Roughly located at the center of New Mexico, the sprawling city of Albuquerque (pop. 545,852) spreads along the banks of the Rio Grande and east to the foothills of 10,000-foot Sandia Crest. By far the state’s biggest city, Albuquerque is a young, energetic, and vibrantly multicultural community, which, among many features, boasts a great stretch of old Route 66 along Central Avenue through the heart of the city—18 miles of diners, motels, and sparkling neon signs.
One of the best parts of town is Old Town, the historic heart of Albuquerque. Located a block north of Central Avenue, at the west end of Route 66’s cruise through downtown, Old Town offers a quick taste of New Mexico’s Spanish colonial past, with a lovely old church, the 300-year-old San Felipe de Neri, as well as shops and restaurants set around a leafy green park. An information booth in the park has maps of Old Town and other information about the city. Another Old Town attraction, one that carries on the Route 66 tradition of reptile farms and private zoos, is the American International Rattlesnake Museum (202 San Felipe St., 505/242-6569, daily, $5), southeast of the main square, where you can see a range of rattlers from tiny babies to full-sized diamondbacks, about 50 all together, plus fellow desert-dwellers like tarantulas and a giant Gila monster.
A very different look into New Mexico’s varied cultural makeup is offered at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (2401 12th St., 505/843-7270, daily, $6), a block north of I-40 exit 158. The center is owned and operated by the state’s 19 different Pueblo communities. Its highlight is a fine museum tracing the history of the region’s Native American cultures, from Anasazi times up to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, with the contemporary era illustrated by video presentations and a mock-up of a typical tourist—camera, shorts, and all. On most weekends ceremonial dances are held in the central courtyard—$6 and open to the general public. There’s also a small cafeteria where you can sample food like fry bread and atole, and a smoke shop selling discount cigarettes.
Downtown Albuquerque has been under reconstruction seemingly forever, with an ambitious mixed-use project surrounding the train station and massive old Santa Fe Railroad yards. Despite budget shortfalls, the state has pledged money for it, so someday the area may feature the enticingly named Wheels Museum (1501 SW 1st St., 505/243-6269), tracing (surprise, surprise . . .) transportation in New Mexico.
The largest city in New Mexico, Albuquerque makes a very handy point of entry for tours of the southwestern United States. For old-road fans, the best stretch of Route 66 through Albuquerque is probably the section along Nob Hill, east of downtown near the University of New Mexico. Here you’ll find vintage neon and some great places to eat and drink, including Kelly’s Brew Pub (3222 E. Central Ave., 505/262-2739), housed in a 1930s Streamline Moderne auto dealership, and the upscale Monte Vista Fire Station (3201 E. Central Ave., 505/255-2424). For a taste of 1950s Americana (and good root beer), head to the Route 66 Malt Shop (3800 E. Central Ave., 505/242-7866), originally housed in an old gas station and motor court but now occupying a new purpose-built home.
Between Nob Hill and downtown, the excellent 66 Diner (1405 NE Central Ave., 505/247-1421) serves top-quality burgers and shakes, and regional specialties like green chile chicken. Perhaps the best breakfasts are at the super stylish Grove Cafe & Market (600 E. Central Ave., 505/248-9800) in downtown’s Huning-Highland Historic District.
Another good range of places to eat lies within walking distance of Old Town, close to the Rio Grande. Enjoy a delicious mix of Mexican and American diner food at Garcia’s Kitchen (1736 SW Central Ave., 505/842-0273), beneath a glorious neon sign. Fans of the TV show Breaking Bad may want to pay their respects to Walt and Jesse at the Dog House Drive In (1216 W. Central Ave., 505/243-1019), whose blinking neon sign appeared in a number of episodes. Another old Route 66 landmark, Mac’s La Sierra (6217 NW Central Ave., 505/836-1212), serves up steak fingers and other beefy specialties in a cozy, dark wood dining room a long ways west of town.
Like most of New Mexico, Albuquerque has a ton of inexpensive accommodations, with all the usual chain motels represented near the airport and along the Interstate frontage roads, plus a lot of fading or extinguished old stars of the Route 66 era, like the famous El Vado (2500 W. Central Ave.), which has been in redevelopment limbo for decades. Recently purchased by the city of Albuquerque, the El Vado likely will be redeveloped, perhaps as a public park or farmers market. For a place with oodles of Route 66 character, stay at the neat and tidy, Del Webb-built Hiway House Motel (3200 SE Central Ave., 505/268-3971, $55 and up), in the Nob Hill district, or the unimaginatively but accurately named Monterey Non-Smokers Motel (2402 SW Central Ave., 505/243-3554, around $70), near Old Town. The nicest hotel has got to be the grand old Hotel Andaluz (125 2nd St., 505/242-9090 or 877/987-9090, $160 and up), a block off old Route 66 in the heart of the lively downtown nightlife district. One of the first inns built by New Mexico-born hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, the Andaluz has been thoughtfully and completely restored and updated, and is now the most comfortable and gracious place to stay, with an entrancing rooftop bar offering grand sunset vistas.