About an hour south of Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capital, and due west of Cibola National Forest and the gorgeous Sandia Mountains lies Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico. But what comes to mind when one thinks of the city of Albuquerque? The initial thought may be, “how do I even say that?” but once pronunciation is determined, most people generally think of the hit TV show Breaking Bad or the International Balloon Fiesta held in October each year. While these are both iconically representative of Albuquerque (“ABQ”), this sprawling city is so much more than its two most popular mentions. We spent five weeks in Albuquerque in late spring 2018, and we had a blast exploring this lesser-known US city.
Our favorite day spent in ABQ was a day trip to see some of the more well-known sights. All of the following things to do in Albuquerque can be completed in a single day trip to the city, with plenty of time to spare.
1. Old Town ABQ
Our first stop of the day was in Old Town Albuquerque, where we walked around the various adobe shops and grabbed coffee and pastries at the quaint but lovely Blackbird Coffee House. We enjoyed our exotic lattes and danishes outside on the patio, beside the flowing fountain and beautiful flower gardens.
After breakfast, we walked around the various shops, filled with local art, New Mexican foods, and souvenirs. We then walked through the park adjacent to the town square and briefly stepped inside San Felipe de Neri church, which was built in 1793.
2. ABQ Biological Park
Shortly after its opening, we arrived at the Albuquerque Biological Park, which includes an aquarium, a zoo, and a large botanical garden. We decided to explore the aquarium first, before it became busy. We are both mildly obsessed with the sea and ocean life, which means we are huge suckers for aquariums, and this one did not disappoint. Our favorite tanks were the large colorful reef tanks, the shark tank, the seahorse tank, and the clownfish and anemone tank, which was basically straight out of Finding Nemo.
After seeing the aquarium, we spent a while strolling through the botanical gardens. These were especially impressive. Towards the garden entrance, there were many large desert gardens, resemblant of the plants you would find in the national forests of New Mexico, all beautifully maintained. Next, we passed a large lake filled with lily pads and lotus flowers, which was beside a large grass field full of tall trees. While this may not be rare in many parts of the US, it is not very common in the desert, and many people seemed to be enjoying sitting in the lush grass, beneath the shady trees. It made me wish I had packed a book.
We then visited two separate greenhouses, one home to many species of large cacti, and the next full of colorful tropical plants. The tropical greenhouse was my favorite part of the gardens. We concluded this visit with a trek through the three specialty gardens: a Japanese garden, a rose garden, and a cottonwood garden, each lovely and perfectly-maintained. Overall, we were quite impressed with these gardens, as maintaining such beautiful plants in the heat of the desert summer is no small feat.
After visiting the gardens, we decided to forgo a visit to the zoo, as it was beginning to get very hot. However, on a cooler day, we highly recommend visiting the zoo as well, as it is home to a huge variety of species and completes the Albuquerque Biological Park experience.
3. El Pinto Restaurant
After our visit to the Biopark, we had lunch at one of the most renowned restaurants in ABQ, El Pinto. This place came highly recommended, and we decided to try their lunch buffet. We enjoyed traditional New Mexican cuisine of enchiladas, chili, tacos, salad, tamales, and rice and beans, complete with red and green chile sauces for topping. The restaurant interior was simply gorgeous, filled with beautiful plants and a lovely design. Their dinner menu comes highly recommended as well.
4. Sandia Peak Tramway
We concluded our day with a trip to the Sandia Peak Tramway, which was once the longest tramway in the world, and is still the longest tramway in the Western Hemisphere. Each car is quite large and transports guests almost three miles to the top of the beautiful Sandia Peak, which is visible from almost anywhere in ABQ. Our ascension was enjoyable and informative, as a young guide shared the history of the tram and the national forest during the fifteen-minute ride to the top. While ascending, the landscape changed entirely, beginning at a hot desert climate of 5,300 feet above sea level, and ending at 10,300 feet above sea level. It was quite a climb, and we were greeted by cool weather and beautiful ponderosa pine trees at the top.
At the peak, we learned more about the Sandia Mountains and the Cibola National Forest at the visitors center, before hiking along the nearby trails for a bit. Several trails begin on either side of the visitor center, each meandering through tall pines and past lush green fields. It was quite a different experience from the typical ABQ city activities.
After our hike, we watched the most magical, pink sunset from the 360-degree observation deck, before boarding the final tram and descending back to the city. If you have only one day to explore, we highly recommend this itinerary, as it will give you a proper feel of this city in a short amount of time.
If you have more than a day to explore the city of ABQ, we recommend visiting some of the nearby national monuments and historic sites. Each is unique and well-worth a visit.
Things to Do in Albuquerque if You Have More than One Day
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
About halfway between ABQ and Santa Fe lies Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, which was quite a nice surprise. In a few short hours, we hiked the park’s namesake trail (the Tent Rocks Trail), which features hundreds of cone-shaped rock formations up to ninety feet high. These were formed by a series of volcanic eruptions long ago, which left behind deposits of tuff, ash, and pumice, shaping the tent rocks we see today.
Starting at the parking lot, the trail begins rather easily, before winding through a few hundred feet of beautiful slot canyons. These are great for beginners and families, as they are narrow enough to offer the slot experience, but not so narrow that they require technical gear or learned skills. After the slots, the trail climbs a steady 750 feet to a high viewpoint, which overlooks the majority of the park’s tent rocks. After descending from the viewpoint, the trail loops past more tent rocks, while also passing a cave-like hole in a large rock formation, before ending back at the parking lot.
This national monument is open from 8 AM to 4 PM daily, and we recommend arriving early on weekends, as the parking lot is small and fills quickly. It becomes so crowded that parking is revolving and rangers require cars to wait at the entrance until other visitors depart. But do not let this deter you, it is very worth an early visit.
Petroglyph National Monument
Just west of ABQ lies another national monument, which protects one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the US. Most of these petroglyphs were carved by Native Americans and Spanish settlers between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries.
After visiting the informative visitor’s center, most guests hike the park’s main trail, which winds through Boca Negro Canyon. Over one hundred petroglyphs can be viewed along a short, yet lovely trail which takes most people about an hour to complete.
Farther from the visitor’s center, there are several longer trails, less crowded than Boca Negro and filled with even more pictographs (up to three hundred along each trail). This is another park which can be thoroughly experienced within a couple of hours. It is open daily from 8:30 am until 4:30 pm.
Coronado Historic Site
Another interesting stop for the traveling history buff is Coronado Historic Site. This site lies a few miles north of ABQ, in the town of Bernalillo and contains the ruins of a Kuaua Pueblo village. While it is mostly recreated based off of the excavation of the village’s ruins, it is historically accurate, based on the knowledge of the original site. The visitor’s center features a self-guided museum, while a tour is required to walk through the ruins themselves. This site is open every day except Tuesday, from 8:30 am until 5 pm.
The tour is about an hour long and offers the opportunity to walk inside one of the pueblos and down into one of the recreated kivas, whose walls are covered with recreations of the incredible artwork found on the excavated walls of the original kiva. The final stop is into a climate-controlled room with the original art excavated from the kiva ruins. We learned so much and thoroughly enjoyed the tour.
Finally, no stop in ABQ is complete without a Breaking Bad tour. (That is, if you have watched the show. If you haven’t seen it yet, please stop reading and begin watching. You won’t regret it.) This Vince Gilligan classic is my all-time favorite show, and the tour was my most-anticipated ABQ activity. We opted for the self-guided tour and only stopped at the most famous sights.
If you have more than a handful of days in ABQ, you should definitely make at least one day trip to Santa Fe. Or, better yet, make an additional stop in Santa Fe for the full New Mexico experience. Trust us, you won’t regret it.
In short, Albuquerque is a lovely and vibrant city which truly captures the quintessential New Mexican spirit. The food culture, art scene, outdoor activities, and overall vibes make this a truly enjoyable place to visit. Compared to much of the Southwest, this city boasts mild temperatures year-round, making it an ideal location for a vacation or even a weekend trip in any season. And while the balloon fiesta is an event I hope to one day attend, ABQ has so much more to offer every day of the year.
Have you been to ABQ? How was your experience? Did I miss anything? Feel free to share in the comments below.