Tom Lohr lives in New Mexico, where he explores the region with his canine sidekick, Ella the Brown Wonder.
Welcome to the City Different
When folks plan a visit to New Mexico, Santa Fe is usually on their itinerary. The city has a reputation as an artists' haven and hosts lots of cultural events, but it also has a reputation for being pricey. Here in New Mexico, we call it the Santa Fe tax. Everything in Santa Fe is a little (or a lot) more expensive than in the rest of the state, so if you are traveling on limited funds, a trip to Santa Fe can be a budget buster.
Luckily, you don't have to sell a kidney to enjoy the uniqueness of the city. There are plenty of free things to do that will allow you to experience Santa Fe, all while keeping your wallet fat. My biggest recommendation is to eat before you hit the town; either have a bite at home or grab something from the grocery store. The bulk of visitors to Santa Fe are affluent, and the shops and restaurants know it.
With a full tummy, here is a list of 30 things to do in Santa Fe that are absolutely free. Some are seasonal or only happen once a year, but there is free entertainment for everyone's taste all year round.
1. Go for a Stroll or Bike Ride
Since Santa Fe is a known foodie destination, it would be wise to walk or bike off some of those extra calories. Santa Fe has a large (and ever-growing) network of paved urban multi-use trails. If you brought your bicycle, you can easily clock in a 30-mile ride. The trails are not crowded, so you won't be dodging bicyclists if you choose to walk. You can find a detailed map of trails and bike routes here.
2. Take a Hike
If you prefer to do your walking a little closer to nature, the Dale Ball Trails surrounding the eastern side of the city offer well-maintained trails of varying distance and difficulty. The hike up to Picacho Peak is particularly recommended. A person in modest shape can be up and down in a few hours, and it offers sweeping views of the surrounding area. You can find a map of the Dale Ball Trails here.
3. Play Disc Golf
The sport isn't just for hipsters anymore. Disc Golf is growing in popularity and there are professional tours just like in regular golf. Most courses in the United States are free to play, and Santa Fe is no exception.
There are two courses within the city limits: Ashbaugh Park and Monica Lucero Park. Ashbaugh offers 9 holes while Monica Lucero has 18. While not in the city proper, you can also drive up to the Santa Fe Ski Basin during the summer and play the highest disc-golf course in America. It's free if you walk up to the first tee pad, but you will have to pay for a lift ride up on the weekend if you don't want to hoof it. Keep in mind that hole one tees off at 11,000 feet above sea level.
4. Take a Longmire Walking Tour
Everone's favorite modern-day cowboy sheriff was Walt Longmire, the protagonist in the AMC/Netflix series. Although it was set in Wyoming, all of it was filmed in Santa Fe and the surrounding area. There are numerous filming locations within a few blocks of the Santa Fe Plaza. Can you find them?
5. Enjoy the Art on Canyon Road
This is the most well-known freebie in the city, and the most popular. A long stretch of Canyon Road is home to a slew of local artists. Most of their galleries are open for visitors to walk in and enjoy their work. It is strictly a walking activity, so you can also get a little exercise while becoming cultured.
6. Attend a Book Reading
Several independent book stores have readings from selected works. Collected Works Bookstore and Coffee House at 202 Galisteo St and Garcia Street Books on 376 Garcia St are recommended. Check their website for a listing of events.
7. Be Patriotic
Visit the Military Museum at 1050 Old Pecos Trail and take in an interesting collection of weapons and military-related paraphernalia. It is one of the hidden gems in Santa Fe, and you might just learn something.
8. Visit Museums on a Hill
You really have to time this right, because it happens only once a year. If you are fortunate enough to be in Santa Fe on Museum Hill Community Day you can hit the International Folk Art, Indian Arts and Culture, Spanish Colonial Arts museums, as well as the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. They even throw in free admission to the botanical gardens. It usually happens in September; check here for more information.
9. Chill to Music on the Plaza
If you are prepared to handle a large gathering of tourists, then you can catch some music in the center of the city at the plaza. The program of eclectic performances is offered only during the summer months. Check out the schedule here.
10. Chill to Even More Music
If trendy crowds are not your thing, you can still catch some free music at St Johns College athletic field. Concerts take place each Wednesday in June and July. It is much more subdued than the plaza events and easier to park. The college is on 1160 Camino Cruz Blanca, and their list of performers can be found here.
11. Go Green
Check out the Santa Fe Farmer's Market. Basically, you can stroll along a row of fruit and vegetable kiosks and see what is grown locally. There is usually some art to take in as well. It is also a great place to meet the locals. It is located in the Rail Yard District and open every Saturday from 8am to 1pm.
12. Get Your Choo Choo On
If your are a rail enthusiast, you can take a look at the locomotives that are semi-permanently parked at the Railyard. The older locomotives belong to Santa Fe Southern Railroad and have made appearances in Breaking Bad and Longmire. You can also take a look inside the old Santa Fe Rail Station, which now doubles as the tourist office. If you like your trains more modern, the Rail Runner commuter train also starts and ends there.
13. View a Flick
During the summer months, you can watch an outdoor movie near the railyard water tower. The selection of movies varies widely. You can see if the flick is to your taste here.
14. Round Out Your Visit
New Mexico's state capitol is Santa Fe in case you didn't realize that. The capitol building is nicknamed the Round House because it's round. It is a unique but not-so-aesthetically-pleasing piece of architecture that was built to conform to local building styles. Despite it being somewhat unattractive, you can visit it to see where all of the political shenanigans in the Land of Enchantment occur. You can visit the capitol building M-F from 7am-6pm. You can download a self-guided tour brochure here.
15. See an Unsolved Mystery
When the Loretto Chapel was built, the only way to ascend to the choir loft was via a ladder. The space was too small to accommodate a staircase. The sisters at the chapel prayed to St Joseph, because he is the patron saint of carpenters, to provide them with a solution. Lo and behold, soon after a carpenter showed up looking for work. He built a spiral staircase to the loft that still baffles engineers to this day. The staircase has no visible means of support, and the design was years ahead of its time. The carpenter then disappeared without pay. Some claim it was St Joseph himself that built the wooden wonder. The chapel stands at 207 Old Santa Fe Trail.
16. Watch the Birdie
You can observe 190 different species of birds on the 135 acre grounds of the Randall Davey Audubon and Sanctuary at 1800 Upper Canyon Road. It is free to wander the grounds and seek out the local winged wildlife. On Saturdays at 8:30 AM, you can take a free guided tour.
17. Relax Along the River
You can walk along the greenbelt that follows the Santa Fe River as it meanders through town. You can hop on the trail and enjoy a respite from the sun as most of it is shaded. It runs alongside Alameda St. The entire length is 15 miles long, but a few miles of walking along the greenway will give you a relaxing afternoon. Look for the river with no water in it, about the size of what most states call a creek; that's the Santa Fe River.
18. See Ancient Petroglyphs
While Petroglyphs National Monument is about an hour south in Albuquerque, you can see a large collection of the centuries-old graffiti while in Santa Fe. Drive towards the airport and when you come to the intersection of NM 599 and Airport Rd, drive south for 3 miles on Paseo Real. On the right will be a dirt parking lot with a small sign indicating you are in the right place. It is a short hike to the cliffs with the petroglyphs. If you go in the summer, there is a good chance you will meet some of the local reptilian wildlife. That's a nice way of saying rattlesnakes.
19. View Some Armament
If you didn't get enough military history at the Military Museum, you can view some more modern weaponry at the National Guard center at the intersection of E Frontage Rd and Bataan Blvd. You cannot enter the base, but the missile systems and cannons are easy to admire from the roadside.
20. Get Religion
The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis Assisi is the most recognizable building in Santa Fe. It is a marvelous work of architecture renowned for its stained glass windows. It is open for visiting most of the time. Just look for the gargantuan church next to the plaza.
21. Get That Old-Time Religion
If the basilica didn't get you closer to heaven, then perhaps a visit to the oldest church in the United States will. A very short walk from the plaza at 401 Old Santa Fe Trail is the San Miguel Mission. It was built in 1610 and is still standing. They don't build them like they used to. It is quaint, charming, and worth a look.
22. Be a Christmas Light
New Mexico has farolitos, candles in a small paper box that glows, that serve as traditional Christmas lights. You can see them all around Santa Fe. But on Christmas Eve, you can march throughout Santa Fe with hundreds of others holding a farolito. The walk begins at the plaza around dusk. It is a really cool experience if you are in Santa Fe during the holidays
23. Make a Hound Happy
If you are going to be in Santa Fe for a longer stay, consider volunteering at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter. It is a marvelous and modern facility. You can donate a few hours of your time helping the shelter staff. It is the best free activity you can experience. You can find out how to volunteer here.
24. SITE Some Art
Santa Fe's newest art addition is the unique and modern SITE building near the railyard. While it has some fabulous art to view, just exploring the building is worthwhile. It has free admission all day Friday and from 10 AM to 12 PM on Saturday.
25. Even More Art
The New Mexico Museum of Art can be free to enjoy, but only if you are a resident of New Mexico. With a valid New Mexico ID, you get free admission the first Friday of each month from 5-7 PM November thru April and 5-7 PM every Friday from May thru October.
26. Go Native
If you are in the city during the middle of August, you can experience the famous Santa Fe Indian Market. It is a weeklong extravaganza of all things Native American, most of which is free. There are shows, displays and a ton of native art to admire (or buy, but then it wouldn't be free). You can view the 2018 schedule of events here to get an idea of what is included.
27. Learn Some Poetry
The Santa Fe Community College is located at 6401 Richards Ave, in the south end of town. On the grounds, you can walk along the Haiku Pathway. It is a serene walk lined with 36 stones, each with a haiku engraved on it. The pathway is located in the college courtyard and is always open to the public.
28. Learn About the Land of Enchantment
The New Mexico History Museum is another venue that is free if you are a New Mexico resident. Located at 113 Lincoln Ave, you get free all day admission on the first Sunday of each month and Friday from 5-7 PM. Bring your valid New Mexico ID.
29. Go Colonial
If you love art (and crowds), you can visit the last weekend of July and take in the Spanish Market. Endless booths of art line the streets with Spanish-related creations for you to admire. It is a popular event, so if you need accommodations, book early.
30. Rev Up Your Engine
Once a month during the summer, the Santa Fe Vintage Car Club sponsors either a vintage car show or a cruise in. All events happen on the plaza. Soak in the chrome and horsepower of historic automobiles. You can find their schedule of events here.
Remember the mantra, "it's about experiences, not things." Stick to this and you can enjoy the flavor of Santa Fe without falling into the consumerism trap. Keep your money, do free things, and buy me something nice.
Questions & Answers
Question: Why don't you mention the millions of worth of art at the capital? It would be more upbeat instead of disparaging the building!
Answer: Because there is art EVERYWHERE in Santa Fe. It's a bit overdone. Perhaps in the revision to be titled 50 free things to do in Santa Fe.
© 2018 Tom Lohr
Liz Westwood from UK on December 20, 2018:
Thanks. That's useful to know. I am always snapping what I think are interesting sights on my camera when I am away. A few high profile detentions near military bases or airports have made me a little more wary though.
Tom Lohr (author) from Magdalena, NM on December 20, 2018:
Enjoy during the summer then. Some things, like the milky way do look different in summer and winter.
Tom Lohr (author) from Magdalena, NM on December 20, 2018:
Actually, they cannot. As long as it is photographed from a public place, and is not a national security asset, there is nothing they can do about it. Many folks, including the police are misinformed about this. A national guard base is far from being a national security asset. You might get some questions from the guards, but the first amendment is on your side.
Liz Westwood from UK on December 20, 2018:
Interesting tips here. I would be a little wary of looking into a military base though, especially with a camera in hand. In some parts of the world you might get arrested.