Roughly located at the center of New Mexico, the sprawling city of Albuquerque (pop. 559,277) spreads along the banks of the Rio Grande and east to the foothills of more than 10,000-foot Sandia Crest. By far the state’s biggest city, and in the spotlight as location of the TV show Breaking Bad, 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 200-year-old San Felipe de Neri, as well as shops and restaurants set around a leafy green park. An information booth just off 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 altogether, plus fellow desert-dwellers like tarantulas and a giant Gila monster.

A different look into New Mexico’s varied cultural makeup is offered at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (2401 12th St., 505/843-7270, daily, $8.40), 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, told by the pueblo people (including in their native languages). It touches on the Indian School era, fitting given the center sits on formerly Indian school grounds. On most weekends ceremonial dances are held in the central courtyard, open to the general public. There’s also a restaurant where you can sample traditional food like fry bread and atole, and a gift shop with pueblo pottery and jewelry.

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 (1100 2nd St. SW., 505/243-6269), tracing (surprise, surprise) transportation in New Mexico.

Albuquerque Practicalities

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. NE, 505/262-2739), housed in a 1930s Streamline Moderne auto dealership, and the original Flying Star (3416 Central Ave. NE, 505/255-6633), famous for its grilled cheese sandwiches.

Between Nob Hill and downtown, the excellent 66 Diner (1405 Central Ave. NE, 505/247-1421) serves top-quality burgers and shakes, and regional specialties like green-chili chicken enchiladas. Perhaps the best breakfasts are at the super stylish Grove Café & Market (600 Central Ave. SE, 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 Central Ave. SW, 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 Central Ave. NW, 505/243-1019), whose blinking neon sign appeared in a number of episodes. Another old Route 66 landmark, Mac’s La Sierra (6217 Central Ave. NW, 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. Purchased by the city of Albuquerque, the El Vado likely will be redeveloped, perhaps as live-work spaces. For a place with oodles of Route 66 character, stay at the neat and tidy, Del Webb-built Hiway House Motel (3200 Central Ave. SE, 505/268-3971, $62 and up), in the Nob Hill district, or the unimaginatively but accurately named Monterey Non-Smokers Motel (2402 Central Ave. SW, 505/243-3554, $78 and up), near Old Town. The nicest hotel has got to be the grand old Hotel Andaluz (125 2nd St., 505/388-0038, $180 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 second-story open-air bar.