By Travel + Leisure and Travel + Leisure Staff
November 15, 2017
Credit: Getty Images

This year’s readers’ choice winner for Travel + Leisure’s Destination of the Year is Santa Fe, New Mexico, which earned 65 percent of the vote in an online survey. In second, with 14 percent of the vote, is Slovenia. In third place was Norway.

Steeped in the history of the American West, Santa Fe has long captured the imagination of artists and freethinkers, with its pueblo-style architecture and rugged landscapes. But a growing alternative arts scene — driven by the city’s outré creative class — is giving newfound edge to the southwestern town.

This cultural renaissance is perhaps no more apparent than in the city’s Siler Road District, where a peppering of small theater companies, live-work spaces for artists, and The Meow Wolf art complex have sprung up alongside auto-repair garages and metal shops. Meow Wolf’s “House of Eternal Return” — an immersive, 22,000-square-foot art installation featuring secret rooms and interactive light displays — is arguably the neighborhood’s hottest attraction.

Across the town in the city’s Railyard District, the artist-led rebirth has given way to new galleries, restaurants, shops, independent art-movie houses (including the George R.R. Martin-owned Jean Cocteau Cinema), and a popular farmers’ market. SITE Santa Fe, the nonprofit contemporary-art center widely credited with catalyzing the neighborhood’s transformation 21 years ago, made headlines again this fall when it debuted a reimagined facility (complete with a pleated metallic façade and 1500 square-feet of gallery space) designed by New York City-based SHoP Architects.

The city’s red-hot art scene is matched only by its fiery cuisine, renowned for its smoky red and green chiles grown in the southern part of the state. At Café Pasqual, a Santa Fe institution for more 40 years, locals and tourists endure long waits to sample mouth-watering Mexican eats like chile bison cheeseburgers quesadillas with long-simmered angus beef and chile de árbol sala. If your palette can’t endure any more heat, check out Paper Dosa, where chef Paulraj Karuppasamy and his wife, Nellie Tischler, dish up South Indian cuisine and their eponymous specialty, a thin crêpe made from a fermented rice-and-lentil batter.

Nestled at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo range, where it is surrounded by 1.5 million acres of unspoiled national forest, Santa Fe makes a great jumping-off point for exploring the area’s mountainous terrains and stark desert landscapes. We’d recommend a hike through the Nambé Lake Recreation Area, just 25 miles outside the city, and home to the gushing Nambé Falls, one of the most spectacular natural waterfalls in the southwest. Considering Santa Fe enjoys some 320 days of sunshine per year, there’s really no excuse for not hitting the great outdoors.

Read about Travel + Leisure’s editors’ pick for the 2017 Destination of the Year: Canada.