Founded in 1881 when the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad tracks were laid through town, Gallup, New Mexico, is a gateway to Native American culture. It's the largest town on the edge of the Navajo Nation and is also near both the Pueblo of Zuni and Hopi Reservation just over the state line. Thanks to this rich history, the town is well-known for the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, an annual event that includes a pow wow with traditional dances, an arts and crafts fair, an all-Indian rodeo, a pageant, and more. But if you just can’t make it for the ceremonial in August, there are still plenty of ways to experience Gallup’s unique culture year-round.
Here are 10 of the best attractions to see on your next trip to town.
1. Rex Museum
Start your visit by taking a step back in time and getting an overview of the area’s history at the Rex Museum. Housed in a storied building that was once a brothel and later a grocery, the museum traces the past from the area’s earliest inhabitants through the town’s railroad roots to present day through photographs, newspaper articles, and other artifacts. Don’t miss the Navajo Code Talker exhibit, paying homage to the soldiers who used their traditional language as an unbreakable code during World War II.
Tip : The visitor’s center is just a few minutes’ walk, at 106 West Highway 66, where you can grab a map of town or get any questions answered!
2. Route 66
However modern, Gallup still feels like a throwback, thanks to the stretch of Route 66 that cruises through town. It’s still lined with several vintage motor courts—like the Redwood Lodge, Lariat Lodge, and Colonial Motel—whose signs light up with neon at night.
In the 1930s and 40s, El Rancho Hotel was a top choice for Hollywood movie stars while filming in the area. Today, the hotel blends glitz and Southwestern charm, with a glittering neon sign on the outside and Native American art. Even if you don’t stay the night, stop by for a meal and check out the beautiful lobby.
3. New Deal Art
Gallup boasts a vast collection of Works Progress Administration(WPA)-era art. The historic McKinley County Courthouse—a New Deal project itself built in 1938—houses 19 pieces of art, including murals, tile work, lamps, and furniture. The lobby boasts tile wainscoting (a type of paneling applied to the lower portion of walls), lettered signs, pendant lighting fixtures with Southwest motifs, and Pueblo-style paintings. In 1940, artist Lloyd Moylan completed a ten-foot mural depicting the history of McKinley County in the second-floor courtroom.
4. El Morro Theatre
This architectural landmark doubles as a working theater. Built in 1928, the two-story building is the only example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in Gallup. It earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. The theatre typically screens movies and hosts town events like the Tiny Tots and Grandparents Contest during the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, but it’s currently under construction. Keep an eye on the website for more information.
5. Downtown Murals
Since 2005, more than 15 murals have been painted around Gallup to beautify downtown and convey the town’s heritage. Take a walking tour to see the finished murals on landmarks such as City Hall, Octavia Fellin Library, and Tanner’s Indian Art, to name a few. One mural, located on Second Street between Coal Avenue and Route 66, honors Navajo soldiers who served as Code Talkers during World War II, while another on Third & Hill Streets depicts the journey of the Navajo people after they were released from internment at Fort Sumner and returned to their homeland.
6. Gallup Native Arts Market
The Gallup Native Arts Market is the first-ever Native-managed and Native-juried art market in the U.S., and this annual event features highly skilled regional artists showcasing their work. Feel free to talk to the artists about their process or sit in on a demonstration to get a look at how the silver pieces, paintings, weavings, and fetish carvings (small carvings of animals or other icons important to the culture) are made.
Gallup is known as one of the best places in the U.S. to shop for Native American art, and much of it can be found at bargain prices since you’re going directly to the source. Trading posts line Gallup’s downtown streets and in many cases, families of traders have owned these shops for generations. They’re great places to find historic and vintage pieces as well as newly created jewelry, rugs, pottery, saddles, and more.
Open every Saturday, the Gallup 9th Street Flea Market bills itself as one of the largest Native American markets in the U.S. It lives up to that credo with 500 vendors—many from local Native American tribes—selling food, crafts, and décor.
8. Contemporary Art Galleries
Although Gallup carries on traditional art forms, it’s also home to contemporary artists who push the boundaries of their medium. You’ll find several galleries in the MainStreet Arts & Cultural District, like the ART123 Gallery. There’s a new show here every month, featuring everything from abstract painting to photography and sculpture. The gallery also hosts a show during the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial week.
9. Gallup Cultural Center
The Gallup Cultural Center is a one-stop-shop for exploring and learning more about the local culture. It houses the Storyteller Museum, which takes a traditional approach to interpreting local culture; the Gallery of the Masters; home to a 12-foot bronze sculpture depicting a Navajo code talker by artist Oreland Joe; and the Kiva Cinema, which screens documentaries. The building itself is part of Gallup history—the Santa Fe Depot is a working train station where the Amtrak stops twice a day.
10. Summer Nightly Dances
Memorial Day through Labor Day from 7-8 p.m., Native American dance groups share their cultures at McKinley Courthouse Square Plaza. The groups perform dances accompanied by drums, rattles, or flutes, and explanations of the cultural traditions surrounding these dances. It’s a rare opportunity to experience this element of Native American culture. Best of all? It’s free.
Written by Ashley M. Biggers for Matcha in partnership with New Mexico Tourism Department.