For all its critical success, Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad – and its superlative follow-up Better Call Saul, which returns to Netflix soon for its final hurrah – boasts a more niche achievement to its name. Like only a handful of series before it – Twin Peaks being one of them – the neo-Western epic succeeded in making stars not just of its actors, but also its cinematic location: the humble city of Albuquerque.
For years, the south western state of New Mexico – wedged between Texas and Arizona – had been luring film-makers with offers of generous tax subsidies. But it was Breaking Bad that finally cemented its place on the cultural map, and that of its largest city – thanks, in part, to Gilligan's exceptional cinematography (those delicious shots, for example, of the To'hajiilee desert). Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work soon became a siren call for obsessive fans with a sense of adventure. Me included.
How many Breaking Bad fans have taken a trip to New Mexico? The tourism board is stumped for numbers. Anecdotal evidence, on the other hand, isn't hard to find. When I last visited – a short stop in 2019, just before the pandemic closed down the world – the city was still enjoying a decade-long cult tourism boom (think Harry Potter and Edinburgh, but for boxset nerds). Now with travel restrictions removed, and Better Call Saul approaching its finale, it may well be hoping for a post-pandemic revival.
Is it worth taking a trip? If you’re a serious fan of the show, my answer is simple: yes. Although it comes with the caveat that – as you might expect – not everything will be to your taste. You don’t have to be a travel snob, for example, to turn your nose up at blue-meth candy or the chance to pose for selfies with Walter White ‘lookalikes’. It turns out your show doesn't need an adolescent fanbase to flog tourist tat. But even for the more discerning traveller, there are adventures to be had.
The offer of a Breaking Bad location trip – and one in a replica RV nonetheless – was what finally broke my snobbishness, persuading me to embrace my inner fan-boy. And I’m glad it did. After all, what kind of fan would pass up the chance to have breakfast in Los Pollos Hermanos before spending the morning visiting Saul Goodman’s office, Skyler White’s car-wash and the hidden meth superlab? Given the tour company recently entered its second decade of business, the answer, presumably, is ‘not many’.
It doesn’t have to be an organised tour though. For the serious fan, even a solo stroll around downtown Albuquerque will be a delight. With its distinctive punky aesthetic – sunkissed pueblo architecture colliding with old world charm and hipster dive bars – the city is just so brilliantly Breaking Bad. For authenticity points head to the show’s infamous Crossroads motel – which, it turns out, is pretty much exactly how it appears on-screen (rooms from $40 per night). It’s a similar vibe at Jesse Pinkman’s favourite restaurant, Dog Days – often frequented by tattooed local cholos who’d be a shoe-in for an extra role.
Fear not, though. While Vince Gilligan’s work might have lionised New Mexico’s criminal underworld, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that the real Albuquerque is – well, actually pretty nice. Affordable real estate and reliable year-round sunshine have made New Mexico a natural home for artsy types who might otherwise have to slum it in overpriced California. The overall vibe might be a bit rugged, but it’s no more ‘dangerous’ than a walk through Camden Market. Blacked out windows and heavy doors are more likely to be signs of a boutique restaurant than a drug den.
Oh yes, the food. While other states rave about their BBQ sauce or fried chicken, it turns out New Mexico has its own entire cuisine. Recognised across much of the border states, ‘New Mexican’ is essentially a souped up version of what you might find down south. Rather than being a humble street-food, the burrito is instead elevated to a hulking great main in its own right: loaded with local chills and slathered in a delicious, almost chocolatey sauce (known as ‘mole’ – and pronounced ‘mo-lay’) that makes using a knife and fork absolutely necessary. It’s excellent, if you like that sort of thing.
Make sure, of course, you get out and see a bit more of New Mexico. An hour’s trek to the state capital, Santa Fe, offers the chance not just to take in the other-worldy landscapes on the way (the inspiration, as it happens, for the painter Georgia O'Keeffe – also honoured in Breaking Bad) but also to visit Meow Wolf: the weirdest interactive art exhibition in America. It's part-owned, perhaps revealingly, by the creator of Game of Thrones, George RR Martin). Anthony Bourdain’s culinary guide to the city is worth a watch too (as always).
But even if you’re sold on New Mexico, there is one tiny hitch: it doesn’t have any direct international flights. My own suggestion for Breaking Bad super-fans: fly into Atlanta (usually the cheapest US airport, incidentally, for business class flights) and then hop over to Albuquerque on a short-haul domestic flight. Binge watch the latest available series of Better Call Saul on the way over and prepare for an immersive experience to remember. You won’t be disappointed.