Roughly three hours north of Mexico City lies the beautiful colonial city of San Miguel de Allende – or SMA as the locals call it. Declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2008, San Miguel de Allende truly has a magical feel surrounding it. With its well preserved Baroque architecture and layout, coupled with its vibrant mix of people, SMA is a destination worth visiting in Mexico.
What many people may not realise, is that SMA has one of the largest communities of foreigners in Mexico – some estimating it as high as 12,000 people, 7,000 of whom are from the United States. The city has also attracted a lot of artists and authors over the years giving this little city quite a cosmopolitan and artistic feel, yet in very traditional surroundings.
When I first arrived in Mexico in 2010 one of C’s colleagues warned us about San Miguel. She said it was like a Mexican Disney Land. A fake city, built up entirely from U.S. direct investment and that it was not authentic. These words have haunted me for almost 3 years, and I had absolutely no desire to visit – as it turned out they couldn’t be further from the truth!
I started to realise that my preconceptions were false and had no substance, when good friends of ours (who’s taste I trust), told us of their plans to move to SMA. They had lived in the hustle and bustle of Mexico City for too long, and they felt that they were no longer enjoying it – the longing for a quieter and simpler way of life was calling, and San Miguel de Allende seemed to fit the bill.
So last October over a long weekend, C and I packed our bags, loaded the car and drove to SMA to decide what we thought of this city for ourselves. I can tell you, it was love at first sight! Since October, we have been back 5 times and I would not be surprised if we manage to squeeze in one more visit before we leave Mexico in September.
This talk of a Mexican Disney Land was utter rubbish – I had imagined there to be a Senor Frogs on every street corner, a Hard Rock Cafe blaring out-of-date rock music and a Harley Davidson shop attracting Mexico’s hardcore bikers (all of which pretty much sums up my experience in Cabo San Lucas). Instead what you get is a city that has managed to preserve its colonial charm, and one that is a delight to wander the streets and get lost in.
Undoubtedly with such a large expat population, the foreign investment in San Miguel has meant that this city probably works better than most Mexican cities. Which, in my point of view is not a bad thing. It has managed to marry the best of both worlds; the beauty and charm of Mexico with the functionality and dependability of its northern neighbour.
With two sets of friends now living in San Miguel de Allende, C and I have started to really get to know the city and feel a strong connection with it. In fact, if C and I did not lead the life we do, I too would want to move to San Miguel settle down and start a family there – it is at times like these when I really question the fluidity of life in the Foreign Service.
Not that we are experts by any stretch of the imagination – but below you will find some of our favourite places to stay, to eat and to visit. However, I get the feeling that the restaurant community in SMA is ever changing so what is hip today may not be so hip tomorrow!
Where to Stay:
I only have four words for you: Casa. De. La. Cuesta.
Casa de La Cuesta (translated: House on the Hill) is a B&B run by a fabulous and rather eccentric American couple called Bill and Heidi. An unassuming building from the outside, yet the minute you step through the heavy wooden door you enter a wonderful Mexican oasis. Although Bill and Heidi built the house from scratch, it feels as though it has been perched on that hill since the time of the Spaniards. Every detail has been thought of in regards to design, the decorations are an ode to excellent Mexican craftsmanship, and the feeling the house evokes is one of utter tranquillity.
There are seven rooms, with the majority surrounding the count yard on the first and second floor. Each room has its distinct feature and design and they all share common outdoor areas. There are seats, sofas, lounges and table in different nooks and crannies of the house, all of which have spectacular views over the city. When C and I first visited we hardly wanted to leave the B&B, as we were content just sitting on the veranda all day, reading and watching the hummingbirds dart from feeder to feeder.
Bill and Heidi are both great sources of information about the city, they will be able to recommend things for you to do no matter what your interests are. They also seem to know all the good restaurants and are happy to make reservations for you and your party.
What to Do:
I think my Lonely Planet Guide succinctly summarised what to expect in San Miguel “There are few sights: as a Mexican declared national monument, San Miguel de Allende IS the sight.” Which means, the beauty of this city, is just to take a step back and soak it all in.
If you are in search for adrenalin pumping, action-packed weekend– then maybe this place is not for you. However, if you are looking for a place to people watch, take a moment to reflect on life, get inspired by your surroundings, admire beautiful Mexican architecture, stroll through cobbled stoned streets and just take a moment to recharge – this is where to do it!
No matter what your budget or style is, you will find something interesting in one of the many boutique shops or galleries that are popping up around the city, many of which are stocked with the best of Mexican artisans and artifacts but portrayed in a modern way. What I have noticed is that the more interesting shops are one or two blocks down from the main square
My friend introduced me to an incredibly quirky shop called Camino Sylvestre, which is worth popping into. If you are a bird lover you will be in heaven, as it is filled with all sorts of bird memorabilia, feeders, books, pottery and more. However it is all incredibly artistic and tasteful, that it will appeal to anyone’s sense of fun. I bought these incredibly pewter napkin ring holders from them – which I am in love with!
You shouldn’t miss the craft market either. If you are a regular reader at The Travelling Chopsticks, you will know I’m not a big fan of ‘craft’ markets…they tend to be dull and repetitive! However, there is something about the one in SMA that I like – the size is just right, there is enough variety to keep me interested and when I feel that my interest is flagging, it is right next to the local food market which will always grab my attention especially with the promise of a good cheap lunch :)
San Miguel is also known for its celebrations. Do not be surprised if the entire city comes to a stand still for an hour or so day or night due to some form of parade or march. Although I never know what the celebrations are for – they are always fun, loud and entertaining to watch!
Where to Eat:
As mentioned previously – I get the feeling that the restaurant scene in San Miguel is quite fluid and changes quickly, but here are a couple of places that I really enjoyed and would love to go back to.
Mi Vida: We have made it a point to return to Mi Vida every time we are back in SMA as we really enjoy this intimate Italian restaurant. Admittedly, the quality of the food and service has varied with each visit – sometimes excellent, others not so much. BUT what I like about it, is that it is one of the few restaurants open on Sundays and as most tourists have left town in the afternoon it is more of a ‘local’ hang-out. On Sundays they also serve a pretty good pizza accompanied with live music. The musicians are excellent – they manage to walk that fine line of being entertaining without being overbearing and play a wide variety of music. Coupled with good company, a great bottle of wine it really makes for a lovely way of ending the week!
I could only find their Facebook page so here you go: https://www.facebook.com/mivida.restaurant
Café Rama: We chanced upon this restaurant for the first time last weekend. It looked rather pleasant from the outside and we were hungry – sometimes that makes the best combinations! The café was surprisingly large and airy with such a quirky style that I think it put a smile on everybody’s face. Everywhere you looked there were these playful details that gave Café Rama such charm. The menu was also incredibly enticing with dishes such as chicken pot pie, fish and chips, chicken curry, stuffed aubergines ….NOW, this may not sound exciting to the majority of you, but I promise, after a few years in Mexico sometimes the idea of another enchilada is just not that appealing anymore!
Whether you are planning an extended holiday in Mexico, or you are looking for a quick escape from Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende will prove to be an unforgettable experience and a city well worth visiting.