My last visit to Albuquerque was a business trip over 20 years ago. Still being a “wet behind the ears” business traveler then, I only took the rental car to the office and the hotel. Lunch was wherever the client took us, and dinner was usually room service eaten while getting ready for the next day’s meetings. It was all work and no play. So when I recently got invited back to Duke City, I vowed to really explore what the city had to offer to make up for that first trip. And I did just that … and then some!
Whether you’re visiting for a work conference or vacationing with family, Albuquerque is not short on great activities, from balloon rides at dawn to concerts downtown at night. The 310 days a year of sunshine and high elevation provide fantastic weather for sight seeing and shopping. The cuisine … well, we’ll get to that, but it was hands down my favorite part of the trip. So if you find yourself in business class on the way to ABQ, looking to plan out next holiday, or even passing through on the historic Route 66, here are some tips to make your visit to Albuquerque memorable.
What to do
Billed as “the best first thing to do in Albuquerque”, the ABQ Trolley really is a great way to start off your visit. Boarding in Old Town, the historic district housing many museums, shops, and San Felipe de Neri, the Trolley offers an hour and a half tour of the whole city. Not only do your tour guides give you the run down on the city’s usual hot spots, but you also get a great deal of hidden history and local flavor. Downtown Albuquerque, University of New Mexico’s Campus, TV and movie filming locations, eccentric architecture, street art, Route 66 and more are all covered in the trip, and it’s a great way to get your bearings and a feel for the city. Ghost Tours of Old Town offers a fun walking tour of the city’s oldest area. Offering the spookier side of history, make sure to bring your camera just in case you run in to any ghosts.
It’s no secret that Albuquerque loves hot air balloons. New Mexico put them on their state license plate, and the annual International Balloon Fiesta is one of the city’s biggest events. It is easy to see why the city is so balloon friendly when you take an early morning balloon ride over the city. Rainbow Ryders offers flights daily, going wherever the wind takes you. The view is indescribable, and you’ll have a lot of fun to wave at the people on the ground (and all of the barking dogs!) looking up. For some history, make sure to visit the Albuquerque Balloon Museum and see how balloon travel first took flight. If you’d like the view but want to avoid the basket, head over to the Sandia Peak Tramway. Reaching an elevation of 10,378 feet, the world’s longest aerial tramway takes you up to a panoramic view of the valley below. (Though my tip is to go for the balloon ride as the experience is unforgettable!)
On the northeast side of the city, make sure to check out Petroglyph National Monument. Hike along some relatively short trails and try to spot the hundreds of petroglyphs still etched in to lava rock, all dating back hundreds of years. For some more rigorous activity, join Quiet Waters and kayak down the Rio Grande. The soothing 6+ mile trip was a pleasant trip away from the city, floating down a tree-lined oasis in the middle of the desert.
To get a bit of native culture, make sure to visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. See exhibits about the history and Pueblo way of life, catch some authentic songs and dance performances, enjoy some native fusion cuisine at the Pueblo Harvest Cafe, or pickup some traditional hand made crafts at Shumakolowa Gifts.
If you want to see a Pueblo up close and personal, they don’t get much better than Acoma Sky City. Sky City is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America, with a few families still living a top the mesa in the same homes as their great ancestors. There is a two hour long, walking guided tour by a member of the Pueblo (our guide Turtle was fantastic), and they’ll fill you in on how their people came to settle there, the history of Sky City, and their current way of life. There are also many chances along the way to purchase crafts from the locals. Just off the mesa is the Sky City Cultural Center, with a museum, Y’aak’a Café (order the Bison Burger!), and an art gallery currently showing Mount Taylor Shadows – The TT Hagaman Southwest Collection, an interesting personal collection of maps, newspapers, paintings and photographs that capture the essence of the Southwest.
Just two hours south of Albuquerque, the future is being built with Spaceport America. Make sure to read my previous blog post with all of the details.
Where to Eat
New Mexico is the only state that has a state question; Red or Green? It refers to the way they cook their chile, made from serrano peppers, with the red usually dried and the green fresher. I tried both varieties and have to say I’m partial to the green, but it affects everyone’s taste buds differently. Luckily, the chile is available almost everywhere, and you can get it on almost anything. “Local” was used often at the restaurants in Albuquerque, and in most cases the beef, vegetables and beer don’t have to travel far to reach your table.
Farm and Table takes the locally sourced food to a new level by being located on a working 9-acre farm. Their outdoor patio overlooking the farm is where to sit, and although their menu does change, I highly recommend the mushroom and spinach empenadas with roasted green chile and gruyere over petite field greens. Entrees included dishes like beef tenderloin, pan seared duck breast, and salmon two ways (seared and tartare).
If you’re looking for something on the spicier side, try El Pinto. Started in 1962, this large (and I mean large!) restaurant offers authentic New Mexican cuisine. It’s a great place to try different chiles and wash them down with their many, many tequilas (ok, maybe not when you have business meetings in the morning!). They even have a bottling plant on the premises, so be sure to bring home some green chiles for back home.
For some old fashioned diner food mixed with a bit of upscale dining, dinner at the Standard Diner can’t be beat. Built in an old Texaco gas station, this diner’s take on classic dishes must be tasted to be believed. The bacon wrapped meatloaf was my favorite, and make sure to order some great mac and cheese as a starter.
For lunch, try the Flying Star Cafe. Started as a bakery, the restaurant has expanded its menu as well as their locations to all around New Mexico. The cafe is very casual cafeteria style, and my favorite little touch is the dog leash holders on the outside patio. (I wish my dog Toby was with me!) Try the NM Burger, topped with green chile and cheddar, and make sure to get a glass of the “Red Stuff”, a cranberry herbal cooler.
Local beer fans will enjoy a trip to Il Vicino Brewery. Supplying beer to the chain of Il Vicino restaurants, the brewery has been opened up as a brew house, where you can enjoy casual food and live music in a relaxed atmosphere. If slow cooked BBQ sounds right up your alley, make sure to swing by The County Line. Located at the base of the Sandia Mountains, you enjoy a beautiful view while eating a giant, Texas-style BBQ rib. They also have live acts perform on their front patio.
Q Burger, located in downtown Albuquerque, had just opened when I visited, and based on their menu and service, should be around for a long time. They serve all local beef, beer and wine, so it’s a great way to taste true Albuquerque cuisine. My “steaqhouse” burger came with a parmesan encrusted patty, covered in sautéed mushrooms and demi-glace. Sides include sweet potato tater tots, green bean fries, and wasabi coleslaw.
You can tell that I made up for my mistake of not experiencing Albuquerque appropriately on my first visit. It’s not a mistake you will want to make … there is way too much to see and do (and, of course, eat and drink) in Albuquerque. So book your balloon ride, celebrate with a post-ride tequila or cold brew, and enjoy as much of Albuquerque as your schedule allows.
A big thank you goes to the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau for hosting this trip. For more information on Albuquerque, please visit ItsATrip.org or call 1.800.284.2282.
To receive a free copy of our ebook, 70 Secrets to Safe Travel — Because Your Life Can Change in a Heartbeat, and for more travel savvy info to help you travel smarter, safer and with more enjoyment, visit SmartWomenTravelers.com and PearlsofTravelWisdom.com.