BEYOND BALLOONS: 21 Things to see and do in Albuquerque

Wall mural, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Wall mural, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Before moving to New Mexico, Albuquerque to us was just a means to an end. It has the state's biggest airport, so like a lot of travelers, we would fly into Albuquerque, rent a car, and head elsewhere. Oh sure, we might grab lunch on the way out of town, but the real destination was usually Santa Fe, a State Park, or one of the many Pueblos in New Mexico.

 

Albuquerque proudly celebrated its Tricentennial in 2006. Even so,

it is important to remember that the Rio Grande Valley has

been populated and cultivated since as far back as 2000 BC.

With one foot in the past, one foot in the present,

and both eyes toward the future, Albuquerque

is a magical and fascinating place to visit and call home

 

Even after moving to Santa Fe in 1996, Albuquerque held no identity or pull for us. In our first year, we must have had upwards of 30 out-of-state guests, and though most arrived in New Mexico by way of the Albuquerque airport, it didn't cross their mind or ours that there might be something to do in New Mexico's largest city.

 

It was only after we moved to Albuquerque in 2002 that we started to appreciate Abuquerque as a city. Like Santa Fe and Las Cruces, Albuquerque has its museums, restaurants, and performance venues. But there is so much more. Unfortunately, that 'more' is often overlooked, such that locals and visitors alike are sometimes at a loss to identify what Albuquerque has to offer.

 

On a popular Facebook page, for example---devoted exclusively to Albuquerque---people often post questions about what there is to see or do in Albuquerque. The host will post questions that read something like, "What is missing in Albuquerque?" Consistently, there are a large number of replies, detailing what people think Albuquerque needs, yet it always surprises me that people fail to identify the fun, unique, and diverse things that can be done in this city of 555,000 (as a comparison, Denver has a population of 635,000; Tucson, 525,000; Phoenix, 1.4 million).

 

Even on Trip Advisor, I frequently come across posts that read along the lines of, "I'll be in Albuquerque for an afternoon after my conference. Is there anything to see or do there?" The stock answers are offered, but sadly, many of these visitors miss out on the opportunity to truly experience Albuquerque.

 

Well, they say

that Santa Fe

is less than ninety miles away.

And I got time to roll a number

and rent a car.

Oh Albuquerque.

I'll stop when I can,

find some fried eggs and country ham.

I'll find somewhere where

they don't care who I am.

Oh Albuquerque.

Albuquerque

 

--- Neil Young

Tonight's the Night
1975, Reprise Records

 

 

If you ask most people what there is to see and do in Albuquerque, they will probably identify the Balloon Fiesta (the largest hot air balloon festival in the world); the Sandia Peak Tram (the world's third longest single span, at a length of 7,720 feet); or its proximity to Route 66 (many Route 66 themes and buildings can still be seen on Central Avenue).

 

What typically gets overlooked, however, are the numerous other things there are to see and do in Albuquerque, be it that you're here for an afternoon or a weekend; be it that you're exploring alone or with your family; be it that you want an indoor activity or something outside; or that you want to experience New Mexico history or sample something more modern.

 

If you are a travel foodie, Albuquerque will welcome

you with delicious green chile, enchiladas, fish tacos,

margaritas, posole, quesadilla's, carne adovada,

sopapillas, tamales ..... hey! Get back here,

we haven't even hit upon all the

things to see and do in Albuquerque.

 

FIVE TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL VISIT

 

Staying here: Albuquerque isn't a particularly large city, but it is spread out over several miles. Because of this, it will help to know what you want to see or do before making a room reservation. If your journey will take you to the mountains---for skiing, sightseeing, or hiking---you may want to stay in the Uptown District. If you want to see the University, Route 66, Nob Hill, or Old Town, think about staying downtown. My preference when traveling is to find a house to rent, though most require a two- to three night minimum. The costs are often comparable to a hotel, yet you have more space, you can prepare some of your meals at home, and the overall experience can feel less sterile.

 

Hydrate: Albuquerque ranges from 4900 feet in the valley to 6700 feet in the foothills (going skiing? Sandia Peak is at 10,679 feet) and it is very dry here. By drinking plenty of water, you can avoid the dizziness or fatique that high-altitude travelers often experience. It is also best to postpone your outdoor activities---hiking, biking, or skiiing---for a day or two after your arrival.

 

Sunscreen: The air is very thin in New Mexico. You will also be in the sun a lot, regardless of how you plan on spending your time or what season you visit. Because of the altitude, you will burn sooner than you might otherwise.

 

Driving and Parking: Albuquerque has a few districts that are quite walkable; for example, downtown (by day), Uptown, Nob Hill, and Old Town. Still, unless you plan on staying in one locale, you will be reliant upon a car when you visit. Albuquerque does have public transportation, but trying to negotiate it as a visitor may make for a stressful visit. Getting around Albuquerque by car is relatively easy, and most of the major sites are within a few miles of Interstates 40 or 25. Parking is rarely a problem in Albuquerque, even at the popular attractions.

 

Personal Safety. Albuquerque is relatively safe for visitors. As with a lot of places you go in the world, use common sense, know your surroundings, and exercise caution when walking around at night. Unlike a lot of cities, you can expect that people will make eye contact, they will nod or say hello, and no, that doesn't mean they have ill-intent. Don't hesitate to ask people on the street for directions or recommendations if you need to.

 

NOW, LET"S GO SEE ALBUQUERQUE.

 

Wall mural, Marble Street Brewery, Albuquerque
Wall mural, Marble Street Brewery, Albuquerque

Go downtown to see the wall murals. In 1978, Albuquerque became home to one of the first public art programs in the country. Downtown alone has more than 30 wall murals on both public and private buildings. For a map of where the murals are located: www.downtownacd.org. 

Mural, Albuquerque BioPark Zoo
Mural, Albuquerque BioPark Zoo

The Albuquerque BioPark Zoo. On 64 acres---a walk of approximately 2.25 miles---you will find seals, sea lions. chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, elephants, polar bears, giraffes, hippos, camels, tamarins, koalas, Mexican wolves, mountain lions, jaguars, zebras, white rhinos, and Komodo dragons. In Albuquerque? Yep. Coming in the summer? Sit on the lawn in the evening and listen to live music. www.bioparksociety.org

 

Flags against the Torreon at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque
Flags against the Torreon at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque

The National Hispanic Cultural Center. Think museum, restaurant, outdoor festivals, a language institute, permanent and rotating exhibits, live theater, movies, and dances. And of course, the Torreon Fresco, a 4,000 square foot concave fresco, which requires recliner chairs (provided) to take it all in. At the Torreon, over 3,000 years of Hispanic history are depicted, from Europe to Mesoamerica, and into the American Southwest. The NHCC is a great property to walk through, even if there aren't special events happening that day. If you point your nose south, you can smell the chile roasting at Bueno Foods. www.nationalhispaniccenter.org

 

Native American goods for sale
Native American goods for sale

Cowboys & Indians Antiques. Do you remember visiting the old Native American pawn shops, where you could find jewerly, pottery, blankets, Kachinas, Navajo rugs, weavings, mocassins, beadwork, and baskets ... all made by hand by New Mexico natives? Neither do I. But if I did, this is the store that would come to mind. Located just east of Nob Hill on Central Avenue, this store has all the Western and Native American-themed collection you could hope for, most of it hand-made. There are several rooms of incredible art, some quite affordable and some very pricey. Even if you don't make a purchase, it's still a one-of-a-kind shop, a throw-back to older days in New Mexico. www.cowboysandindiansantiques.com

 

Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque
Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque

Petroglyph Monument. If you think you need to drive to the far reaches of the state to see petroglyphs, you don't know New Mexico. Within the Albuquerque city limits is Petroglyph National Monument, home to some of the best-preserved and accessible petroglyphs in the state. The park is less than a 20 minute drive from Old Town. Some of the trails can be steep and rugged, but most are easy to walk on, and many of the petroglyphs aren't far from the parking areas. www.nps.gov/petr/index.htm

 

Blue Tree Project, Tingley Beach, Albuquerque
Blue Tree Project, Tingley Beach, Albuquerque

There's more to Tingley Beach than fishing. Part of the Albuquerque Biological Park complex, Tingley Beach is actually three fishing ponds and one for model boats. Tingley Beach offers paddle boat rentals, it has a small restaurant, and there is a gift shop. It is a great place to start your walk, jog, or bike ride along a paved trail that goes several miles to the north and several miles to the south ... with no cars allowed!

Albuquerque Botanical Gardens. The Rio Grande Botanic Garden at the ABQ BioPark is located on 52 acres of land, nestled between the Rio Grande River and the Albuquerque Aquarium. It includes a 10,000 square-foot glass conservatory, a 10-acre Heritage Farm, the Butterfly Pavilion, a Japanese Garden, a model train display, and a whimsical Children’s Fantasy Garden. You could spend a full day here, as different climate zones are represented by a wide variety of plants and trees. Your notion of what can grow in Albuquerque will be challenged. There are shaded grassy areas, a meditative rose garden, and a lake. Take a picnic lunch, and if you are in Albuquerque in December, come see the 400 dazzling light displays. http://www.bioparksociety.org/botanicgarden

 

New Mexico Holocaust & Intolerance Museum. To look at this place, you would think it is more a shop than a Museum. Since 2001, however, the museum has educated the public about the dangers of intolerance and the history of genocides. Founded by a Holocaust survivor and his wife, the museum shows how hate and intolerance lead to violence. The Holocaust Museum contains a number of exhibits on Hitler and Nazi Germany. There are works of art commemorating the Holocaust, photographs of the liberation at Buchenwald and child slave labor camps, and pictures of the survivors of Dauchau. The Museum's exhibits look at other genocides, such as those in Greece, Armenia and the United States, and one area covers the Bataan Death March. Because of the sensitive and graphic nature of the exhibits, this may not be the place to take young children. http://www.nmholocaustmuseum.org/ 

 

 

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is owned and operated by the 19 Indian Pueblos of New Mexico and dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of Pueblo Indian Culture, history and art. The center includes a 10,000 sq ft museum of the history and artifacts of traditional Pueblo cultures and their contemporary art. The center also includes a small, changing exhibit that highlights the work of living traditional and contemporary artists. Traditional Indian dances and artist demonstrations are open to the public on Saturday and Sunday. http://www.indianpueblo.org/

 

Wine Tours and Tasting. Wine? From Albuquerque? Listen up: New Mexico is the oldest wine making region in the country, as the first grapevines were planted here in 1629. Wine was such a popular beverage, that by 1884, New Mexico was fifth in the nation in its production. Even now, New Mexico has 42 wineries, producing almost 700,000 gallons of wine per year. No matter where your travels take you in this state, you will most likely find a winery. My favorite within the Albuquerque city limits is Casa Rodena. Here, you can taste and purchase award-winning wines and browse the gift shop. Visitors can also stroll around the grounds and have a glass of wine on the patio.The Tasting Room is open to the public daily from 12 PM to 7 PM. http://www.nmwine.com/

 

Rent a Bike! Albuquerque has over 400 miles of bike paths, with many stretches that are paved and designated only for bicycles, walkers, and joggers. Unless you are biking the mountain trails, the terrain is mostly flat, though the altitude should be considered if you are visiting. Several stores will rent bicycles, helmets and locks by the hour or day. Some even offer bike tours of the city, including a Breaking Bad bike tour, should you want to see the homes, stores, and sites that were the backdrop in the popular TV series. http://routesrentals.com/

 

Anderson Abruzzo International Balloon Museum. Since the first balloon flights in 1783, there have been many feats recorded in the story of Balloon flight. Hot air and gas balloons have been used for adventure, scientific experiments, the arts, warfare, espionage, and the exploration of space. The exhibits at the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum help the visitor see and understand how all this happened. Emphasis is on the development of exhibits that combine historic artifacts with modern multi-media technology to create a sense of excitement, as well as an educational environment. The muesum  is situated just outside the grounds used for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world's largest yearly balloon fiesta. http://www.balloonmuseum.com/

 

Old Town. When visiting Albuquerque, you should try to spend some time in Old Town. Rather than just circling the Plaza, though, try to zig zag along the side streets, alleyways, and courtyards. There are a lot of shops that are located upstairs in some of the buildings, including one of my favorites, Santisima. Even if you don't eat at the Church Street Cafe, it is worth looking inside, as the house was built during the founding of Albuquerque sometime after 1706. This would make Casa de Ruiz the oldest residence in Albuquerque and one of the oldest structures in the state of New Mexico. If you do eat there, ask for a table in the back room, or if it's warm, on the patio. http://www.albuquerqueoldtown.com/

 

Explore the Neighborhoods. Many of the neighborhoods in Albuquerque are a mix of old and new. Especially if you explore the North Valley, you will find homes that are over a hundred years old right next to modern creations. Most of the older homes are a mix of native adobe and stucco, representing old style New Mexico architecture at its best.

 

Albuquerque Museum
Albuquerque Museum

The Albuquerque Museum. Many of the exhibits at the Albuquerque Museum are shown at few other venues in the U.S. You also need to see the permanent collection at the museum, as you will experience New Mexico history in all its diverse forms. By the end of 2014, the museum will be more of an interactive experience for the visitor, with a map of Albuquerque on the floor. Visitors will be able to point their phone to any area on the map and find out more information about people, places, history, and things to do. www.albuquerquemuseum.org

 

Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm. The Los Poblanos land was originally inhabited by the Anasazi (ancient pueblo Indians) in the 14th century. Many of the original settlers in this area were thought to have come from Puebla, Mexico, a citizen of which is called a “Poblano.” The land became part of the Elena Gallegos land grant around 1716. Stop in the gift shop and buy Made in New Mexico soap, oils, and crafts.

 

Sandhill Cranes & Geese
Sandhill Cranes & Geese

Bird watching along Rio Grande Blvd. There are almost 300 species of birds that hover along the bosque between I-40 and Alameda Blvd. About 40 of these are permanent residents and the rest are seasonal migrants. While you can see the birds in a more natural habitat at the Rio Grande State Park---located at the foot of Candelaria---drive along Rio Grande Blvd for a unique experience. Between October and February, you will literally see thousands of birds---mostly sandhill cranes and geese---noshing on the fields and lawns of the property owners. If you see them take off en-masse, look for the coyote that is sneaking up on them. The birds are out all day, but the largest numbers can be seen early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  

 

The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. The featured exhibits at this Museum provide an objective, accessible window into the past, present, and future of nuclear science. The exhibit includes text of comments by Manhattan Project staff, text of statements by Japanese politicians and military leaders, a copy of the petition protesting use without warning submitted by nuclear physicist Leo Szilard, and photographs from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The display also features video footage of the reminiscences of Col. Paul Tibbets (pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan), and coverage of the emotion of the surrender of Japan produced in the United States. http://www.nuclearmuseum.org/

 

Rio Grande Nature Center. Located at the foot of Candelaria Road, the Nature Center can either be a destination or a starting-off point. The Nature Center itself has a Visitor's Center, with hands-on opportunities for learning about native plants and animals. There is an observation area for watching ducks, geese, and various other birds, as well interpretive walks---including the popular moonlight walk---offered by park rangers. If you follow the short path to the bridge that heads toward the Rio Grande River, there are several dirt trails for light hiking. There is also a 16 mile paved bike/walk path (Paseo del Bosque Trail), which (if you head south), will take you past the Botanical Gardens, Tingley Lake, the Zoo, and the National Hispanic Cultural Center. http://www.rgnc.org/ 

 

Catch a Train! The Rio Line Train loops from the Tingley train station north along the perimeter of the Botanic Garden and south from the station to the back of the zoo. The train arrives at the Tingley Station approximately every hour and stops at the Aquarium/Garden depot where passengers may buy a ticket to visit the facility. The entire narrow guage train line is 1.5 miles long and travels along the Rio Grande bosque. While most people use the train to get from one site to another, it can also be a fun and relaxing way to see the bosque. http://www.visitalbuquerque.org/listings/Rio-Line-Train---ABQ-BioPark/4810/

  

Talin Market. You don't want to leave Albuquerque without visiting this unique market. Each aisle is devoted to the foods of different regions of the world---China, Korea, Thailand, Italy, Spain, South America, Cuba, India, Japan, oh, and New Mexico. Not only is this New Mexico's largest selection of international foods, a visit to the market is a unique experience. You will find sauces, pastes, herbs, teas, fresh fish, canned goods, produce, and cookware. http://www.talinmarket.com/

 

So Much More! In Albuquerque, you can take a hot air balloon ride; try your luck at one of the nearby casinos; watch or learn Flamenco; visit museums devoted to turquoise, rattlesnakes and meteorites; learn Spanish; buy antiques on Fourth Street; and make your plans for seeing other parts of the state. And of course, you will have no problem finding New Mexico cuisine at its finest.

 

Bienvenidos a todos.

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