Do you need reasons to go to Albuquerque, New Mexico? Probably. Although it’s the largest city in the state, it’s not the most glamorous. Except for its annual balloon festival, Albuquerque doesn’t usually draw the “oohs and aaahs” that other towns do. (Santa Fe and Taos come to mind.) So I’m here to give “Duke City” a plug.
First, how did Albuquerque get that long name?
The first Spanish explorers arrived in the area about 1540, under General Francisco de Coronado. By 1632, the first Spanish settlement–in Valle de Atrisco–was humming along in what is now the city’s Old Town. 1706, King Philip of Spain kindly granted a group of hardy colonists permission to establish a new villa (city) on the banks of the Rio Grande (big or great river).
The colonists chose a spot at the foot of the mountains where the river made a wide curve, to have a source of water to irrigate crops and wood from the bosque along the shores.
Francisco Cuervo y Valdés, the appointed governor, wrote to the Duke of Alburquerque back in Spain to let him know things were going well and that he’d named the town “Villa de San Francisco Javier de Alburquerque” in honor of the duke. Over time, the first six words and an “r” fell away, much to the relief of citizens and post masters. “Duke City” is a mini-reference to how the city got its name.
Got it. So, back to the reasons to go to Albuquerque…
I adore New Mexico. The vibe, the history, the art, even the unsettling story of the Manhattan Project. Green chile cheeseburgers, too. Since flights to New Mexico are more likely to bring you to Albuquerque International Sunport, let’s start there.
1. Sandia Peak Tramway: I already wrote about this amazing experience. (Read it here.) There are more historical things to see, but this tops my list. If you have only one day in Albuquerque, give a few hours to enjoy the ride, the view…and the restaurant at the top. TEN3 (short for 10,300, the elevation) opened in 2019. Reservations are required for 5:00-10:00pm dinner, but you can drop in the lounge 11:00am-10:00pm (closed Tuesdays) for food and drinks. NOTE: The tram does close for wind, lightning and other unfortunate weather. Call or check the website, just to be sure.
2. The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History: Although not “ground zero” for the Manhattan Project, one of the reasons to go to Albuquerque is to stop at this museum.
Yes, there is a section devoted to the atomic bomb. You can see an identical 10-ft/8-in casing to the one that protected the 5-ton plutonium bomb, called Big Boy; a Boeing B-29 bomber like one that carried Big Boy to Nagasaki; and the 100-ft tower that dropped “Gadget” in the successful Trinity Test on July 16, 1945. (Three weeks later, Nagasaki would be destroyed.) You can also feel your throat clench and stomach drop as you realize how powerful those bombs were and how dangerously close the world is to repeating this disaster.
The museum has lots of other displays, too–and the signage is terrific at explaining everything. From early scientists, to mining uranium, to nuclear power plants, to actual planes, rockets, and missiles, it will take a couple of hours to soak it all in. If you’re thinking, “This sounds really, really boring,” you’re wrong. It’s really, really fascinating.
3. Old Town: I’ll say it upfront: Albuquerque’s Old Town is not as cute as Santa Fe’s. But it’s easy to explore and its church on the plaza, Spanish Colonial San Felipe de Neri, is 93 years older than the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe. (Although, to be fair, the cathedral is built on the site of two previous churches, going back to 1626.)
Like all plazas, there are shops and restaurants. Albuquerque has gorgeous galleries with authentic Native American and Southwestern art. There are more than 150 places to check out, so pace yourself. Looking for a ristra (string of dried red chile peppers) to take home? You’ll find lots of choices here.
Don’t feel like shopping? There are five museums within walking distance of the plaza: The Albuquerque Museum of Art & History, The New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, The Turquoise Museum, The American International Rattlesnake Museum, and Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum. Surely, one of those appeals to everyone. I can vouch for the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History…in fact, I’ve been twice.
4. Hot-Air Balloons: Probably what people think of first when they hear “Albuquerque.” The International Balloon Fiesta, held each October, might be one of your reasons to go to Albuquerque, but if hanging out with 750,000 other spectators isn’t your thing, there are still “balloon-ops.” (If you do want to be part of the fun, tickets go on sale every April. General admission is $10, parking is $15)
Some history: On September 19, 1783 Pilatre De Rozier, sent up the first hot air balloon, called “Aerostat Reveillon.” The passengers were a sheep, a duck and a rooster–not sure how informed or thrilled they were about their adventure, because the balloon stayed in the air for a grand total of 15 minutes before crashing back to the ground.
You can see balloons in the air every morning when the air is calm. On weekends, the skies are busier. Want a ride? Check out Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Rides, Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Company, or World Balloon. The cost varies, but expect to pay $200-300 per person for a 45-60 minute flight (Disclosure: I haven’t been in a hot air balloon–the whole idea is too scary, even though the safety records are stellar. Maybe someday…)
If you like the idea of hot air balloons, but are too nervous to leave solid ground, visit the Anderson Abruzzo International Balloon Museum to enjoy balloons up close. Learn about the Two Eagles flight–6,646 miles across the Pacific Ocean–with Mission Control located in the museum! Exhibits include Balloon School, the Weather Lab, How Balloons Fly, and the historical uses of balloons beyond the Fiesta. Adult Admission is only $6.
5. El Pinto Restaurant: Did you think I’d forget about eating? Never! And if you can only eat at one place while you’re in Albuquerque, make it El Pinto. Built as a one-room cafe in 1962, it kept expanding to accommodate its hungry patrons. Today, there are three dining rooms, five patios, and a cantina–it’s the largest restaurant in New Mexico. The dining rooms have wood-burning fireplaces, plants, and a complete feeling of comfort.
El Pinto is the perfect place to begin to understand the importance of chiles in cooking. New Mexican food is not to be confused with Mexican or Tex-Mex. Signs of New Mexican food are roasted green chiles, beans, rice, tortillas, and cheese. The green chile sauce that is a staple in New Mexican food is poured over enchiladas, burritos, and sopapillas….even though burritos are a Tex-Mex invention.
Actually, what most Americans think is real Mexican food is likely to be Tex-Mex, with beef, wheat flour, and yellow cheese. Authentic Mexican food tends to have pork, corn tortillas, and white cheese. But I digress…
In New Mexico, it’s all about that chile–note that it’s not spelled “chili.” The “New Mexico chile” is grown in the Hatch Valley. It can be green or red, depending on ripeness. Red chiles are rehydrated and used to give the dishes that signature spice. Wherever you go, you’ll be asked what kind of chiles you want on your dish. Red, green, or “Christmas,” which means you want both.
New Mexican cooking uses more vegetables, too. It all adds up to a completely different style of food–to me, it’s fresher and tastier, with just enough heat.
At El Pinto, you’ll be served complimentary house-made chips with house-made red chile salsa. You’ll also get warm sopapillas, a kind of fry bread, to be smothered with honey and eaten before they get cold. It’s all good, and budget-friendly. Go for lunch, dinner, or for a margarita. Oh, and they have more than 140 kinds of tequila…
Make no mistake, there are a lot of great restaurants in Albuquerque. I like the older ones, run by the same family, with lots of history. If you have a favorite place or restaurant–or more reasons to go to Albuquerque–share it in the comments.