San Miguel de Allende
Photo: Adobe Stock

San Miguel de Allende

Mexico’s most charming town offers centuries-old architecture, a casual ambiance, and hundreds of great restaurants.

“We never rush,” says college professor and tour guide Jesus Morales as he leads me on a private walking tour. “This is the way we are. We stop, we always smile, and our city is full of friendly people.” Morales is describing Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende, which has no world-renowned museums or art galleries and few landmarks. Instead, visitors to San Miguel spend most of their time meandering narrow cobblestoned streets, dining on delicious Mexican and international food, and shopping for souvenirs and gifts. 

Here, you can admire centuries-old baroque and neoclassical architecture—the reason San Miguel was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can walk over streets built more than a hundred years ago for donkeys and oxcarts and gaze in awe at homes from the 1900s painted in shades of terra cotta, dusty rose, and yellow. You can breathe in the heady scent of jasmine wafting in the air and look up at bougainvillea blossoms draped over many rooftops. And you can gape at over 2,000 antique wooden doorways in the historic district, each of which leads to a courtyard filled with sculptures and blooming hibiscus, geraniums, and roses. 

Many visitors explore the city on their own, but the ideal way to understand San Miguel’s culture and history is to take a 90-minute walking tour with a local expert who will lead you to places you’d never find yourself.

A map isn’t necessary because from almost everywhere in the central 64-block historic district, you’ll spot the top of the 150-foot-high La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, the most photographed church in Mexico. Morales points to the stone steps leading to the famous cathedral. “You see the pink stones?” he says. “This is marble pink basalt you won’t find anywhere else in Mexico. Even the stones of La Parroquia’s façade are from the local quarries.”

Dating back to the 1600s and reconstructed in the 19th century, La Parroquia is one of the few churches where the tower bells are still rung by hand. At many times of the day, you can see the bellringer in the courtyard pulling on a rope that extends down from the bell tower. Most of the bells of San Miguel’s more than a dozen other churches are automatically rung, but not necessarily to announce the hour or the half-hour. You might hear them 15 minutes before or after the hour, creating a constant cacophony of ding-donging and clang-clanging throughout the day.

Along with roosters that announce the dawn, you’ll hear intermittent pop pop pops, which sound like gunshots but are actually firecrackers that go off all day. Some say they are the priests’ way of summoning parishioners to mass while others claim they are to ward off bad spirits, especially on holidays. More bells and firecrackers go off at festivals, which take place almost every day of the year, usually to commemorate one of many saints. If you’re lucky, you’ll see members of indigenous tribes wearing long feathered headdresses and colorful fringed costumes taking over the street and dancing to pounding drums. One will always be holding a flag of the saint the tribe is commemorating.

Clean, safe, and sunny

San Miguel is probably the cleanest city in Mexico with neither garbage nor a garbage can in sight. To announce the arrival of the garbage truck, a man walks down the street clanging a bell. Only then do residents bring out their trash. San Miguel, which is far from ports and cartels, is also one of the safest cities in Mexico. The low crime rate, year-round sunny weather, and casual lifestyle help explain why 10,000 expats have retired here, including Americans who began coming here after World War II to study art under the G.I. Bill. In 1960, the beatniks arrived, including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassidy.  

Kerouac and Ginsberg stayed only a few days, but Cassidy remained and, like the locals, spent time in Le Jardin, San Miguel’s popular tree-lined central square opposite La Parroquia. Here, mariachi bands compete for tips. In the center is a gazebo where couples take salsa lessons. Children run around and dance to the music. 

“Parents keep their children very busy, so they never get into trouble,” says Morales. “As children, they play; as teens, they pursue sports and art. We have no druggies and no homeless people. Life is very relaxed here.” He points to a woman sitting on a park bench. “You see that lady? She is just living. We are never rushing. We are always just living. In San Miguel, hospitality is key. Here, drivers always stop to let pedestrians cross the street.”

Exploring is the main activity, and each block offers a new surprise. A woman sits on a sidewalk selling small cotton dolls and paper mâché animals. A man wearing at least 20 hats tries to interest passing tourists in his wares. On another street, a man in a sombrero stands next to his donkey, selling flowers from a basket tied to the saddle. Kids and adults love Museo La Esquinathe nearby three-story museum with 3,000 folk objects, including a model steamship with tiny life rafts, miniature trains with passengers, merry-go-rounds, and paper mâché figurines. 

Mercado de Artesanias
Photo: Adobe Stock

If you’re looking for gifts and souvenirs, head to Mercado de Artesanías, four blocks of shaded stalls selling folk art, handicrafts, silver jewelry, pottery, and flowers. A food court offers freshly made tapas, churros, grilled sweet corn, peeled cactus leaves, and more. For high-end shopping, Fabrica La Aurora, a former textile mill that is now a cultural center of art and design, is a short taxi ride away. Here, you can buy antique furniture, housewares, unique clothing, and art and sculpture from many of  La Aurora’s galleries, such as Skot Foreman Fine Art, which sells paintings by Salvador Dali, Jean-Michel Basquiat, M.C. Escher, and other famous artists. If you’d rather make art than buy it, check out the Art Workshop space of Galeria San Francisco at La Aurora, where you can take three-hour art or photography workshops.

San Miguel also offers cooking classes, food tours, dance lessons, classes in paper mâché, and more. Not far away are hiking trailsa botanical garden, horseback riding, vineyards, golf, hot springs, and ancient ruins. But most visitors never leave the town’s center as there are so many things to see. San Miguel is filled with galleries and often you’ll be able to watch an artist painting or a skilled weaver at a loom.

Giant handmade puppets 

The unexpected highlight of my trip was the mojigangas15-foot-tall puppets with paper mâché faces. Puppeteers control them from the inside, their faces pressed against where the puppet’s navel would be. The mojigangas were originally created to represent farcical and exaggerated characters, but that meaning changed so that the giant puppets were used to praise people in religious and traditional festivals. They’ve now become part of wedding ceremonies to honor the bride and groom and make the wedding more fun. 

The author with a pair of mojigangas puppets. (Photo courtesy of Margie Goldsmith.)

You don’t have to wait for a wedding to see mojigangas, though. A female mojiganga in a red polka-dot dress (without a puppeteer) is on display in front of the San Miguel de Allende tourism office. There are often two mojigangas in the main plaza, and if you pose with them for a photo, the puppeteer will slip a hand out of the costume (at about knee level) and ask for a tip. To see the mojigangas being created, walk to the end of San Francisco Steet to the home of artist Hermes Arroyo. With the help of his family, Arroyo makes the puppets by hand, with each taking a month to create. Peer through the interior gate to view the giant mojigangas in various stages of preparation.

Before dinner, try a signature cocktail such as the Flowerbomb (Ocho Blanco tequila, Saint Germain, orange blossom, tonic) at Tunki Rooftop by Handshake at Belmond, one of the hottest and best rooftop bars in San Miguel and my favorite where I saw a  magical sunset. Sit outside and be mesmerized by the parroquia (parish) along with the entire city skyline and distant mountains as the sky bursts into a brilliant orange.

For dinner, head to one of San Miguel’s hundreds of restaurants, which range from simple cantinas to posh eateries. The town is a foodie paradise, with offerings that include everything from enchiladas to tacos to the freshest fish and meats from surrounding ranches, farms, vineyards, and orchards.

The finest restaurants will present you with a thick leather envelope with the menu tucked inside. Don’t miss such specialties as the Taco Baja at Atrio (soft-shell crab tempura, pico de gallo, cabbage, citric mix, and flour tortilla), the Torta Lechón at Moxi (bread stuffed with suckling pork, pickled onion, and salsa borracha), or the Steak au Poivre at Bovine Brasserie (beef fillet, pepper sauce, and French fries coated in thick cheese). After dinner, hit one of the many small clubs, such as Cent’Anni Piano Bar, offering live music from rock and pop and the Great American Songbook to Latin jazz—a perfect ending to a day in San Miguel de Allende. 

Photo: Casa de Sierra Nevada a Belmont Hotel


What It Is: San Miguel de Allende is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Guanajuato, Mexico, about 170 miles north of Mexico City. It is considered the most charming town in Mexico with baroque architecture, cobblestone streets, colorful buildings, and excellent cuisine and shopping.

Climate: With 320 days of sunshine annually, temperatures can reach 85°F most of the year. The driest month is March, which averages just one day of rain. July typically has 11 days of rain.

Getting There: Private jets land at Red Wings at Queretaro International Airport, which has an 11,489-foot runway. [email protected] +52 442 277 4755. Helicopter rides can be arranged from Queretaro to San Miguel; you can also rent a car with a driver for the 60-minute trip. 

What to Know Before You Go: Sneakers or sturdy flat-heeled sandals are a must on the cobblestone streets. Dress is casual, even in the fanciest restaurants. Bring a jacket for cool evenings. Credit cards are accepted and the most favorable exchange rates for pesos are at the ATMs. The best way to get a full overview of the city and its history and culture is to book a private 90-minute tour with professor Jesus Morales of Romotur, as I did. 

San Miguel de Allende
Photo: Adobe Stock


Accommodations: Hotel Matilda (A+), a luxurious contemporary 32-room hotel, has an outdoor pool, a gym, a soothing spa, a bar, and a fine restaurant…Hotel Amparo (A+), an upscale boutique hotel, has only five large guest rooms and feels like a private home. The staff welcomed me as if I were family…Prefer an actual private home? Premier San Miguel (A+) offers luxury vacation residences for stays of four nights to three months. Accommodations range from a cozy two-bedroom to 11-bedroom villas with pools. 

Cuisine: Tunki Rooftop by Handshake at Belmond (A+), one of the newest hotspots, offers some of the best signature cocktails and small-plate bites with drop-dead city and sunset views…At Moxi at Hotel Matilda (A+), Michelin star chef Vicente Torres serves up haute cuisine with a presentation as beautiful as the dishes. Atrio (A+) offers views of the famous parish and gorgeous sunsets and features delicious vegetarian and high-end super-fresh Mexican fare...At Bovine (A+), don’t miss the steak au Poivre, the best I ever tasted, and decadent desserts that you can enjoy while sitting on plushy velvet banquettes…Cumpanio (A), a down-home eatery open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, serves modern French and Italian cuisine and has its own mouthwatering bakery. 

Margie Goldsmith, a frequent contributor, is the winner of 101 writing awards and has been to 145 countries. She received complimentary accommodations from Hotel Matilda and its Moxi restaurant, Hotel Amparo, Tunki Rooftop by Handshake, and Bovine Brasserie. San Miguel de Allende Tourism arranged a tour with Romotur and provided meals at Atrio and Cumpanio.