Forget crowded Mexican beaches and rowdy spring breaks. The historic town of San Miguel de Allende offers an enchanting getaway in Mexico’s scenic heartland.
By Brad Mee | Photos by Don Skypeck
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 a huge capital city in 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, this mountain village—almost 500 years old and amazingly well-preserved—was built with the riches of conquistador-era silver 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 cab 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 built and expanded by the Otomi Indians between 540 and 1000 A.D. Only guided tours of a limited number of visitors are permitted, but climbing with your small group to the top of the 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 of a 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 celebrations during your visit, odds are in your favor.
Much of San Miguel’s historic architecture is religious, and there are several spectacular churches and chapels nearly in sight of each other in Centro Historico. There are at least a half dozen of major importance in addition to La Parroquia, one of Mexico’s most photographed churches. Make a day of visiting them—grab a city map and plan a route for a leisurely day of church hopping.
Home and Garden Tours
As you stroll through town, no doubt you’ll wonder what lies beyond the famed “doors of San Miguel.” You may even get one or two glimpses of beguiling leafy courtyards as residents depart their homes. To visit some of the most beautiful gardens and homes of the city, join the weekly House and Garden Tour on Sunday mornings. It departs from La Biblioteca de San Miguel de Allende, where you can also purchase tickets. Buy your tickets and confirm your tour time at least a few days in advance—the tour fills quickly and the start time varies.
San Miguel de Allende lures designers, art lovers and style-savvy homeowners seeking inspiration and treasures for the home. There are countless shops run by local merchants, many of whom specialize in art, design, crafts and interiors, with a surprising degree of diversity and sophistication for such a small community. Among them is the Fabrica La Aurora art and design center. It houses multiple home-related shops offering everything from antiques and pottery to art and textiles. Outdoor décor lovers flock to Trinitate located near Il Jardin and La Parroquia. A favorite for design and gift items, Camino Silvestre caters to nature lovers and is renowned for beautiful blown-glass hummingbird feeders.
Tequila and Mezcal
San Miguel de Allende is adjacent to tequila country, making it the perfect place to learn about the liquor, which is only now beginning to recover from its longtime, undeserved reputation as cheap party fuel. Discerning drinkers are discovering tequila as a complex, sophisticated sipping spirit. Here’s a primer to help you explore the chic side of this infamous intoxicant.
- Un-aged tequila is called blanco or plata—“white” or “silver.” Most often used for mixed drinks, properly made, blanco can be a high-end sipping spirit.
- Reposado, or “rested” tequila is aged up to a year in oak barrels, giving it the characteristics of other aged liquors and a straw- to deep-gold color.
- Anejo, or “aged,” tequila is oak-aged a year or longer, and is even darker and more complex. Extra anejo is darker still and more oak-infuenced after at least three years of aging.
- Tequila is a type of Mezcal, but spirits labeled Mezcal have an earthy, smoky flavor in comparison. Mezcal is often artisanal, and is definitely more suited for a snifter than a shot glass.
San Miguel tequila hot spots:
1826 Tequila Bar at the Hotel Rosewood offers more than 120 kinds of tequila. The bar’s tequilier helps patrons learn all about the spirit as they imbibe.
The historic stables of the Spanish Colonial Dragones are the spiritual home of Casa Dragones Tequila. Private tours of the beautiful historic building include a tasting of this ultra-premium brand. casadragones.com
Discover your favorite Mezcal by purchasing a “flight” at La Mezcaleria, a hip tapas bar specializing in Tequila’s sophisticated cousin.
This 13-acre resort property enjoys spectacular views of the town and the iconic spires of the town’s main church. Laid out like a classic Mexican hacienda, the luxurious resort is rich in covered walkways, arched passages and stone paths connecting cozy courtyards, glorious gardens, sparkling swimming pools and romantic patios. A spa, rooftop tapas bar, tequila bar and fine restaurant indulge guests and visitors. rosewoodhotels.com
With a traditional Spanish Colonial exterior and a modern, minimalist interior, Hotel Matilda is a study in contrast. Mexican modern artwork, a sexy décor and a cutting-edge restaurant lure both guests and diners. The hotel boasts a renowned spa and is located only three charming blocks from the town’s historic main square. hotelmatilda.com
Casa Schuck was originally built in 1969 as a grand private villa, and its owners transformed it into a 10 bedroom luxury boutique hotel that retains the Old World feel of the original hacienda with its lovely architecture and intimate outdoor spaces. Guests feel like they’re staying in a private home and are only three blocks from the center of the San Miguel’s historic town center. casaschuck.com