Booming fireworks rouse me from my sleep at 4 a.m.. Why, I wonder, couldn’t San Miguel Arcángel have picked a more civilized time to battle Lucifer and banish him from heaven? More to the point, I ponder why the charming town of San Miguel de Allende caps its annual, week-long celebration of its patron saint’s victory in such wee hours. Soon, though, I join a partying crowd in the town’s center to experience close-up the hours-long pyrotechnics. This small town, possibly the prettiest in Mexico, is clearly passionate—not just about its frequent festivals, but also about its rich history, its glorious architecture and gardens, its vibrant food scene and its tradition of hospitality. No wonder the place seduces travelers and expats alike. The truth is, for most vacationers, Mexico is just a string of beach resorts along the Pacific, another lining the Caribbean, and little but huge capital city between. For those looking no deeper, it’s easy to miss San Miguel de Allende, a charming little town of cobblestone streets winding through centuries-old colonial houses and churches in Mexico’s central highlands, far from the nearest ocean. With a distinctly European feel, far from the nearest ocean. With a distinctly European feel, this mountain village—almost 500 years old and amazingly well-preserved—was built with the riches of conquistador-era-sliver mining. The old money and history shows. Yet layered on top of the historic Spanish Colonial architecture and folkloric culture that made San Miguel de Allende a protected UNESCO World Heritage site is a hip, vibrant community offering spectacular things to see and do.
Walk the cobblestone streets and get lost in the historic architecture of San Miguel’s Centro Storico. The roughly ten square blocks of the old central district are filled with a fascinating mix of architectural styles from the 17th and 18th centuries. With incredible foresight in 1926, the Mexican government passed a law that forbade building any structure in the area that compromised the area’s distinctive character, which is overwhelmingly Mexican baroque.
Canada De La Virgen
A short ride leads to this unique archaeological site, the northernmost pre-Columbian ruins ever discovered. At the centerpiece of this well-preserved complex of religious buildings is a 15-meter-high stone pyramid build and expanded by the Otomi Indians between 540 and 1000AD. Only guided tours of a limited number of visitors are permitted, but climbing with your small group to the top of pyramid, which the Otomi designed as a giant celestial compass, is a breathtaking part of the tour.
San Miguel is quickly becoming one of Mexico’s culinary hot spots. Options range from traditional to ambitious, including lively cantinas ( El Manantiel) and courtyard cafés (Cafe Contento), to patio spots (La Parada), view-laden rooftops (La Posadita), and swanky restaurants (Moxi). Charming bakeries, laid-back coffee houses and fresh food stalls provide quick and delicious alternatives.
Santuario de Jesus Nazareno de Atotonilco
Not far from town, this captivating church is often billed as the Sistine Chapel of Mexico and is one of the finest examples of Baroque art and architecture in New Spain. After its construction between 1740 and 1776, artist Miguel Antonio Martinez de Pocosangre spent the next thirty years frescoing its interior. Nearly every square inch of the walls and ceiling is covered with highly detailed religious imagery.
The residents of San Miguel often claim that there are more festivals in their town than anywhere in Mexico. It is certainly easy to believe. Rarely a week goes by without some celebration o fa patron saint, a revolutionary hero or some other excuse for a vibrant street party. Fireworks always seem to mark the occasion. Check online for any celebrating during your visit, odds are in your favor.