This post is part of a series I’ve done on Route 66. In 2022, I drove the entirety of Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. 2500 miles, 8 states, countless stories, and an endless stretch of small towns, neon, diners, motels, and roadside attractions. Read through all of my Route 66 posts here. They’re also linked at the end of this post. If you’re planning your own Route 66 road trip, either the whole thing or just a part, I hope these help you out. Enjoy the drive!
My favorite part of driving Route 66 has been seeing how much the country changes as you travel west. Compared to big northern cities like Chicago and St. Louis, Albuquerque feels like another planet!
It’s a sprawling southwestern city with rich native culture and some pretty big landmarks. Not to mention plenty of Route 66 history.
Now, there are a lot of Route 66 sites and history in Albuquerque, but instead of putting together a lengthy post of every single little Route 66 related thing in Albuquerque, I’m going to lay out what I actually did on my trip.
Route 66 in Albuquerque
So without further ado, here’s a rundown of everything I did on my Route 66 road trip in Albuquerque and recommendations for you trip whether you’re doing the full cross country road trip or just wanting to check out a bit of Route 66 goodness on a trip to Albuquerque:
Stay at the Historic El Vado Motel
First things first…a hotel can really make or break a trip for me and while I LOVE all of the vintage Americana vibes of doing a big Route 66 road trip, I’ll level with you…I’m not really a motel gal.
But staying in boring hotel chains is just ho hum.
Well good news, folks…in Albuquerque, there’s the PERFECT place to stay on Route 66 for people like me…people who want the Route 66 experience, but like a few more comforts.
That’s El Vado!
Built in 1937, El Vado was one of New Mexico’s first motels and an absolute Route 66 icon. Like many of its day, the motel fell into disrepair (although it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993) until it was purchased by the city in 2010.
The property was completely renovated in 2018 (to stay true to the Spanish Revival style with Pueblo detailing) but modernized to combine elements of boutique hotels, gathering spaces, food pods, local shops, etc. and it’s pretty much perfect.
I think this is the perfect place to stay if you’re visiting Albuquerque (whether on a Route 66 trip or not). The rooms are well designed and modern, it has a fun vintage motel feel, there’s good dining and shopping onsite, you’re close to top attractions like Old Town and the ABQ BioPark, there’s a pool which is important because Albuquerque often feels like the surface of the sun, AND it’s pretty reasonably priced.
Things to know before you arrive: I read a bunch of reviews before my stay here and pretty much the only negative things people had to say were parking and check in. And yes, it’s a little wonky so here’s the situation:
The front desk/check in area is through a door that faces Central Avenue (the main street) and there’s not really anywhere to park right by it. Assuming you’re driving down Central westbound, you’ll turn left into the motel BEFORE you get up to the neon sign. On your right you’ll see the little shops. All of the parking is just ahead of you so if you see a spot, I would take it (some closer to the motel are clearly marked for motel parking but this whole lot is open). If there isn’t a spot, I would just pull up under the portico (it’s marked as the entrance to the conference/event center) and leave your car there while you go to check in. The lobby entrance is up at the front of the hotel (towards the neon sign) at the blue door marked “Lobby Entrance” (it’s tiny and not easy to see from the street) to the left of the Tap Room.
About the parking…yes, there’s not an overabundance of it (especially since there’s the shopping and dining onsite that draws non-guests), but I never had a problem finding a spot and the shops and restaurants all close fairly early and a lot of parking spots open up then.
And double check the hours for the restaurants if you’re planning on dinner at the hotel after a day out. When I stayed during the summer peak season, most of the pods closed by 7 or 8 and the Tap Room wasn’t open much later. Not a problem if you plan for it, but inconvenient if you show up at the hotel later expecting an easy dinner.
Another Option: If El Vado is sold out, or you’re just looking for something different, it’s sister property Monterey Motel is just a couple doors down and was completely renovated in 2020. It doesn’t have the same scope as El Vado (it’s not a hangout spot with a pool, restaurants, and shops), but the rooms are a little newer and the parking is a little easier (spots are right outside the rooms)
Drive Down Central Avenue
Unlike a lot of cities where Route 66 is covered by the interstate or is a big mess of spaghetti going this way and that with different alignments, in Albuquerque it’s one straight shot down Central Avenue. Central Avenue crosses the entire city on about 15 miles of historic Route 66.
You’ll see a lot of different parts of the city driving this route…some kind of rundown, some trendy and upcoming, some historic, etc.
Coming into Albuquerque on Central Avenue (driving east to west) is where you’ll see some of the city’s most iconic neon signs (some still working and some dark) and while it’s probably not the most premier part of the city, there is so much to see. Here are photos of some of my favorite spots.
Eat at the Dog House
Route 66 is chock full of diners, dives, and drive-ins (hey somebody should make a show about that ; ) but the Dog House in Albuquerque is on my short list of best places on the entire route.
For starters, have you ever seen a BETTER neon sign? I don’t think so.
Next up, any place that serves burgers, fries, chili dogs, milkshakes, etc. to me in my car is a winner. The food was VERY good here and the car hops were friendly and speedy. There just aren’t many places anymore that have carhops so it’s more fun than a drive thru or a walk up window.
Also, it just has a fun vibe. I actually came by here a few different times (it’s pretty much right in the middle of Central Avenue) and it’s always hopping. If they’re open, the parking lot is pretty much full. That’s probably because it’s 1) a popular local spot 2) a Route 66 icon and 3) featured in the shows Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
Visit the KiMo Theater
Architecturally speaking, the KiMo Theater is probably the most recognizable and distinct spot in Albuquerque. Opened in 1927, the “Pueblo Deco” picture palace combined the wildly popular art deco architecture style with Native American and Southwest culture. Built during an era when popular movie theaters were experimenting with Chinese and Egyptian styles (don’t miss those when you make it to Hollywood!), only a few theaters used the Native American style and the KiMo is considered the best.
The theater fell into disrepair in the 1960s and was badly damaged by a fire, but the city ended up purchasing the theater to try and restore and save it. The final round of renovations were completed in 2000 and today the theater hosts many events besides just movies.
In the summer months, the theater hosts free tours on certain dates (usually 4 dates or so are pre selected), but I’ve read that during office hours they’ll let you in to look around. The gates were down every time I went by, but it’s definitely worth calling ahead to find out.
If you’re not going for a show or a tour, there’s not a ton to do in the area (downtown Albuquerque is in that weird transition period that a lot of downtowns are in right now- – not decaying like they were decades ago but still not quite burgeoning), but here’s what you need to know…
There’s metered street parking in the area, but there’s also a pretty large lot you can park in at 6th & Central. You pay via app and it was only about $3 for a couple of hours.
Skip Maisel’s (a longtime spot famous for selling Native American jewelry and art) is across the street and although it’s permanently closed, their neon is still up.
The Central Food Hall is right across the street and it’s a good pairing with a stop at the theater. There’s a dozen or so vendors inside plus a full bar.
Have Breakfast at the Frontier Cafe. After reading about all of the Route 66 famous breakfast spots in Albuquerque, I decided to go with the Frontier Cafe. It’s newer than some (opened in the 70s) so it doesn’t get as much talk as other spots, but it’s the place that looked most interesting to me. It’s right across from the University of New Mexico campus so it’s always hopping and it’s got a diverse clientele…students, old men with newspapers under their arms, families, etc.
Order at the counter and wait until they call your number. The breakfast burrito and pancakes were a solid combo.
The 66 Diner is the obvious Route 66 stop in town, and it looks very cool but it also looks like a lot of other 50s era diners along the route.
Go Shopping in Old Town
Albuquerque’s oldest neighborhood is home to 300 years of architecture and culture and if you’re not going to make it to Santa Fe on your Route 66 road trip, then you NEED to spend a little time in Old Town.
While Albuquerque has some really great Route 66 holdovers (neon, diners, and vintage motels galore!), part of what’s so great about driving the route is seeing how diverse America is. And Old Town is where you’ll get the best feel for what’s so special about New Mexico.
One of my favorites was Luna and Luz. It’s upstairs in the Plaza Don Luis so you probably won’t stumble upon it but they call themselves “modern west goods” and that’s usually a hit in my book.
Explore Nob Hill
Right on Central Avenue, I didn’t get to spend too much time here, but it’s a spot I’ve got flagged for my next trip to Albuquerque.
In the early days of Route 66, Nob Hill was an Albuquerque suburb anchored by the Nob Hill Shopping Center. The (now historic) shopping center is still there, but the area has turned into a trendy, local neighborhood with plenty of reimagined restaurants, shops, and loft apartments in historic buildings.
But the whole area has really held onto its Route 66 heritage and a lot of original signs and architecture are still around.
Check Out the Neon West of the River
West of the river, Albuquerque stretches on for a ways (it more or less ends at the top of that really big hill) and there’s some more great neon signs including a set that stretches across the road. I didn’t get a picture of them, but it’s really cool at night especially.
Have Breakfast at Tia Betty Blues
I wanted to do something more local on my last morning in town (you can only handle so many Route 66 diner style breakfasts) and after doing a LOT of reading about the best breakfast spots in town, I settled on Tia Betty Blues. It’s off the route, but not far from Nob Hill.
What a hit! This has got to be one of my favorite restaurants in New Mexico (and I’ve been to some good ones).
The breakfast burrito was amazing and the blue corn waffles (get them with the homemade lavender whip cream) were sublime.
I was only in Albuquerque for a couple of nights this trip to do Route 66 related things, but I liked what I saw and I’m already planning another trip back.
Things I want to Do Next Time
ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden: The Desert Conservatory and the 1920s Farm sounds interesting.
Pueblos: There’s a dozen or so Pueblos located in the Albuquerque area and I’d like to visit a few next time.
Albuquerque International Balloon Festival: The most popular reason to visit Albuquerque, every October.
Sandia Peak Tramway: Ride 10,000 feet to the top of the Sandia Mountains in 15 minutes.
Sawmill Market: New Mexico’s first food hall. 25,000 square feet of local food vendors.
St James Tearoom: I heard quite a few people talking about this place when I was in town.
Planning a Route 66 road trip? I’ve got all of the info you need!
I’ve written about my cross country road trip pretty extensively section by section. Read them all here: Part 1 (Chicago), Part 2 (Chicago to St. Louis), Part 3 (St. Louis), Part 4 (St. Louis to Springfield MO), Part 5 (Springfield, MO), Part 6 (Springfield, MO to Tulsa), Part 7 (Tulsa), Part 8 (Tulsa to OKC), Part 9 (OKC), Part 10 (OKC to Amarillo), Part 11 (Amarillo), Part 12 (Amarillo to Albuquerque), Part 13 (Albuquerque), Part 14 (Albuquerque to Flagstaff), Part 15 (Flagstaff), Part 16 (Flagstaff to San Bernardino), Part 17 (Los Angeles).
I’ve got the scoop on where to stay including the best Route 66 motels recommendations.
And finally, my final trip recap where I spill the beans on how many days you need, the best itinerary, my favorite don’t miss spots, and other tips.