As we enter Santa Fe Plaza, a band is rocking on the outdoor stage. My sons, ages 7 and 5, instantly catch the energy, chasing each other across the grass, skipping along the paved paths, and hopping giddily from bench to bench amid the throngs of tourists. Nearly two centuries after it first greeted traders on the Santa Fe Trail, this thriving square -- appropriately dubbed the heart of Santa Fe -- still welcomes visitors with a unique mix of cultures. To one side, Native American craft vendors line the veranda of the historic Palace of the Governors, while along the other sides, cobblestone streets bustle with shops and restaurants. Throughout the city's old town, Spanish colonial and Pueblo-style architecture transport us to another place and time.
We've visited my parents in Santa Fe every summer since the boys were born, and we've found it offers a rare combination of outdoor adventure and cultural exploration. At an elevation of 7,000 feet (higher than any other state capital), it also boasts 300 days of sunshine a year -- a welcome antidote to the seemingly endless winter of our Montana home.
Over the years, we've settled into a routine of sorts. Usually, we start our days hiking or biking on one of the many kid-friendly trails around town. If we're walking, Owen and Eli burn off some energy jumping from rock to rock, while my husband, Eddie, and I stroll behind, admiring the striking views of surrounding mountain peaks and the distinctive red desert landscape, which seems to flow seamlessly into the adobe architecture.
After that, we might pay a visit to El Rancho de las Golondrinas; the boys are in awe of the costumed re-enactors who occasionally appear there. Or we might channel the spirit of Santa Fe's many artists, including the renowned Georgia O'Keeffe, as we create colorful collages in a free outdoor class at the Museum of International Folk Art. Next up is a stop at the Santa Fe Children's Museum, which gives the boys a chance to stretch their minds playing at the magnet table.
Naturally, we break for a siesta (because when in Rome, right?). And if our boys are still raring to go after dinner, it's back to the Plaza -- or up the hill to St. John's College -- to dance till they drop at one of many free outdoor summer concerts.
Hiking trails: Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary offers short loops, perfect for little legs, with signs pointing out plants and wildlife. $2 adults, $1 for kids ages 9 and under; 505-983-4609; nm.audubon.org/randall-davey-audubon-center-sanctuary. We've also hiked sections of the neighboring Dale Ball Trails (santafenm.gov), a 22-mile-long system we reach from Upper Canyon Road. A short drive north of town, the Big Tesuque Trail follows Tesuque Creek, with fun water crossings. EspaÑola Ranger District, 505-753-7331
Santa Fe Farmers Market: A Santa Fe Saturday wouldn't be complete without a trip to the market in the restored Railyard district to treat ourselves to baked goods, watch the street performers, and pick out fresh veggies for dinner. 505-983-4098; santafefarmersmarket.com. Afterward, we head to the nearby 10-acre Railyard Park, with a playground that includes a small ropes course, climbing walls, and sprinklers. 505-982-3373; railyardsantafe.com
El Rancho de las Golondrinas: At this 200-acre living history museum and working farm, Owen and Eli enjoy peeking out the windows of the adobe compound, where some furnishings date back to the 18th century. Costumed docents answer questions, and re-enactors perform during special events, such as Summer Festival. $6 adults, $4 kids ages 13-18, free for kids ages 12 and under; 505-471-2261; golondrinas.org
Santa Fe Children's Museum: "I've dreamed of this place," Owen announces as we step into the vast hall filled with interactive exhibits. There are puppet shows and DIY face painting, a building zone and a climbing wall, water and dirt stations, and more. We always save time for outdoor play in the labyrinth, sand pits, and forts. $9, free for kids ages 12 months and under; 505-989-8359; santafechildrensmuseum.org
The Museum of International Folk Art: Colorful displays of dolls, masks, and toys, many arranged in breathtaking dioramas, offer an around-the-world tour in miniature. Our boys ooh and aah their way through at warp speed, then settle in at the train table and play area, while Eddie and I take turns slipping back for a few more glimpses. We always plan our visit to coincide with Arts Alive!, free outdoor summer craft workshops. $9 adults, free for kids ages 16 and under; 505-476-1200; internationalfolkart.org
New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors: Located on the Plaza, this engaging museum's newest interactive exhibit will thrill the spurs off any Wild West fan. "Cowboys Real and Imagined" (through March 16, 2014) highlights artifacts, action photos, and videos from more than 100 museums and private collections. $9 adults, free for kids ages 16 and under; 505-476-5200; nmhistorymuseum.org
Shidoni Foundry and Galleries: Art is king in Santa Fe, but galleries and young children don't always mix. Our solution is the family-friendly 8-acre sculpture gardens at Shidoni Foundry and Galleries in neighboring Tesuque, which we usually combine with a hike up the Big Tesuque Trail and dining alfresco at Tesuque Village Market. Free; 505-988-8001; shidoni.com
Bishop's Lodge Ranch Resort & Spa has lots of on-site activities for kids, including half-day summer camps, horseback riding, and swimming in its great outdoor pool (from $129 a night; 888-272-9562; bishopslodge.com). Other lodging options, all with pools, include Santa Fe Sage Inn near the Railyard district (from $99 a night; 866-433-0335; santafesageinn.com); the Hilton Santa Fe Historic Plaza, with a convenient location right near the Plaza (from $239 a night; 505-988-2811; historicplazahotelsantafe.com); and the Lodge at Santa Fe, with comfortable mini suites (from $115 a night; 505-992-5800; lodgeatsantafe.com).
For me, the perfect Santa Fe day winds down with a margarita in hand and a casual meal. Cowgirl BBQ, on Guadalupe Street, offers both, along with an extensive kids' menu and a designated family patio with games and a play structure. The mouthwatering ribs are a must (505-982-2565; cowgirlsantafe.com). For Southwestern/Mexican fare, we favor Gabriel's on Banana Lane, where the guacamole is made tableside and the sopapilla -- deep-fried bread dipped in honey -- is a sweet way to end the meal (505-455-7000; gabrielsofsantafe.com). Green-leaning Harry's Roadhouse, on the Old Las Vegas Highway, features a host of creative American, Southwestern, and vegetarian dishes (505-989-4629; harrysroadhousesantafe.com). And for a taste of the hip, hopping Santa Fe scene -- and a view over downtown -- stop in for an early supper (before the dinner crowds descend) at Coyote's Rooftop Cantina (505-983-1615; coyotecafe.com).
Freelance writer Corinne Garcia and her family live in Bozeman, Montana.