Three days in San Miguel de Allende, in the central highlands of Mexico, is not long enough to truly absorb the magic of this colonial mountain town. But it’s long enough to make you fall in love. It’s long enough to make you want to come back… maybe forever.
So, what is the best way to spend three days in San Miguel de Allende, to suck the most juice from this UNESCO World Heritage Site in a limited time?
Day One – El Centro, the City’s Historic Center
Let’s begin with the beating heart of San Miguel, El Jardín. This is the main plaza in front of the pink-stone Parroquia church that shows up in everyone’s vacation snaps of San Miguel.
Sanmiguelenses use the Jardín as a communal living room. Kids chase each other or play with balloons or beg for ice cream from the vendor carts. Young lovers with no privacy at home stroll arm-in-arm. Grandmas crochet and gossip. Tourists gawk and aim their cameras.
You’ll need sustenance for the day ahead. There are any number of fine choices for breakfast near the Jardín for your first day in San Miguel de Allende.
An excellent option is Café La Parroquia, on Calle Jesus. They’ve been serving traditional Mexican dishes in the pretty fountain-centered courtyard for almost 30 years. Or for a more contemporary take, head to Cumpanio, on Calle Correo.
This bakery/restaurant offers French and Italian classics, wonderful fresh pastries, great coffee, and what are arguably the best Eggs Benedict in town.
Thus fortified, wander into the Parroquia church. The building dates to the late 17th century, but the pseudo-Gothic wedding cake façade, carved and layered from local pink cantera stone, was only added in the 1880s.
Local lore says a stonemason, Zeferino Guitiérrez, drew the design in the sand with a stick, based on postcard images he’d seen of European cathedrals. It’s unlike any other church in Mexico.
Walk down Canal Street to Hidalgo to see what may be the most beautiful building in town, the art school, galleries and performance space known as Bellas Artes.
It was built in 1755-65 as the cloister of the Convent of the Immaculate Conception. Peaceful and inviting, it’s a fine escape from the busy streets outside the big wooden doors. Walk upstairs and see the murals in the stairwells. Also, downstairs is an unfinished 1940s mural by Davíd Alfaro Siqueiros, one of the most famous muralists in 20th-century Mexico.
Next we are going to the library. The Biblioteca Pública is the second-largest bi-lingual library in Mexico. Sit with a book or current magazine at an umbrella-shaded table in the sunny courtyard, surrounded by a riot of flowering bougainvillea. If it’s time for a coffee break, relax at the library’s Café Santa Ana.
For a complete change of look, from historic elegance to contemporary design, walk up Calle Reloj and step into Doce 18 Concept House. A modern labyrinth of chic bars, classy clothing and jewelry boutiques, a gallery, and spaces for tasting local wines, gourmet chocolates, spices and salts, even a champagne lounge.
The Kitchen here is your lunch stop. In this upscale food court, you can choose a gourmet burger, a couple of not-your-grandma’s tacos, some of the richest mac and cheese you’ve ever had, or a Japanese dessert of ice cream wrapped in sweet rice pastry.
Next walk to the Mercado Ignacio Ramirez for an experience of a true Mexican market.
The whole place smells of fruits and flowers and Mexican daily life. Walk through the market and out the rear then turn left into the Mercado de Artesanias.
Here you can wander for hours shopping for traditional Mexican folk art and craft, silver jewelry, tin ware, tile-edged mirrors and more.
Returning to the Jardín, wander the narrow streets to the south and east to enjoy the colorful facades of the traditional houses, the heavy wooden doors, and the general loveliness of San Miguel.
For dinner, choose one of the many chef-centric restaurants that have made San Miguel a major foodie destination. A good choice is The Restaurant, on Sollano, where chef Donnie Masterton, formerly of Tavern on the Green and other known restaurants, serves locally sourced and innovative dishes. Or reserve a table at Moxi, at Hotel Matilda. Chef Enrique Olvera, who also owns Pujól in Mexico City, has been called the best chef in Mexico and one of the best in the world.
For your evening entertainment, there are dozens of options in San Miguel de Allende. Live music at Mama Mia’s, jazz at Tio Lucas, a performance at the Teatro Angela Peralta or a cocktail under the stars on a romantic roof-top terrace. A favorite with locals is La Azotea, above the restaurant Pueblo Viejo at Umaran 6.
Finally, cap off your night by returning to where you began. Even late, the heart of the Jardín still beats. There are nearly always mariachis waiting for someone to request a song. The Parroquia is lighted to a golden glow. The air is soft. Sit a spell before your walk home.
Day Two – A Day of Art
San Miguel has been famous as an art colony since at least the 1940s. Today you’ll experience some of that for yourself. Walk or hail a taxi to Fabrica La Aurora, on the north side of town. This former textile factory has been renovated into a sophisticated center for art and design, but with the bones of the old factory retained and visible.
You could easily spend an entire day wandering this warren of galleries, shops and restaurants. To start, head to the outdoor Café de la Aurora, in the center of the complex, for coffee, pastries and other light fare. Then stroll through the galleries and working studios where you can often chat with the artists. Shop for beautifully designed home furnishings. Browse for paintings and prints, craft textiles, sculpture, art glass, ceramics and jewelry.
When you leave La Aurora, cross the street to continue a day of art in the Guadalupe neighborhood. This primarily residential neighborhood has been officially designated the city’s Art District for its 100+ street art murals. The project, called “Muros en Blanco,” was begun in 2013, and new murals have been added regularly ever since. Working with Graffiti World, the organization brings in street artists from all over Mexico and beyond to paint the blank walls of houses in the neighborhood. Bold and brilliant, whimsical, or minimalist modern, they cover a range of street art styles.
You can discover the murals on your own simply by wandering up and down the streets. But a better way to be sure you don’t miss the best, and to learn the history of the project as well, is to join a walking tour with Colleen Sorenson, the founder and facilitator of Muros en Blanco. Tours are offered several times a week for $300 pesos. You can get more information by writing Colleen at email@example.com
When all that walking and art makes you hungry, stop into Corazon Santo, at Julian Carillo 7, for lunch. It’s a nice neighborhood place that offers a healthy pour on your glass of wine.
To carry the day’s art theme into the evening, check the “Que Pasa” calendar section of Atención San Miguel, the local bi-lingual newspaper. With more than 100 art galleries in San Miguel de Allende, there is often an opening scheduled. You can sip a glass of wine, enjoy the work and chat with the artist and other art lovers. In the winter high season, it’s not unusual for people to move from one art opening to another throughout the evening,
For dinner, let’s keep it in the neighborhood by going back to La Aurora and The Food Factory. This lovely indoor/outdoor restaurant has a sophisticated menu of French, Italian and Asian dishes with friendly service and a pleasant ambience.
Day three – Get Out of Town
Having spent the last two days walking--and walking, and walking--all over San Miguel de Allende, it’s time to get out of town and see what else the area has to offer. One of the best ways to do this is to hire a driver for the day, as public transportation options are limited.
The first stop should definitely be yet another art experience, but one quite unlike anything, or anyone, you’ve ever seen, or met. Anado McLauchlin is a self-taught outsider artist who, together with his husband, Richard Schultz, has created a world of color and whimsy, sacred and profane, throughout their property in La Cieneguita, just a few minutes outside San Miguel. Anado happily invites people, by appointment, to visit his Chapel of Jimmy Ray to see his work and show some of the amusing and amazing mosaic works that dot the property. The art is wonderful, but it is the visit with Anado that makes the experience so special. He is… unique. Contact him for an appointment through his website: http://chapelofjimmyraygallery.com/#contact
Not far from Anado’s home and just 8 miles from San Miguel de Allende is the village of Atotonilco with its famous Santuario, or Sanctuary. This small 18th-century church was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. The walls and ceilings are completely covered in murals in the Mexican Folk Baroque style, leading it to be called “The Sistine Chapel of Mexico.” The UNESCO designation called it “one of the finest examples of Baroque art and Baroque architecture in New Spain.” Give yourself time to wander slowly around the church, neck craned, to “read” the gospel stories depicted in the murals.
Then it is on from the sacred to the extremely hedonistic. The area around San Miguel is known for its many thermal hot springs. One of the nicest is at La Gruta. With hot pools, a spa, and a restaurant, it’s the perfect place to spend a relaxing afternoon. Soak in the hot water. Indulge in a massage or some aromatherapy. Lay on the grass in the sun with a cold drink. Enjoy a lunch of traditional Mexican dishes. It is the perfect antidote to all the walking and sight-seeing you’ve been doing in San Miguel de Allende.
Returning to San Miguel for your final night, head to the Luna rooftop bar at the Rosewood Hotel for a drink. It has one of the very best views in town. Finally, cap off your stay in this magical Mexican colonial city with a dinner to remember at Aperi, in the boutique Hotel Dos Casas. Chef Matteo Salas prepares what he calls “food for the senses.” Every dish is a work of art, visually and in terms of taste.
You’ve seen, felt and tasted the best of San Miguel de Allende in three days. If you are like a large number of visitors to San Miguel, this was just the first visit of many. Soon it will be time to talk to a real estate broker. San Miguel does that to people.
Some links you may or may not want to visit:
History of Bellas Artes = http://www.experience-san-miguel-de-allende.com/bellas-artes-el-nigromante.html
Cumpanio = http://cumpanio.com/
Doce 18 Concept House = http://doce-18.com/
Moxi = http://moxi.com.mx/
The Restaurant = http://therestaurantsanmiguel.com/
Fabrica La Aurora = http://fabricalaaurora.com/?page_id=548&lang=en
Muros en blanco in Colonia Guadalupe = http://www.murosenblanco.com/
Anado McLauchlin/Chapel of Jimmy ray = https://chapelofjimmyraygallery.com
La Gruta Hot Springs & Spa = http://www.lagruta-spa.com/
Aperi = http://aperi.mx/en/