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Best Attractions in Santa FeIn a city with dozens of attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”

Compact Santa Fe is very easy to navigate on foot, and walking is the most rewarding way to explore what it has to offer. But if you'd prefer to relax and rest your feet while seeing the sights, hop aboard one of the open-air trolleys operated by Loretto Line Tram Tours .

Historic houses of worship are major points of interest in a city that was originally named La Villa Real de Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asis (the Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi). Soaring above the tan, rounded contours of Santa Fe's adobe buildings is the French Romanesque Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi , a dramatic architectural contrast. The church contains notable religious objects, among them one of the oldest Madonna statues in the country and a chalice used by the Roman Catholic archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who commissioned the church's construction and is buried beneath it.

While the simple adobe walls of the San Miguel Chapel , built in 1610, may seem plain compared to the more ornate cathedral, its interior is absolutely lovely. The three-tiered reredos (altar screen) of carved, painted wood—complete with a statue of St. Michael the archangel—is impressive, as are the ceiling's massive timbered beams (vigas). Also on display at this AAA GEM attraction are deerskin Bible paintings used by the Franciscan fathers in their efforts to introduce Catholicism to the region's Pueblo Indians.

To complete the holy trinity of Santa Fe churches, visit the Cristo Rey Church (Christ the King), one of the largest adobe churches in the country. Designed by local architect John Gaw Meem, it was built by parishioners in 1940. The hand-carved stone reredos is impressive. And don't overlook the Loretto Chapel , with its “miraculous,” free-standing spiral staircase, one of the city's most fascinating things to see. While overseeing construction of the chapel, the Sisters of Loretto discovered there was no room to build stairs to the choir loft. After the women offered prayers to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpentry, a stranger arrived and built the staircase, which makes two 360-degree turns with no obvious support. Legend maintains that the mysterious carpenter dipped a single piece of wood in kerosene before twisting it into shape and securing it with wooden pegs—and that he departed without collecting payment.

Several museums celebrate Santa Fe's creative side. Paintings at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum spotlight the artist's minimalist style, inspired in large part by the starkly dramatic natural landscapes of northern New Mexico. For Native American art, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian , the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts should all be on your vacation itinerary. Housed in a building that resembles a Navajo hogan, the Wheelwright Museum displays both historic and contemporary art. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture focuses on the history and customs of the Navajo, Apache and Pueblo people, while the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts champions the work of alumni of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA).

Check out art and handicrafts under the portal (porch) of the Palace of the Governors , bordering the west side of The Plaza. Native American artists spread their wares on blankets, and it's interesting to talk to them about their work while browsing. Inside the building—which served as government headquarters under four flags (Spanish, Native American, Mexican and finally, the United States)—is a museum with restored period rooms and historic photos. Itself designed like a plaza, the building's four walls encompass blocks of rooms that open onto an inner courtyard.

After seeing the former house of government you might want to visit the current seat, the New Mexico State Capitol . It's laid out in the shape of the state emblem, the Zia Pueblo sun symbol (a circle with four points radiating outward), and is also referred to as the Round House. The capitol houses the House and Senate chambers as well as The Governor's Gallery, which displays artwork.

From colorful to kitschy, myriad types of folk art—dance masks, paintings, religious objects, costumes and textiles, wooden figures, dolls, toys—are on display at the Museum of International Folk Art , a AAA GEM attraction. The comprehensive collection covers not only Hispanic and contemporary Latino folk art but African, Asian and Middle Eastern examples.

Housed in a pueblo-style structure designed by John Gaw Meem, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art displays regional art dating from the time of the Spanish colonization. You'll see santos (devotional statues carved from wood), retablos (devotional paintings frequently executed on tin), relief carvings, weavings, cast iron and examples of colcha, a type of embroidery stitching developed in New Mexico during the Spanish colonial period.

Georgia O'Keeffe and Gustave Baumann were masters at capturing the natural beauty of the Southwest, and works by these two artists as well as others are on display at the New Mexico Museum of Art , which occupies a pueblo-style building just off The Plaza and is one of the many excellent things to do downtown. Special attention is paid to art created in or about New Mexico, and many paintings depict the state's varied landscapes. Special exhibits often spotlight up-and-coming contemporary artists.

At the restored buildings comprising El Rancho de las Golondrinas , demonstrations re-enact the daily life of early Spanish colonists. Once a respite for weary travelers making the arduous trek along El Camino Real, the royal road connecting Mexico City and Santa Fe, “The Ranch of the Swallows” now contains historical exhibits. Original 18th-century buildings as well as structures relocated from other parts of the state stand on 200 rural acres.

In the mood for a day trip? Three villages are a short drive away, and visiting any one of them will reward you with fascinating insight into Tewa Indian culture and customs, especially if you time your trip to coincide with feast day celebrations.

Inhabited since 1200 A.D., Tesuque Pueblo celebrates the Corn Dance in June and observes the Feast of San Diego in November. Best known for its striking black-on-black pottery, San Ildefonso Pueblo is home to many artists; the pueblo museum and several shops display and sell their work. One of the largest Tewa villages, Ohkay Owingeh stages a number of ceremonial dances, including the Dance of the Matachines on Christmas Day. As an outsider you should show respect during religious ceremonies, and always ask about videotaping or photographing before doing so.

Another day trip is a bit farther afield (a little over an hour from Santa Fe) but well worth the drive if you want to immerse yourself in the kind of high desert beauty that so captivated Georgia O'Keeffe. At Ghost Ranch , near the tiny town of Abiquiu , you can embark on several different hikes; the most popular is the AAA GEM Chimney Rock , a mostly uphill trek to the summit of a sculpted mesa that resembles, well, a chimney. The climb up a snaking, twisting trail is strenuous, but the views at the top are stupendous—a 360-degree panorama of majestic rock formations, craggy mountains on the horizon and, a dizzying distance below, the valley floor of the Piedra Lumbre basin.

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Santa Fe, NM

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