WHAT TO DO
San Miguel de Allende is located in the state of Guanajuato, in Mexico's central highlands. A part of the Bajio region, it lies 180 miles northwest of Mexico City. The city's name derives from two people: 16th century friar Juan de San Miguel and a martyr of Mexican Independence, Ignacio Allende. San Miguel de Allende was also a critical epicenter during the historic Chichimeca War (1550-1590) where the Chichimeca Confederation defeated the Spanish Empire in the initial colonization war. Today, with its gorgeous colonial architecture, enchanting cobblestone streets and vibrant colors, San Miguel de Allende (SMA) is rightly one of Mexico's biggest draws and has been popular with aesthetes for much of the past century. For this, along with its significant role in the Mexican War of Independence, UNESCO declared SMA a World Heritage Site in 2008. With superb restaurants and stylish accommodations, numerous galleries, a fantastic climate and an abundance of cultural activities including regular festivals, fireworks and parades - San Miguel de Allende is a traveler's dream.
Begin your adventure in the center of the Old Town at El Jardin. This lovely square is the heart and soul of San Miguel. Surrounded by historical buildings, with a lush garden in the middle, it is the social hub - a place for live music, dancing and congregating, at all hours of the day or night. Street vendors pop up all over the plaza selling local treats, while groups of mariachis parade back and forth. Two historical buildings that fringe its borders are the iconic Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel (Church of Saint Michael) and the Museo Historico de San Miguel de Allende. SMA's most famous landmark is its parish church, characterized by its pink spires that soar above the town. These unique pinnacles were designed by indigenous stonemason Zeferino Gutierrez in the late 19th century. He supposedly based the design on a postcard of a Belgian church and instructed builders by scratching plans in the sand with a stick. The rest of the pink neo Gothic church dates from the late 17th century. In the chapel to the left of the main altar is the much revered image of the Cristo de la Conquista (Christ of the Conquest), made in Patzcuaro sometime in the 16th century. The adjacent Iglesia de San Rafael was founded in 1742.
Across the street is the Museo Historico de San Miguel de Allende. This is the house where Mexican independence hero Ignacio Allende was born in 1769, a fact that draws a steady stream of Mexican pilgrims year round. The building is also home to the town's history museum, which relates the interesting history of the San Miguel area. Upstairs, reproductions of the Allende family's furnishings and possessions aim to give an idea of living conditions for the well to do of the period. Note: the museum is open from 9a-5p and is closed on Monday. Nearby is the Templo de la Concepcion, a splendid church with an exquisite altar and several magnificent old oil paintings. Painted on the interior doorway are a number of wise sayings to give pause to those entering. The church was begun in the mid 18th century and its dome was added in the late 19th century by the versatile Zeferino Gutierrez. Not far away is the Capilla de la Tercera Orden. Built in the early 18th century, this chapel, like the Templo de San Francisco, was part of a Franciscan monastery complex. The main facade shows Saint Francis and symbols of the Franciscan order. Adorned with an elaborate late 18th century Churrigueresque (Spanish Baroque) facade, the Templo de San Francisco has an image of Saint Francis of Assisi at the top.
Located near the east end of Insurgentes on Plaza Civica, the Oratorio de San Felipe Neri dates from the 18th century. The pale pink main facade is baroque with an indigenous influence. A passage to the right of this facade leads to the east wall, where a doorway holds the image of Nuestra Senora de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude). Inside the church are 33 oil paintings showing scenes from the life of San Felipe Neri, the 16th century Florentine who founded the Oratorio Catholic order. In the east transept is a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe by leading colonial painter Miguel Cabrera. In the west transept is a lavishly decorated 1735 chapel - the Santa Casa de Loreto, a replica of a chapel in Loreto, Italy - legendary home of the Virgin Mary. Note: although rarely open, the camarin (chapel behind the main church) has six elaborately gilded baroque altars. With its blue and yellow tiled dome and a big shell carved above its entrance, the Templo de la Salud is just east of San Felipe Neri. The church's paintings include one of San Javier by Miguel Cabrera. San Javier (Saint Francis Xavier) was a founding member of the Jesuits.
La Esquina: Museo del Juguete Popular Mexicano can be found at Nunez 40. Whimsical history takes center stage at this tons of fun toy museum. More than 1000 objects are on display in four permanent galleries, which spotlight Mexican creativity and cultural diversity. The museum started with the private collection of Angelica Tijerina, who is currently the director of the museum. It took her 50 years to build such a collection, the likes of which highlight pottery, paper, wood, metal, textiles and more. In The Dollhouse room, visitors can see dolls from all over the country, made from cloth and other materials. A second room, Unforgettable Mates, shows off toys that reflect transportation. There is also a room with everything from piggy banks to musical instruments. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday. Another cool place is the non profit mask museum called Another Face of Mexico, found at Cuesta de San Jose 32. Owner and curator Bill LeVasseur has spent more than 25 years acquiring an extraordinary collection of over 500 Mexican ceremonial masks. Through his visits to often remote indigenous communities and his observation and documentation of masked dancing, he has also acquired an extensive knowledge of masks and masked dancing that he is eager to share. Note: visits to the museum are by appointment only and all proceeds are donated to the Casa de los Angeles Day Care Center in SMA.
San Miguel de Allende is a haven for artists. One of the beacons for artists traveling to Mexico is the Instituto Allende, which has been luring art students for more than five decades. The institute lives in the historic home of the De La Canal family (Ancha de San Antonio 22) and dates back to the early 18th century. An art institute was opened in the 1950s. Today, it serves as an educational center for aspiring artists. Many come from abroad to earn their degree in visual arts. There are abbreviated courses, as well, including ones in watercolors, acrylics, sculpture, Mexican textiles and more. Note: the campus is open to visitors on weekdays and it is free to visit the school. Visitors can choose from three and four week courses, as well as one day workshops. From there, make your way to Parque Benito Juarez. This leafy park is a lovely place to relax and meander through - with benches, well maintained pathways and a fountain. Close by is El Chorro, the natural spring where San Miguel was founded. Today, it flows out of a fountain built in 1960 and there are public washing tubs (Lavaderos) here that are still sometimes used.
For a bird's eye look over San Miguel, head up to El Mirador - a terrace with commanding views of the city. Note: it's a decent walk up the hill - alternatively, the town trolley rumbles its way up to the lookout. When you come back down, take some time to wander the charming streets. Simply strolling the cobblestone lanes and alleys, peering into various nooks and crannies, is really one of the top things to do in SMA. Note: my favorite street to walk is Aldama - take it from Parque Juarez up to El Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel. Next, join the locals (and tourists) at the Mercado de Ignacio Ramirez. Named after the Mexican poet, this market is full of fresh and exotic fruits and vegetables, flowers, spices, cheeses, snacks and more. Note: bustling with life, it is the oldest market in San Miguel. Nearby is the delightful Mercado de Artesanias. If you're passionate about supporting local artisans then this is the place for you. You will find all kinds of goods like bags, hand embroidered shawls, jewelry, clothing, pottery and so much more. Note: there are also street food vendors here, but the market is mostly known for its souvenirs. An additional space for tasty grub is the Mercado del Carmen at Pila Seca 19. This trendy food hall is home to about a dozen restaurants, bars and cafes.
What was once a textile mill from 1902 to 1991 has now become the embodiment of everything San Miguel has to offer for art lovers. Fabrica La Aurora - just a short walk north from the Old Town - has left traces of its past to set the scene, but is very much all about the present day art scene in SMA. Browse the jewelry, furniture and contemporary art stores, but be sure to leave time to have a bite to eat at the on site Food Factory or Cafe de la Aurora. Note: the galleries and shops are open daily from 10a-6p. One more rad place to check out is Doce 18 Concept House, located at Relox 18. This modern space is home to fine dining, designer boutiques, a stylish bar and a modern hotel. The entire area has an industrial vibe with lots of greenery and exposed brick walls.
Conclude your tour of San Miguel by visiting a few more specialty shops and tasting some local tequila. If you fancy chocolate as I do, be sure to stop in to Chocolates Johfrej C&V at Jesus Nazareno 2. This divine shop has been making chocolate since 1920 and only uses the finest 100% Mexican Cacao. For wonderful handmade soaps, pay a visit to Madre Tierra at Cuna de Allende 5. Here, you can choose from a variety of scents including my favorite, lavender. Finally, I recommend booking a private tasting at Casa Dragones Tequila. Set in a beautiful former residence at Recreo 16 - this independent, small batch producer creates exceptional tequilas.
WHERE TO EAT
San Miguel de Allende has many great places to eat and have a drink or two. Start your day at Lavanda Cafe, located at Hernandez Macias 87. This pleasant spot has dynamite coffee along with superb egg and delicious cazuela (clay cooking pot) dishes. The charming premises are divided into two: one high ceilinged dining room and one garden courtyard. Note: be sure to arrive when they open at 830a or be prepared to wait. Around the corner at Zacateros 17 is Cafe Oso Azul. This friendly place offers an extensive menu of both Mexican and international breakfast dishes like chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, french toast and pancakes.
Found at Sollano 25 is the excellent Ki'bok Coffee. This specialty coffee concept was born in Tulum and has now expanded to San Miguel. Choose from brewing methods including drip, pour over and chemex, and beans sourced through co ops in Veracruz. Pair your coffee with an egg and cheese stuffed avocado - es muy bueno. For yummy pastries, head to Cumpanio Bakery at Correo 29. One more spot that is a must visit is San Agustin, located at San Francisco 21. This sweet tooth's paradise is the best place in town for chocolate and churros, though you'll often have to wait in line just to get inside. Once you do, take a seat and savor every moment as you enjoy a perfect cup of Mexican hot chocolate and scrumptious churros.
Let's talk tacos, street tacos. To me, street food is the most honest and unfiltered representation of a culture’s culinary identity. I find that to be especially true in Mexico. Restaurant food is wonderful, but nothing beats the experience of eating tacos off a plastic plate while standing in the road. Here are 3 of my favorite spots in town. Andy's Taco Cart can be found at Insurgentes 85. This sought after stand specializes in tacos al pastor, suadero and gringas - a version of al pastor with cheese served on flour tortillas. It parks on a cobblestone street in the Old Town each night, attracting a crowd of locals and visitors in search of something to soak up all the tequila, mezcal and pulque. Tacos San Francisco is at Mesones 48. This popular stand does some mean meat filled tacos, try the carnitas. You’ll typically find a small army of people gathered around this stall at night. Tacos Don Tomas (aka Taqueria San Francisco) is located near the church at San Francisco 17. This humble cart is only open at night and serves the same delicious chow as the previous two taco stands. Note: allow me to repeat, all 3 taco stands are only open at night.
For lunch, head to La Posadita at Cuna de Allende 13. This enjoyable eatery is celebrated for its excellent service, Mexican fare and location near the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel. Head up a steep set of stairs to the wonderful rooftop terrace for great views. It serves delicious margaritas, enchiladas and burritos. Note: the restaurant is closed on Wednesday. Sabroso Taqueria is at Zacateros 41. This hip joint does modern takes on traditional Mexican food. I went with tacos filled with suadero meat and cochinita pibil. Suadero refers to a thin slice of pork or beef cut from the area between the animal’s belly and leg. Cochinita pibil is a Yucatan dish made with pit roasted pork marinated in strong citrus juices. This establishment has ground floor seating, but hardly anyone sits there. San Miguel is all about rooftops so head straight up to the second floor. Note: the restaurant is closed on Tuesday. Located at Relox 17 is Los Milagros. This unfussy spot prepares authentic Mexican dishes in a relaxed setting - sit on the patio. I enjoyed housemade chips and guacamole, green chile chicken enchiladas and several ice cold Tecate beers. Note: the restaurant is open daily.
Trazo 1810 can be found at Hidalgo 8. It is part of Casa 1810, a boutique hotel, and specializes in modern cuisine with a Mediterranean touch. The terrace is an ideal place to take in the view as you dine on beer braised short ribs with carrots and brussels sprouts. Note: the restaurant has some impressive cocktails. Across the street at Hidalgo 5 is Ocre. Here, chef Daniel Duran is behind Mexican specialties like slow cooked tongue tacos, shrimp tostadas and black aguachile with habanero. The drinks are dangerously tasty - yours truly put away a few Mandarin sours (vodka, mandarin napoleon, lemon juice, simple syrup). Note: the daytime vibe here is relaxed, but blossoms into a bona fide scene at night. Located inside Hotel Matilda at Aldama 53, Moxi is a laid back restaurant with a focus on local ingredients and international techniques that puts it a cut above other hotel eateries. Try the roast chicken with pumpkin seed sauce and cheese ravioli stuffed with seasonal wild mushrooms. Note: the hotel's terrace bar is a sweet spot for pre or post dinner drinks.
For dinner, make your way to La Parada at Recreo 94. This cool spot near the Lavaderos del Chorro does excellent Peruvian cuisine. Knock back a Pisco sour (brandy, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white) on the pretty outdoor patio and feast on succulent ceviche - fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices. Note: the restaurant is open daily. Tucked away in the courtyard of a colonial era mansion at Sollano 16, The Restaurant has been a mainstay of San Miguel dining for more than a decade. American born chef Donnie Masterton cooks a menu of California style comfort food with Mexican influences that rarely lets you down. Try the seared sea bass a la Veracruz or the miso marinated salmon with soy ginger green beans. Be sure to try one of the local organic liqueurs (I wet my whistle with coconut) after dinner with the chocolate tart and coffee ice cream. Note: the restaurant is closed on Monday and reservations are advised.
Bovine is located at Canal 16. This admired steakhouse comes from acclaimed Australian born chef Paul Bentley and provides a modern take on the classic chop house formula - with dishes like steak frites with pepper sauce, porchetta with white bean stew and Bourguignon short ribs. The service is top notch and the cocktail list is outstanding. Note: the restaurant is closed on Monday and bookings are essential. Set in the courtyard of Hotel Dos Casas at Quebrada 101 is Aperi. This is the place to experience San Miguel’s local ingredients at their peak. The internationally celebrated tasting menu is exclusively sourced from area farmers and utilizes seafood from the northern regions of Mexico, while the dishes themselves lean Mexican with a few French flourishes. Note: the intimate chef’s table experience at Aperi is another level, just be sure to book well in advance. The restaurant is closed on Tuesday.
End your evening in San Miguel with a drink and a view. At sunset and after dark, rooftop bars are mandatory for drinking in the views - as well as tequila. When the sun sets, you will be totally transfixed by the changing light and colors as the sky first turns gold, then pink and finally a deep velvet purple. Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar nails the SMA rooftop bar experience. This restaurant and bar is located at the top of the Rosewood Hotel at Nemesio Diez 11. It overlooks the town's beautiful architecture and surrounding mountain landscape. Regarding adult beverages, go with more than one of the bar's famous margaritas. Another rad rooftop spot is Bekeb, found on the terrace of Hotel Casa Hoyos at Mesones 14. This stylish bar delights with a perfect signature artisanal mixology menu for cocktail enthusiasts. At the helm is mixologist and founder, the lovely Fabiola Padilla.
My favorite bar in town is San Mezcal, located at Recreo 88. It has no rooftop views, but it does have dynamite drinks. The staff is super cool, they have a stupendous selection of mezcal and barkeep Julio knows his stuff. Note: the bar is closed on Tuesday. La Mezcaleria is at Correo 47 and you come here for one thing - to drink mezcal. This charming bar offers a short but very sweet mezcal list sourced from regions across Mexico, with an emphasis on Oaxaca. The selection covers all of the most popular varieties, from Espadin to Tobala and even Tepeztate. If sipping it straight is not your thing, there are superb mezcal margaritas in flavors like ginger and mint or hibiscus flower and tangerine. Note: the bar is closed on Wednesday. El Manantial can be found at Barranca 78. This century old cantina is one of San Miguel de Allende’s most historic treasures. It is a regular hang for the local artist community, so be prepared to mingle with creative spirits over magnificent ginger margaritas.
WHERE TO STAY
San Miguel de Allende offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Rosewood San Miguel de Allende, located at Nemesio Diez 11. Set in a Spanish Colonial mansion on a tree lined cobblestone street, this genteel hotel is adjacent to Parque Benito Juarez and a short stroll from El Chorro. The plush rooms with balconies feature free WiFi, flat screen TVs, safes, minibars and fireplaces. Upgraded quarters add separate living areas. Amenities include a posh restaurant and a casual poolside eatery, plus a tequila bar (1826 Tequila Bar) and the previously mentioned rooftop bar (Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar). There are 3 outdoor pools, as well as a spa and tennis courts.
A second option is Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada, located at Hospicio 35. In 17th and 18th century buildings, this luxury hotel is close to the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel and not far from the Mercado de Artesanias. Featuring artwork and antique furniture, the polished rooms come with complimentary WiFi, flat screen TVs and stone fireplaces. Elegant suites feature wood ceiling beams, along with sitting areas, private plunge pools and terraces. Other perks include a renowned fine dining restaurant (Andanza), a cocktail bar (The Blue Bar), a cooking school, an outdoor pool and a spa.
San Miguel de Allende has wonderful culture, excellent art galleries, beautiful architecture and superb restaurants. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.