Hot air balloons under blue sky

Great values, striking settings and storied sites make Albuquerque, New Mexico, a must for families, couples and solo travelers, alike. (Getty Images)

Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a colorful town seeped in Native American and Spanish history that's surrounded by natural beauty. Whether you're taking a solo trip, romantic getaway or a family vacation and planning to sample unique cuisine or learn about the rich cultures that make New Mexico the Land of Enchantment, there are plenty of selling points for planning a trip to the Duke City. Here are 10 reasons to visit Albuquerque this year.

[See: Best Adventure Vacations in the USA.]

The Balloon Rides

Thanks to favorable air currents formed by the Sandia Mountains, cool mornings, 300-plus sunny days a year and wide open spaces, Albuquerque is the hot air ballooning capital of the world. During the first week of October, more than 700 balloons drift across the city's turquoise skies during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world's largest annual ballooning event. But ballooning is a year-round activity in the city, and there are plenty of companies such as World Balloon and Rainbow Ryders that let you experience the thrill of ballooning any time of year. Check out the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum to learn about the history of ballooning.

Old Town

Albuquerque's Spanish-settled Old Town is the city's historic and cultural heart. Centuries-old adobe buildings now house local restaurants, and art galleries and shops surround a tree-shaded, grassy plaza that sees festivals, music and dancing year-round. At the American International Rattlesnake Museum, you can enjoy learning about this ecologically important reptile, as well as New Mexico's other desert-dwelling critters. And if you're in Albuquerque on Christmas Eve, visit Old Town to see thousands of luminarias – traditional decorations of paper sacks and candles glow amid bonfires and carolers on the Plaza and side streets.

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

Albuquerque boasts one of the best preserved stretches of Route 66 in the country. All along Central Avenue, neon-lit hotels and restaurants from Route 66's heyday attract photographers and enthusiasts from around the world. The section of Central Avenue between San Mateo and Girard avenues called Nob Hill offers a fun, eclectic mix of local shops and restaurants, including Kelly's Brew Pub, which occupies the 1939 Ford Motor Company car dealership building.

Travel Back in Time

From dinosaurs to the Atomic Age and beyond, Albuquerque's museums showcase the breadth of history found here. Learn about the dinosaurs that roamed New Mexico at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, and about New Mexico's Civil War history and notable artists, such as Georgia O'Keeffe, who were and are inspired by the New Mexico landscape at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History. The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History examines New Mexico's role in the building of the World's first atomic bomb, and pop culture's take on atomic energy throughout the decades.

[See: 6 Amazing All-American Road Trips to Take This Summer.]

The Beer's Chilly and the Chile's Hot

New Mexico is world-famous for its chile-based dishes, and Albuquerque is a foodie's mecca. Sadie's, El Bruno's, Perea's Tijuana Bar, El Patio de Albuquerque and other local restaurants in the area all battle over bragging rights for the best traditional New Mexico cuisine, and only you can be the judge. And to help with all that chile, Albuquerque has a robust craft brew scene that's earned a place on the beer lover's map.

Get Your Motor Running

Thanks to its central location at the crossroads of I-25 and I-40, and with New Mexico's major airport, Albuquerque makes the perfect home base for exploring the Land of Enchantment. Daytrips from Albuquerque include Acoma Pueblo that, along with Taos Pueblo, is the oldest continuously inhabited community in the country. Take the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway to Santa Fe and pass through the Ortiz Mountains through the art community of Madrid and near-ghost town of Cerrillos. The Rail Runner commuter train is an easy way to visit Santa Fe for the day. Explore ancient ruins at Bandelier National Monument and Yellowstone-like features at Valles Caldera National Preserve near Los Alamos.

Take a Hike

Albuquerque is surrounded by rugged natural beauty, making it a prime location for outdoor adventures. The Sandia Mountains to the city's east are laced with hiking and mountain biking trails. You can hike to its crest via the strenuous La Luz trail, or take the Sandia Peak Tramway for a 15-minute flight over the Sandia Wilderness. At the top, take in the sweeping views of Albuquerque below and hike the network of trails in this sub-alpine environment at 10,000-plus feet. Kayaking and hiking are also popular pastimes. The Río Grande Nature Center has trails that wind through the bosque (the cottonwood forest that lines the Río Grande). For spectacular hiking, check out Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks near Cochiti Pueblo south of Santa Fe.

Tour a Brewer

Several tour companies offer a diverse way to sample the best brews of Albuquerque. The Hopper Tour travels to the city's breweries, allowing customers to hop of the trolley for a pint of their favorite hops-based beverage before heading on to the next location. Meanwhile, Routes Bicycle Tours offers a pedal-powered brewery and Breaking Bad tours, as well as wine, nature, foodie and even a haunted tour that visits some of Albuquerque's supposedly paranormal sites. And Quiet Waters Paddling Adventures takes you down the Río Grande in canoes and kayaks, and have special Balloon Fiesta tours that take you on the water to see hot air balloons during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta the first week of October.

Family Fun

¡Explora! Science Center is a hands-on children's museum that has kids learning about science by flying an airplane, riding a bicycle across a tight rope several stories above the ground and experiencing many other open-ended experiments. Aside from the interactive science center, the kid-friendly Albuquerque Biopark offers a zoo, aquarium and botanical gardens that features a 285,000-gallon ocean tank filled with sharks, sting rays and sea turtles. The botanical gardens showcase the flora that lives in New Mexico that encompasses every life zone but artic, and kids love exploring the Children's Fantasy Garden with its maze of gigantic bugs and flowers. Plus, the new BUGarium features creatures from around the world that work and live in expansive displays at eye-level for kids.

[See: 10 Cheap Summer Vacation Destinations.]

You Can Stay in Style

Albuquerque has a range of hotels and bed-and-breakfasts featuring unique Southwestern décor. Standouts include the Spanish-inspired Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town, which offers free walking tours of Old Town, the historic 1939 Hotel Andaluz with its MAS restaurant and Hotel Parq Central with its rooftop bar, Apothecary Lounge, that serves Prohibition-era drinks. Another favorite is the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa just north of Albuquerque at Santa Ana Pueblo, which boasts 500 acres of golf courses and hiking trails along the Río Grande, along with a spa offering Native American-inspired treatments such as its River Rocks Massage and Three Sisters Salt Scrub treatments.

Tags: travel, New Mexico, vacations


Steve Larese is a New Mexico-based travel journalist whose features and photos are found in such publications as National Geographic Traveler, American Way, TravelChannel.com, USA Today Travel, Forbes Travel, Fodor's Travel Guides, New Mexico Journey and other national publications, as well as books. Follow him on Instagram and Facebook at @SteveLarese.

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