With more than 400 years of history and a diverse mix of cultures, Santa Fe has no shortage of museum fodder. The museums are clustered around the historic Plaza, the Railyard district, and Museum Hill. All but the latter are on well-traveled visitor paths, so it’s easy to duck in for an hour or so between shopping or margarita sipping. The latter is a collection of four museums set in the foothills about a mile from downtown; visiting that area could be a multi-day excursion depending on how long you want to spend at each museum.
New Mexico History Museum
The downtown New Mexico History Museum explores five centuries of Santa Fe’s and New Mexican history. The museum begins with the regions early indigenous inhabitants, and traces the arrival of Spanish colonists and Santa Fe Trail entrepreneurs, to the entrance of the railroad, Atomic scientists, and counter-culture mavericks. The museum is the state's newest, opening in 2009, but it's house in the historic, 400-year-old Palace of the Governors. The building, located on the Plaza, is the country’s oldest continuously occupied government building. Under the Palace’s portal, don’t miss shopping for Native American jewelry and art. The Palace operates an artisan program that certifies all the makers are members of the state’s tribes and pueblos, so you’re ensured authentic art.
Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return
The House of Eternal Return is the most unorthodox museum you’ll ever visit. While it's technically an art installation, the first permanent installation at Meow Wolf, this tourism darling on the city’s Southside is much more. It’s an interactive art experience that takes visitors on a psychedelic trip through the multiverse. The creation of Santa Fe art-collective-turned-experiential-company Meow Wolf (the name by which this attraction is often called), The House of Eternal Return begins in a Victorian mansion and leads guests through room after room of fantastical environments, from a larger-than-life neon fish tank, to the glowing interior of a mammoth skeleton. Book your tickets ahead for a guaranteed entrance time as the lines get long here, especially during peak tourism seasons.
New Mexico Museum of Art
Open in 1917, the New Mexico Museum of Art became the first public building in the state dedicated to art. Its collections include works from early Santa Fe and Taos art groups, including Los Pintores and the Taos Society of Artists, which helped established these towns as art colonies at the start of the 20th century. While you’re at the museum, which sits on the edge of Plaza, take note of what’s outside, too. The museum was designed in the Pueblo Revival style inspired by the state's Native American pueblos. The architectural style became a defining design in the Southwest. In 2021, the museum plans to introduce a satellite museum in the Railyard district called Vladem Contemporary to house those collections and mount more contemporary installations and exhibitions.
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
American modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe is synonymous with New Mexico. The desert landscapes north of Santa Fe, in Abiquiu, inspired her works for decades. Set just off the Plaza, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is dedicated to the artist’s works, so you’ll always find sections of her paintings on display. You’ll also see artifacts from her life alongside exhibitions on how she influenced other artists, depending on the season. Up for a road trip? Ask the museum about how you can visit her home, studio, and the lands that inspired her work. Tours show you the exact places she stood to paint and how she lived on a daily basis.
Museum of Contemporary Native Arts
Many museums in Santa Fe, and across North America, exhibit historical Native arts, trapping them in a time capsule. Just off the Plaza, the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts focuses on the now: it preserves and exhibits contemporary Native art. You’ll often find exhibitions or works by graduates and students from the prestigious Institute of American Indian Art here. That’s no mistake, the museum is an outgrowth of that Santa Fe institution. However, the works on view here can span the country and North America.
SITE Santa Fe
SITE Santa Fe feels like a contemporary art gallery, but it is technically a museum. The airy space in the Railyard district mounts notable contemporary art exhibits, including large-scale installations and installations where visitors can interact and create the art on the spot. Check the schedule for artist talks and discussions.
Museum of International Folk Art
Set on Museum Hill, the Museum of International Folk Art is a menagerie of global folk art with some 130,000 items in its permanent collection. "Multiple Visions: A Common Bond," which is on long-term view, features more than 10,000 pieces by itself. Plus, it mounts traveling exhibitions that have spotlighted everything from the kites of Japan to the Hispano folk music of northern New Mexico. The museum is connected to city’s International Folk Art Market, a festival that takes over Museum Hill for three days in July with wares from more than 100 artists from around the world.
Museum of Indian Arts & Culture
The Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, on Museum Hill, lives up to its name with exhibitions on cultures of the peoples of the American Southwest. It begins by guiding visitors through historical displays that set the stage, then goes deeper with exhibits on pottery, jewelry, and other customary arts among the Pueblo and indigenous peoples of the region.
Museum of Spanish Colonial Art
The small but excellent Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, also on Museum Hill, spotlights the devotional and decorative art, furniture, and textiles of the Spanish colonial era. You’ll learn about typical arts of the time period, including retablos and bultos (altars and figures depicting saints), punched tin work, and colcha (colorful embroidery). You'll also learn how New Mexico's artists are continuing these heritage arts today. Plan ahead for the city’s Traditional Spanish Market, held on a weekend in July, when modern-day artists sell traditional arts.
Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian
Rounding out the attractions on Museum Hill, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian focuses on little-known genres, such as textiles beyond rugs and clay figures, and solo shows presented by living Native American artists. If you’re a jewelry fan, this museum is a must-see. It’s home to the Phillips Center for the Study of Southwest Jewelry—one of the most comprehensive collections of Navajo and Pueblo jewelry in the world—and the Case Trading Post, where you can apply all you just learned and purchase some jewelry.