Located in the highlands of central Mexico, far away from the coastline many of us imagine when we picture the country, is a cobblestone-lined, artist-haven jewel of a city—San Miguel de Allende. With its hot-but-not-scorching climate, Spanish Colonial architecture, steep hills, elegant buildings, and colorful façades in a palette of golden yellows and ruby hues, it’s a storybook-like setting.
Add to this scene, San Miguel’s striking light and you have a city that can cast its spell over you and capture your heart. This artistic enclave and food-focused haven is not easy to get to, which has helped the area remain insulated and authentically Mexican. The culture and surroundings are enough to seduce visitors, eliciting dreams of moving to the city. And many do—permanently! Twenty percent of the San Miguel’s population is expats from the U.S., Canada, and Europe; the region became an expat hub for American and Canadian artists in the1950s.
Of course, it isn’t just expats who adore the city. San Miguel is of great significance to Mexicans, too. It was the first town to declare independence from Spain during the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800s. The city is the birthplace of Ignacio Allende (for whom the city was named), an officer in the Spanish army who switched sides and fought for Mexico.
You can still feel that romantic, unspoiled charm of yesteryear as you traverse the narrow streets—the preserved, old-time feel is part of the area’s allure. In 1926, San Miguel was declared a historic monument city and laws were passed to safeguard it from modernism, meaning no traffic lights and no neon signage to this day.
I spent about 48 hours in San Miguel de Allende and while there is so much to see, I wanted to share my five swoon-worthy, not-to-be-missed highlights.
San Miguel de Allende is rich in history and culture and unbelievably sophisticated in its cuisine. If you only eat at one local restaurant, make it the city’s beloved, high-end treasure Aperi. Chef Matteo Salas, who is of both Mexican and Italian heritage, is lauded as one of Mexico’s rising stars, and as one of the top three chefs in the country.My meal was full of flavor bombs that opened my senses. A mouthful might include vibrant citrus, sweet agave nectar, heat from various chilies, a crunch of crispy lentil, or the unexpected texture of frozen and shaved foie gras. Aperi, by the way, means “to open” in Latin. How apropos!
My meal was full of flavor bombs that opened my senses. A mouthful might include vibrant citrus, sweet agave nectar, heat from various chilies, a crunch of crispy lentil, or the unexpected texture of frozen and shaved foie gras. Aperi, by the way, means “to open” in Latin. How apropos!
As the chef casually sat at the end of the table and explained his food with poetic focus and passion, each bite took on even more depth. Much like art, when I became aware of the vision behind the dishes, I gained a whole new understanding and appreciation for what I was experiencing. I encourage you to indulge in the four-course tasting menu with wine and tequila pairings at the chef’s table. It’s open to the kitchen, where you can see the chef working his magic.
Drink: Tequila at the Casa Dragones Tasting Room
Casa Dragones Tequila, the independently produced, small-batch liquor created by Bob Pittman and Bertha González Nieves in San Miguel de Allende, is the smoothest sipping tequila I have ever encountered. Everything this brand produces is steeped in quality and craftsmanship. Take, for instance, the crystal vessel that houses the tequila—one look at the delicate hand-etching around the curvature of the bottle and it is obvious you are in for a treat before the tequila even touches your lips.
Just a few short months ago, the brand opened its first tasting room. It is inside Dôce 18, a historic building home to luxury boutiques, design shops, and restaurants. The intimate, elegant six-seater space, designed by acclaimed interiors firm Meyer Davis and Mexican interior designer Gloria Cortina, is clad in a grid of 4,000 custom obsidian black tiles that were collected from Casa Dragones’ own agave fields. I was told the intention was to engage your senses when you enter the room. Sight, taste, and even sound were considered. As you step inside, you see a blackened room illuminated by the golden glow of the brass bar and hear the repetitive sound of men hacking down agave plants, one by one.
The space is soothing and meditative, and it sets the scene for what’s to come; the Casa Dragones Tasting Room offers a rotating residency for respected mixologists from around the world. My private tasting experience was presided over by mixologist Rodo Dominguez of Mexico City’s Xaman Bar, whose ceremonious cocktail-making resulted in some of the swooniest spiked beverages I have ever tasted. His artistry incorporated Mexican flavors like macerated xoconostle, the sacred leaf hoja santa, and guava, plus notes such as violet, chamomile, and ginger. In his final cocktail, he burned a cinnamon stick in almost ritualistic fashion, perfuming the drink. As balanced and unexpected as the flavors were, the overall experience was just as memorable.
Explore: Cultural Art School
On my first morning in San Miguel I was incredibly fortunate to visit government-funded art school Bellas Artes. Well, it’s Bellas Artes for short, although the official name isn’t quite so succinct: it’s Centro Culturál Ignacio Ramírez El Nigromante. The school is an oasis of peace, quiet, learning, and artistry in the midst of the busy town. It is free to enter and to explore, and it is truly beautiful. Spending the afternoon there, you might hear a guitar being strummed by a student in the interior courtyard, or the birds chirping outside, offering their own sweet orchestra.
Have lunch or meander through the archways, which make way to galleries and classrooms. They’re filled with both young students learning ceramics, drawing, painting, photography, and printmaking, and older expats learning age-old weaving techniques for making Mexican blankets on a loom.
The building was originally constructed from 1755 to 1765 as the cloister area of the Convent of the Immaculate Conception (Las Monjas). Yup, it’s a convent turned art school, rich in history and representative of the two core traditions of San Miguel, art and Catholicism. Surrounding the courtyard’s pinky-peach walls, visible as you climb the stairs and peek under an archway, are murals that were painted by early students at the school in the ‘40s. They depict the life of Mexican families in day-to-day activities, such as washing their clothes at the edge of the water or weaving a blanket.
And along the north wall of the cloister, in a space that was once the nun’s refectory, is the most famous, albeit uncompleted, work of art in all of San Miguel de Allende—a powerful abstract mural by both David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of Mexico’s most famous muralists, and his students. The colorful work gives the illusion that the room is larger than it is, and you can experience it from every vantage point in the cavernous space.
Shop: Mercado Ignacio Ramirez
One of my favorite and most authentic experiences was visiting local and lively Mercado Ignacio Ramírez. This vibrant market is located in Centro, not far from the large equestrian statue in Plaza Cívica. Mercados are not where the tourists visit but where the locals gather produce and Mexican delights. These markets are not merely a novelty to be enjoyed every once in awhile, they are very much a part of everyday life in San Miguel de Allende.
The colorful Ignacio Ramírez market reflects the rich culture and gastronomy of the city and will without a doubt spur sensory overload, in the best of ways. The market is both indoors and outdoors and is predominantly food-focused. There are rows and rows of orderly displays of fruits and vegetables piled high, likely 30-plus varieties of chilis, more types of peppers and grains than you ever knew existed, and butchers and floral vendors.
In a side annex of the market, you will find traditional home-cooked, ready-to-eat foods. Here, women are making tortillas and gorditas, shucking and grilling corn over an open fire, and slicing mango and jicama and dusting them with chili and fresh lime, which they’ll scoop into a plastic bag for you to take. I was entranced as I watched a group of women carefully removing the prickly thorns off of the shockingly green cactus.
As I perused the many facets of the market, there was an obvious emphasis on artisan craft and local ingredients. As an outsider, it was beautiful to observe the locals exercising their daily practice with pride and precision. And if artisan crafts are what you are after, just behind Ignacio Ramírez you can visit the Mercado de Artesanías. With the one-two punch of Ignacio Ramírez and Mercado de Artesanías, the whole zone is certainly equipped for some one-stop shopping. I, for one, lasted for about three hours at the mercado and filled my belly until my heart was content!
Stay: Rosewood San Miguel
With just a few moments until sunset, I arrived at the luxurious and grand colonial hacienda that is Rosewood San Miguel de Allende. It’s just steps from the city center and yet it feels like a hidden oasis. I was told that I must whisk myself up to the rooftop tapas bar, Luna, a venue that boasts 360-degree views of the San Miguel skyline. There I sipped on a hibiscus mescal cocktail as I watched the most magnificent sunset. The ever-changing light show shifted from dusty pink to ocher, reflecting against precious monument Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, a towering pink church with Gothic façade.
The next morning, I feasted on a modern interpretation of a traditional Mexican breakfast, which was made entirely from locally sourced ingredients. Yes, I had the distinct pleasure of devouring chef Carlos Hannon’s chilaquiles with green sauce each and every morning of my stay!
The hotel’s amenities are just as indulgent as their food and vistas. If you’re a pool person, you’re definitely in luck. There is a Jacuzzi, a family pool, and for those serious about their swimming, also an adults-only lap pool. There’s also a spa. I treated myself to the San Miguel Fusion massage, which was basically a tension-relieving “greatest hits” mix of Swedish, deep tissue, reflexology and Lomi Lomi. Ahh, fantastic.
And that brings us to the accommodations themselves. Like the hotel as a whole, each room is designed to provide a fine hacienda experience. They’re filled with colonial details — rich hues, carved wood furnishings, and local artwork. From the rooms to the food to the views to the amenities, every aspect of the hotel was exceptional. —Athena Calderone