5 free things to do in New Mexico's largest city

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photoThe KiMo Theatre is along historic Route 66 and is among the tourist attractions in downtown Albuquerque.

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photoVintage and modern neon signs hangs above the sidewalk in the Nob Hill district along historic Route 66 in Albuquerque. A self-guided tour along this section of the route offers boutiques, restaurants and a parade of neon.

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photoHot air balloons inflating during the 40th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M. There is an entrance fee for the annual fiesta, but the colorful spectacle can be seen from many vantage points around the city once the balloons lift off.

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Really, it's not that hard to spell. Just remember, there are three Us and a couple of Qs.

Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest city, has a history that stretches back to the days of the Spanish conquistadors. They were responsible for its name, and their influence persists 300 years after they founded the community. Straddling the riverbanks of the Rio Grande and in the shadow of the Sandia Mountains, the city is more than just a pit stop along the road to New Mexico's art meccas ahttp://www.columbian.com/admin/news/story/209421/#nd other better-known tourist destinations.

Albuquerque hosts an international fiesta that draws hundreds of hot air balloon pilots each October (this year, Oct. 5-13). You have to pay to stake your spot on the launch field, but the colorful spectacle can be seen for free from nearly anywhere in the city. And while you can pay for a balloon ride any time of year, a good pair of hiking shoes, a bicycle or a car can get you a free look at everything around town, from neon signs along historic Route 66 to the dormant volcanoes and lava escarpment that border the city's west side. And be sure to enjoy the mild climate, sunsets and starry nights while you're exploring.

• A 16-mile recreational path runs from one end of Albuquerque to the other along the cottonwood and willow forest that borders the east side of the Rio Grande. The path is accessible from many points. In some spots, dirt trails lead to the river's edge, providing opportunities to see migrating cranes, geese and other wildlife. The riverside forest, known as the bosque, changes colors with the seasons. • SANDIA CREST: From Albuquerque, you can take a scenic drive up to Sandia Crest, an overlook at the top of the mountain range that faces the city. A mile above the surrounding landscape, the crest offers expansive views. You can north or south from the observation area to see limestone laced with brachiopods and other fossils. At 10,678 feet, the air is thin up there.

OLD TOWN PLAZA: At the heart of Albuquerque is Old Town Plaza, the San Felipe de Neri Church and several blocks of historic adobe buildings that now house restaurants, galleries and other specialty shops. Walk along the plaza's portal and you'll find American Indian artisans from nearby pueblos selling silver and turquoise-laden jewelry and other items.

HISTORIC ROUTE 66: Take a self-guided cruise along Old Route 66 -- now Central Avenue. You'll pass the historic KiMo Theatre in downtown Albuquerque, the University of New Mexico campus, countless diners and dives, and the eclectic boutiques of the Nob Hill Historic District. The highlight is the collection of neon signs -- many of them vintage -- that get to buzzing around dusk.

'BREAKING BAD': A few nondescript locations around town have become famous in just the past few years, thanks to AMC's hit television series "Breaking Bad." Go online, print out a free map to the filming locations scattered around the city, such as the Dog House Drive In or Twisters, called Los Pollos Hermanos on the show.