With more than 300 days of sunshine per year illuminating the glorious landscape of mesas, sand dunes and adobes, New Mexico certainly lives up to its moniker as the Land of Enchantment. Painters and poets have flocked here for centuries to capture on canvas and in verse the essence of its almost otherworldly beauty, while the dry, moderate climate has made it a haven for hikers and bikers — as have the mountains for skiers and snowboarders. And foodies, of course, come in droves for the colorful Southwestern cuisine, with its unique blend of Mexican and Native American influences, promptly falling in love with the Three Sisters (beans, corn and squash) that distinguish it.
To the north, Santa Fe and Taos are tourist meccas; to the south, Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands draw the crowds. Stuck in the middle, Albuquerque is too often written off by tourists as an overgrown college town (it's home to the University of New Mexico). But one glance at the Sandias in the warm pink glow of the sunset (fittingly, the word "sandia" means "watermelon" in Spanish) suggests otherwise. In fact, New Mexico's main metropolis is a rich starting point for the sightseer, and its leisurely pace ensures that you can savor all it has to offer.
That said, keep in mind that — like most Western cities — Albuquerque sprawls in all directions; if you're flying in, a car rental will be a must and unlimited mileage a wise option. Beyond that, though, you can rest easy. In fact, in this laid-back place, you could hardly do otherwise.
1: Old Town, Museum Row and Central Avenue
Since you're mobile, accommodations are yours for the picking. Though there are plenty of business hotels near the airport and downtown, pleasure-cruisers would do well to consider something more special. Among several quaint B&Bs, the historic Bottger Mansion of Old Town, built in 1910, is one of your best bets, with its antique-and-lace-filled rooms — complete with four-poster beds — and traditional afternoon tea service (not to mention beautiful breakfasts, served in the garden in season.
If you wake up just raring to go, however, engage in a local tradition with a takeout breakfast burrito from Little Anita's New Mexican Foods (a homegrown chain). Those whose tastes run a little less frilly, meanwhile, might try the handsome Heritage House and The Spy House, adjacent B&Bs restored and run by the same family in a historic neighborhood at the edge of downtown.
Or would you rather be where the action is? The Sandia Resort & Casino on the northeast outskirts has hubbub to spare, from gambling to golf, as well as spacious, modern guest rooms decorated with Southwestern flair. You could also get your kicks on — you guessed it — Route 66 with a stay at Hotel Parq Central, a gorgeous boutique hotel whose plush décor makes the occasional sly reference to its predecessor — it's set on the grounds of a former hospital. Not far down the road is Hotel Andaluz, which boasts a similarly rich history; it replaces the first hotel in the state — built by Conrad Hilton, himself a native New Mexican. Now it's a sanctuary inspired by the Moorish architecture of Spain.
The first stop on any trip to Albuquerque is Old Town, first settled in 1706. A square plaza that formed the heart of the original city, Old Town today is filled with locally-owned shops and restaurants. Sure, it's touristy, but with good reason: besides being charmingly historic, it's the perfect size, just a few square blocks, to get your bearings and stretch travel-cramped legs. At Christmastime, the plaza is breathtaking, lined with the candle-filled paper bags known as luminarias or farolitos; in warm weather, vendors set out blankets under the portal on the east side of the plaza, selling silver and turquoise jewelry and souvenirs and creating a flea market-like atmosphere enhanced by good-natured haggling.
The best quality goods, however, are found in Old Town's galleries and boutiques, where you'll find everything from nambé (the silvery eight-metal alloy created at Los Alamos Laboratories and used for bowls, candlesticks and the like) to Day of the Dead crafts. Take a brief tour of the magnificent and historic San Felipe de Neri Catholic Church on the north side of the plaza. It's a fine example of early New Mexican adobe architecture, with a courtyard in front crowned by a tall adobe steeple. (For more information about the church and Old Town in general, including alleged ghost sightings, stop by the Old Town Visitors Center.)
Once you've worked up an appetite, bypass the kitschy joints directly on the plaza for more hidden lunchtime gems: La Crêpe Michel is a fine French country restaurant in a tiny historic adobe house. Seasons Rotisserie & Grill in San Felipe Plaza remains one of Albuquerque's liveliest contemporary American restaurants. There's lots of room to relax at a sidewalk table or on the spacious second-floor balcony, soaking up the view of the Sandias and the sound of live jazz.
A five-minute walk away, Mountain Road is also Albuquerque's Museum Row, with the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science on one side of the street and the Albuquerque Museum on the other. The Museum of Natural History highlights the changing ecology of New Mexico and has a vast display of Jurassic-age dinosaurs unearthed in the state, including the life-sized Seismosaurus, a 110-foot plant-eating dinosaur that was one of the largest creatures ever to walk the earth. A full tour of the museum will take about three hours or more if you include a movie at the DynaTheater.
The Albuquerque Museum houses several art and sculpture galleries, in addition to exhibits on the history of the city that emphasize the city's status as a cultural crossroads from the days of the earliest Pueblo Indians to the coming of the Spanish settlers to the founding of the railways. And the sculpture garden is a great place to unwind, especially on summer weekends when live jazz and salsa waft from the outdoor amphitheater.
Then there's the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, with such eye-opening features as a Cold War Fallout Shelter and a collection revealing the influence of the Atomic Age on pop culture. Nearby Explora is an interactive educational space for adults and children alike to discover the natural wonders of our world, from static electricity to the formation of tornadoes.
Once a no man's land after dusk, downtown Albuquerque now comes alive at night; the walkable main drag, Central Avenue (also known as the original Route 66), is lined with clubs, restaurants, movie theaters, shops and a performing arts center. A short drive up Central Avenue is the Artichoke Café, a longtime local favorite for contemporary cuisine. Be sure to make reservations, as it gets crowded, especially on weekends. Or hit its sibling, upscale pie parlor and wine bar Farina Pizzeria, two doors down.
When you've had your fill, grab a nightcap at the Apothecary Lounge. Located on the rooftop of Hotel Parq Central, it's not only a cheeky see-and-be-seen hangout with stellar panoramic views but also Albuquerque's first real attempt at a craft cocktail bar.