A pivotal player in the early days of the Mexican War for Independence and one-time epicenter of the country’s brisk silver trade, San Miguel de Allende, perched 6,000 feet above sea level in the central highlands state of Guanajuato, has long enjoyed a reputation as one of Mexico’s crown jewels, luring streams of expats for decades with its storied history, enchanting Baroque/Neoclassical colonial architecture, and enviable climate. Now, a burgeoning array of exceptional eateries and top-tier hotels, coupled with its vibrant arts community and richly textured culture, are amplifying its ineffable allure for new generations of visitors.
Named for Franciscan monk Juan de San Miguel, a benefactor of the Indians, the city—a UNESCO World Heritage City since 2008—was the first Spanish settlement in Guanajuato upon its founding in 1542. “Allende” was added in 1826, five years after Mexico’s liberation from Spanish rule, to honor Ignacio Allende, a native son and former royal army officer who became a hero of the revolution. Allende’s birthplace, an elegant brick-and-limestone dwelling built in 1764, is now a house museum near El Jardín, the leafy main square.
San Miguel’s trove of colonial treasures have remained remarkably intact thanks in part to its tumultuous history: one of Mexico’s most populous cities under Spanish rule, it teetered on the brink of ghost-town status in the early 20th century due to a string of misfortunes, including the depletion of its silver ore and an influenza epidemic. These days, San Miguel’s eminently strollable streets—most chockablock with low-slung buildings awash in shades of ochre, mustard, and vermilion—will keep you happily meandering for hours, as will its countless galleries and chic boutiques, whose sleek storefronts and soignée wares underscore the city’s dramatic juxtaposition of past and present.
Fittingly, it was artists who first resuscitated San Miguel starting about a century ago. Beguiled by its architectural majesty and exquisite light, they took up residence in droves, establishing art and cultural institutes including the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes and the Instituto Allende, both cofounded by Chicagoan Stirling Dickinson. Having happened upon the flagging city in 1937 after graduating from Princeton, he was instantly enchanted, promptly becoming a familiar sight around town atop his burro. After serving in intelligence posts during World War II, he returned to San Miguel and began recruiting young American veterans to study at Bellas Artes on the G.I. Bill, continuing to play a vital role in the city’s renaissance until his death in 1998. Today, he’s largely credited with turning San Miguel de Allende into both an international arts center and a sought-after destination for adventurous Americans.
What to see
By his own account, it was Dickinson’s first glimpse of La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel—the pink, neo-Gothic parish church renowned for its soaring spires—that compelled him to stay, and today the iconic cathedral remains the city’s most awe-inspiring landmark. Having fallen into sundry states of disrepair following its initial 16th-century construction, its metamorphosis began in 1880, when Don Zefferino Gutiérrez, a local master stonemason and architect, was charged with giving it a serious facelift. Gutiérrez drew on images of European cathedrals for artistic inspiration; because his craftsmen were illiterate, he sketched his designs in the red-clay soil with a stick, bringing his vision to life over the ensuing decade.
Not surprisingly, the city boasts some unique museums, like the Mask Museum of San Miguel, whose owner and curator, Bill LeVasseur, has spent nearly 25 years acquiring a collection of over 500 Mexican ceremonial masks. A Maine native and former advertising executive, the charismatic LeVasseur’s tales of his encounters with Mexico’s indigenous communities are as fascinating as the masks themselves.
From there, it’s a five-minute walk to the Museo La Esquina, which showcases one of Latin America’s largest collections of toys. Encompassing 3,000-plus playthings ranging from elaborately embroidered dolls and rainbow-hued piñatas to intricate Nativity sets and miniature ferris wheels, it will make the most world-weary visitor feel like a kid again.
The city’s prevailing penchant for aesthetics comes to life in an especially shoppable way at Fabrica La Aurora, a former textile factory, where halls once home to giant looms are lined with galleries and boutiques specializing in interior design, antiques, jewelry, and ceramics. Discerning shoppers can easily spend a few hours wandering its judiciously designed floor plan, which seamlessly blends indoor and outdoor space to winning effect.
What to eat
If all this perusing has you feeling famished, you’re in luck: the last decade has seen San Miguel also blossom as a center of gastronomic artistry. A short stroll from Le Jardín, The Restaurant is a primo spot for a leisurely lunch, where American chef Donnie Masterton prepares flavorful plates like duck confit tacos with spicy hibiscus blossom-onion relish served in a sun-streaked, 18th century Moroccan courtyard.
Bovine Brasserie, housed in the edgy Codigo Postal Design Collective, is an art deco-inspired hotspot where Australian chef Paul Bentley puts his spin on steakhouse classics. Before diving into a rib-eye or suckling pig with mesquite honey, try the grilled oysters with butter and herbs and the tomato salad with peach and burrata.
For atmosphere galore at dinnertime, head to La Unica and grab a table in the upstairs al fresco dining room, where jaw-dropping views of La Parroquia across Le Jardín’s treetops accompany Serrano ham croquettes, zesty ceviche, and top-notch margaritas.
What to drink
Speaking of which, tequila connoisseurs should beeline to La Casa Dragones, a temple to Casa Dragones, Mexico’s most coveted, small-batch tequila, launched in 2008 by Bertha González Nieves—the first woman to become a master tequila distiller—and MTV cofounder Bob Pittman. The now-private home was once the 17th century stables of the Dragones—formerly the Queen of Spain’s most elite cavalry, led by Ignacio Allende—who later became champions of Mexico’s independence movement.
Afterward, duck into the obsidian-clad tasting room at Doce 18 Concept House to sip its signature joven—a blend of 100% blue agave silver and extra-aged tequila—from a long-stemmed crystal glass. Then bar-hop between San Miguel’s all-star lineup of rooftop bars, including Quince, where award-winning cocktails complement nibbles from the city’s only rooftop sushi bar, and the Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar, the best place in town to take in a spectacular San Miguel sunset.
Oenophiles hankering for a field trip will want to visit Cuna de Tierra (Cradle of Earth), one of Mexico’s most acclaimed boutique wineries, less than an hour’s drive away in the neighboring city of Dolores Hidalgo, where Miguel Hidalgo—the country’s other original patriot—first uttered the “Grito de Dolores,” the battle cry of the Mexican War of Independence. You can take a guided tour on a tractor-drawn cart through the scenic 80 acres of vineyards and sample its 12 vintages—including the award-winning Pago de Vega (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Syrah) and Cuna de Tierra Nebbiolo (Nebbiolo and Malbec)—over a delectable pairing lunch of dishes like corn tetelas with cured cactus and bean sauce and braised short rib with mole and caramelized vegetables.
Cuna de Tierra’s distinct desert terroir (sandy soil, hot, sunny days, and cool nights) lends a high-quality acidity to its wines. Guanajuato’s first winery, it’s been operating for 15 years and now produces 120,000 bottles annually. The property’s artfully modern design contrasts starkly with the surrounding countryside where Mexico’s long battle for sovereignty first erupted—another reminder of the area’s fascinating mix of history and progress.
Where to stay
Since opening less than a year ago, Live Aqua Urban Resort San Miguel de Allende, the latest top-tier addition to the city’s bustling hotel scene, has become a magnet for those in-the-know, thanks to its inspired mélange of luxurious accommodations, first-rate dining, and singular hacienda-of-the-future vibe that melds a modern aesthetic with subtle nods to the city’s colonial past.
Mexican artist Javier Marín’s 22-foot bronze sculpture, Cabeza Vainilla (Vanilla Head), stops visitors in their tracks at the entrance, an ode to San Miguel’s towering artistic legacy. Inside, 153 guest rooms feature distinctive touches like turntables complete with LPs, splashy tile work, and freestanding, glass-enclosed closets.
Sprawling open spaces—like the ground-floor interior courtyard ringed by archways and anchored by Matatena, a massive metal-and-wood sculpture by Mexican artist Rodrigo Garagarza—lend the resort the tranquil ambience of an open-air gallery and serve as atmospheric venues for gatherings of up to 900.
At night, guests congregate by the fire pit in the inviting Patio de Arból, named for the majestic North American ash tree that presides over the space, its boughs aglow with white lights after dark. Across from the reception desk that doubles as a panaderia (bakery), Zibu Allende, one of the hotel’s two fine-dining restaurants, serves imaginative Mexican-Thai fusion cuisine in a sumptuously designed setting, as well as a world-class breakfast menu with a sophisticated Mexican spin.
Upstairs, in the low-lit Casa Dragones Cigar Bar, leather Chesterfield sofas and a moody paint palette create a cozy yet sultry vibe perfect for late-night tippling.
After a long day pounding the cobblestones, the resort’s subtly dazzling spa is a must-visit, featuring ten massage rooms, a steam room, and a relaxation pool. The hotel also recently launched an exclusive hot-air balloon excursion that conveniently takes off from the rooftop terrace for a 40-minute, bird’s-eye perspective on the colonial city.
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