Albuquerque’s Old Town is a quaint historic area just west of Downtown and east of the Rio Grande. Founded in 1706 by a procession of Spanish settlers, its narrow streets and alleyways have changed little since those early days. When the railroad came to Albuquerque in the 1880s, it brought an influx of people to the new downtown, and locals began calling this older area “Old Town.” Today, Old Town’s revitalized growth brings tourists and locals to visit its museums, shops, and restaurants. It also has the city’s oldest church.
Begin your walk at the Bottger Mansion at 110 San Felipe NW, just off Central. The Bottger Mansion was built in 1910 by Charles Bottger, who, like many of his day, came to the southwest to improve his health. Today, the Mansion is a bed and breakfast that offers visitors and locals alike a place to experience high tea.
Head north on San Felipe, to the corner of Old Town Road, to visit the world famous Rattlesnake Museum. “We love tourists,” a sign on the front door reads. “They taste just like chicken.” Expect the same sense of fun inside, where you’ll find the largest collection of live rattlesnakes found anywhere in the world -- no less than 31 species reside there (behind glass). The museum contains a wide array of snake artifacts, artwork, and memorabilia. But the fun doesn’t end there. Everyone who makes it through the museum gets an official Certificate of Bravery.
Old Town Vendors
Step across Old Town Road and back onto San Felipe Street and visit the Old Town Vendors under the portal of La Placita Restaurant. Old Town has long had a tradition of outdoor vending, which today’s multi-cultural artists continue to uphold. Vendors sit along the sidewalk displaying handmade crafts, jewelry, and pottery -- it’s difficult to resist.
According to those who work in La Placita, it is well known for having ghosts. In fact, there are supposedly so many ghosts in Old Town that there are nightly Ghost Tours for those brave enough to be curious.
Cross the street to Old Town’s Main Plaza, the city’s historic heart. The plaza’s central gazebo often has live musicians, dancing flamenco artists or children just running around having fun. Old Town’s square closely resembles those found in Mexican villages.
Every Christmas Eve, thousands gather here to see the luminaria displays. While the City of Albuquerque offers bus tours for those not inclined to walk, many make the trek on foot, wandering the streets and taking in the delicious look of simple brown paper bags lit from within. Christmas Eve in Old Town is an event that is a cherished family tradition for many locals. Wander the historic streets, listen to carolers, see the many luminarias, all while sipping hot chocolate and trying to stay warm.
San Felipe de Neri
Directly north of the Plaza is the San Felipe de Neri Church. Altered and renovated many times over the years since first being built in 1793, it still serves as a neighborhood church and is listed on the National Historic Register. Mass is held daily, in Spanish as well as English. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve is packed.
The church anchors other seasonal events. Each summer, the San Felipe de Neri Festival takes place on the plaza and the surrounding streets are closed. The fundraiser brings food, arts, and crafts booths and a carnival with rides for children.
Behind the San Felipe de Neri Church, there is a treasure that even very few locals even know about. Some call her the Lady of the Tree, others the Cottonwood Madonna. Though she was once in the parking lot behind the church, she now sits at the southeast corner of the front of the church. Embedded in the tree’s trunk, along with its natural indentations, someone carved the figure of a Madonna. It's not certain when she was carved and painted, but for at least 20 years she’s been a folk art treasure.
Leaving the parking lot behind the church, step east again to San Felipe Street. Take a left and look for the narrow passageway next to the store Saints and Martyrs. Signs will direct you to the back of the Albuquerque Museum. Tucked away along the passageway is a small chapel, La Capilla de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. Built in 1975, it was part of the Sagrada Arts School.
The chapel contains a colorful window of plexiglass panels. A perpetual calendar, it portrays the Feasts of the Virgin and the moon’s phases.
Museum Sculpture Garden
Leaving the chapel, turn to the right and head to the back entryway of the Albuquerque Museum. At first, you’ll encounter a small Sculpture Garden that serves as a passageway between the museum and Old Town and contains many interesting sculptures. Self-guided tour books of the Museum Sculpture Garden are available in the Museum lobby at the information booth.
The Albuquerque Museum offers an ongoing array of exhibits. Its permanent exhibits include four centuries of the history of Albuquerque and a collection of art that features local New Mexico artists from the late 19th century to the present. One of the most famous artists in the collection is Georgia O’Keefe.
While visiting the museum, be sure to stop by its gift shop. It’s a great place to find unique gifts and decorative items for your home. Many items were made by local artists.