Since the early 1980s, SANTA FE has been the chic-est destination in the US, consistently voted the country's most popular city by upmarket travelers. That appeal rests on a very solid basis: it's one of America's oldest and most beautiful cities, founded by Spanish missionaries as their northernmost colonial capital in 1609, a full ten years before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock. Spread across a high plateau at the foot of the stunning Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico's capital still glories in the adobe houses and baroque churches of its original architects, while its new architects' museums and galleries attract art-lovers from all over the world.

With upward of a million and a half tourists every year descending upon a town of just sixty thousand inhabitants, Santa Fe has inevitably grown somewhat overblown; long-term residents bemoan what's been lost, while first-time visitors are inclined to wonder what all the fuss is about. The depressing urban sprawl as you approach town from the interstate makes for a lousy introduction, while the rigorous insistence that every downtown building should look like a seventeenth-century Spanish colonial palace takes a bit of getting used to. This is the only city in the world where what at first glance appears to be a perfectly preserved ancient adobe turns out to be a highrise parking lot, and it would be illegal to build a gas station that didn't resemble an Indian prayer chamber.

There's still a lot to like about Santa Fe, however. Though Santa Fe style may have become something of a cliché, that cliché is changing; the pastel-painted, wooden coyotes that were the obligatory souvenir ten years ago have for example been replaced by cast-iron sculptures of Kokopelli, the hunch-backed Anasazi flute-player. In a town where the Yellow Pages list over 250 art galleries, you'll get plenty of opportunities to buy one.

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