international musicians and dancers. Time your visit for a meal at M’tucci’s Cocina Grill, serving Nuevo Latino dishes, and a concert from the Latin Divas or Chispa (New Latin Music) series.
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