On a recent trip home to Albuquerque, I ate at a trendy new breakfast spot, drove past one of many new breweries and took in a powerful play performed by top-notch actors.
That’s when it hit me: The city where I grew up has grown up, too. It has hip neighborhoods, places that illuminate its American Indian and Western heritages, and internationally acclaimed art galleries. People know Albuquerque, aka the Duke City, for its International Balloon Fiesta, which ends its 10-day run Sunday. If you haven’t been, I hope you’ll make the trip someday. There’s nothing like the sight of 550 balloons soaring toward cerulean skies at the crack of dawn. But my hometown — less prominent than sexy Santa Fe — offers plenty of reasons cultural, culinary and quirky for you and your family to stick around. Here are some of my favorites:
Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway
The “tram,” as we call it, is open all year with few weather exceptions. The 15-minute ride inside glass-enclosed cars takes visitors 2.7 miles up, offering stunning, and changing, views of mountains, canyons and forests. You can take in more of New Mexico’s rugged beauty from an observation deck on top. Bring a sweater, and always call ahead to confirm that the tram is running. $20 for adults, $12 for children, under 5 free. No reservations. 1-505-856-1532; sandiapeak.com.
Hike the La Luz Trail
Prefer those panoramic views with your feet on terra firma? This is a bragging-rights option, but only if you’re an experienced hiker and you’ve been in Albuquerque two or three days to acclimate to its mile-high elevation. The popular trail, with changing vegetation, massive rocks, lovely wildflowers and abundant switchbacks, is nearly 9 miles one way (you can ride the tram down), with the highest point surpassing 10,000 feet. Wear sturdy shoes, a hat and sunscreen. Pack plenty of water and snacks. Pack rain gear, too. (Hey, this is New Mexico.) laluztrail.com.
Historic Nob Hill District
Whew! Got exercise out of the way. Let’s go shopping! The Nob Hill of my youth was little more than one craft store where I bought Styrofoam balls for a school science project. Today, the trendy area spans a full mile along Central Avenue on famous Route 66. Spend a day at an abundance of boutiques, galleries and restaurants, where college students, professionals and locals flock to outdoor tables. Remember to take note of the area’s many neon arches.
University of New Mexico
The campus of UNM, not far from Nob Hill, is definitely worth a stroll. The dramatic home to the state’s largest university features Pueblo Revival architecture; a beloved duck pond where many a graduation or wedding photo has been shot, and several museums, including the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, which offers an informative overview of Southwestern culture.
The Frontier restaurant
This Albuquerque institution opened in 1971 across from the university and looks a lot like it did back then. The food is still great — fast, filling, cheap — and the people-watching is better. Fill up on burritos and roasted green chile (that’s chile with an “e”) offered up with homemade flour tortillas. Or take my hint and save room for the Frontier’s famous sweet rolls. Enjoy the large collection of John Wayne art on the walls, too, built up over the years by owners Larry and Dorothy Rainosek. Open daily from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. 1-505-266-0550; frontierrestaurant.com.
Historic Old Town
This is a charming, albeit touristy, spot, where you’ll find souvenirs, including Indian blankets and turquoise jewelry, pottery, rugs and playful alien items. The 10 blocks around its central plaza include art galleries and restaurants. Musicians frequently perform in the plaza square.
Indian Pueblo Cultural Center
Step into the calming surroundings of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center to learn about New Mexico’s 19 unique pueblos, including information on each pueblo’s distinctive art forms. The Pueblo Harvest Cafe offers traditional fry bread and posole (hominy stew with chile), as well as other feast day foods. Call ahead to find out about Indian dance performances. 1-866-855-7902; indianpueblo.org.
Also known as Sky City, Acoma is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America, sitting nearly 370 feet above the desert floor and offering beautiful views for miles. The hourlong drive from Albuquerque is a winner, too, with spectacular rock formations (is that a sphinx?) under grand blue skies. Friendly tour guides, many of whom grew up here, tell the history of the more than 300 adobe and sandstone structures, which are owned by pueblo women, and take visitors inside the San Esteban del Rey Mission, completed in 1640. Many residents sell their distinct pottery from tables outside their doors. If you’re able, take the somewhat steep walking trail down after the tour, instead of the bus, and look for the kissing rocks. Before you go, be sure to read up on etiquette rules, including appropriate dress and camera restrictions. Admission ranges from $15 to $23. 1-800-747-0181; acomaskycity.org.
Brought kids along? Get them to Explora, a hands-on science center that describes itself as “part children’s museum, part grandma’s attic.” The place is huge — more than 50,000 square feet — with interactive opportunities for toddlers to grandparents. Make a bubble, work on circuit boards, build a dam in the center’s popular water area. Open daily. Entry fee ranges from $4 to $8. 1-505-224-8300; explora.us.
The ABQ BioPark
This family-friendly option includes the Albuquerque Aquarium, Rio Grande Botanic Garden, Rio Grande Zoo and Tingley Beach for fishing. (If you have to choose, go with one of the first two options.) Also, if you time your visit for late November through early January, don’t miss the “River of Lights” holiday show, where you can walk through the Botanic Garden surrounded by millions of twinkling lights. It’s gorgeous. 1-505-768-2000.
The BaD Tour
As in “Breaking Bad.” Thanks to the Albuquerque Tourism and Sightseeing Factory, you can jump on an open-air trolley for a 3½-hour ride to various locations where the Emmy-winning television series was shot. That includes Walter White’s and Jesse Pinkman’s houses, the infamous carwash, Los Pollos Hermanos eatery, Tuco’s headquarters, the Crossroads Motel and more. Cost: $65. New in 2015: The Saul Tour. Better call for more information: 1-505-240-8000; abqtrolley.com/bad.
Dan’s Boots and Saddles
Sharing this item is akin to giving you the phone number for my favorite babysitter, but I’m feeling charitable today. We don’t make a trip home without visiting Dan’s Boots & Saddles, a one-stop Western shop. I won’t confess how many pairs of cowboy boots I own, despite owning exactly zero horses. I will tell you that, despite what you might think, cowboy boots are incredibly comfortable and come in handy if you find yourself on a dance floor or in a particularly difficult business meeting. Family-owned and -run for three generations, Dan’s has a massive collection of to-die-for boots for men, women and children in a surprisingly wide array of colors. Type their website address into your browser and I swear you’ll smell leather. 1-505-345-2220; dansboots.com.
Heck, let’s make this a baker’s dozen. At 364 Hwy. 66, between Albuquerque and Tijeras, slow your car down to 45 miles per hour and enjoy a rare musical road. The two-lane patch of rumble strip plays “America the Beautiful” as you drive over it. Gaze at the majestic mountains surrounding you, and you’ll want to sing, too.