In DepthHaving celebrated its 400th birthday in 2010, you'd think Santa Fe would stop, take a deep breath and rest on that considerable achievement. Not a chance. While this city treats preservation of the past as paramount, there are always new things to see. You can return a dozen times and still leave with new discoveries and experiences under your belt.

The high desert country that surrounds New Mexico's capital city, however, is timeless. Undulating hills that stretch to the horizon in all directions are a study in shades of buff, beige and brown. The landscape is speckled with clumps of Artemisia tridentate—more commonly known as sagebrush—a hardy shrub with silvery-gray leaves, a pungent fragrance and a tolerance for arid conditions. In the distance, mountains stand like sentinels—the Jemez range to the northwest, the Sangre de Cristos to the northeast. It's an austere but awesome natural setting heightened by remarkably clear air and the intense azure blue of the vast New Mexico sky.

Surely it's a setting that captivated Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate. In 1598 he led the initial effort to colonize the region that was claimed for the Spanish Crown as the province of Santa Fé de Nuevo México. Ten years later the newly appointed Spanish governor, Don Pedro de Peralta, founded a city that was to be the seat of power for all imperial holdings north of the Rio Grande. Peralta lived up to the Spanish penchant for cumbersome titles, naming it La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asis—the Royal Town of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi.

In 1610 Santa Fe became the provincial capital. It's a designation the city has retained ever since, except for a brief period during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 when Indian villages banded together to expel the colonizers. That same year a mission was established to serve as headquarters for a second power in the region: the church. Franciscan fathers fanned out to usher the Indians into the Christian fold; according to a 1617 report, 14,000 souls had been converted. Four hundred years later the sturdy walls of the San Miguel Mission Church are still intact.

Spanish colonists adopted a tried-and-true method of construction for their own churches, government buildings and other structures. The Pueblo Indians used adobe, a mixture of earth, straw and water that was shaped into bricks and dried in the sun. The bricks were stacked and bonded together with more adobe. Pueblo walls were frequently several feet thick, with entry to their dwellings through an opening in the rooftop accessed via ladder. These walls efficiently kept the interiors cool in summer and warm in winter.

Innovations like mud-brick fireplaces and hornos (outdoor ovens) were added. A few buildings from this era survive today. The Oldest House on E. De Vargas Street (across from the San Miguel Mission Church) was built around 1646; although the “oldest” title also is claimed by houses in Connecticut, Florida and Massachusetts, this is the only one made of adobe. Another place to see adobe dwellings in their original state (minus doors and windows that were added later) is at Taos Pueblo.

Question: What's a non-authentic adobe? Answer: Most of the buildings in town. In 1912 a code was passed requiring the use of a style called Spanish Pueblo Revival. It incorporated the defining features of local architecture, which included earth-toned, flat-topped buildings, wood-beamed ceilings (vigas), and door and window frames painted white or turquoise. But the majority of houses and commercial structures in the city have stucco surfaces that mimic adobe, referred to amusingly as “Santa Fake” and faux-dobe (foe-dough-bee).

Authentic adobe or not, Santa Fe still looks like no other place in the country. “The City Different” prides itself on the cultivation of “Santa Fe style.” It's a term that goes beyond decorative details like clay pots, cow skulls, Southwestern blankets and Native American artifacts (there are plenty of those).

Santa Fe style embraces the use of natural materials to enhance the stark natural beauty of the landscape. That's why you'll see, along with the omnipresent adobe, weathered stone walls and picturesque fences made from tree branches lashed together. And everything is suffused with the elusive quality of light that has long attracted painters and photographers, a constant interplay between piercing sun and flickering shadow that's downright mesmerizing.

By Spanish decree the original town was laid out around a central square, bordered on one side by the seat of government (the Palace of the Governors, which looks much the same now as it did 4 centuries ago), and on the other by a church (the present-day Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi). A grid of narrow streets and alleyways radiated out from this central point. Today, of course, these streets are lined with shops, local restaurants, art galleries and museums, forming a compact downtown core that's best experienced on foot.

A magnet for residents and visitors alike, The Plaza is a popular destination morning, noon and evening. It has tree-shaded green lawns and plenty of benches where you can relax and take in the scene. Street musicians contribute a frequent soundtrack. In summer flower baskets hang from the ornamental wrought-iron lampposts, and during the Christmas holidays walkways and rooftops glow with the soft light from farolitos, small paper bags holding sand and a single lit candle. The Plaza is Santa Fe's heart, a perfect starting point for exploring a city that's different in the most delightful way.

Guided downtown walking tours, led by docents from the New Mexico History Museum, depart from the blue gate at the Palace of the Governors April to October; phone (505) 476-5200. Historic Walks of Santa Fe also offer guided walking tours departing from various hotels; phone (505) 986-8388.

Given all this history and culture, it's no surprise that the city's events calendar is packed. Rodeo de Santa Fe, which takes place in late June, draws big crowds who cheer on hundreds of cowboys and cowgirls competing in barrel racing, bull riding, calf roping and steer wrestling.

The Fiestas de Santa Fe has been observed since 1712. Always taking place the weekend after Labor Day, it features mariachi concerts, an arts and crafts festival at The Plaza, lectures, entertainment and traditional mass services. The festivities culminate with the ritual burning of Zozobra, a 50-foot-tall marionette effigy known as Old Man Gloom, in order to dispel the travails of the previous year (it's advised not to bring young children to this particular event).

Celebrate Santa Fe's culinary side at the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta. Dozens of local restaurants and West Coast wineries participate in this foodie extravaganza. Activities include wine seminars, cooking demos and guest chef tours, which combine a visit to attractions like El Rancho de las Golondrinas or Georgia O'Keeffe's former home in the town of Abiquiu with a chef-prepared gourmet lunch. The Grand Tasting, the fiesta's keynote event, is a delicious treat.

Search out high-quality keepsakes at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market; this July event showcases the work of artists from more than 80 countries. The Traditional Spanish Summer Market in late July celebrates Hispanic heritage through art, music and dance. The Indian Market in late August is Santa Fe's oldest and largest market, celebrating emerging and established artists from some 100 tribes.

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Santa Fe, NM

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3650 Cerrillos Rd. Santa Fe, NM 87507

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