Above: Albuquerque's Sandia Mountains.
Photograph courtesy Kyle Post Photography/Shutterstock
Let's get this out of the way. Hot air balloons, red and green chiles, Walter White's house—those are all fine and good. But in 2019, there are far better reasons to visit Albuquerque. For starters, New Mexico's largest city—the working-class sibling to artsy, wealthy Santa Fe—is the urban gateway to some of America's most beautiful landscapes, White Sands to Gila. And for Portlanders, it's about three hours from PDX. Ideally, you'd take at least a week to explore the city and surrounding wilderness. But a quick weekend getaway can be done—if you pick your battles.
You run the risk of becoming a resort recluse at Los Poblanos Historic Inn (rooms from $225/night), a 25-acre 1930s-era farm and ranch near the Rio Grande on the city's westside. Imagine fields of fragrant lavender, peacocks strutting around your bedroom, and more barnyard-chic bling than a West Elm store. Head to The Farm Shop—Martha Stewart's fantasy bodega—where you'll find that lavender infused 100 different ways, alongside dried spices and herbs from the garden and New Mexico's famed turquoise jewelry.
If you're looking for glam luxury in the economically depressed sprawl of Albuquerque proper, try Hotel Chaco (rooms from $249/night), a fusion of five-star sensibilities and Native American culture, designed by Gensler (the firm behind China's record-breaking Shanghai Tower). The hotel takes visual cues from northwestern New Mexico's ancient Chaco Canyon and positively glows with sandy stone. Details, from the massive entryway carved with the Tewa snake deity Avanyu to the handmade Navajo blankets in each of the 118 rooms—a project that took two years and 20 weavers—are all the work of local Pueblo artists.
At the end of 2017, Los Poblanos rebuilt its kitchen into a proper restaurant, Campo, inside an old 10,000-square-foot dairy. Reinforcing that impulse to not leave Los Poblanos, Campo is easily one of the city's best fine dining destinations. A wide, dimly lit farm room leads to the open kitchen. (For the best views, score one of four seats flush with the pantry station.) A dinner from its seasonal menu might move from sweet garden beets and chevre to a chocolatey, spice-steeped mole negro over pull-apart-tender lamb, to a stupid-good dozen-layered honey cake with tangerine creme anglaise. Breakfast at Campo brings more gifts, like blue corn pancakes and chilaquiles with house red chile sauce.
For a Portland-in-Albuquerque experience, head about seven miles to The Grove Cafe & Market, where Jacobsen Salt and Bee Local Honey make cameos and breakfast standbys include a guacamole-swathed BLT and a sandwich packed with a poached egg, asparagus, and La
Quercia prosciutto. (The Grove's also a pit stop on many Breaking Bad tours.)
For a truly New Mexican dining experience, visit the James Beard Classics award-winning Mary and Tito's Cafe, opened in 1963. The ceilings are low, the booths are laminated, and the carne adovada—long-braised pork in red chile sauce—is widely considered the best in the state.
For nightcaps, note that Albuquerque is a beer town. Our favorite suds dispenser is Bow & Arrow Brewing Co, opened in 2016, pouring wild, sour, and barrel-aged beers steeped with local aromatics, like sumac berries and Navajo tea.
For nine days in early October, the 47-years-running International Balloon Fiesta takes over town: hundreds of Techni-Color blimps drifting across the desert from the starting point of the 365-acre Balloon Fiesta Park.
But be forewarned: New Mexico's overall cultural history isn't pretty—essentially a centuries-long Native American death march that spans Spanish Conquistadors, Mexican rule, and the United States. The history-curious can learn about that fraught legacy at the Native-run Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, or by visiting working Pueblos scattered across the state, each with its own beautiful art and architecture, and maintained mostly for tourism.
Albuquerque also houses quirky, hyperspecific museums sure to delight some and bore others, like National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, the International Balloon Museum, and Explora, ABQ's version of OMSI.
If you're visiting only for the weekend but want a taste of New Mexico's wild landscape, head to the Sandia Mountains. What Forest Park is to Portland, the Sandias are to Albuquerque. Roughly 150 hikes and 60 miles of established trails crisscross the 10,600-foot range. (Sandia is Spanish for "watermelon," for the range's resemblance at sunset.) Cherry-pick short day hikes, tackle the nine-mile La Luz Trail, which traverses all four of the mountain's life zones, or take the Sandia Peak Tramway for a sweat-free bird's-eye view.
For a slightly longer day trip, drive an hour north to the popular but stunning Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. Take the three-mile Slot Canyon Trail to shimmy between cone-shaped volcanic remnants and narrow sand canyons. Your reward, atop the mesa? Views of the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, and Sandia ranges—and the entire sweep of the Rio Grande Valley.
October daily nonstop round-trip service from PDX to ABQ starts around $220 on Alaska Airlines.