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A bird's-eye view of Albuquerque reveals a typical Sun Belt city, stretching more than 100 square mi with no grand design, architectural or otherwise, to hold it together. The city's growth seems as free-spirited as the hot-air balloons that take part in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. This is true, to a degree, of the city's somewhat nebulous, suburban-looking, outer neighborhoods, especially the West Side, which continues to sprawl farther west because few natural boundaries stand in the way.

On the ground, however, you'll discover a vibrant, historic urban landscape that's been inhabited for more than 300 years. In Old Town, Nob Hill, and some of the other older neighborhoods along the Central Avenue (Historic Route 66 corridor), you'll notice a vibrant mix of Spanish, Mexican, Native American, and Anglo architectural and design influences. In these areas, you can actually park the car and walk around a bit, and you'll discover increasingly dynamic and distinctive clusters of retail, dining, and mixed-use development. Downtown has even seen a spate of higher-density condos in recent years, many in converted historic buildings.

Albuquerque was established in 1706 as a farming settlement near a bend in the Rio Grande. Named for Spain's duke of Alburquerque (the first r was later dropped), it prospered, thanks to its strategic location on a trade route. Its proximity to several Native American pueblos, which were another source of commerce, provided protection from raiding nomadic tribes. Farming thrived right from the start in the fertile Rio Grande Valley. Settlers built a chapel and then a larger structure, San Felipe de Neri Catholic Church, named after a 16th-century Florentine saint. For protection, inhabitants built the first homes around a central plaza like those in other Spanish settlements. The fortresslike community could be entered only from the four corners, making it easier to defend. This several-block area, Old Town, is now the city's most tourist-driven area, filled with shops, galleries, and restaurants—San Felipe de Neri church still anchors the neighborhood.

In 1880 the railroad cut north-south through central New Mexico, its tracks bypassing Old Town by a good 2 mi to the east, and causing a population shift. Old Town wasn't exactly abandoned, but New Town (which today locals simply call "Downtown") sprouted near the depot and grew in all directions. The separation of New and Old gradually blurred, and the city experienced huge growth around the turn of the 20th century, as railroad workers flooded the city.

Then came Route 66. Opened in 1926 and nicknamed "the Mother Road" by John Steinbeck, it sparked much of Albuquerque's modern economic development. During the 1930s and '40s, the route had as much impact as the railroad and the river. The burgeoning city swelled around the asphalt—motels, gas stations, diners, and lorry stops formed a sea of neon that celebrated American mobility. During World War II Albuquerque flourished with the growth of a major air base, Kirtland. It and other military-related facilities such as Sandia National Laboratory remain economic linchpins.

Albuquerque is the centre of New Mexico's educational institutions and financial, manufacturing, and medical industries. It's an unpretentious, practical city with a metro population of nearly 850,000. Many who live here have come from outside New Mexico, giving Albuquerque a more diverse and cosmopolitan demographic than most communities in the state. The city's rich arts scene is proudly distinct from those of Santa Fe and Taos. Significant museums and galleries draw much local support, and feed off the creative energy of the many artists, writers, poets, filmmakers, and musicians who call this area home. Albuquerque has also become increasingly popular with Hollywood filmmakers in recent years because its outlying districts seem indistinctly and generically "western U.S."—they could pass for any number of locales. Recent hit movies filmed in Albuquerque include The Book of Eli, No Country for Old Men, Transformers, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and Crazy Heart.

Outdoors enthusiasts and seekers of places off the beaten path will also find plenty to see and do both in town and a very short drive away. The city's dining scene has improved markedly over the past few years, as local farmers' markets continue to grow in popularity and several local wineries have begun earning national acclaim. And the once generic supply of hotels has been bolstered by a new spate of elegant resorts opened on Native American pueblos just beyond city limits as well as a pair of hip boutique hotels Downtown. Albuquerque's star is slowly, but very clearly, rising.

Albuquerque's economy continues to diversify. Intel, the world's largest computer-chip maker, has one of its biggest manufacturing centers here, in the fast-growing northern suburb of Rio Rancho. To the southeast, an immense project called Mesa del Sol broke ground in 2005. In addition to a progressive, planned community, it brings with it key international solar-power developers and two very heavy anchors for the state's burgeoning film industry: Albuquerque "Q" Studios (where the hit TV show Breaking Bad is filmed) and Sony Pictures Imageworks. Residential development in Mesa del Sol has stalled a bit with the poor economy, but home construction is expected to begin by 2012.