Not only did I think that is a cute title and I liked the sound of it, it’s also quite fitting. I found Albuquerque to be quirky in many ways, similar to how everyone that lives in Austin, Texas likes to say, “Keep Austin Weird.” There should be a saying for Albuquerque, “Keep Albuquerque Quirky.” Why do I think Albuquerque is quirky? I found many of the local people I spoke to from shops and restaurants to have a quirky sense of humor and many decorations at shops and restaurants were a bit quirky to me.
When I was flying into Albuquerque, I was surprised the area is as big as it is but then again I didn’t really know a ton about the area other than the basics like some things to do and places to eat. I looked up the population and was surprised to find it’s around 565,000, which is only about a fourth of the metro area where I live, but still considerably bigger than the capital city of Santa Fe, with around 85,000 people.
I found plenty of things to do for the days I would be spending in Albuquerque other than the half marathon I ran for my 50th state. For a brief overview, Old Town has most of the touristy shops and restaurants and is definitely worth going to even if you don’t like touristy places. Sawmill Market is a more modern place with an array of restaurants all together in a market hall setting. There is no shortage of restaurants with Mexican food, so much so that you may find yourself getting tired of it, like I did and seeking out alternatives. Here are some of my favorite restaurants and things to do in and around Albuquerque.
Things to Do
The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is a good place to begin your visit to Albuquerque. Here you’ll learn about the American Indians in New Mexico and the pueblos in the area. As someone with American Indian in my family history (my great-grandmother was part Cherokee), I’m always interested in places like this where I can learn more about the history of American Indians. I found the displays interesting but they also made me sad for how poorly the American Indians in this area were treated and what they went through. The $10 admission is well-worth it. https://indianpueblo.org/
ABQ Biopark is a steal for what you get for the price of admission: the botanical garden and aquarium or the zoo are just $14.50 for adults. Each section (the garden and aquarium is one section and the zoo is the other) takes a couple or so hours to walk through so you could easily spend most of the day here if you went to the zoo, aquarium, and garden. In the botanical garden, I really enjoyed the Railroad Garden, Old World Walled Gardens, Mediterranean Conservatory, and Desert Conservatory. Normally I love Japanese gardens but I didn’t care for the one here that much. The aquarium is on the small side but my favorite section was the one with the sharks and jellyfish. https://www.cabq.gov/artsculture/biopark
If you like science and/or history, there’s the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, a Smithsonian Affiliate. You may or may not know the main assembly plant for the Manhattan Project took place in New Mexico and the first atomic bomb was successfully tested here in 1945. There are sections devoted to the Cold War, WWII, Nuclear Medicine and Radiation, Nuclear Waste, and more. Admission is $15 for adults. https://www.nuclearmuseum.org/
One thing I didn’t do because I didn’t make reservations in advance and they were sold out the day I could go is take a Breaking Bad RV tour. If you’re a fan of the show, this looks like a fun way to spend three hours on their film location tour. In addition to Breaking Bad filming locations, the tour also includes stops from Better Call Saul and El Camino. I did, however, stop by the Breaking Bad Store in Old Town, which I’ll cover below. If you’re going to be in Albuquerque during a busy time of year or only have a short time planned in the city, I suggest making reservations in advance because believe me, they do sell out. https://www.breakingbadrvtours.com/
Places to Hike
The Sandia Mountains, part of the Cibola National Forest lie to the east and northeast of Albuquerque and are easily assessed by car. There’s a popular tram (https://sandiapeak.com/) you can take to get some great mountain views and reach the ski area and hiking trails. When I was researching hiking trails online in advance, I saw the Sandia Peak Tram was closed for maintenance when I was going there so I had thought about driving to the La Luz Trail and hiking there. However, when I saw the many warnings and read some comments online by other hikers about the sheer drop-offs of 1000 feet and how dangerous this trail can be, I decided not to hike it.
“I could slip off the side of a cliff and no one would even know until they found my rental car,” I thought, so I decided to hike another trail that didn’t have sheer drop-offs. This trail went to a CCC building (Civilian Conservation Corps: the former U.S. federal agency (1933–1943), organized to utilize the nation’s unemployed youth by building roads, planting trees, improving parks, etc.) and there were amazing views of Albuquerque below. Even on this trail, there were some places with some steep drop-offs but I tried to stay away from the edge and I felt mostly safe. It was also freezing here and I quickly started to get cold, despite wearing my winter coat, hat, and gloves. When they say it’s 10-15 degrees colder at the top of the Sandia Mountains than down in the main part of Albuquerque, they aren’t exaggerating. It was also extremely windy, which was also a part of my decision to skip the La Luz Trail.
There are a wide variety of trails to choose from in the Sandia Mountains, ranging in distance and difficulty so there’s something for everyone. Just make sure you read about them in advance and decide which one is right for you. There are small fees (a few dollars) charged for parking at some of the lots, including the one at the tram and gift shop. You can either pay by cash, (put your money in an envelope then in the lock box and put a paper hanging tag on your car mirror) or you can pay with an app using your phone, following the instructions at the parking lot. Here’s a link to the Sandia Mountain trails: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd574112.pdf
For a bit tamer hiking trails, you can go west of the city to Boca Negra Canyon and Petroglyph National Monument where you can see one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America with thousands of designs and symbols carved into volcanic rock. You can also see petroglyphs at Rinconada and Piedras Marcadas Canyons. $1 or $2 parking fee (daily/weekend) is charged at Boca Negra Canyon but not at the other trailheads. These trails are short and you can easily combine multiple hikes in a day. https://www.nps.gov/petr/index.htm
Places to Eat
As I mentioned above, there’s no shortage of Mexican-style restaurants in Albuquerque. One of the most unique places in my opinion is actually in a pharmacy, Duran Pharmacy, where you can find the usual things you would find in a drug store but also a plethora of quirky items you might find in a tourist shop. Why is this listed under “Places to Eat,” you ask, well, there’s also a restaurant that serves hand-rolled tortillas and some of the best Mexican food in the area. The enchiladas I had were some of the best I’ve ever eaten.
Housed inside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is the Indian Pueblo Kitchen. Ever since I first had a taco made with fry bread (I believe my first time was in Arizona many years ago), I loved it so much I’ll seek it out when I’m anywhere in Arizona, Utah, or now, New Mexico. My taco with fry bread here was every bit as good as I remembered it to be.
If you find yourself tiring of yet another enchilada, taco, burrito, etc., Sawmill Market is a nice option with a variety of choices for lunch or dinner. I went to a pasta place where they made the pasta fresh and it was delicious! There are some Mexican restaurants but also places with Vietnamese food, pizza, burgers, bars, coffee shops, dessert places, and even a restaurant with Louisiana-style food. This is also one of the few places in the area where parking is free.
The Grove Cafe and Market is a great choice if you’re one of those people who could eat breakfast all day, because you can do just that here. In addition to breakfast, they also serve lunch and have cookies, cupcakes, and French macarons on the weekend.
Old Town has several dozen unique shops, art galleries, and jewelry shops all within a walkable area. There is metered parking in addition to parking lots so just park your car for an hour or so and plan on exploring all of the quirky shops here. As I mentioned in the paragraph above, the Breaking Bad Store is here and not only can you buy shirts, collectibles, mugs, etc. here but you can also pose by the props from the TV show and see memorabilia from Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and El Camino.
There are also many jewelry shops selling turquoise and other locally-made jewelry in addition to the many “fetishes” you’ll find. Fetishes are primarily made by the Zuni pueblo people. They carve small animals from stone, wood, antlers, glass, or shells and these animals are sacred, each with symbolic meanings. For example, bear paws represent inner strength. I was told by a shop keeper not to seek out a particular fetish but when the right one for me would present itself, I would just know. I looked at some but none spoke to me so I didn’t buy any.
For even more local shopping, head to Nob Hill, Albuquerque’s largest independent shopping district. You can find Mariposa Gallery with locally made arts and crafts, jewelry, and sculptures. In the summer, Nob Hill hosts Route 66 Summerfest with music, food trucks, and show vehicles and in the winter there is Nob Hill Shop and Stroll for holiday shopping.
In summary, Albuquerque is New Mexico’s biggest city and is a fun place especially if you enjoy hiking, history, and great food in a beautiful desert setting along the Rio Grande. The elevation is around 5300 feet, which is relatively low for a mountain town and unlikely to cause severe altitude sickness in most people. I found the quirky little aspects to just add to the city’s uniqueness and charm.
Have you been to Albuquerque? If so, what did you do and what were some of your favorite parts of the city? Did you also find it quirky?