It’s hard to believe just how many creative types from Mexico as well as the United States have spent time in San Miguel de Allende, a small mountain town in Mexico’s heartland. Diego Rivera, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, to name a few. Even today you’ll find galleries and ateliers filled with works by an array of international artists. No doubt they’ve been drawn by the same features that make San Miguel so attractive to travelers: well-preserved, boldly colored colonial architecture, year-round balmy weather and a romantic location in the Bajío mountains.
San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in central Mexico. Most visitors fly into either Mexico City (170 miles away) or Guanajuato (60 miles). You might want to arrange a shuttle ahead of time to pick you up from the airport. As you approach San Miguel, the scenery becomes increasingly lovely—rolling fields filled with scraggly mesquite trees, grazing cattle and, in season, pink cosmos flowers.
It’s pretty easy to get around San Miguel’s historic area on foot. The indisputable center of town is the fanciful church La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, whose lacy pink spires stretch above the skyline. At La Parroquia’s feet lies El Jardín, a plaza of manicured laurel trees and ornate benches. Throughout the day residents gather here to gossip, sell crafts and attend the many festivals that take place in front of the church.
AROUND LA PARROQUIA
Spend your morning getting acquainted with the cobblestoned streets near La Parroquia. Most of San Miguel’s Baroque and neoclassical buildings are rendered in the shades of a tropical fruit salad (papaya, mango, pineapple). The bright walls and leafy courtyards almost make you want to poke your head inside and get a closer look.
Don’t be surprised if there’s a line out the door at Café San Augustín. The café’s signature hot chocolate and churros are partly to blame, but so is its owner, soap star Margarita Gralia. The glamorous proprietor can often be found chatting with customers, and even when she’s not there her presence is felt in the many publicity shots that cover the walls.
While exploring, stop by home-goods store Camino Silvestre. The rooms brim with glass ornaments, jewelry by regional designers and embroidered linens. A few doors down you can take a lunchtime cooking class at Sazón. “My mother first taught me how to cook, in the traditional style,” says chef Rubén Yáñez, who teaches his students to make Mexican dishes, like enmoladas (mole enchiladas) and crema de elote (a creamy corn soup) while joking with them in Spanish and English.
In the afternoon you can head over to El Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramírez ‘El Nigromante’ (“The Necromancer”). San Miguel’s original art school played a pivotal role in the citywide renaissance that continues today. The town first grew prosperous thanks to the silver trade, but by the early 1900s depleted ore and two wars had caused San Miguel’s economy to spiral downward. In the 1930s Peruvian painter Felipe Cossío del Pomar started what was then known as Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes in this former convent. American artist Stirling Dickinson was appointed director and persuaded hundreds of American World War II veterans to study in San Miguel under the G.I. Bill. Now the cultural center houses a sculpture garden, exhibition spaces and an arresting unfinished mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros, who once lectured there.
For dinner, treat yourself to the 7-course tasting menu at Aperi. Some would say that this new restaurant is the hottest in town. Chef Matteo Salas moved to San Miguel to be closer to farmers and seasonal ingredients. Although you’ll find elaborate dishes, such as hibiscus-covered foie gras, Salas keeps the effect light and simple.
There’s even more to see a 10-minute taxi ride away—starting with Fábrica La Aurora on the north edge of town. Old textile machines are interspersed among studios, galleries and shops in this factory turned art-and-design center. Here you’ll find the Fernando M. Díaz gallery and, if you’re lucky, the artist himself. Díaz is an internationally renowned painter and sculptor whose recent work focuses on the Argentine Jewish experience. Also in the same complex, Algarabía sells everything from salsa and wine racks to fedoras and margarita glasses.
Vía Orgánica is just a short walk away. A nonprofit organization of the same name promotes sustainable farming and healthy eating through this town café and grocery store as well as an organic ranch a half hour’s drive away. You can try the trout and a house microbrew, then climb the stairs to take in the herb-filled terrace.
Beyond town is a large botanical garden and nature reserve, El Charco del Ingenio. Here you can hike on trails that wind through cacti, scrubland and the occasional ruin dating as far back as the colonial era. From the west-side trail you can see vistas of San Miguel, the Rio Laja valley and the surrounding mountains. You can also soak in thermal springs up here. At local favorite Escondido Place, there are several rock-lined pools of various temperatures as well as lily ponds and picnic tables.
Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar offers a nearly 360-degree view of San Miguel and the countryside. It’s an ideal spot for tossing back a cocktail or two while the sun sets. G&T lovers should try the Rosewood Tonic. This twist on the classic includes a rosemary ice cube and star anise. The pear-blue-cheese-and-arugula pizza is also delicious, thanks in no small part to the spicy chili sauce.
If you’re looking to explore more of the heartland, Helene Kahn offers personal tours. One of her most popular excursions is to Guanajuato, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Guanajuato is an explosion of color, featuring buildings painted in every shade imaginable and geometric Moorish touches.
Kahn, who has lived in Mexico for more than 20 years, guides you around Guanajuato’s many outdoor plazas while sharing stories of the town’s mining history, the Mexican War of Independence and Diego Rivera, who was born here. Other highlights may include Mercado Hidalgo, where vendors hawk food and handicrafts, and Teatro Juárez, a neoclassical opera house.
If you’re after souvenirs, visit Artlalli, a folk-art store selling abstractly patterned glassware and intricate Catrinas (female skeleton figurines). At Corazón de Plata, you can browse among handcrafted silver earrings and artisanal metal wall lamps made next door. On your return trip to San Miguel, be sure to ask Kahn to stop by Mayólica Santa Rosa. This ceramic shop, hidden in the Santa Rosa mountains, is bursting with hand-molded and hand-painted pieces.
Back in San Miguel you can dine on traditional Mexican cuisine at La Posadita. Consider starting with a tamarind margarita and moving on to the chile relleno or chile nogada. From the rooftop terrace you’re treated to a vista of San Miguel spilling over the Bajío range. It’s a remarkable sight in an area full of overlooks, and one that reminds you of why so many artists have been inspired by this mountain town.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.