New Mexico's largest city, Albuquerque is also one of the most gay-friendly cities in the Southwest. Home to the state's largest airport, "Duke City" is where many visitors to Santa Fe, Taos, and other parts of the Land of Enchantment begin their trips. But Albuquerque is far more than a mere pass-through destination - this city in the shadows of the 10,600-foot Sandia Mountains offers an exceptional mix of arts and culture, outdoor recreation (note the mild, sunny climate), and wonderful food. Here's a look at the region's most compelling attractions, gay-friendly businesses, historic inns and B&Bs, Route 66 sights, and panoramic vistas, from the mountains to the vast high-desert mesas.
Route 66, Lined With Colorful Shops and Cafes in Historic Nob Hill
Route 66, known locally as Central Avenue, is the most historic east-west thoroughfare in Albuquerque - it gently descends down a hill from the city's west mesa, crosses the Rio Grande and becomes the main drag through Old Town and downtown, and then begins a gentle ascent after crossing I-25 and climbing past the University of New Mexico campus into funky, hip, and gay-popular Nob Hill.
Sidewinders Gay Club
Drive east along Central from Nob Hill for a couple of miles and you'll reach one of New Mexico's longest-running gay bars, the friendly and eclectic Sidewinders (formerly known as The Ranch) (8900 Central Ave SE), which was opened by the former owner of the Sidewinders in Cathedral City, California, near Palm Springs.
The club has country-western music and dancing on Thursdays (and early on Fridays), a fun "beer blast" on Sunday afternoons, and karaoke on many weekdays, and the latest DJs on weekends. The crowd comes in all flavors - women and men, younger and older, bears and jocks, clean-cut and edgy. It's a nice option if you're heading out with a varied bunch of friends, and attitude is minimal here.
Sandia Crest, Looking South From Near the Sandia Aerial Tram Platform
This view is from near the platform of the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, the longest in the world. A short stroll north of the platform is the popular High Finance restaurant, which has a similarly amazing view if less impressive food - it's a better option for the casual burgers and sandwiches served at lunch. Also from this point, you can access Sandia Peak's downhill skiing in winter, and mountain biking during the warmer months. It's also possible to hike to this point from the base of the Sandias via La Luz Trail.
Farina Pizzeria & Wine Bar, Downtown Albuquerque
Since it opened beside its sister restaurant, the also excellent Artichoke Cafe, cozy and convivial Farina Pizzeria (510 Central Ave. SE) has been serving some of the finest pizza in the state - think of happily irregular-shaped hand-tossed pies with blistering crusted (thanks to inferno-like brick ovens). There's a long list of creative toppings, including taleggio cheese, salsiccia sausage, truffle oil, chopped imported olives, and farmhouse goat cheese with leeks.
The atmospheric storefront restaurant with wood floors, exposed-brick walls, and pressed-tin ceilings, is also a wine bar, with an impressive variety by the bottle or glass. Also served are elegant salads, antipasti plates, calzones, and a pretty damn fabulous selection of desserts - the butterscotch budino (a light yet somehow decadent Italian pudding) is a standout, as are the fresh-made gelatos, and the ricotta pound cake with red-wine-braised pears.
Farina is in EDo (as in east of downtown), along historic Route 66 in downtown Albuquerque's Huning Highlands Historic District.
Effex Nightclub, the Most Popular of Albuquerque's Gay Nightspots
Albuquerque's first genuine "big city" gay nightclub, Effex Nightclub (100 5th St. N.W.) is a spacious, two-level spot just off downtown's main drag, Central Avenue. It comprises a large ground-floor dance floor with bars, a big stage, and a state-of-the-art sound system. Head upstairs and you'll find a similarly huge roof deck bar that's ideal for chatting (and gazing up at those New Mexico twinkling stars). The owners have further plans to create a VIP lounge and add plenty of other great new features, and already, the crowds (both men and women) have been flocking here. The club is right behind Schlotzsky's Deli and just across Central from another cool spot nearby, the gay-friendly cafe and bar Blackbird Buvette.
Grove Cafe & Market - a First-Rate Breakfast and Lunch Spot Downtown
A sleekly designed, airy cafe and fine-foods market on an up-and-coming stretch of Route 66 on the eastern side of downtown Albuquerque (an area sometimes referred to as EDo), the Grove Cafe & Market (600 Central Ave. SE) makes arguably the best sandwiches in the city as well as exceptionally tasty and fresh breakfast fare. It's open daily (except Monday) until mid-afternoon for breakfast, brunch on weekends, and lunch, and there's both indoor and patio seating. It's all rather urbane and casually elegant, a sure sign of Albuquerque's continued growth into a bona fide foodie destination.
Although the Grove carries high-end foods (including wine and local beers from nearby Marble Brewery), it's reasonably priced, in part because it's partially self-serve (you order at the counter, and they bring the food out to you). The menu here steers clear of regional New Mexican and Southwestern fare, which is just fine given how many places around Albuquerque specialize in this. Instead, for breakfast, check out the pancakes topped with fresh fruit and creme fraiche, or poached eggs with prosciutto.
The Grove also has a fine selection of teas and coffee drinks, beautiful cupcakes and fresh-baked sweets, and an impressive variety of artisan chocolates and prepared foods.
Flying Star Cafe, the Original Location in Nob Hill
The original - and most gay-popular - of the several branches of groovy Flying Star Cafe set all around metro Albuquerque (there's also one in Santa Fe's lively Railyard District), the Nob Hill Flying Star (3416 Central Ave. NE) tends to draw an eclectic and artsy bunch, including plenty of students from nearby University of New Mexico. This locale is smaller and often more crowded than some of the newer branches, but it's also a favorite for people-watching and weekend brunch.
Equal parts coffeehouse, bakery, full-service restaurant, and bar (wine and beer only), Flying Star also has an extensive newsstand. You order your food at the counter and servers bring it out to you.
Hotel Parq Central, a Stylish, Luxury Boutique Hotel in Downtown Albuquerque
Opened in 2010, the hip and stylish Hotel Parq Central (806 Central Ave. SE) has been a game-changing addition to the increasingly notable neighborhood of eastern downtown Albuquerque, often dubbed EDo - this is also part of the city's Huning Highland Historic District, and it's home to several excellent restaurants, including Artichoke, Farina Pizzeria, and Grove Cafe and Market. The three-story Italianate building, which was constructed in 1926 as Santa Fe Hospital and magically transformed into an upscale boutique hotel after an impressive - and ingenious - remodel, has long been a fixture along Central Avenue (old Route 66), just off I-25. The Parq Central has also quickly become a favorite of locals for its swanky rooftop bar, Apothecary Lounge - a dazzling perch from which to watch the sunset.
With soaring Romanesque windows, original clay tiles, and ornate designs along its facade, the building retains its original stately appearance. Inside you'll find 74 rooms, of which 15 are full suites with sitting areas. Interiors are done in soft, earthy tones and clean lines, and furnishings are sleek and contemporary, a welcome departure from the Southwest-excess that characterizes quite a few hotels in New Mexico. Windows in each room let in streams of Albuquerque sunshine - if you're at all put off by street noise, request a room facing west on the backside of the building, away from I-25 and Central Avenue.
In addition to Apothecary Lounge, which serves cocktails and a substantial variety of creative tapas, the hotel has several handy amenities and common areas. The hotel staff is cheerful and proficient, and rates include a substantial buffet breakfast.
Hot-Air Ballooning Over the Rio Grande, With Rainbow Ryders
Gay-friendly Albuquerque is considered the hot-air ballooning capital of the world, and dozens of outfitters here (along with a few in other parts of New Mexico) offer early-morning (and sometimes sunset) rides of the stunning Rio Grande Valley - the views of the city and the cloud-scraping Sandia Mountains are something else. The Duke City also hosts the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta each fall - it's one of New Mexico's biggest draws.
The fiesta takes place on the grounds of the state-of-the-art Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum. A few reputable companies worth contacting if you're looking for a hot-air balloon ride of the area include Enchanted Winds, Rainbow Ryders, and Above and Beyond Affordable Balloon Rides.
Flying Star Cafe, on the Edge of the Artsy Village of Corrales, New Mexico
Albuquerque has some less traditional gay nightlife options, including the highly inviting local coffeehouse-restaurant chain, Flying Star. These hip, smartly furnished hangouts are spacious and attractively decorated, several of them with fireplaces and most with large patios. There are several of them throughout Albuquerque. The one in Nob Hill along Central Avenue has the gayest crowd and is downright cruisy some evenings. The downtown and Corrales locations also draw plenty of "family", but you'll feel quite welcome at any of them. All of the Flying Stars serve three meals a day, a wide range of coffees, wine and beer, and fresh-baked goods, and they also have free Wi-Fi.
Nob Hill-Highland Historic District and First Thursdays Arts Stroll
Albuquerque's quirkiest, artiest neighborhood, Nob Hill-Highland is - not surprisingly - one of the most popular parts of the city to live in among gays and lesbians. This lively district along historic Route 66 (Central Avenue) lies a short drive east of downtown, and just on the eastern edge of the University of New Mexico campus. A great time to visit is during the monthly First Thursday arts stroll, which takes place along Nob Hill's main drag, Central Avenue, from about Dartmouth Drive to Carlisle Boulevard.
Any time of day or evening, this several-block stretch of Central abounds with distinctive galleries and boutiques, cool cafes, trendy restaurants, and interesting people-watching - the extent of the business district extends well east and west of Dartmouth and Carlisle. In recent years, the neighborhood has especially begun to expand east - you'll find a number of notable businesses as you walk or drive up Central toward San Mateo.
The First Thursday performing arts strolls take place each month - Central Avenue is closed to motor traffic, and shops stay open late. Bands and musicians perform along the street, and restaurants and bars overflow with patrons. It's a very fun time to check things out.
Venture north or south along the side streets that intersect with Central, and you'll discover residential blocks of vintage adobe homes, many dating to the early part of the 20th century. It's in these parts that quite a few of Albuquerque's gays and lesbians live. In general, this neighborhood is popular with young professionals, students, and faculty from nearby UNM, and artists.
Apothecary Lounge, at the Historic Hotel Parq Central, in Downtown Albuquerque
With an expansive rooftop deck affording unobstructed views of the downtown Albuquerque skyline and the high mesa that extends for miles beyond, the sophisticated Apothecary Lounge (806 Central Ave. SE) is one of the city's trendiest spots for cocktails, wine, and creative tapas and small plates cuisine. The hip bar, which also has a large indoor section with tables, a long bar, and window seats, sits atop the city's swish Hotel Parq Central, in the lively EDo section of the city, just off historic Route 66. It's a fun place for sunset cocktails, a light dinner, or late-night hobnobbing, and it's a short drive and 15-minute walk from the city's most popular gay nightclub, Effex, as well as being close to the funky restaurants and cafes of Nob Hill.
Apothecary Lounge's kitchen prepares plenty of tasty tapas - duck confit and mizuna salad with goji berries, manchego, and pine nuts; Sambucca prawn martinis, mussels braised in garlic chervil and amber beer, and beautiful charcuterie and cheese plates. Among the cocktails, don't miss the pomegranate mint julip with Blanton's bourbon, or a class of IPA from downtown's first-rate craft-beermaker, Marble Brewery.
Frontier Restaurant, Late-Night Diner Across From University of New Mexico
Directly across from the campus of the University of New Mexico and established in 1971, the vaguely barn-like Frontier Restaurant (2400 Central Ave. SE) is one of the state's great cheap-eats culinary treasures - a rambling collection of dining rooms hung with cowboy art and John Wayne portraits. Frontier is open plenty late to attract a curious mix of students, post-clubbing revelers, gays and lesbians, and regular folks from all walks of ABQ life. On weekdays, you'll often see students in here working or studying in one of the farther-back dining rooms.
Frontier specializes in low-frills, affordable New Mexican and American grub - there's often a long line of patrons, but it moves quickly. Service is fast and efficient. You order your food at the counter, wait for your number to appear on a flashing screen, and take it back to your table (basically, it's glorified cafeteria-style). There's no liquor license, but Frontier does serve a mean house-made lemonade as well as chai, cappuccino, and smoothies.
Best bets for breakfast are huevos rancheros and breakfast burritos, and definitely, save room for one of the restaurant's trademark "sweet rolls" (basically Frontier's version of a cinnamon roll). For lunch and dinner, Frontier is known for its green-chile cheeseburger (the Fiesta burger, which you can have topped with red-chile, too, if you prefer), as well as carne adovada burritos, green-chile stew, beef tacos, and other New Mexico standards. There are better spots around town for authentic local food, but not many of them are this inexpensive or stay open this late. And as much as anything, dining at Frontier is about soaking up the quirky vibe and observing the often off-beat crowd.
Downtown Albuquerque, Looking East Along Central Ave. (Rte. 66)
Although still chiefly a center of government and commerce, Albuquerque's downtown, which is bisected east-west by Central Avenue, aka Rte. 66, has undergone a slow but steady rejuvenation.
You'll find a number of restaurants and bars, including a few gay-friendly spots like Blackbird Buvette, the downtown branch of Flying Star Cafe, and the popular gay nightclub, Effex, plus a slick movie theater, the historic KiMo Theatre performance center, a few galleries, the Holocaust & Intolerance Museum of New Mexico, and the vintage Alvarado Amtrak rail station, which has been redeveloped into a transportation center that's a main stop for the cool Rail Runner Express commuter line that connects the city to Santa Fe. The neighborhood is also home to several of the city's top accommodations, including the gay-friendly Mauger Estate B&B, the affordable Hotel Blue, and the stunningly restored and reopened (in 2009) Hotel Andaluz (formerly La Posada, and opened originally in 1939 as Conrad Hilton's fourth hotel).
The downtown neighborhood is extremely central, just a short drive (or 15-minute walk) from the museums and retail-dining in Old Town, and about a 10-minute drive from Nob Hill - Central Avenue (Route 66) connects each of these neighborhoods. The best strolling downtown is along Central and the blocks parallel to it on either side, Gold and Copper avenues). A number of loft-style modern condos and apartments, as well as some residences built out of historic buildings, have also gone up downtown, and you'll also find some notable blocks of early 20th-century residential buildings - two particularly fine areas for admiring older homes are in the "EDo" (east downtown) area, just east of the rail tracks.
Kimo Theatre, the Pueblo Deco Icon on Route 66 in Downtown Albuquerque
In addition to being a prominent performance space that hosts theater, concerts, and dance, the striking KiMo Theatre (423 Central Ave. NW) is one of the world's seminal examples of a relatively scarce architectural style: Pueblo Art Deco. The building opened in 1927, designed by Oreste Bachechi, with elements of both the Pueblo Revival for which New Mexico is known and the then-modish Art Deco ornamentation that had become in vogue for movie cinemas of the time.
The facade, with its blue-trim windows and ornate decoration, is hard to miss as you stroll down Central Ave., or old Route 66, in downtown Albuquerque - the KiMo is just a stone's throw from Albuquerque's hottest gay dance club, Effex. The interior of the KiMo is no less magnificent, with the massive plaster beams (made to resemble logs) spanning the ceiling, and Navajo images set throughout, from war-drum-inspired chandeliers to swastika patterns (before Nazi Germany appropriated the swastika for its nefarious purposes, this symbol was associated with its original and very positive Navajo and before that Asian Indian origin, as an icon for freedom and prosperity). Self-guided tours of the interior are available for free during business hours (except when there's a performance or presentation in the theater), generally, Tuesday through Friday during the day and on Saturday afternoons.
Juan Tabo Basin Picnic Area, Following a Light Snowfall
One of the prettiest spots in Albuquerque for a view of the region, and of the Sandia Mountains which rise above the city to the east, the Juan Tabo Basin Picnic Area is part of Cibola National Forest. The Juan Tabo Basin is also the trailhead for the strenuous La Luz Trail, which climbs more than 3,000 feet over 8 miles to Sandia Peak.
Although it feels remote and far removed from the city, this area is easy to reach - just follow Tramway Rd. from either I-25 or I-40, the same way you'd reach the base of the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway.
Blackbird Buvette, a Gay-Friendly Cafe and Live Music Bar Downtown
Hip and low-keyed Blackbird Buvette (509 Central Ave. NW) is one of downtown Albuquerque's most inviting little spots for a beer (they carry several local brews) or cocktail, a light meal (burgers, salads, breakfast served all day), a chance to watch a cool band (emphasis is on indie rock, folk, funk, acoustic), or just mingle with the eclectic, young-ish crowd that frequents this place. There's patio seating out front and in back, too, making this increasingly gay-popular spot especially pleasant on a warm evening.
Albuquerque Social Club, Private Gay Bar in Nob Hill (Open to All for a Cover)
The Albuquerque Social Club (aka "The SOCH") (4021 Central Ave. NE) is a private club for gay and lesbians, and it's become the funky Nob Hill neighborhood's - and one of the city's - most popular gay venues. Recent renovations to the interior and sound system have helped make this an even bigger draw.
You must be a member to enter, but all are welcome (as long as they have a valid photo ID). This had been mostly a locals' hangout, but it's enjoyed a resurgence of late and now draws sizable crowds, especially on weekends, and has a friendly staff. The one drawback for late-night owls is that the club is only open late most evenings. Also keep in mind that because it's a private club, it's exempt from Albuquerque's laws forbidding smoking in bars (good news if you like to light up indoors, and bad news if you aren't wild about smoke-filled hangouts).
Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, the World's Longest-Such Conveyance
The world's longest aerial tramway, the Sandia Peak Tramway rises from Albuquerque's Northeast Heights neighborhood (elevation about 6,500 feet) to Sandia Crest, at about 10,400 feet. At the top you'll find numerous viewing areas, hiking trails along the top of the ridge as well as the La Luz Trail, which leads steeply down to Northeast Heights), a restaurant called High Finance, and Sandia downhill ski area (popular for mountain-biking) in summer. High Finance serves somewhat ho-hum American and Continental fare - it's best at lunch when you can opt for the more casual fare (burgers, sandwiches). If nothing else, drop by for a drink, or bring your own food and enjoy a picnic at the top overlooking Albuquerque and some 11,000 square miles of New Mexico wilderness. You can also access Sandia Crest (and the ski/mountain bike area) the back way, via Hwy. 14 (the Turquoise Trail) - just take Hwy. 536 up the backside of the mountain range.
At the base of the tram (10 Tramway Loop) you'll find plenty of parking, another casual restaurant (Sandiago's, which serves Mexican food), and exhibits on this famed local attraction which began operations in 1966.
Golden Crown Panaderia, a Traditional Bakery in Old Town
Beloved by visitors and locals, Golden Crown Panaderia (1103 Mountain Rd. NW) is one of those culinary institutions that define Albuquerque. Founded by baker Pratt Morales, who continues to run it with his son Christopher and a team of friendly employees, Golden Crown is just renowned for such regional specialty baked goods as green-chile bread, biscochito cookies (in several flavors, from cappuccino to chocolate), and pizza made with blue corn, green-chile, and other outstanding doughs. It's also a terrific stop for espresso and sandwiches. The bakery is set along a semi-residential street just a short walk from many of the city's top museums, as well as the shops and galleries of Old Town.
Part of the charm here is the staff - walk in, and somebody is certain to offer you a free sample, perhaps a cookie or a piece of bread. The place always smells like the incredibly tasty bread baked within, all of it made from scratch using traditional recipes. Golden Crown has become especially renowned for baking artisan bread in just about any shape or likeness you can imagine - these larger-than-life bread "sculptures" have been featured on the Food Network and in countless articles. But stopping by for a simple slice of green-chile bread or an eight-inch personal pizza is reason enough to check out this festive neighborhood spot. Be warned that it's usually pretty warm inside - the enormous ovens give off plenty of heat. But there's seating outside on a covered patio and in an adjacent garden.
El Patio De Albuquerque, an Inexpensive Source of Excellent New Mexican Cuisine
The diminutive El Patio (142 Harvard Dr. SE) is a beloved standby of Nob Hill and the nearby campus of the University of New Mexico, a favorite spot for filling, affordable, and generally very spicy and authentic New Mexican fare: blue-corn enchiladas, sopaipillas (pictured here) stuffed with beans and cheese (these fried-dough confections are also served following the meal, with honey, as is tradition in New Mexico), huevos rancheros, carne adovada, and other variations on the usual suspects, all prepared consistently well. It's near-impossible to get a consensus among Albuquerquians on the top New Mexican restaurants in town - there are so many good ones, and folks in these parts are so passionate about their favorites. But El Patio garners consistently positive reviews and has a devoted local following, as it should. It's also a favorite in the GLBT community, close as it is to Nob Hill and UNM.
The restaurant is set in a small house a block or so south of the neighborhood's main drag, Central Avenue. There's a small interior dining room, but in good weather, try to get a seat on the peaceful patio. Be warned about two things: it's cash only, and although beer and wine are served (as well as margaritas made with agave wine, which aren't bad, actually), the restaurant isn't licensed to serve liquor.
La Luz Trail, Which Climbs From Northeast Heights to Sandia Crest
With a trailhead that begins at the Juan Tabo Basin Picnic Area off Tramway Road in northeast Albuquerque, the La Luz Trail climbs some 3,400 feet to the soaring peak of the Sandia Mountains. This is a challenging but rewarding hike of nearly 9 miles, and it takes the better part of the day to manage it all the way to the top. One option, after enjoying some food at High Finance restaurant at the top, is to take the Sandia Peak Tram back down to the bottom. The base of the tram, however, is nearly 4 miles from the base the La Luz trailhead, so a little planning is advised - either go with friends and park one car at the tram base and one at the trail base, or arrange for somebody to give you a ride between the tram base and the trailhead.
Marble Brewery and Pub in Downtown Albuquerque
A highly regarded craft brewery in the heart of downtown Albuquerque, the Marble Brewery (111 Marble Ave. NW) produces about eight beers on a regular basis as well as a number of seasonal and limited-time specials - you can drink them at the on-site brewpub, which has a large dining room as well as a spacious patio. And you'll also find Marble brews throughout New Mexico, both on tap and in bottles. Also, up in Santa Fe, check out Marble Brewery Tap Room, in a two-story building overlooking the Plaza.
The Albuquerque brewpub is a great spot for happy hour as well as lunch and dinner - among the critically acclaimed brews, consider potently hoppy Double IPA, dark and velvety Oatmeal Stout, and a faintly honey-sweet Wildflower Wheat unfiltered beer that's popular with fans of Hefeweizen. The kitchen serves simple bar fare: turkey and green-chile sandwiches, queso dip with chips, and a noteworthy Chama chili made with a recipe from Santa Fe's Rio Chama restaurant.
Flying Star Cafe, in Downtown Albuquerque
One of the most architecturally distinctive of the several Flying Star cafes (723 Silver Ave. SW) set around Albuquerque, the downtown ABQ Flying Star occupies the 1950 Southern Union Gas Co. building, which was designed by the seminal New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem. The two-floor space with both the main dining room and a quieter upstairs loft area is a favorite hangout for students, downtown offices workers, artists, and tourists. It serves delicious breakfast fare, a full range of coffee drinks, wine and beer, wonderful pastries and cakes, and an eclectic (Asian, New Mexican, Middle Eastern, American) mix of lunch and dinner fare. For relatively simple fare and an order-at-the-counter setup, Flying Star isn't as cheap as some cafes around town, but given the spacious seating area in which patrons are generally welcome to gab, read, or peck away on their laptops for hours on end, it's a pretty wonderful value.
Scalo Northern Italian Restaurant, in Historic Nob Hill
Nob Hill's many excellent restaurants include a long-time favorite of the gay community, Scalo (3500 Central Ave. SE), which serves sophisticated yet reasonably priced Northern Italian fare. The elegant restaurant with a large outdoor seating area overlooking bustling Central Avenue (aka historic Route 66) makes a fine setting for dinner, sipping wine, coffee and dessert, and lighter bar food. The kitchen emphasizes local, organic ingredients, and there's always a featured wine on the menu for just $15 a bottle. Good bets from the menu include a wood-fired pizza topped with gorgonzola, pears, and caramelized onions; agnolotti pasta stuffed with duck and mushroom and served with asparagus and parmesan; and grilled rib-eye steak with gorgonzola risotto cake, seasonal veggies, and a balsamic vinaigrette. Scalo has at times hosted fund-raising events for the GLBT community.