I love writing these “this vs that” posts because I think it really gets into the nitty gritty details of helping people plan their trips (which is what I love to do), but here’s the deal…I don’t think this is a scenario where you should choose. You need to visit both!
While there are some big differences in Santa Fe and Taos, I kind of think of Taos like an extension of Santa Fe.
Santa Fe vs Taos
I’ve spent a lot of time in northern New Mexico and it’s one of my favorite places. So in this post I’m going to give you the low down on the differences between Santa Fe and Taos (it’s always good to know what to expect!) and let you know exactly how I would spend my time in both places:
The Vibe of Santa Fe
Santa Fe is a big deal. Let’s just start with that. I think it’s one of the best destination cities in the US and an absolute gem. If you love culture, art, food, and beautiful scenery, it’s world class.
Whenever people tell me that they want to travel internationally to “experience other cultures” and see/do unique things, I always want to say…”well, have you been to Santa Fe?”
It’s truly like nothing else.
Right now, I feel like people are so obsessed with Nashville, Austin and New Orleans for their food and culture scenes (and those places are a lot of fun!), but Santa Fe is the real deal.
If an international visitor planning a trip to the US asked me for recommendations to experience unique American culture, Santa Fe would be on my short list.
So basically all of this to say that Santa Fe is a world class destination. It’s a cultural capital, and it’s the literal capital of New Mexico so it has a lot of resources. Take one look around the plaza and you can immediately tell…there’s a lot of money here. High end shopping, high end art, and high end charm. But it’s a true art town and that trickles down to all levels.
It’s a city with a lot going on. But it feels more like a charming town. With a great hotel, dining, and shopping scene.
The Vibe of Taos
Taos is a little more rugged and rustic than Santa Fe while still delivering all of the New Mexico charm you could possibly want.
Its location in Northern New Mexico’s “Enchanted Circle” around Mt Wheeler makes it a great outpost for outdoor activities. Fly fishing, hiking, skiing, rafting, etc. You name it and you’ll find it around Taos. Red River, Questa, and Angel Fire are all within a stone’s throw and this area of New Mexico is easy to mistake for Colorado if you’re after that mountainous beauty.
While there are a lot of similarities in the culture of Santa Fe and Taos, Taos definitely feels like a much smaller artists colony. Like a place where the hippies escaped to blend into the local landscape.
It’s completely lovely, but on a much smaller scale than Santa Fe. Which could be a pro or a con depending on how you look at it.
Unique Things to Do in Santa Fe
Now that you know the general vibe of each place, let’s get into what each offers that’s unique:
Santa Fe Plaza: You’ll find luxury western wear shopping, Native artists selling their wares on blankets in front of the Palace of the Governors, and eye candy absolutely everywhere you look. I love shopping for turquoise more than anything else and here’s my routine: I always go to the “Indian market” first. Ortega’s and Malouf are for looking. I go to Wind Traders to buy. And I scour absolutely everywhere I happen to be for vintage/pawn pieces.
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum: Georgia O’Keefe has to be at the top of the list of “most famous American artists of all time” and she called northern New Mexico home. Some of her most recognized paintings were inspired by the area so it’s fitting her museum is in Santa Fe.
Meow Wolf: They call it an “immersive art adventure” and that’s really the best way to describe it. This concept (even other Meow Wolfs) are popping up in other cities now, but the one in Santa Fe is the original.
Santa Fe Railyards: This area has an “up and coming” vibe to it with a lot of revitalization. It’s home to the Santa Fe Farmers Market (Saturdays) and Artisan Market (Sundays). I was really impressed with the market across the tracks from the farmers/artisan market (open Saturday and Sunday). They had a GREAT collection of vintage goods.
There’s also a fabulous REI store here if you need to stock up on outdoor gear.
Canyon Road: Over 100 boutique and art galleries line Canyon Road making it the go to place in Santa Fe for local art and goods.
Hot Springs: Santa Fe is famous for its hot springs both in resort settings and “in the wild.” Find exactly what you’re looking for here.
Bandelier National Monument: I think this is a don’t miss! No trip to the southwest is complete without seeing these styles of cliff dwellings and Bandelier is a really accessible place to do so.
It’s about an hour from Santa Fe, and the 1.5 mile loop trail from the visitor center is a great place to start. Also, don’t miss the cafe on site. The food is seriously good!
Unique Things to Do in Taos
I’ve got a whole post on things to do in Taos here, but here are the cliff notes:
Taos Pueblo: If you only have one day in Taos, this has to be at the tippy top of your list. Taos Pueblo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the US.
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument: This is my other must-do thing in Taos. And it’s actually outside of Taos. Just north of Taos you’ll find the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and walking across it is NOT for the faint of heart! You’ll get the best view of the bridge from the rest stop on the other side.
But farther north (north of Questa) in the national monument, you’ll want to visit La Junta Point. It’s the best view around these parts! There’s an incredible overlook of the point where the Red River and the Rio Grande converge
Harwood Museum of Art: Established in 1923, Harwood is one of the finest museums of western art you’ll ever see. The museum itself is cozy and historic and its location “downtown” makes it a great place to breakup a day of shopping.
Taos Art Museum at the Fechin House: Russian born artist Nicolai Fechin called Taos home in the 1920s, and this is a house museum at its finest. The walls are filled with Fechin’s paintings, but it’s the house itself that will take your breath away. He built the entire thing himself and it features some of the most intricate woodworking I’ve ever seen.
Kit Carson House: Kit Carson is probably the most famous “real life” personality connected with settling the west and he called Taos home.
Where to Stay: Santa Fe vs Taos
Since Santa Fe is a much larger city, it has a much wider variety of places to stay:
El Rey Court: This would be my #1 place to stay if you want a fun experience on a budget.
La Fonda on the Plaza: Right in the middle of the plaza, La Fonda is probably Santa Fe’s most iconic hotel.
Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado: When you want luxury, you can’t go wrong with the Four Seasons.
In Taos, there are definitely fewer options:
El Monte Sagrado is probably the nicest spot in town (and the most resort-like experience).
Places to Eat
Both of these are foodie destinations with really strong regional cuisine.
You could spend years eating your way through Santa Fe, but I few spots to check out:
Cafe Pasqual’s for brunch, Tia Sophia’s for breakfast and lunch, and Coyote Cafe for rooftop margaritas and nachos.
In Taos, Orlando’s is the gold standard for northern New Mexican cuisine. Seriously, I’ve been everywhere and this is where we always go back. And don’t miss breakfast at Michael’s Kitchen.
Let’s Talk about Travel Logistics…
Santa Fe and Taos are only about 1.5 hours away from each other. For being such a sought after destination, oddly enough…neither is super easy to get to if you’re flying in.
Santa Fe (SAF) has a decent regional airport that all the major airlines fly into (American, United, and Delta – no Southwest) but unless it’s a direct flight from your home airport, I’ve always found it to be pretty darn expensive.
Taos really has no airport to speak of. Just a small private one (SKX), but they’ve started a small charter airline that flies in from LA a couple of times a week.
If you’re flying to New Mexico, Albuquerque (ABQ) is the most economical choice. It’s about an hour drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe on the interstate.
The Perfect Santa Fe & Taos Trip
So hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that Santa Fe and Taos isn’t an “either or” situation…it’s a BOTH!
I would definitely do the bulk of the trip in Santa Fe, and while you could do Taos as a day trip, it really deserves more.
I think three days in Santa Fe and two days in Taos is a really nice split. And for all the details on the drive between Santa Fe and Taos, read this post.