About AlbuquerqueThe Duke City. Burque. ABQ. They're all nicknames for New Mexico's largest city, and etymologically speaking, you wonder if it isn't because the full name (pronounced “AL-buh-kur-kee”) isn't a bit of a tongue twister. While Burque and ABQ are simply shorter versions, the Duke City is a tribute to Don Francisco Fernández de la Cueva, the 8th Duke of Alburquerque of Spain—and somewhere along the way the first “r” got dropped.
Albuquerque was founded in 1706 as a Spanish colonial outpost and farming community along the Rio Grande. The town was laid out in traditional Spanish fashion: a central plaza bordered by a church on one side and government buildings on the other. Following the Mexican War in 1846-47 the U.S. government established a federal garrison to protect American settlers during the period of westward expansion, and the town became a major supply depot.
The arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1880 ushered in a more modern era. The plaza, however, was bypassed; the rail yards were built 2 miles to the east. The area languished, but fortunately for the benefit of future visitors it didn't lose its trademark Spanish character; today Old Town is a tourist hot spot offering a variety of fun things to do.
The city fills a wide valley between the Sandia Mountains to the east and the sweeping plateau country paralleling the north-south flowing Rio Grande to the west. It's a big city that doesn't look like one. The modest downtown skyline is no match for the twin summits of the Sandias (10,678-foot Sandia Crest and 9,702-foot South Sandia Peak). This small mountain range—running about 17 miles north to south and 4 to 8 miles east to west—is nevertheless steep and rugged, and gives Albuquerque a prominent backdrop. Sandia is the Spanish word for watermelon, and dramatic Southwestern sunsets often cast a pinkish hue over the mountains. The ponderosa pines growing along the top of the range even suggest (if you have an active imagination) a watermelon's green rind.
Adding a great deal more color are the fanciful shapes of hot-air balloons. Balloonists from all over the world come here to fly, especially during the 9-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta held the first full weekend of October, which is one of the area’s most spectacular things to see. Not only are morning temperatures cool at this time of year, but an atmospheric effect known as the “Albuquerque Box” makes precision flying possible. The “box” is a set of predictable wind patterns that balloon navigators can take advantage of to change direction by varying their altitude, thus staying within a confined area.
The most dramatic sight at this major annual event is the mass ascensions, hundreds of spherical, brilliantly hued balloons taking to the air at once in coordinated flights. The spectacle is a photographer's dream. Also popular is the Special Shape Rodeo, when cows, pigs, soft drink cans and other nontraditional balloon shapes have their turn aloft. During evening Balloon Glows, pilots fire up their propane burners and masses of balloons are illuminated from within. The Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum in Balloon Fiesta Park is a great place to learn more about hot-air ballooning.
Other big events celebrate the state's cultural heritage: Some 3,000 Native American dancers and singers participate in the Gathering of Nations Powwow, held at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds in April, while the Traditional Winter Spanish Market in late November shares Hispanic heritage through art, music and dance.
The high desert landscape in and around Albuquerque is a study in shades of brown. This region averages a meager 9 inches of rain a year, so the predominant vegetation is drought-tolerant sagebrush, which forms distinctive silvery-green clumps. Desert plants like yucca and juniper thrive. The sunlight is piercing, the sky huge. The wind often blows.
But it's hardly desolate. Wildlife abounds in the wetlands bordering the Rio Grande, as do cottonwood trees, which form a green ribbon along the river's course. Cottonwoods like water; their presence was a welcome sight to 19th-century pioneers traveling across the Great Plains, since a grove of cottonwoods meant shade, wood and a water supply.
Mexican heritage is evident in the prevalence of terra cotta and turquoise; the two colors even adorn concrete abutments along I-25. But New Mexican cuisine is more of a state affair. It's not Tex-Mex, and it's not California-style Mexican. The chief difference boils down to chile peppers.
New Mexico chiles come in two varieties, green and red (the color depends on the stage of ripeness when picked). They're served roasted or chopped, but usually as a sauce—and at many restaurants in town you're more likely to be asked “Green or red?” than “Sweet or unsweet tea?” If you want both, the proper response is “Christmas.” A green chile-slathered cheeseburger is a local delicacy, along with blue corn enchiladas and sopaipillas, puffy pieces of fried bread that should be drizzled liberally with honey.
East-west Central Avenue navigates downtown Albuquerque, passes the University of New Mexico and runs through the funky Nob Hill district. The avenue is better known to out-of-towners as Historic Route 66, an icon for American auto travel.
During its golden era in the 1930s and '40s a slew of whimsically designed motels, diners and service stations opened along Route 66, beckoning motorists to stop. The completion of I-40 in 1959 was a blow, allowing drivers to zip along without being bogged down by stop signs and traffic lights. Most of the roadside architecture is gone, although you'll still see the occasional pueblo-inspired building and Art Deco storefront, reminders of the Duke City's good old days.
Visitor Centers Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau 20 First Plaza N.W. Albuquerque, NM 87102. Phone:(505)842-9918 or (800)284-2282
Self-guiding ToursBrochures of driving tours through Albuquerque and nearby communities are available from the convention and visitors bureau.
Shopping in AlbuquerqueThe most interesting shopping isn't in chain stores; it's at places where you can immerse yourself in the distinctive culture of the Southwest. And there's no better place to start than Old Town's enticing collection of shops, galleries and artist studios, which is one of Albuquerque’s most fun places to go.
You'll find Native American pottery, weavings, turquoise and silver jewelry, retablos (religious paintings), tinwork, custom-made furniture and more. The Aceves Old Town Basket & Rug Shop (301 Romero St. in Plaza Don Luis) is a treasure trove of ceramic figures, decorative tiles, knickknacks and hand-woven textiles; items are literally packed to the rafters here. Southwestern Handcrafts & Gifts (1919 Old Town Rd. in Plaza Hacienda) is a general store that carries everything from stoneware, Kachina dolls and decorated vases to Route 66 and Roswell alien souvenirs.
The Penfield Gallery of Indian Arts (22-B San Felipe St. N.W.) has Navajo rugs, sand paintings, and fetish and storyteller figures. Oaxacan wood carvings and finely crafted turquoise earrings are on display at the Tanner Chaney Gallery (323 Romero St. N.W. in Plazuela Sombra).
No shopping trip to Old Town is complete without a stop at The Candy Lady (424 San Felipe St. NW, near The Albuquerque Museum of Art & History). Chile brittle, homemade fudge, a wall devoted to black licorice—it's all here at this destination for dessert lovers, including sugar-free chocolate truffles for those feeling a bit guilty.
Nob Hill-Highland is another area with an offbeat selection of shops lining Central Avenue (Route 66). Antiques and collectibles dealers display their wares at the Antique Specialty Mall (4516 Central Ave. S.E.). As the name implies, Cowboys and Indians Antiques (4000 Central Ave. S.E.) features Indian baskets, Zuni fetishes, spurs, horse figure clocks and turquoise jewelry. Lilly Barrack (3205 Central Ave. N.E.) specializes in contemporary silver jewelry, often in designs paired with uncut gemstones.
Astro-Zombies (3100 Central Ave. S.E.) has a huge collection of comics (DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Japanese manga), graphic novels and collectible toys from Star Wars characters to Godzilla. Next door is Masks Y Mas (Masks and More), where much of the merchandise revolves around Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration—skeleton figures, bizarre-looking masks and lots of original art. Even if you don't buy anything, the wildly colorful wall murals at both of these establishments are worth a look.
In downtown Albuquerque, Patrician Design (216 Gold Ave. S.W.) sells paintings, painted furniture and pet portraits, plus unusual jewelry and decorative home and office accessories. A block north, Skip Maisel's Indian Jewelry & Crafts (510 Central Ave. S.W.) is in a historic building complete with a neon Indian chief sign. This large emporium is crammed with pottery, rugs, Hopi dolls, opal jewelry and cool items like the feather-bedecked charms called dream catchers. You also can observe Native American crafters at work in the store.
Another one-stop destination for quality arts and crafts is the Bien Mur Indian Market Center at Sandia Pueblo (I-25 to exit 234, then east on Tramway Road to Rainbow Road). The circular building's kiva-shaped showroom displays authentic Native American items like war bonnets, moccasins, musical instruments (flutes, rattles, drums), Zuni fetishes, Hopi and Navajo jewelry, Kachina carvings, rugs and pottery. An added attraction is the 107-acre buffalo preserve established by the pueblo—a section of which borders the parking lot—where you can observe these magnificent beasts in a natural setting.
Albuquerque's mall of choice is ABQ Uptown (Louisiana Boulevard and Indian School Road), an outdoor mix of retailers and local restaurants that includes the usual suspects (Anthropologie, Eddie Bauer, Pottery Barn). Nearby at Louisiana and Menaul boulevards is the Coronado Center, with anchors JCPenney, Macy's and Kohl's as well as some 130 additional stores and places to eat.
Albuquerque NightlifeThe KiMo Theatre (423 Central Ave. N.W. at 5th Street) opened in 1927 as a movie palace, boasting an architectural style dubbed “Pueblo Deco.” This is one of only a handful of theaters in the country that incorporate Native American design motifs (ceiling beams that resemble logs, rows of buffalo skulls with glowing eyes), all carefully restored since the theater was rescued from the brink of demolition in the 1970s. Performances run the gamut from music to film showings to special events; for event information phone (505) 768-3522.
Shows at the Launchpad, 618 Central Ave. S.W. (look for the silver sputnik above the door), lean toward punk, hardcore and metal, with occasional appearances by national bands; phone (505) 764-8887. Blues, blues-rock and country-rock musicians take the stage for shows at Low Spirits, 2823 2nd St. N.W. (two blocks north of Menaul Boulevard in the Near North Valley neighborhood). The bar has an open mic happy hour weekdays from 4-8. For ticket information phone (505) 344-9555.
Q Bar, in the Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town (800 Rio Grande Blvd. N.W.), is a swanky lounge with a piano bar, plush seating areas and a billiards room. The cocktails here are pricey but expertly made. There's live music—mostly jazz—Tuesday through Saturday evenings; for table reservations phone (505) 225-5928. More casual is O'Niell's Irish Pub (4310 Central Ave. S.E. in Nob Hill), where local musicians play on Sunday at 4. Phone (505) 255-6782.
Vernon's Black Diamond Lounge is an intimate lounge that seats just 50 and aims to replicate the speakeasies of the Prohibition era, at least in ambience (subdued lighting, black walls, red stage curtains). It's the kind of atmosphere that will appeal to serious jazz fans, and it’s perfect if you’re looking for things for couples to do. There's a cover charge of $10 and a one-drink minimum per set. The club is inside Vernon's Hidden Valley Steakhouse, 6855 4th St. N.W. (in the northern suburb of Los Ranchos). Patrons are urged to “dress well.” Reservations are recommended; phone (505) 341-0831.
Sandia Resort & Casino (north on I-25 to exit 234, then east a quarter mile on Tramway Road) provides the necessary sparkle for a glitzy evening out. This expansive resort sits on Sandia Pueblo land and has outstanding views of the Sandia Mountains. The casino features more than 2,300 slots, a bevy of table games (blackjack, craps, roulette, mini baccarat), live keno and a nonsmoking poker room. Big-name concerts take place at the resort's outdoor amphitheater from late May to mid-September; for ticket and schedule information phone (800) 745-3000.
Things to Do ABQ BioPark Aquarium and Botanic Garden
Sandia Crest see Cibola National Forest
Hot Air Ballooning Rainbow Ryders, Inc. Hot Air Balloon Ride Co.
White-water Rafting Passageways
GAMBLING ESTABLISHMENTS Isleta Resort & Casino
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