14 Mar Wanderings: San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico
It’s not easy to describe what it feels like to arrive in San Miguel de Allende for the first time. There is nothing else like this enchanting town, situated at 6,200 feet in the Colonial Highlands of Central Mexico. Known for its beautiful 16th-century Baroque architecture and its role in the Mexican War of Independence, the city’s historic centro is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This charming city has attracted visitors and emigrants from around the world, and 10 percent of its estimated 80,000 residents today are expats.
In addition to its well-preserved and fascinating architectural history, San Miguel is known for its year-round mild climate; its winding cobblestone lanes lined with buildings and courtyard walls painted in hues of red, yellow, orange and blue; and an abundance of cultural activities available to residents and visitors alike.
Art in all its manifestations is everywhere, from galleries to individual studios and workshops, with openings and exhibitions almost every night during the busiest seasons. One of the most popular spots for art, food and shops is the trendy La Fábrica la Aurora, an old textile mill turned art center. A few other favorites for art lovers are Moyshen the Gallery, showcasing contemporary works by Mexican and Latin American artists and works by Mexico’s Golden Age masters; Casa de la Cuesta, a not-to-be-missed mask museum; and the gallery and innovative home of local paper artist Terry Ann Tomlinson, open on Wednesdays and by appointment.
Nearby, Galeria Atotonilco is a world-famous folk art venue with most items for sale. While there, visit the Sanctuary of Atotonilco, a UNESCO World Heritage site sometimes called the Sistine Chapel of Mexico. Built in the 1740s, the church’s exterior is plain white, but its interior walls and ceiling are a colorful explosion of murals and frescos depicting the life of Christ.
Art is only the beginning of the excitement in San Miguel — there’s also live music, literary salas and conferences, lectures, film festivals and a constant array of fiestas, parades and processions throughout the year.
Among the city’s many pleasures are its countless interesting accommodations. There’s the top-of-the-line Rosewood, with its luxurious rooms and suites, elegant accoutrements, half-dozen restaurants and spa facilities. And there’s also the stylish, smaller, thoroughly modern Hotel Matilda, with its captivating indoor waterfall and comprehensive contemporary art collection. And, among my favorites because of its more casual Mexican charm, Casa de la Noche, a former historic bordello. With 14 rooms and a warm and friendly staff, this intimate setting is a great option for conferences, groups and painting workshops. It offers a constant round of art and cooking classes, yoga, massage and art exhibitions.
Trish Brock, a former Coloradan who has resided in San Miguel for nearly five years, suggests that people visiting for a week or more should consider renting a house instead of staying in a hotel. “Many homeowners who aren’t here full-time rent their houses out,” she says. “The benefits are numerous — all the comforts of home, staff to take care of your needs, and kitchens for those times you want to stay in.” Brock notes that it’s often a less expensive option, particularly if you are coming with friends and family. “I recommend working with an agency so you know what you are getting,” she says. “I have rented at least 20 houses here during the years when I was organizing painting workshops and vacationing on my own prior to moving down. I know each of the agency owners, and the houses they represent are beautiful.”
As with places to stay, dining in this exceptional city offers so many options you must move here to have any chance of exploring them all. Rooftop terraces overlooking the city are popular choices for taking in the views as the sun sets and stars begin to punctuate the evening sky. Jan Pogue, a retired publisher from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, who once visited and now lives in San Miguel, suggests La Azotea, with the caveat that, “It gets packed, so arrive there at about 5 p.m. and order tapas and drinks to savor as you wait for night to fall.” Reviewers rave about the jicama tacos.
Other good choices for unique culinary experiences are The Restaurant, Áperi, La Parada, El Vergel (for breakfast or lunch) and the very special Zumo. Many of these restaurants specialize in fresh, organic ingredients and feature skilled chefs offering innovative creations.
Most locals are reluctant to reveal their favorite out-of-the-way places, but you don’t have to go fancy to get great food in San Miguel. Try Don Taco Tequila — low key, small, great tacos and margaritas — one block off the jardin. Or there’s Hidalgo 50, a lovely, quiet family-run bistro.
Whether arriving by day or by night, the stunning sight of the towering La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel is the first indication you should prepare to be caught up in the city’s magical spell. It’s one of the most photographed churches in Mexico. It was originally constructed with a traditional Mexican façade, but its current Gothic façade is thought to have been inspired by such European churches as Antoni Gaudí’s Basílica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. It lies at the heart of San Miguel and is an historic monument to the region’s importance. In front of the church is the Plaza Allende, referred to by locals as “el jardin,” a popular meeting place where people gather to listen to music and enjoy the everchanging parade of passersby. For those interested in architectural history, walking tours with knowledgeable guides leave the jardin every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Sometimes referred to as the “City of Love,” San Miguel is a popular destination-wedding site. Religious ceremonies generally take place in the Church of San Francisco, Posada de las Monjas or La Parroquia, with receptions ranging from upscale events at the Rosewood to beautiful settings in other hotels, restaurants and private villas. Jesús Aguado, a reporter with the local newspaper, Atención, estimates there will be more than 650 weddings held here this year. Professional wedding planners offer everything from shocking to flamboyant or simple, and each has his or her own local staff and attendant style. Pogue says that part of the charm of sitting in the jardin on a Saturday afternoon is seeing the beautiful brides all in white (or the traditionalists in blue), wedding parties in attendance, often accompanied by photographers and mariachis.
And for wedding guests and visitors alike, there’s no shortage of things to do in San Miguel. Walking tours exploring the history and food of the city are a perfect way to acclimate, and the Sunday home tours take you behind those inviting courtyard walls. A variety of art, cooking and Spanish classes can also fill your days.
Daily flights from the U.S. carry visitors to León’s Del Bajío International Airport (BJX) or Querétaro Intercontinental Airport (QRO). BajiaGo shuttles to and from San Miguel can be booked online and should be arranged in advance.
High season runs from November through April and attracts many escaping snow and ice. The weeks leading up to Easter are packed with an astounding number of events, along with flowers in bloom and pleasant temperatures. Summer months are also lovely, with mild temperatures and relief from hotter climes. Fall is fiesta season with special celebrations planned for Independence Day, All Saints Day and Day of the Dead. From every angle, in every season, San Miguel de Allende is unforgettable.
If YOU GO: ATTRACTIONS
BajioGo airport shuttle
Jesús 11 Centro; +52.415.152.1999; bajiogoshuttle.com
Casa de la Cuesta
Mask Museum, reservations needed; Cuesta de San Jose 32; +52.415.154.4324; maskmuseumsma.com
Chamber Music Festival
July/August; Hernández Macías 75; +52.415.154.5141; festivalsanmiguel.com
Dia de los Locos
Parade with costumes, music and candy, June 12; atencionsanmiguel.org/2014/06/13/the-history-behind-los-locos
El Charco del Ingenio
Botanical Gardens & Nature Preserve; +52.415.154.4715; elcharco.org.mx/Ingles
Guanajuato Film Festival
International films celebrated in July; giff.mx/en
Art and Spanish classes; Ancha de San Antonio; 22; +52.415.152.0929; instituto-allende.edu.mx/en
Bilingual library with central sign-up for many tours, events and local information; Insurgentes 25; +52.415.152.0293; bibliotecasma.com
La Fabrica la Aurora
Art & design center; Calz de La Aurora; fabricalaaurora.com
La Gruta Hot Springs
Carretera San Miguel de Allende, Dolores Hidalgo (outside the city); +52.415.185.2162; lagrutaspa.com
Event planners; +52.415.152.2840; smapenzi.com
Santuario de Jesus Nazareno, Atotonilco
Taste of San Miguel Food Tours
Correo 58; +52.322.181.7196; sanmiguelfoodtours.com
Tianguis de los Martes
Large Tuesday market where tourists and locals mingle; Arcos de San Miguel
Camino Antiguo Ferrocarril; 14 +52.415.185.2225; appointment needed; folkartsanmiguel.com/index.php
La Fabrica la Aurora
Calzada de la Aurora; fabricalaaurora.com
Fabrica La Aurora; Local 4 C; +44.415.154.4314; moyshengallery.com
San Francisco Gallery
Calle San Francisco 1; +52.415.152.0552; galeriasanfrancisco.com
Terry Tomlinson Gallery of Contemporary Handmade Paper Art
Open Wednesdays; Terraplen 29; +52.415.152.2616; terryanntomlinson.com
Casa de la Noche
Organos 19; +52.415.152.0732; casadelanoche.com
Aldama 53; +52.415.152.1015; hotelmatilda.com
Premier San Miguel House Rental & Concierge
Aldama 10-B Zona Centro; 646.536.7634; premiersanmiguel.com
Nemesio Diez 11; 888.767.3966; rosewoodhotels.com
San Miguel House Rentals
Vacation Homes San Miguel
Quebrada 101; +52.415.152.0941; aperi.mx/en
Don Taco Tequila
Calle del Dr. Ignacio Hernández Macías; 83; +52.415.154.9608
Camino a la Alborada 17; +52.415.110.2254; elvergelsma.com
Calle Hidalgo 50; +52.415.152.4290; facebook.com/hidalgo50
Umaran 6 (upstairs from Pueblo Viejo restaurant); +52.415.152.4977
Recreo 94; +52.415.152.0473; laparadasma.com/pa-llenar-el-tanque.html
Calle Sollano 16; +52.415.154.7862; therestaurantsanmiguel.com
Calle Orizaba 87-9; +52.415.152.0489; zumosma.com