San Miguel de Allende Travel Guide
Oh, San Miguel De Allende. How do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Your 16th-century skyline. Your cobblestone streets. Your colourfully painted houses. Your bounteous flowers blooming. Your baroque Spanish architecture. Your vibrant marketplaces. Your standout restaurants and hotels. And, of course, your light, which has drawn generations of artists into your embrace. Lovingly referred to as SMA, the World Heritage Site is Mexico’s most lauded colonial city and a place travellers return to again and again, many of them deciding to move there for good. About 10 per cent of the population is expats, which gives the town, located in Mexico’s central highlands, an international feel while still retaining its laid back vibe. The culture is decidedly gay-friendly, although gay-embracing might be a more accurate way to put it. While there are plenty of gay ex-pats and travellers, it’s simply too small a city to sustain a full-time gay bar or club. No matter, SMA is a progressive, sophisticated, welcoming place for gays.
Only in a city with so much colonial quaintness could one possibly welcome a modern, chic hotel to balance out the equation
The best hotels in San Miguel de Allende
The beauty of San Miguel is captured in the Dos Casas Boutique Hotel. The 18th-century residence turned vanguard hotel is a thoughtful mix of colonial, mid-century, and modern design. With just a dozen rooms, an award-winning restaurant on site, spa, rooftop terrace, and patio courtyard with a running stone fountain, Dos Casas is tranquillity embodied. Depending on whether you prefer your hotels romantic or vibrant, L’Ôtel has two sister properties with different personas. L’Ôtel Chiquitos offers four cosy guest rooms in an intimate colonial house at the end a quiet cobblestone lane. Dôce 18 on the top floor of the chic Dôce 18 Concept House has a more vibrant flair. You can’t lose with either one. Walk through the ancient, wooden doors of the Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada and it’s hard not to become immediately enchanted by the fairytale hideaway dotted with blooming flowerpots and hidden terraces. The stone pool in the landscaped garden is magical. Only in a city with so much colonial quaintness could one possibly welcome a modern, chic hotel to balance out the equation. Hotel Matilda’s modern minimalism makes it a perfect complement to the town’s historical beauty. This is where the cool kids stay. The rooftop infinity pool is a plus as is the pet-friendly policy. An antique six-bedroom colonial mansion that once belonged to a Vogue photographer, you might recognize Casa No Name from the zillion design mags it’s been featured in. You’ll think nothing can top the restored 18th-century mural and fragrant garden until you spy the glass floor that gives you a peek into ancient tunnels underneath the home that workers uncovered during the renovations.
Even if can’t pick out a good avocado to save your life, you should still consider a market tour and cooking class
Things to do in San Miguel de Allende
Mexico might be better known for its mezcal than its wine, but don’t let that stop you from doing a wine tour at Dos Búhos vineyards. It’s a lovely way to see the countryside outside San Miguel and get tipsy at the same time. With a half-century experience in viticulture and 10 different types of grapes, you will most certainly find a vintage that can get your buzz going. Dos Buhos is also a big-time supporter of the cause. Thinking of eloping? They are certified to hold gay weddings on their beautiful grounds. Even if you never cook and couldn’t pick out a good avocado to save your life, you should still consider Chef Paco Cardenas market tour & cooking classes. Shopping for produce from local farmers in the lively marketplace and then learning how to put it all together to make a meal is really a treat. The natural hot springs in the nearby historic town of Atotonilco have been made into an outdoor spa called La Gruta. Go take an early morning soak in the glistening thermal waters. After you’re wrinkled as a raisin and fully relaxed, hit Atotonilco’s Sanctuary on the way back to town. The World Heritage site is filled with hand-painted baroque mural work in the Mexican style. Rancho Xotolar has been run by the same family for four generations and counting. They offer full- and half-day horse rides that take you through a high plateau with beautiful views. Since you’ll want to view SMA from as many angles as possible, a hot air balloon flight into the clouds and over one of the world’s loveliest towns only takes three hours all in; you’ll be back in time for breakfast.
Things to see in San Miguel de Allende
The sparseness of the desert landscape has its own type of power and beauty, which you can take in at El Charco del Ingenio. The botanical gardens sit on a canyon ridge overlooking the town and surrounding valley. Bring your wide-brimmed hat and a big bottle of water and wander amongst the cacti and other native plants you’ve likely never seen before. It’s also a good place to bird watch if that’s your thing. A fine arts school located in a former monastery is just as beautiful as you imagine. SMA’s picturesqueness and unbeatable light have drawn artists from around the world since WWII and the Escuela de Bellas Artes has been the heart of the art community from the beginning. Come see the murals and temporary exhibitions by local artists, many of them alumni of the escuela. Even if you’re not a planner, please try and get your act together and make a plan to visit the Mask Museum, which you can’t do on the fly because it’s by appointment only. Masks are a way to unmask a culture and this private collection of more than 500 of them is a sight to behold. Tianguis is the traditional open-air markets of Mexico. SMA’s Tuesday tiangui is always a feast for the senses, with all sorts of things for sale that have nothing to do with each other, like fresh fish and remote controls, for example. Might as well take a little hike up a serious set of the stairs to the Mirador, or lookout point. The views of the cityscape and surrounding countryside are worth the sweat. The focal point of every town in Mexico is the central square. In San Miguel, there’s no better way to while away the hours than to sit in El Jardin, as the plaza is called. You’ll be in the shadow of the gorgeous pink church, Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, surrounded by vendors selling churros, kids laughing, musicians playing, and pretty much just beauty and joy everywhere you look. Parque Benito Juarez is a more leafy, tranquil place to sit on a bench and read your book or take your early morning run. You can even do Zumba there with the local ladies in the morning. Don’t forget to buy a bag of ripe mangoes with chilli pepper from one of the vendors around the park.
Where to eat in San Miguel de Allende
If you name your restaurant The Restaurant, you must be either pretty confident in your cooking, not worried about SEO, or both. Serving global comfort food, The Restaurant was a pioneer in the local locavore movement. Its Moorish-style courtyard and duck taquitos are both to die for. Áperi in the Dos Casas hotel is considered one of the best restaurants not just in SMA but in all of Mexico. The number of diners is limited so the chef can personally have his hand in every plate that comes out of the kitchen. The Franco-Mexican chef confers his Old World knowledge to his devotion to Mexican cuisine. Serious foodies who travel to eat must take a meal at Moxi, which is run by one of the country’s most famous chefs who does artful, daring takes on traditional Mexican dishes. Located in Hotel Matilda. Nirvana is a cutting-edge restaurant located outside of town in the nearby countryside. Serving molecular gastronomy in a bucolic riverside setting, Nirvana grows its own organic greens in on-site greenhouses. Make sure not to overlook the coffee scene. El Café de la Mancha pulls out all the stops to create the most perfect cup o’ joe out of Mexican coffee beans. Isn’t it lovely to venture out a local bakery when you’re travelling and dine on a lazy, indulgent breakfast while watching the locals come and go? Try Cumpanio for French baguettes, Italian bread, and sweets, most notably the Mexican wedding cookies. Cumpanio also has a wonderful menu of French- and Italian-inspired classics and inspired artisanal cocktails. There are a ton of ex-pats in San Miguel and since they are repeat customers, many of them gravitate to the casual places with great food and good value. Cafe Rama is the place for a hardy egg breakfast or an economical dinner option if you’re looking for something more low-key one night.
Shopping in San Miguel de Allende
Pinche is a naughty word in Spanish so we love that a printers’ collective named its outpost El Pinche Grabador. Buying limited edition woodblock, silkscreens, lithographs or metal engraving prints is one of the best ways to procure affordable art and support local artists. So, what are you waiting for? Go buy a *@&* grabador! They sell supercool skull designs, a la Day of the Dead. We know “concept stores” are popping up everywhere and we’re not mad about it. Dôce 18 Concept House is home to a cluster of shi-shi boutiques selling jewellery, books, and clothes. We especially love Deitx & Co., a Mexican brand producing tailor-made and ready-to-wear menswear using British fabrics but incorporating traditional Mexican textiles such as the serape into their designs.
Dôce 18’s also got a serious food court with lots of fun snacks and places to drink.
Located in the same town as the hot springs just outside SMA, a perfect day would include taking a soak, exploring the town, and then dropping in on Galleria Atotonilco, a 5,000-square foot gallery of hand-curated, high-quality and inspired folk art. We fell in love with the art made by the Huichol people. They cover masks and wooden sculptures in thousands of colourful beads fastened with wax and resin. By appointment only so call ahead. SMA’s best shopping is furniture. This is due to the confluence of Mexico’s rich artistic history and rich gringos who need to furnish their pieds-à-terre. Namuh is a creative universe for interior designers selling seating, tables, office furniture, decor, outdoor furniture, lighting, textiles, and decorative objects. This place makes you want to buy a place down there just so you can furnish it. Fabrica La Aurora is housed in a remodelled cotton factory and is home to the town’s largest collection of art galleries and design studios of both local and international artists.
Tequila? We’ll pass. The real move in Mexico is mezcal
San Miguel de Allende Nightlife
Tequila? We’ll pass. The real move in Mexico is mezcal. While both spirits are made from agave, mezcal is sexier and smokier. (If you prefer tequila, you’re entitled to your opinion, even if it’s wrong.) La Mezcalería pours a wonderful selection of mezcal from Oaxaca. Try the cucumber and cilantro margarita. San Miguel has one of those skylines that is so beautiful it can lodge a lump in your throat. Dancing to a DJ on Quince Rooftop while looking out over of La Parroquia church is divine. Elegant and laid back, gay locals are known to frequent the lovely Cantina 21 La Unica. Another gay-friendly spot is La Azotea with a rooftop terrace ideal for sundowners. El Manantial has been a cantina since 1920 as its swinging wooden doors testify. The saloon feeling is still alive in this fun watering hole.
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Dôce 18 Concept House
Photo: Allef Vinicius
Photo: Ivan Diaz
Photo: Suzi Siegel
Photo: Suzi Siegel
Dôce 18 Singer
Photo: Suzi Siegel