Wander high into the Mexican heartland to an infinitely instagrammable city at the nexus of history and contemporary culture.
If you’ve checked Mexico off the bucket list, it’s likely that you’ve navigated the cosmopolitan streets of Mexico City or luxuriated at one of the country’s many coastal resorts. Competing with never-ending shoreline and bohemian beach towns, it stands to reason that San Miguel de Allende, located in the country’s mountainous highlands is so frequently overlooked. However, this colonial town, located a mere three hours north of Mexico City, offers an utterly refreshing perspective on Mexican heritage and contemporary culture.
Known for its immaculate examples of Baroque Spanish architecture and for a unique place in independence history, the city also boasts a vigorous thriving arts and design scene, an equally buoyant culinary landscape and a roster of annual cultural fiestas that draw exuberant locals, Mariachi bands and Mojigangas (grand puppet-style figures) into the streets. Locals will tell you that the town has a unique energy vortex, one which draws artists, creatives and seekers to its inner sanctum. With so many delights in the offing, you’ll need at least two days to wander the city’s cobblestoned streets, where rose and butterscotch-hued walls and hulking, wooden, bougainvillaea covered doorways conceal lush courtyards, hidden treasures and serendipitous encounters beyond.
1pm After winding through the parched rural terrain that ultimately brings you into the town of San Miguel de Allende, head straight into the historic centre for a necessary refuel. La Parada serves inspired Mexican and Peruvian fusion fare. A few blocks away, a perfectly roasted flat white awaits at Ki’bok Coffee. Head up to the roof deck to glean your first impression of this beguiling city. Every rooftop setting is an opportunity to savour an alternate perspective of the landscape from above.
3pm Embark on a self-guided meander along San Miguel’s cobblestone streets. (Note – you’ll need good walking shoes.) Pop in to Recreo San Miguel and Solano 16, luxury stores which sell a handcrafted selection of sophisticated apparel and handpicked homewares. You’ll also find yourself perfectly placed to explore a few of the town’s art galleries, like GaleriaNudo, which showcases the work of nationally and internationally acclaimed Mexican artists. Head towards the picturesque main square – El Jardin – which is dominated by the city’s emblematic parish church, La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. Soak up the atmospheric, tree-lined plaza which is brought to life by roaming mariachi bands, colourful balloon and street food vendors and vibrant social gatherings. Venture into the Historic Museum of San Miguel de Allende, the historic 18th-century home of Ignacio Allende, a leader of Mexico’s independence movement. Wander into the cloistered courtyard at Escuela de Bellas Artes, an internationally acclaimed art school before completing the afternoon’s activities with some shopping at Dôce 18 Concept House, a trendy mini-mall that also houses the Casa Dragones Tasting Room.
6pm Enjoy a signature Lavender Margarita and tapas at Luna Rooftop, an al fresco bar at the Rosewood Hotel. As the sunk sinks below the horizon, the city’s many churches and historical structures and facades are dramatically illuminated. It’s a truly enchanting scene that will leave you with an enduring memory of the city.
8pm Dine at the Mediterranean-inspired, rooftop restaurant Fatima 7. It is co-owner and chef, Donnie Masterton’s most recent addition to his already impressive stable of San Miguel establishments. You could easily get lost in the appetiser menu alone, with Polenta truffle fries with Parmesan-Reggiani, Fava Bean Hummus and Seta Mushrooms and Pistachio Oil in the lineup. However, the wood-fired main dishes also demonstrate the team’s extraordinary talent working with complex flavour profiles as well as their skill in sourcing the finest local and organic produce.
10pm San Miguel boasts a vibrant nightlife and it’s truly a matter of deciding what your mood dictates on any given night. Donnie Masterton, a DJ in his own right, recommends Zandunga on Sundays for live music by Gil Gutierrez and guest musicians as well as Bekeb for drinks. The latter, is a newcomer to the bar scene and is owned by the well known artisanal mixologist Fabiola Padilla.
9am If you’re already feeling the effects of your day one walkabout, book in for a sublime spa experience at the recently opened Live Aqua San Miguel de Allende Urban Resort. Reserve extra time for enjoying the subterranean thermal bathing experience as well as exploring the hotel’s natural surrounds and modern design, followed by a breakfast at the in-house restaurant, Spice Market.
12pm Explore Fábrica La Aurora, a former textile factory, which has been converted into a series of art galleries, design stores and exhibition spaces. The establishment really cements San Miguel’s reputation for high quality craftsmanship and depth of local talent. Equally diverse and impressive, are the wares and souvenirs available at Mercado de Artesanías, a three block long local market. Walk through to Mercado Ignacio Ramírez, where you’ll find fresh fruits and vegetables, lush flower arrangements and food stalls with Mexican-style smoothies, chopped nopales (cactus) salads and medicinal and herbal remedies, said to cure a multitude of ailments.
3pm Visit the Heart of Frida collection, a deeply moving and poignant exhibition of 37 intimate notes and six drawings by famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Set in a private gallery in the home of American expat Graeme Howard (the custodian of this extraordinary collection), the notes chronicle the artist’s tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera, her political views and her extraordinary heroism in the face of immense suffering and impending death.
7pm Head to fine-dining establishment Atrio for rooftop sundowners and a panoramic view of The Parroquia followed by dinner at The Restaurant in an elegant courtyard. Migrate to The Bar at The R (inside The Restaurant) for drinks, small Asian plates and a rotating line-up of DJs playing vinyl.
WHERE TO STAY
A five-bedroom, boutique hotel has been reimagined in inimitable style by Los Angeles jewellery designer Amanda Keidan. Tucked in a quiet cobblestone street, away from the hustle and bustle, the colourful casa offers easy-going luxury. The Roof Garden Suite, its crowning glory, is a roomy sanctuary with a private roof terrace and a jacuzzi with expansive vistas.
Reminiscent of a grand Mexican hacienda, expect luxury accommodation and a spa in a landscaped, colonial setting. Opulently dressed rooms are decked with private terraces and (gas) log fireplaces. Revel in the views of sprawling hills through the quaint inner courtyard and atop the Luna Bar.
L’Ôtel at Dôce 18
Ten impeccably designed suites sit atop the Dôce 18 Concept House, nestled in Allende’s tranquil streets. The chic-white oasis exudes a genteel contemporary air. Soft colours prevail throughout the rooms, each thoughtfully embellished with refined, artisanal decor, modern furniture, geometric patterned floors and minimalist wall art.
Live Aqua Urban Resort San Miguel de Allende
A sprawling high-end resort with contemporary flair and attention to detail, paying homage to the city’s scrupulous artistic panache. Visual sculptures reign in the courtyard, with a profusion of lush plants and fine alfresco dining. Suites exude classic sophistication with distinct references to the city’s colonial heritage.
Experience San Miguel de Allende like a local
Amanda Keidan, the owner of boutique hotel Casa Delphine shares her favourite cafes, shops & restaurants:
My daily routine is a coffee at Sombra Coffee. After running around the city, I pop in to Restaurante Nectar or La Mesa Grande for a bite. In the evenings, you will find me at Fatima 7 with friends.
I furnished Casa Delphine by collaborating with creators here. We custom made a lot of it. Design is my happy place and when you’re surrounded by incredible artisans, you create!
I browse and buy the best local design at SM33, Agua de Coco, and The Good Hunt Shop
I love shopping for textiles in San Miguel because they’re beautifully created and colourful. I got to the Artisan Market to pick up blankets and throws.
When I crave an escape, I go to Los Senderos or have lunch at Viñedos San Lucas or La Santísima Trinidad, both just a little outside of town.
Donnie Masterton, chef and co-owner of The Restaurant, El Vergel Bistro and Market, Birdie’s Burgers, Taco Lab, Casa Blanca Cafe and Fatima 7 shares his favourite cafes, shops & restaurants:
A hidden secret of San Miguel is Rústica. It’s a great spot to have breakfast with great smoothie bowls, chilaquiles, toast with assorted toppings and good coffee.
Aperi, Cienfuegos, Bastardo and Tacos Don Felix.
I love shopping for vinyl records, cast iron skillets, and vintage items at La Pulga (Flea Market) San Miguel. It’s a monthly flea market with over 200 vendors selling everything you could imagine. Antique furniture, vintage clothes, mezcal and food. Plus you always run into locals and friends.
When I want to unwind, I go to any of the hot springs. La Grutaand Escondido Place are my two favourites.
My top off-the-beaten-track spot near San Miguel is Gorditas Don Ciroon the road to Dolores. They serve amazing gorditas with a variety of different fillings and some of the best salsa I have ever had. I also like El Charco del Ingenio for beautiful hikes and nature walks.
I also recommend a visit to any of the local wineries around town, like Cuna de Tierra, El Viñedo, Tres Raíces, Viñedo San Miguel, VinícolaToyan and Viñedo Dos Buhos.
HOW TO GET THERE
San Miguel de Allende is just under 4 hours drive north of Mexico City. It does take one stopover to reach Mexico City from any of the major South East Asian countries. The Mexico City International Airport (MEX) is connected to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Narita International Airport (NRT) which are in-turn all well connected to major airports and airlines of South East Asia. Photographs by Elana Castle ◼
© This article was first published in Oct-Nov 2019 edition of World Travel Magazine.