ON A WEDNESDAY EVENING, I sip a glass of wine in Old Town. Growing up in Albuquerque, I never envisioned myself enjoying this simple indulgence here. When I was a child, Old Town was reserved for special occasions and out-of-state friends. My family came every Christmas Eve, often late in the evening as the luminaria candles dwindled and a hush fell over the plaza. We’d shuffle along the narrow aisle of San Felipe de Neri Church, which has presided over the north side of the plaza since 1793, and join the parishioners in quiet reflection.
One summer, we sat beneath the cottonwood canopy as my aunt and new uncle took their wedding vows in the white gazebo. Passersby clapped along with us to congratulate the newlyweds. Many times, our out-of-town guests came here to browse for kitschy souvenirs and authentic, handcrafted Southwestern art. We explained that, in this storied square, even walls lined with rubber tomahawks hold history.
Old Town’s legacy dates to the Duke City’s 1706 founding as a Spanish settlement. (Tiwa pueblos preceded it.) Albuquerque’s original neighborhood was a self-contained world of residences, tradespeople’s shops, and government offices packed around the square. When the railroad arrived, in the late 19th century, Albuquerque boomed, pressing into what is now downtown, and then beyond. Old Town remained the city’s cultural heart as homes were reinterpreted as shops, galleries, restaurants, and museums. As an attraction, it’s now Tourist-landia. But that has created a problem for locals, many of whom consider it too touristy.
A few years ago, new entrepreneurs began moving into the neighborhood just as the Sawmill District, a few blocks north, burst forth with buzzy attractions. The pandemic stalled Old Town’s revitalization, but today, as it nears 6 p.m. and many shops lock up for the night, I still have plenty of company while enjoying my wine. A woman walks her beagle by the gazebo. A new college grad poses for cap-and-gown photos in front of the church’s double doors. Two middle-aged men wearing scuffed work boots climb the stairs to the OutPost 1706 Brewhouse, where a calendar of stand-up comedy performances, paint nights, and trivia games has livened up evenings since the taproom’s November 2021 opening.
I’m impressed: There’s nightlife in Old Town. The renewal comes from young, rooted-in-Albuquerque businessfolk who want to lure back fellow locals. Their swift changes have ruffled the feathers of some longtime property owners—but have also catalyzed the arrival of other attractions.
There’s the Asian-fusion restaurant Kitsune and its taproom, up the way on Romero Street. Tiny Grocer ABQ, on the far side of the plaza, helps visitors gather picnic essentials while also supplying nearby residents with fresh produce and deli meats.
Like me, vintner Jasper Riddle remembers visiting the neighborhood as a child. He particularly recalls the Old Town Basket & Rug Shop, which Henry Aceves purchased in 1982 and ran until his death in 2017. Aceves also built the neighboring Plaza Don Luis, in 1994. He named the two-story, U-shaped collection of shops after his father and later cemented the Christmas tree lighting in its courtyard as a city tradition.
Riddle and his business partner, Luke Schneider, purchased the basket-shop building and Plaza Don Luis in February 2021. Riddle quickly went about making the courtyard the centerpiece of Old Town’s revival. He contracted with the Aceves family’s original architect to update the infrastructure and “add a touch of the new, while recognizing the historical nature of the area,” he says.
It wasn’t easy. During the pandemic, Old Town fell quiet. A few businesses closed for good. A year ago, Plaza Don Luis—“PDL” to its new tenants—was just half full. Today it bustles with shops, galleries, tasting rooms, and a bakery. Only one space stands empty—because Riddle is holding out for a dream tenant. “Old Town is one of the most significant plazas in New Mexico,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to see more of New Mexico in the heart of Albuquerque. We’re going to get people who don’t want to see change. But looking back a year and a half ago, there were vacancies, blight, and boarded-up windows. Now there’s vibrancy.”
AS ICONIC AS OLD TOWN'S ADOBES ARE, its buildings have evolved throughout its history. In the territorial era, for example, whitewashed lumber, pitched roofs, and Greek Revival details appeared, along with merchants who converted homes into shops. Brick arrived with the railroad and led to structures like the 1893 Florencio Zamora Building, aka the Old Town Basket & Rug Shop, which had previous incarnations as a butcher shop, grocery store, and post office.
The latest boomlet began when Riddle opened a Noisy Water Winery tasting room—serving his wines, made in Alto—in the basket-shop space. Riddle sees craft alcohol as a key trend in the new Old Town. Albuquerque-based Sheehan Winery has also opened a PDL tasting room, and OutPost 1706 serves its own Downshift Brewing products, trucked in from Ruidoso. A 2021 zoning change ushered in packaged liquor sales and allowed these taprooms and tasting rooms to make a go of it in the neighborhood.
“We designed a laid-back place to have a drink,” says Downshift Brewing co-owner and former New Mexico State police chief Pete Kassetas, who emphasizes that it’s not a place to get drunk and rowdy. “We’re going for the brewery crowd, not the bar crowd.”
Kassetas retired from the force in 2019 and has gone all in on his second act. He also manages the PDL property and runs one of four Old Town Lofts—Southwest-themed Airbnb rentals in the second-story suites. His daughter, Payton, owns a salon there as well. “The name of Downshift Brewery comes from downshifting our lives and making meaningful ties to the community,” Kassetas says. “I still feel like I’m giving back.”
Downstairs at the Lapis Room, another new PDL attraction, owner/director Laura Houghton sees a broader mission for her art gallery—and herself. She hopes to prop up the creative economy by enlivening Old Town as a whole. She’s leading that charge by planning live music, artist talks, and monthly “Howl at the Moon” events when musicians perform and the Plaza Don Luis shops stay open late. (In Old Town, “late” is relative; they close at 8 p.m.)
The gallery represents a who’s who of emerging Southwest artists, among them Reyes Padilla and Jodie Herrera. To provide a sense of place and a compelling attraction, Houghton commissioned Padilla to paint a mural on the exterior of Plaza Don Luis and Herrera to create one outside a public restroom.
Although Houghton and the building’s owners believed they had the necessary City of Albuquerque approvals, the public art raised the ire of the city’s Landmarks Commission and neighbors who feel the images don’t represent Old Town’s historic identity.
The murals are caught in limbo, with the commission pressing to have them removed and Plaza Don Luis tenants supporting their presence on nonhistoric buildings. “I’m disappointed,” Houghton says of the controversy. “They’re so well loved. Old Town is an important place in artists’ lives, and these murals help show that.”
Flying Roadrunner Bakery’s patio faces Padilla’s mural of earth-toned, abstract graphics. “I empathize with the people who don’t want changes,” says Erika Farr, who co-owns the business with her husband, Shawn. “But everyone’s heart here is in alignment with maintaining and respecting historical value and tradition. The charm of Old Town isn’t going anywhere.”
The opportunity to own a bakery in Old Town inspired the Farrs to leap into entrepreneurship. Opening at the tail end of the pandemic, which the Farrs viewed as investing while stock was down, the bakery has quickly won fans for its cinnamon rolls, “cruffins,” and morning yoga sessions. The Farrs are yet another example of locals who have returned to the neighborhood. “My family is Albuquerquean through and through,” says Erika, a self-taught baker. “Old Town is an extremely special place in our hearts.”
NOW A VENERATED OLD TOWN INSTITUTION, Church Street Cafe, behind the San Felipe Church, was also once a newcomer, and its owner, Marie Coleman, the new kid on the block. In 1993, Coleman purchased Casa de Ruiz, a building that dates to shortly after Albuquerque’s founding. She was the second owner of the building, after generations of the Ruiz family. The adobe walls were melting back into the earth, two-by-fours held up the front-room ceiling, and the padlocked back door opened onto a patio of tumbleweeds. When friend and “old adobe man” Charlie Trujillo assessed the property, he asked her, “How bad do you want this, jita?”
She wanted it badly, and she persevered through battles with the Landmarks Commission and neighbors over wall height and stucco color. She’s now recruiting locals for a yet-to-be-named organization that aims to unify the neighborhood and guide business owners through the maze of Landmarks Commission requirements.
“I like seeing the new faces,” Coleman says. “I like seeing the young people in Old Town. I love my history, but I want to see it grow.”
John Hoffsis, owner of Treasure House Books & Gifts, knows the neighborhood’s history well. His late father, Jim, purchased a small Old Town souvenir shop called Treasure House in 1974. When his dad retired, John combined his bookshop, which is devoted to New Mexico works, with Treasure House. Even in retirement, Jim helped run the shop with his son.
Jim has taken over the duty John had for decades: raising and lowering Old Town’s flags. Much of the time, there were five, one for each of the nations and entities that have presided over Albuquerque (Spain, Mexico, the Confederacy, and the United States) and one for New Mexico. In 2015, an Albuquerque flag replaced the Confederate one. The flags are a visual reminder of the square’s evolution—and its endurance.
Hoffsis bristles at the splashy arrivals that, in his eyes, don’t blend in with the neighborhood’s historic nature. However, he takes the long view. “Old Town has a bright future,” he says. “It just needs to figure out what it wants to be. I hope it will be what it’s always been, which is the heart of Albuquerque.”
Even if this 300-year-old neighborhood is encountering growing pains, there’s a lot to love here now. I polish off my glass of Noisy Water Winery chardonnay. There’s a game of British bingo I want to get to, upstairs at the OutPost 1706 Brewhouse.
Stay. Rest a few steps off the plaza at the Old Town Lofts. A handful of other hotels and inns lie within easy walking distance. For a luxurious, Native American–inspired stay, book at Hotel Chaco. The 1912 Bottger Mansion bed-and-breakfast has seven rooms with period details, such as pressed-tin ceilings. Casas de Sueños Old Town Historic Inn offers 21 casitas, some with murals, situated around a lush garden.
Eat. Fat T’s BBQ, in Plaza Don Luis, slow-smokes brisket and more for savory bites. Restaurant Antiquity remains a date-night classic.
Explore. Earn a certificate of bravery at the American International Rattlesnake Museum, catch the latest exhibitions at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science and the Albuquerque Museum, and interact with hands-on displays at Explora science center.
Shop. Start by browsing the 10,000-square-foot Romero Street Gallery, then visit the contemporary Ghostwolf Gallery. At Plaza Don Luis, tastemaker Tess Coats of Luna and Luz curates body-care products, cards, art, and more. Outfit your next trek at Happy Hiker. Beyond Plaza Don Luis, duck into Back Alley Brujas for crystal-charged water and irreverent T-shirts, and stock up on soy candles and soaps at D.E.E.H.’s Candles & More. Shaggy and Slick’s shave and beard store can help tame your facial mane. Old Town Hobbies and Games will keep the whole family busy with tabletop games and collectibles.
Get Outside. ABQ Tours leads guided history strolls and ghost tours. The Albuquerque Museum’s walking tours highlight history and architecture. Routes Bicycle Tours & Rentals offers trips that depart from Old Town, including rides along the nearby 16-mile Paseo del Bosque Trail. Breaking Bad RV Tours leads visits to locations featured in the hit TV shows Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
Dance. Through August 28, Summer Music in Old Town hosts live acts on the plaza Fridays and Saturdays, 7–9 p.m., and Sundays, 1–3 p.m.