Consider making your next single travel adventure the city of San Miguel de Allende for the feel of old Mexico with sophisticated dining, luxury spas, arts and music.
American creative types and escape-seekers have been enchanted by colonial Mexican hill town San Miguel de Allende since the early 1900s. Ever since young Chicago artist Stirling Dickinson hopped off the train at the San Miguel station and was so overcome by the grand Gothic beauty of La Parroquia — and his affection for the people — that he decided to stick around.
He did just that until his death in 1998, and was the first in a long line of Americans to adopt San Miguel as their home. Dickinson went on to make such a positive imprint on the community — using his inheritance to bolster children’s education, directing the town’s first major art school, and even starting the city’s first baseball team — that San Miguel now remembers him as a local hero.
Today, San Miguel de Allende is a friendly, bustling town that looks and feels like old Mexico but has a cosmopolitan edge (sophisticated dining, luxury spas, arts and music) that appeals to vacationers from Mexico City, the U.S. and Europe. Set on a hilltop surrounded by high desert plains, San Miguel is rich with history and beauty and was named to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008.
The cobblestone streets, brightly colored houses, open courtyards and ornate ironwork evoke its Spanish colonial past. The towers of La Parroquia, the iconic church in El Jardín (the main town square) can be seen for miles around. Its facade was refashioned in the 1880s after a contest among local architects yielded the Gothic-inspired design of today (reputedly inspired by a European postcard). While it looks nothing like any of the colonial or Mexican architecture in the rest of the country, it has come to represent San Miguel.
The “Allende” in San Miguel’s name honors the town’s place in the nation’s revolutionary history. Ignacio Allende was a local man who became a Mexican war hero for his leadership role in the battles for independence from the Spanish (Mexico celebrates the bicentennial of that struggle this year).
San Miguel is also a creative city, home to two major art institutes, myriad galleries featuring everything from Latin American traditional and contemporary works to sculpture and jewelry, as well as studios run by both locals and expats — and plenty of inspiration.
What to do in San Miguel:
Chill: Pack your swimsuit, because the San Miguel area is known for its thermal springs, all located outside of the Centro. Agua Magica and La Gruta are favorites, with warm indoor and outdoor pools.
Put yourself in the hands of Laja Spa, named for San Miguel’s Rio Laja, after a day of traipsing around cobblestone streets. The signature Laja Spa Massage in a candlelit room will leave you in a blissful trance.
Get a history lesson: San Miguel is a walking city, so hire a guide and get an in-person history lesson with a walking tour. Hear about of the families behind some of the colonial mansions. Casa de Sierra Nevada concierge will book tours for its guests. A two-hour walking tour for a group of up to six people is approximately $50. To hire a private car for tours, contact Operadora Turistica Bestur at (011-52) 415-103-5353. Within Guanajuato state, the fee is approximately $25 per hour (up to six people per vehicle).
Shop: Centro San Miguel is an artists’ town — home to around 40 galleries. Still, it’s worth a trip just outside of the city center to check out Fabrica la Aurora, a huge converted cotton mill that has its own mix of galleries, studios and furniture shops. A few vintage looms remain, and historical photos of the factory’s past line the walls. Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Calzada de la Aurora, Colonia Aurora.
Mercado Ignacio Ramirez is packed with vendors selling everything from fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers to embroidered linens to kitchen appliances and toys. Plus, there are lots of inexpensive souvenirs. Open every day from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Not to be missed, Mercado de Artesanias is tucked in the alley attached to the fruit market, local artisans sell sterling silver jewelry, pewter dishes of all sizes, bright fabrics, and glazed Mexican pottery. Bring cash, and bargain politely. Prices beat those of the shops around town. Open every day from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Eat: Located in the Casa Principal house of the Casa de Sierra Nevada hotel, Andanza is fitted with a gorgeous combination of dark woods, Mexican tile, lush greenery and rich fabrics. It’s a great spot for an elegant breakfast al fresco in the open-air courtyard. Or stop in for a cocktail at the Blue Bar — which retains its original intricately hand-painted walls and serves up an impressive selection of wines, beers and tequilas. Open every day. Breakfast 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Lunch and dinner noon to 11 p.m.
Near the Jardin, and popular with locals and gringos alike, El Ten Ten Pie is an inexpensive, super-casual and friendly spot to sit outside for Mexican food and cocktails. Open every day. 9 a.m. to midnight.
Hang out with cowboys: An unlikely cowboy, retired Swiss perfumer Jean-Jacques Denier settled in San Miguel with his wife and built the 50-acre Rancho Santa Emilia, indulging his new found passion for riding and for Mexican culture. The ranch is home to nine horses, a couple of bulls, stables, a riding ring suited for charreadas (a type of rodeo). The buildings are new, but fashioned from reclaimed materials salvaged from all over Mexico — Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz. Visitors can overnight in a troje, which sleeps four or come during the day for individual riding lessons, trail rides, or private events.
Take a class: Casa de Sierra Nevada Executive Chef Gonzalo Martinez leads demonstration classes in traditional and modern Mexican cooking, specializing in local ingredients, at Sazon Cooking School. Students taste each course. Guest chefs and local home cooks are also featured instructors. Classes are taught in English.
The Instituto Allende, an internationally recognized fine arts university, offers Spanish language classes, from conversational to intensive, from one week to four weeks, for English speakers.
Diego Rivera once taught mural classes at Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramírez Bellas Artes. And it was this school that veterans on the GI bill flocked to after the war, the first major influx of Americans to San Miguel. Today visitors can sign up for art, music and dance classes.
Get out of town: There’s plenty to do in Centro San Miguel, but if you feel like seeing more of the bahio, hire a driver (or rent your own car) and hit the road to Delores Hidalgo. While the 1810 revolution was masterminded in San Miguel, the action inadvertently started about a half-hour down the road. The Spanish had uncovered the plans of Ignacio Allende and Father Miguel Hidalgo, so they had to spring into action a few days early. This Spanish colonial town is also loved by visitors today for its oddball selections of handmade ice cream (vanilla and chocolate are served up alongside avocado, beer, and shrimp flavors), as well as its many shops packed with Talavera pottery, a distinctly local style that evolved from the Spanish.
When to visit San Miguel:
Throughout the year, days are warm and nights are cool. The temperature shift can be quite drastic though, so pack layers. Similar to Los Angeles, average temperatures are cooler in winter.
Nearly every day and night is a fiesta of some sort in San Miguel. The local people are largely Catholic, and you’ll likely happen upon a parade or a neighborhood festival or a fireworks displays shot from elaborately decorated castillos to honor a saint (pack earplugs if you’re a light sleeper).
Not all the partying is saintly, however. In June, San Miguel celebrates Dia de Los Locos (Day of the Crazies) with a silly parade of kids and adults tossing handfuls of candy while dressed in wildly colorful and cartoonish costumes. Fall brings Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and the Annual International Jazz and Blues Festival.
Where to stay in San Miguel:
A unique take on luxury boutique hotels, Casa de Sierra Nevada is actually six different 16th- to 18th-century Spanish colonial mansions in the center of town. All rooms have been painstakingly finished to remain true to their historical integrity, then beautifully furnished with luxury linens, copper details and Talavera tiles.
Most suites have indoor fireplaces and outdoor patios with plunge pools, and some even have stunning city views. Personalized service is first-rate.
Locals, expats, and part-time residents often rent their own homes to visitors. Check VRBO.com for listings.
Getting to San Miguel:
AeroMéxico flies direct from LAX to Mexico City. From there, transfer to an AeroMéxico Connect flight to one of two airports: Queretaro (QRO), a one-hour drive to San Miguel, or León (BJX), an hour-and-a-half drive through gorgeous countryside and quaint villages. For shuttle service from the airports, contact Casa de Sierra Nevada concierge (for hotel guests), or Operadora Turistica Bestur at (011-52) 415-103-5353