Most people think summer is the best time to visit Santa Fe—long, sunny days followed by perfectly cool nights—but locals know that winter is just as special. In December, planetary tilt and the city's geographical placement—at 7,000 feet, it's more than 1,500 feet higher than Boulder, Colorado—combine to quickly flip the switch to cold, dark and (we hope) snowy. The seasonal shift is tied to a civic determination to hunker down and make the best of winter, indoors and out.
Which is easy to do. By Christmas, ski and snowboard season is usually underway. (Only 45 minutes from downtown, Ski Santa Fe offers 77 trails on 660 acres.) And though the officially mandated Santa Fe style that defines local architecture—adobe and faux-dobe, most of it brown—can get boring, it works well during the holidays. Leafless trees are strung with lights, while buildings and masonry walls are illuminated with farolitos (Christmas decorations made using small, sand-weighted paper bags that hold votive candles—think the end of Bad Santa). During the day, conditions are likely to be achingly clear and bright. At night, there's piñon smoke in the air and cozy spaces all over town that beckon as an escape from the chilly air.
7:55 A.M. Really? Yeah. In late December, in a town that's nestled against high mountains to the east (the Sangre de Cristos) and framed to the west by a more distant range (the beautiful, volcanic Jemez, where the A-bomb was built), the sun comes up late and goes down early, so get moving. The reward: a jumbo breakfast, preferably one featuring a generous paint job of New Mexico green or red chile (or both). Locals and tourists love Cafe Pasqual's, and for good reason—the menu is big, varied and filled with classic Southwest fare. Order the chile relleno con huevos—a not-too-hot Anaheim chile, stuffed with cheese and served with black beans and salsa. Another can't-lose choice is smoked trout hash, a "scatter of" trout with two poached eggs, a Gruyere potato cake and tomatillo salsa.
10:04 A.M. During a quick visit, it's hard to do anything too ambitious outside. But it would be a shame not to get a taste. The Sangres rise 5,000 feet above downtown Santa Fe, and by late December, there's usually snow throughout, blanketing a stunning winter forest of evergreen pines, bare-naked aspen and twittering dink birds. (Yes, we said dink.) Take a two-hour snowshoe trip with Outspire, a local company that will pick you up at your hotel, drive you up the mountain and fit you out with everything you'll need (snowshoes, poles, gaiters, water and snacks). Company owner Karen Denison (or one of her four guides) will talk to you in advance about what level of exertion you're up for, and then take you on a secluded, woodsy alpine loop.
12:12 P.M. The cold and exertion will build an appetite—even after a jumbo breakfast. Upon returning to town, head to the Tune-Up Cafe, a chaotic little restaurant (best reached by cab) that offers New Mexico specialties, burgers, and homemade desserts. Go with a draft of Left Hand Milk Stout, the green chile beef stew, banana leaf wrapped tamales, and a slice of carrot cake.
1:43 P.M. For such a small city, Santa Fe has terrific art museums and a thriving contemporary scene—the local visitor's bureau will tell you (and tell you and tell you) that it's the third-largest art market in the country, with some 240 galleries and dealers sprinkled near the Santa Fe Plaza and along the wall-to-wall commercial artery that is Canyon Road. Product warning: A lot of the newer stuff sucks, as evidenced by a giant bronze of a bear cavorting with a Native American tot. But keep moving, because there are surprises everywhere. Justifiably popular museums include the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Museum of International Folk Art and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. (The latter two are part of the Museum Hill cluster, which requires a cab ride.) The expansive Gerald Peters Gallery, founded in the 1970s by a local rich guy, displays pieces from its fine and vast collection, which includes cool Western stuff and old-school Taos and Santa Fe masters such as Victor Higgins and E.L. Blumenschein.
3:29 P.M. It will be dark in a couple of hours (give or take), so shoulder into that reality with a snack. Kakawa Chocolate House, right across the street from the Peters Gallery, specializes in chocolaty baked goods (try any of their truffles or brownies) and "historic drinking chocolates" that they call "elixirs." And, yes, that does sound like something someone from Brooklyn would conjure up, but don't be put off. Kakawa features authentic chocolate-drink recipes from Europe and Mesoamerica—where Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs ground cacao mixed with spices, chiles and herbs—that date back hundreds of years.
4:31 P.M. It's the holiday shopping season, so get in a little consumerism before hitting the bar. The best stores are on, and near, the Plaza. Check out Doodlet's (which offers local, handmade toys and stocking stuffers, along with great European imports from Christmas-crazed nations like Sweden and Germany). Also peruse Alpine Sports (top-shelf ski and snowboard gear and apparel), Harrys Clothing (routinely named the best local men's clothing store, and Men! Consignment for Him (high-end clothes at an affordable price along the lines of Rent-A-Swag).
6:56 P.M. Bundle up. Once darkness falls, the cold can be piercing. Fight back with a drink at the best bar in town, The Secreto Lounge. The guiding spirit here is Chris Milligan, a.k.a. the Santa Fe Barman,a mixmasterwho has spent decades researching classic old drinks and inventing new ones. Try his Irish Old Fashioned (made with Jameson's Irish Whiskey) or one of the seasonal drinks that he offers during the holidays: spiced cider, hot buttered rum, Irish coffee or eggnog.
8:12 P.M. One of the most dependable splurge restaurants in Santa Fe is The Compound, which sits about halfway up Canyon Road on a sprawling piece of property that abuts the Santa Fe River. Take some time getting there: In December, Canyon Road's galleries, stores and restaurants are lit up by a dazzling display of Christmas lights. The Compound has a spacious interior featuring a snug little bar to occupy some time if arriving ahead of your reservation. Owner and chef Mark Kiffin's menu is inspired by Santa Fe's historic role as the last stop on the Camino Real, the 1,500-mile Spanish trade route from Mexico City. (Translation—the influences are both European and Southwestern.) Order a Rosemary Manhattan, fall squash soup and for an entree, the Angus beef tenderloin, served atop potatoes and drizzled with a foie gras hollandaise. Finish with Kiffin's signature "liquid chocolate cake," a warm, made-to-order bittersweet chocolate cake with a gooey center that's finished with a scoop of orange sherbet. With the cold outside intensifying and with The Compound's extensive list of after-dinner ports, wines and cognacs, there's not much reason to venture out any further.
Alex Heard is the editorial director of Outside magazine and lives in Santa Fe. His work has appeared in The New Republic, Slate and Wired. His books, Apocalypse Pretty Soon and The Eyes of Willie McGee, are available in paperback from Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexheard.
Photo by © National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy