Fly high with the Balloon Fiesta each October. Photo: Ron Behrmann

Wanderings: Albuquerque, New Mexico

More than a century ago, Mark Twain famously characterized the largest cities in the American Northeast: “In Boston they ask, ‘How much does he know?’ In New York, ‘How much is he worth?’ In Philadelphia, ‘Who were his parents?’”

Of Albuquerque, people tend to ask, “Is that where ‘Breaking Bad’ was filmed?” 

While the city has certainly received notoriety for its starring role, make no mistake: Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the surrounding area has much more to offer than simply serving as a backdrop for Walter White’s and Jesse Pinkman’s exploits in the Emmy Award-winning television series. 

Albuquerque has a strong regional identity and extensive cultural history. From the Puebloan people and other indigenous groups that have lived there for thousands of years, to the Spanish and Mexican heritage taking root several centuries ago, to the addition of European descendants during the last two centuries, each cultural group has woven its traditions into the fabric of Albuquerque. Their influences are evident in the food, architecture, art, museums and events found in the city today. 

Albuquerque is home to more than 556,000 residents, roughly one-fourth of the state’s population. About 22 percent of its citizens are bilingual. The multicultural metropolis straddles the Rio Grande with the Sandia Mountains paralleling it to the east. To the west, volcanic landforms mark the beginning of high plateau country. With a mild, dry climate and 310 days of sunshine, it’s appropriate that Albuquerque’s airport is called the International Sunport. 

As a modern city with ancient roots, Albuquerque has been a travel destination for centuries. The first Spanish explorers arrived there in approximately 1540 (80 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock) and subsequently traveled on El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro — a 1,600-mile trail stretching from their colonial capital in Mexico City to their new frontier in Santa Fe — from 1598 to 1882. The journey on the longest trade route in North America took six months by wagon, and the Spanish ranches and villages established along the route — such as Pajarito and Atrisco — exist today as neighborhoods within the greater metro area. 

Officially founded in 1706, more than 200 years before New Mexico became a U.S. state, Albuquerque was named for the Spanish Duke of Alburquerque (the first “r” was eventually dropped), earning its nickname, “Duke City.”

Settling into their new community along the banks of the Rio Grande, the Spaniards organized Alburquerque in the traditional formation of a plaza anchored by a Catholic church. This church stood for nearly 80 years until torrential rain pelted its adobe walls in 1792 and the structure collapsed. The following year, they built a new church, and though it's been remodeled since then, the original 5-foot-thick adobe walls still stand. Today, San Felipe de Neri Church is the historic heart of Albuquerque.

Located in Old Town, the plaza and the surrounding cultural district stretches about 10 blocks and continues to be a hub of activity. Boutiques, curio shops, galleries and restaurants line its narrow roads. 

Within walking distance of Old Town Plaza, find the Albuquerque Museum, showcasing the cultural heritage of New Mexico. Across the street, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science stands with its prominent planetarium dome, offering hands-on exhibits that explore botany, geology, computer science and paleontology.

Fans of Southwestern jewelry will enjoy the Turquoise Museum, where visitors can view rare sky-blue specimens from across the globe, and for the brave, the American International Rattlesnake Museum offers the world’s largest collection of live rattlers.

If you plan to stay in Old Town, consider the Hotel Albuquerque, featuring original art work and private balconies for mountain views. It also donates a portion of each night’s stay to local art and culture endeavors. Casa de Suenos is another option, with 21 casitas, some with private courtyards, hot tubs and fireplaces. A little farther downtown, the Hotel Andaluz was constructed by New Mexico native Conrad Hilton, and the Hotel Parq Central offers a rooftop lounge serving custom cocktails.

Nearby restaurants include the Pueblo Harvest Café, where Chef Michael Giese (named 2015 chef of the year by the New Mexico Restaurant Association) serves “Native fusion” cuisine. The restaurant is located in the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, offering opportunities to learn about New Mexico’s 19 pueblos, half of which are a short drive away. Acoma Pueblo, in particular, is said to be the longest continually inhabited community in the U.S. and dates to 1150 A.D.

Find additional glimpses of Albuquerque’s cultural history at Petroglyph National Monument, one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America with an estimated 20,000 images carved by Pueblo peoples and early Spanish settlers. Or visit during the Gathering of Nations, in April, when 500 Native American tribes from around the world meet downtown to celebrate with song, dance and the crowning of Miss Indian World. The National Hispanic Cultural Center offers exhibits and activities in a variety of artistic disciplines and is home to North America’s largest concave fresco, Frederico Vigil’s Mundos de Mestizaje, which depicts more than 3,000 years of Hispanic heritage.

Those who appreciate Mid-century neon and architecture can follow the trail of vintage signs along historic Route 66, now Central Avenue or Albuquerque’s main street. It leads from near Old Town through downtown and midtown to Nob Hill. Along the way, the KiMo Theatre is a great stop for a show or to admire a distinctly Southwestern style of Pueblo-Deco architecture, which melds the exuberance of Art Deco with motifs from Zuni pottery and Navajo textiles. The Arts & Cultural District and the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau both offer maps of additional historic buildings. 

Don’t leave Central Avenue without stopping at Frontier Restaurant, open 24 hours; it’s an Albuquerque mainstay. The dining room is a cross-section of the community, attracting patrons with its sweet buns and huevos rancheros made with fresh tortillas and covered in chile. Chile peppers came to New Mexico along the Camino Real and have never left. The best New Mexican food in the city is up for debate, but El Pinto, Padilla’s Mexican Kitchen and Sadie’s are among the favorites.

For seasonal dining, consider Los Poblanos, a historic inn designed by John Gaw Meem with an organic farm that supplies its seasonal menu. The Rancher’s Club of New Mexico also uses aromatic woods such as mesquite and hickory to flavor its selection of Wagyu beef, bison and seafood. Or try the Artichoke Cafe, which offers New American cuisine cooked using classical French techniques. Located nearby, Farina Pizzeria and Wine Bar serves an assortment of wood-fired creations in an inviting atmosphere. 

For a bird’s-eye view of the valley and the Sandia Mountains, which earn their Spanish name for “watermelon” when the setting sun turns them a radiant shade of pink, hop aboard the Sandia Peak Tramway to traverse 10,000 feet in 15 minutes. Take in New Mexico’s enchanting beauty by hiking the three-mile loop on the mountain’s ridge, working up an appetite to satiate at either Santiago’s Mexican Grill or High Finance Restaurant at the tram’s summit. 

You can also scout the landscape and city by hitching a ride in a hot air balloon. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, founded in 1972, is the largest ballooning event on earth with hundreds of balloons taking flight each October. Held at Balloon Fiesta Park, the event includes mass ascensions, night glows, vendors and special events. There’s also the International Balloon Museum for the curious. 

Art is always a way to understand place, and Albuquerque offers more than 100 galleries and artist studios. Central Features, 516 ARTS, DSG Fine Art, Richard Levy Gallery, Mariposa Gallery, Wright’s Indian Art and the Weems Gallery are an exceptional handful. In addition, Albuquerque’s public art program is vibrant thanks to an ordinance passed in 1978 that sets aside one-percent of city construction funds for the purchase or commission of public art. Hundreds of public works are found throughout the city. 

If you still haven’t met your creative limit, the Rail Runner Express train makes the quick trip to Santa Fe — the country’s third-largest art market — every day for just $10. But with so much to explore, taste, see and do, why would you ever want to leave? 

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