San Miguel de Allende: Unforgettable Art, Culture, and Cuisine in Mexico

Published by JETSET EXTRA:

Written by JoAnneh Nagler

Sunset on Aldama Street in San Miguel

It was nighttime when we arrived in San Miguel de Allende, just two days before Christmas, and though it was so dark we could barely see in front of the shuttle, we could feel the cobblestones wobbling under us on the narrow streets and just make out the stunning, colorful walls and antique double doors of the houses we passed. In the distance, we heard fireworks—cherry bombs and Fourth of July-style sky decorations that brought in the celebration of Christos and the new year. We were the last of shuttle drop-offs, and our driver graciously lead us down a long passageway into the Mexican-tiled, stone house where we were staying, just off a private lane, up the hill from the center of town. We didn’t know it yet, but our month-long stay here would open us up to possibilities for beauty, culture, community, and diversity we didn’t know could exist side-by-side in one exquisite place.I had long wanted to come to San Miguel, having heard years ago it is an artist’s enclave, a special place hidden away from bustling city life yet still bursting with energy and historical quaintness. At a population of more than 140,000, the town is not small, but it feels that way—and since it’s an incredibly walking-friendly town, all of its color feels accessible to the skin, the soul, and the spirit.

Amazing rococo gothic architecture of the ParroquiaWhen we awoke our first morning, we were treated to a sunny cityscape view of stone and stucco houses, rooftops, courtyards, and rolling hills beyond the town, glimpsed easily through the wrought-iron rimmed glass doors that led from our bedroom to the roof deck. It was wonderful. My husband—always a walker and a fan of cities anywhere in the world—nudged us right out the door and into the city’s Centro. Just down Calle Homobono, the hilly street we would trod at least two times a day, we found the Mercado—the blocks-long covered market that houses everything from fresh produce to jewelry, shoes, and boots, spilling into the neighboring streets—and we immediately dove in.Street vendors sold roasted corn, pepper-spiced nuts, carnitas, and ice cream in rose, lime, and papaya flavors alongside clothing and craft-arts vendors. Moving through the busy streets, we headed right for the Jardin—the center square where the whole town seems to meet. The Jardin is as lovely a center of town as ever one could be, and during the holidays the benches are occupied by families, tourists, farmers, ex-pats, and vendors, and the entire greenspace is filled with poinsettias and strung with tiny white lights.

The author stands on Calle SollanoWhat first strikes the American eye is the number of stone churches in close proximity to one another. The stunning Parroquia is the jewel-queen of them all, a peach-colored limestone rococo-and-gothic Catholic church perched regally on the south end of the square. It is a local pastime to sit on a park bench and watch the light change across the face of the Parroquia—its pastel facade illuminated not only by fading sunlit-rays, but also by ropes and looped-upon ropes of Christmas lights. We spent many an hour reading and sipping coffee in the Jardin and doing what everyone does: people-watching, chatting up locals and vendors, and letting the historical beauty of the place settle into our urban souls.“Celebration” is an understatement for a Mexican Christmas. The holidays last long—from Christmas Eve until Three Kings Day on January 5 (when the children get their gifts), and a festival every day in between. Families gather for feasts and children run in the streets with sparklers; neighbors get together to sing, candles lit across their tables in the courtyards of their homes. At the holidays the town fills up dramatically with tourists coming from Mexico City, but since locals and tourists alike walk in the city Centro, there is a feeling of openness and accessibility—a town in harmony with its local roots, its shop owners, and its tourist income base.

Frescos in the Parroquia Church

What most stood out about watching families here was the pace: whole groups of extended families sat together in the Jardin eating ice cream or fruit cups sold from stands, older and younger in no rush to go anywhere. Teenagers sat next to grandparents and listened to stories; parents let their kids run among the park benches. Farmers sat next to city sophisticates; Mexican tourists chatted with old-time locals. Conversation came easily—even though our Spanish was barely passable. (I had a very humorous conversation with several cowboys from the outlying ranches while getting a shoe shine, and it touched me how open and light-hearted they were.) It was a sense of tranquillo—a tranquility of spirit even smart phone screens could not get in the way of. I asked my husband, “Why did America never figure out the joys of a truly vibrant city square?”

The cultural scene in San Miguel owes much to the town’s rejuvenation in the pre- and post-World War II era, when American art students settled in the then-dusted up old silver mining town and began to carve out its artistic personality. The city sits dead center in the middle of Mexico at 6,500 feet in altitude, and its historical architecture speaks to a time in which craft and artistry were deeply valued. In fact, when Starbucks wanted a prime spot on one corner of the Jardin, locals fought the move until the coffee company crafted what is now a luxurious and quaintly tiled Mexican-inspired interior with beautiful historical accents.

A typical street sign in San Miguel

Artists abound in town, though as we found, if you don’t have thousands to spend on contemporary art or landscapes, it’s best to wander the town and find local artists’ studios to discover your treasures. Our best art find was the Parque Juarez art show on Saturdays and Sundays—on both the north entrance to the park and along the south gate you’ll find art, crafts, purses, and more at much more affordable prices. The much-touted Fabrica la Aurora just north of town is housed in a redesigned old thread and fabric-weaving manufacturing building, and it is as hip as anything you’ll find in Chelsea (with prices to match). It’s totally worth a trip here, even if you’re not buying, and lunch at the fabulous café and lovely little coffee bar behind the parking lot is worth the visit. There’s also hand-blown glass and small gift items here. In town, Arte Contemporaneo in the first block off the Jardin on Recreo was the best of the city galleries we found, a white-white space with a beautiful garden, carrying Joaquin Peneiros’ amazing abstracts.

By contrast, the gift stores around the Jardin were quite reasonable, and the local craft art we bought was carefully and lovingly packed for our suitcases. Shopping is a joy. With the peso at about 13 to 14 to the dollar, silver, clothing, crafts, jewelry, and handbags are all relatively affordable. The best of my high-end finds was the dress shop Sindashi on Mesones, halfway down on the same side of the block as the Teatro. (Don’t try to be literal about addresses as they are often not sequential or coordinated by the side of the street. Landmarks are often a better bet.) Sindashi has hand-painted dresses, skirts, capes, and earrings made of Jacaranda leaves, and Angela, its designer and owner, is lovely to visit with.

Viewing the town from the mountain

Shoes are a big deal in San Miguel, and I found out why very quickly. Cobblestone streets work the ankles, and the sidewalks range from about one- to two-feet in width and are made of variant-graded fieldstone. Warned by my husband that I “had better bring real walking shoes,” I still threw in some chunky-soled heels that were not of very much use to me. Boots in particular are important in winter, as it gets cold at night. On my third day I went to Talula de la Lune where Francisco, the store’s warm and generous owner, outfitted me in a pair of stylish walking boots with steady soles. (Women beware: Slippery-soled flats with no support do not work well, even when you’re used to wearing them on American city streets.)

Mexicans, just like Americans, love to eat, and San Miguel abounds in eateries. Eating, to our eyes, seemed like national pastime here, and most every major cuisine is represented. Restaurants range from traditional Mexican, to fusion, to upscale, hipster spots that rival American hotspots. My husband could live on enchiladas con pollo, and he sampled lots. A simple favorite was El Correo, where the chilies rellenos were the best I’ve had. Berlin Bar is a continental cuisine café that’s a favorite with American ex-pats, and though the bar scene can get boisterous, dining is in several small, quieter rooms. The food is delicious, particularly the huge and delicate pork shank and the whitefish in broth. La Parada was a favorite of ours, a Peruvian version of California cuisine where everything melted in our mouths.

A lovely San Miguel streetscape

The Café Parroquia—a cute little French fusion bistro—and the Buenos Aires Café (ricotta gnocchi to die for) were also fabulous finds, along with the fresh-pasta restaurant La Grotta. If you’re looking for go-where-the-locals-go Mexican food, head straight for Heche en Mexico, a stone courtyard restaurant that’s hugely popular for traditional fare. Paprika in the same neighborhood is a special standout. Most restaurants are small, so reservations during the most popular spots are recommended during the holidays. Street food is cheap and good and incredibly delicious. The stand on the corner of Insurgentes at the corner of Relox is always crowded in the evenings, and for good reason.

Tequila and mezcal are the alcohols of choice in Mexico, both derived from cactus. Margaritas are particularly cheap compared to other cocktails, and most often they are made with fresh lime juice (rather than sweet and sour), meaning they are not too sweet and slide down the throat with amazing ease. For the best of cocktails, head straight to El Tres, steps from the Teatro on Mesones, and watch mix-master Diego craft an artisan cocktail for you from mashed watermelon, mezcal, and a mystery infusion, chilled and strained into a martini glass.

Beautiful stonework of local churches

Staying in an international town for a month brings with it a glorious gift: When the fireworks are over and the city folk go back home, there you are, left alone with your new adopted town. After the first few days of January, we began to find our groove—the pulse of the place, the sense of community that lives its working days and lovely nights in this vibrant town. That’s when we really started to feel a part of the place, when we began to get to know people and settle into our own haunts.

Cafe Buenos Aires

One of the best of those was the Biblioteca—the public library on Insurgentes, walled in by a flat-faced, huge, yellow wall. Once inside its gates, we entered a spectacular cultural center, simple, open, and warm. Inside the front door is a library store with a beautiful ceiling fresco depicting Mayan women resisting the Spanish invasion. It is a stunning abstract and contemporary in style, and it took my breath away. The courtyard is filled with iron tables where residents leisurely read and a children’s book room is just off to one side. A Spanish and English room both house books, and up the small ramp, the building opens into a delicately sunlit stone courtyard café, where we had full meals for about 60 pesos (about $5.) Two steps away from the café is a small performance room—again with murals lining the walls and ceiling—and just next door, a full proscenium stage and theatre. Upstairs are painting and art rooms where the library hosts kids’ and adult art classes. We hung out there many afternoons and on one night attended a Latin fusion guitarist and percussionist concert for about $7. It was as professional as anything we see at home, yet much more intimate.

The lights on the Parroquia in the Jardin

We were beginning to feel a theme to the place, a simpler life led by culture, food, walking, and the open-air community in the square. We spent time at Esencia Yoga Studio (on Potrero just one block west of Ancha San Antonio and Stirling Dickenson), a friendly, beautiful, and affordable studio and spa, and we formed a few friendships there with Americans who have pulled up roots and bought into San Miguel life.

Esencia was the best of the full-service spas we found, offering dozens of treatments, massages, facials, eyelash extensions, water therapy, filler injections, and more (many people come to San Miguel for affordable microdermabrasion, face lifts, photo rejuvenation, etc.) The high-end hotels offer lots of facial and massage services with the usual pricey tickets, but if you forego the expensive, it’s easy to find great services at one-third to one-fourth of US prices. Esencia’s lovely spa rooms and terrific staff make it one of the best.

View from the Rosewood Inn's outdoor bar

Ever on the search for great massage, I found a terrific deal at The Spa (Recreo #38), where Lucia gave me a two-hour massage with a foot scrub, hot stone treatment, facial, anti-oxidant polish, aromatherapy, scalp, and body massage—all for $50 US. The massage rooms are plain and very clean, and the staff is warm and friendly. One day, on my walk to the Jardin, I passed Tomasol, Esperanza Juarez’s eyelash extensions salon (Apericio #12). For a mere 60 pesos (about $5) she gave me what would be a $200 US lash treatment.

Ignacio Ramirez Cultural Center

Since there’s a hotel on every block in San Miguel, I took some genuine time looking for the inns I would want to pass on to readers. Surely in any Google search you’ll find the big ones—the Hotel Real de Minas, the high-end Rosewood, the Antigua Villa Santa Monica, the Hotel Nena and more. But who wants to go to Mexico when the exchange rate is great and pay American hotel prices? (Particularly when there are amazingly authentic stays in every corner of the city for incredibly easy-on-the-travel-dollar prices.) My favorite finds were the Casa Calderoni, the Casa Mia, the Villa Santa Blanca, and the incredibly lovely Casa de los Olivos Hotel. There’s a hotel for just about every budget here.

Outside the city, we ventured to La Gruta, the natural hot springs. Bathers swim to the back of the exterior pool and then walk a 50-foot tunnel in chest-high water, which opens into a step-down pool in a huge cave. The cave is 20 feet high, the water swimmable, and the font sits at just about ten feet, where bathers line up to be anointed with its flowing stream.

The local cafe scene

On the last of our days we were graciously taken outside the city by our newfound local friends to the lovely little village of Atotonilco, home to a gorgeous church with an amazing fresco painted on the ceiling. Dubbed “The Sistine Chapel of Mexico,” it was full with worshippers when we arrived, the sound of their hymns floating upwards to the exquisite art. A little farther along on an unmarked road, we stopped at Nirvana, an inn and restaurant that rivaled Santa Barbara’s best pastoral views, and wrapped up our stay with a delicious lunch.

Just before we left, our neighbor Mary Magdalena brought over the last of the food we were making for each other as a gift of new friendship—hers, homemade tortillas and pollo, mine, a brandied flan—and I teared up. We had come to know our San Miguel home, its people, and its heart. Every day as we walked by their doors, we visited with the milk and eggs vendor, Miguel; with Dolores, who sewed and repaired our bags; with Juan and Adrian, the shoe repair guys; with Mary, who sold fresh tortillas each day; with the yoga studio gang; and many more. It was a stay of warmth and community, art and the celebration of life—no matter what our walk in it, no matter what we each do for a living. Each was honorable and honored, and it was touching to experience that kind of gentle respect.

The neighborhood church above Parque Juarez

Looking at the sites one last time on our final day in town, I felt I had found the soul of this place—a reverence for the tranquil longings of the heart, for work and its value in community, for art and craft, music and dance, and for the kindness of each human being who offers us friendship, warmth, and welcome.

This was a trip I will not forget. San Miguel de Allende has floated into my soul, and it will live there for a long, long time.