Most visitors to Santa Fe, N.M., come to immerse themselves in the city’s internationally renowned art and culture. Others are drawn by the cuisine; restaurants include James Beard Award winners and hole-in-the-wall taco stands, and the city’s red and green chiles are renowned for their flavor. Still more tourists come to experience the crisp, cerulean skies and clean air as they navigate the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There are also desert explorers and river rats, whose kayaks and stand-up paddleboards dot the surrounding waterways, giving Santa Fe a recreational edge akin to Boise, Idaho, or Boulder, Colo., minus the crowds.
I traveled to Santa Fe in July partly to look for a ghost.
Specifically, I was hoping for a glimpse of Julia Staab, a German Jewish bride brought from the old country by her husband, Abraham, in the late 19th century. Julia is believed to haunt the La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa , a grand property off the city’s main plaza where she and her family once lived. I discovered the Staabs in the pages of “American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest,” a 2015 memoir by my friend (and District native) Hannah Nordhaus. Hannah, who is Julia’s great-great-granddaughter, explored Julia’s journey to the untamed western United States and mysterious death, reputed to be grim, likely violent, and possibly self-inflicted.
Full disclosure: Mine was not an original mission. Julia’s spirit has beckoned ghost hunters to Santa Fe since the late 1970s, when she was first reported to have made paranormal appearances — showing up on the staircase in the hotel’s main building and waking guests in her former bedroom. Her story intrigued me as much as the city itself, a place I hadn’t visited since my own childhood but whose allure as an exotic, historic destination loomed large in my imagination.
La Posada was the ideal starting place. Situated on six acres, the resort consists of the Staab House, the original Victorian mansion Abraham built for Julia in 1882, now remodeled in the adobe style of the southwest. Extensive artwork lines the walls and rooms in the Staab House as part of the hotel’s art program. Long before galleries dominated the Santa Fe cultural scene, La Posada showcased the work of American artists. Today, it curates professional artwork through exhibitions and sales, earning it a reputation as “the art hotel” of Santa Fe. Guests stay in adobe casitas around the property, most built in the 1930s to house visiting artists, and the entire resort has a secluded, peaceful ambiance.
My family listened to “American Ghost” on the drive to Santa Fe, and upon arrival, I dragged my crew into the Staab House to admire the historical photos and to climb the Grand Staircase. My attempts to telegraph my presence to Julia were interrupted by my hungry, energetic sons, ages 6 and 8, and I made a quick reassessment: Despite my personal desire to delve into Julia’s world, this trip would be punctuated with catering to their needs. Our four days became more of a reconnaissance mission to historical Santa Fe than a thorough exploration of it.
After a quick lunch, we strolled through the old town of Santa Fe, passing the onetime location of the Staab mercantile on the main plaza. We admired the turquoise and silver jewelry sold by Native Americans, many Hopi, Arapaho, and Navajo. The artisans gather under the portico of the Palace of the Governors, and their wares are, for the most part, stunning. Some of the shops we explored were in centuries-old buildings, and we had to duck as we walked through the doorways so as not to hit our heads on the low, narrow entrances. At San Miguel Chapel, believed to be the oldest in the United States, built sometime between 1610 and 1628, we paused to marvel at the thick adobe walls and the wooden alter screens at the front of the chapel.
For lunch, we drove to the Tune-Up Cafe, a small diner situated in a residential neighborhood about a mile from central downtown. After ringing up our order of chile rellenos and enchiladas, the cashier gently informed me that many Santa Fe locals avoid the plaza because of all the tourists. She likened the atmosphere to a theme park.
I considered her criticism as I savored the rich, cheesy food from the cafe’s shaded patio. While true that kitschy gift shops and T-shirt stores exist downtown, they mix with quite the concentration of world-class art, some of it hanging at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the New Mexico Museum of Art. I don’t doubt the locals experience tourist fatigue — the city reports 2 million visitors each year — but, still, I disagreed. The sheer abundance of art and architecture, legacy and history rendered Santa Fe more mythical than overwrought.
In fact, there is so much to Santa Fe that we encountered only a fraction of its charms in our short trip. We indulged in not one but two delectable chocolaterias. (We preferred Kakawa Chocolate House for its drinkable chili chocolate elixir.) At the Railyard Arts District, my sons explored an old rail car before sampling their first sopaipillas, dipping the crisp, deep-fried puffy bread into honey at La Choza, a casual restaurant with sumptuous red and green chili sauce. The farmers market, which operates year-round in a dedicated, enclosed building, offered fresh produce, live music, slushed lemonade, and — the boys’ pick — sweet cinnamon rolls from Cloud Cliff Bakery.
But the kids’ favorite experience, by far, was Meow Wolf, an interactive art exhibit in an industrial part of town whose centerpiece is a haunted house that features a murder mystery with clues for patrons to follow. My kids couldn’t have been less interested in Julia Staab at La Posada, but Meow Wolf House of Eternal Return enraptured them. As I followed them down an all-white hallway (accessed by opening a refrigerator door and walking through the secret doorway) where a robotic male voice repeated, “You are okay,” it occurred to me that my boys would have stayed at Meow Wolf for days if left to their own devices.
Under the direction of their parents, however, they relocated to the “magical mile” of Canyon Road, where more than 100 galleries, art studios and sculpture gardens occupy adobe buildings lining the narrow street.
Here, the diversity of art by established and emerging artists was profound. Along with gourmet restaurants, cafes and a few boutiques, we discovered a vibrant sanctuary that pleased all the senses.
There were other trip highlights. A trail run on the city’s Dale Ball trail network through the pinyon pines afforded my husband and me long views of the unique northern New Mexico landscape, a mosaic of yucca and cactus, juniper and pinyon pines. I experienced my first Japanese shiatsu massage and a private hot tub with my family and friends at Ten Thousand Waves Spa, and emerged more relaxed than I had been in a year.
In the end, the only thing I did not do in Santa Fe that had been high on my list was commune with Julia Staab. She eluded me the entire time, which, according to her great-great-granddaughter, was no surprise. Ghosts, it turns out, do not like to be summoned. No matter. The experience of visiting Santa Fe so entranced me that I’ve already planned a return trip this fall. Julia’s ghost may not have shown herself to me, but the spirit of her adopted home most certainly did, and I remain possessed.
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
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La Posada de Santa Fe
330 E Palace Ave.
An upscale resort that feels like a small village, La Posada de Santa Fe offers 157 casita-style rooms and suites. Each casita is different, but all reflect the resort’s historical roots and most feature original adobe walls, exposed beams and wood slats, hardwood floors or Saltillo tiles. Also known for its art collection, the resort showcases works from established artists that are available for sale at the artist’s studio price. Rates from about $250.
Milad Persian Bistro
802 Canyon Rd.
Opened in 2016 by Neema Sadeghi, who grew up in the District, this intimate Middle Eastern spot occupies a former gallery and stays open until midnight Thursday through Saturday, making it relatively unique among Santa Fe restaurants. Small plates start at about $6; kebabs start at $13.
905 Alarid St.
A true favorite of locals, the restaurant boasts award-winning red and green chiles, patio dining and a casual atmosphere. Owned by the same family that owns the popular downtown restaurant the Shed, its location is slightly off-the-beaten path, which lessens the crowds. Dinner entrees start at about $12.
1115 Hickox St.
An unpretentious neighborhood cafe with a sunny patio, it offers a range of American, New Mexican and Salvadoran dishes. Breakfasts start at $6.
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
217 Johnson St.
Opened in 1997, 11 years after O’Keeffe’s death, this museum in downtown Santa Fe has an extensive collection of the artist’s work. General admission is $13 per person; children under 18 free.
House of Eternal Return
1352 Rufina Cir.
An interactive arts and entertainment group that offers a fantasy-based multimedia experience described as a combination of jungle gym, haunted house, children’s museum and immersive art exhibit. General admission is $25; children 14 and under $19.
New Mexico Museum of Art
107 W. Palace Ave.
Established in 1917 under the direction of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, this nonprofit museum is the oldest art museum in the state and has a collection that includes more than 20,000 paintings, sculptures, prints and more. Admission $12; children ages 16 and younger free.
Railyard Arts District
544 S. Guadalupe St.
A popular hub of arts, entertainment, food and events, this district, home to some of the city’s leading contemporary art galleries, is located seven blocks from the downtown plaza. Free.
225 Canyon Rd.
Canyon Road is a picturesque lane in Santa Fe’s historic district where more than a hundred galleries, jewelry stores, clothing boutiques, cafes, gourmet restaurants and more are located.
Ten Thousand Waves
1 Ten Thousand Waves Way
A full-service spa, restaurant and inn in the Japanese tradition that incorporates Japanese baths and massage along with more contemporary treatments. Spa services start at $65; dinner entrees start at $10; lodging starts at $255 a night.