Albuquerque’s Gay Scene

Recently revitalized Albuquerque is home to New Mexico’s only gay bars

New Mexico’s largest city, set dramatically at the base of the soaring Sandia Mountains, makes a great – and affordable – base for exploring the rest of the Land of Enchantment. Albuquerque lies just 60 miles south of Santa Fe and within an afternoon’s drive of countless Indian pueblos, beautiful hiking and biking spots, and challenging ski areas. The “Duke City” (named for the city’s founder, the Duke of Alburquerque – the first “r” was later dropped) enjoys a sunny, mild climate, and it’s home to New Mexico’s only gay bars as well as a handful of gay-owned B&Bs and restaurants.

Albuquerque’s once dull downtown has undergone an ambitious revitalization in recent years, with loads of new shops, restaurants, and bars along or near the main drag, Central Avenue between 2nd and 8th streets, and also along parallel Gold Avenue. From here, it’s a five-minute drive to historic Old Town, which was laid out in 1706 and contains Albuquerque’s earliest building, the San Felipe de Neri Church, which fronts the serene, tree-shaded Plaza. The wares for sale at the more than 200 crafts and art galleries and boutiques in the area run the gamut from fine to kitschy, and a few very good restaurants are nearby. For an offbeat experience, step inside the small but venomous American International Rattlesnake Museum, which contains the world’s largest assemblage of live rattlers.

Within a short stroll of Old Town you’ll find a handful of the city’s most prominent attractions, including the recently expanded Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, which houses an astounding collection of Spanish Colonial artifacts, plus traditional and contemporary regional art. Exhibits on geology, volcanoes, and dinosaurs await you across the street at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Also check out the Albuquerque Aquarium, Rio Grande Zoo, and Rio Grande Botanic Garden. It’s just a short drive from Old Town to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center as well as the National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico, both of which have exhibits, cafes, and performances related to their respective cultures.

Much of Albuquerque’s gay scene is focused in the retro-hip Nob Hill neighborhood, a short drive east of downtown along Historic Route 66 (Central Avenue), which glows with the neon signs of coffeehouses, bars, greasy-spoon diners, galleries, and boutiques selling everything from cool home-furnishings to campy gifts. Central Avenue fringes the southern edge of the University of New Mexico (UNM), whose noteworthy attractions include the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology and the University Art Museum.

The city sprawls a bit, and you need a car to venture out to some of the worthwhile outlying attractions. On the west side of town, visit Petroglyph National Monument to view some 25,000 rock drawings inscribed as far back as a thousand years ago along the 17-mile-long West Mesa escarpment. Drive east across town into the city’s lofty foothills for a chance to ride the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway to the crest of the 10,600-foot Sandia Mountains. The 2.7-mile ride is the longest aerial tramway in the world. At the top are observation decks, hiking trails, a visitor’s center, and the High Finance Restaurant.

On the north side of Albuquerque, you’ll find the glamorous Sandia Casino resort, which in addition to extensive gaming areas contains one of the city’s best restaurants (Bien Shur, on the resort’s rooftop), a luxury hotel and spa, and a golf course of considerable acclaim.

The casino is close to Balloon Fiesta Park, home to New Mexico’s most famous festival, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. This colorful hot-air balloon gathering – the world’s largest – takes place the first two weeks in October. At any time of year you can visit the park’s Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum. There are also a number of outfitters throughout Albuquerque offering hot-air balloon rides year-round; one of the most reliable is Rainbow Ryders.

Albuquerque’s already very good dining scene has improved dramatically just in the past few years. In the downtown area, don’t miss gay-popular Artichoke Cafe for first-rate Continental cooking in a romantic yet casual ambience. Thai Crystal is one of the city’s top Asian restaurants, while the cozy Gold Street Caffe serves up some of the best breakfasts around, plus light lunch and dinner fare, designer coffees, and delicious desserts. When in Old Town, book a table at elegant Ambrozia Cafe & Wine Bar, known for its quirky and inventive dishes, such as duck meatloaf with truffled cream corn, and lobster corn dogs with chipotle ketchup.

In Nob Hill, the swanky Zinc Wine Bar and Bistro serves a memorable Sunday jazz brunch and terrific French-inspired dinner fare – try the crispy duck-confit egg rolls or mango creme brulee. Next door, Crazy Fish serves tasty proof that it’s possible to find super-fresh and creatively rendered sushi right in the heart of the desert.

Talented chef Jennifer James is one of the leading new culinary stars of the Southwest, and you can sample her deftly prepared food at Graze, which specializes in affordable tapas-style small plates (she also owns the more formal Restaurant Jennifer James, a few miles north). Across the street, the upscale Gruet Steak House is run by the city’s acclaimed Gruet Winery, which produces some of the nation’s most respected champagne-style sparkling wines as well as commendable pinot noirs and chardonnays. Pre-clubbing gays and straights mix it up at sophisticated Martini Grille, which is lauded as much for its tasty American fare as for the fancy drinks served up in the schnazzy cocktail bar.

Hang out among UNM students and other local hipsters at Il Vicino, which serves out-of-this-world wood-fired pizzas and filling calzones, plus a nice array of leafy dinner-size salads. Try El Patio for some of the most authentic (and fiery) New Mexican cooking in town – be sure to sit on the tree-shaded patio. The no-frills Frontier Restaurant is a 24/7 institution famed for its breakfast burritos and heavenly cinnamon buns – it’s a real scene after the clubs close. Another must-do in Albuquerque is coffee and dessert at Flying Star, a bakery, restaurant, coffeehouse, and wine bar all rolled into one, with five locations around town, the gayest and coolest in Nob Hill and downtown.

Among Albuquerque’s six gay nightspots, Pulse draws the youngest and wildest bunch for cruising and dancing on the festive patio and compact but fierce dance floor. Fans of line-dancing and two-stepping head to sprawling Sidewinders Ranch, which is owned by the same folks as Sidewinders in Palm Springs. Low-keyed Exhale (formerly Renea’s) is the only lesbian bar in the state, although it pulls in plenty of guys, too. The expansive Albuquerque Mining Co. caters to a diverse crowd with its several bars, small dance area, and full volleyball court. The Albuquerque Social Club, a garden-variety video bar across the street from Pulse, attracts a fairly local following; guests are permitted in this private club but must purchase a “membership” (it’s good for one year). The parking lot at Foxes Lounge brims with beat-up pickup trucks, giving hints of the rugged, bearish, and horny guys inside. Exotic dancers are the main entertainment.

Although Albuquerque’s lodging landscape is dominated by generic chain hotels, you’ll find some distinctive historic properties and art-filled B&Bs, too. Among the latter, the beautifully restored Mauger Estate B&B sits within easy walking distance of downtown and Old Town. This gay-owned 1897 Queen Anne Victorian has an ornate redbrick exterior, period antiques, wallpapers, and fabrics.

Among larger mainstream properties, the historic Hotel Andaluz is the city’s true grand dame, opened in 1939 by Conrad Hilton (who honeymooned here with Zsa Zsa Gabor). It’s a stunning 10-story hotel in the heart of downtown. A few blocks west, the art deco Hotel Blue has simple but affordable rooms and a great location, making it one of the city’s best bargains.

Of the city’s chain properties, the 17-story Albuquerque Marriott hotel is a commendable, upscale choice with great views of the mountains. It’s close to two shopping malls and a short drive from gay nightlife. And a 20-minute drive north of Albuquerque in the town of Bernalillo, the posh Hyatt Regency Tamaya offers the most lavish accommodations in the region. Amenities at this 500-acre resort on the Santa Ana Pueblo include a world-class spa, horseback riding, tennis, golf, superb restaurants, and casino gaming. If you’re looking for sumptuous Palm Springs-style glamour in the laid-back Duke City, look no further than this stunning resort, the perfect place to celebrate an ultra-romantic Southwest getaway.