San Miguel De Allende: A Handy GuideMEXICO
Things To Do In San Miguel De Allende: A Handy Guide
As an introduction to the colonial towns of Mexico, San Miguel de Allende is quite possibly a perfect choice. Beautiful colonial architecture; clean, cobblestoned streets; festivals, fireworks and parades galore; and a central square dominated by a sumptuous fairy tale church.
It’s especially atmospheric at night when the subdued street lighting acts in tandem with the strong pastel accents of rust, yellow and terracotta that dominate the building facades. Something that sets it apart from most other Mexican pueblo magicos.
Critics will point to the sizeable ex-pat retiree population (roughly 10-12,000 – mostly from the US and Canada) and the gentrification of the historic centre in arguing that the town doesn’t represent the “true Mexico”. Indeed, property prices have sky-rocketed over the past few years. And substantial properties are either being built or renovated in the hillsides surrounding the town. Not just by ex-pats but wealthy Mexicans, too. Especially from Mexico City, just four hours or so away by road.
As a result, prices in restaurants, hotels and bars are typically higher than in other Mexican towns. And there’s a definite cosmopolitan flavour to what’s on offer. But, if you look in the right places, there’s still plenty of the “true Mexico” to be experienced. Which, going back to our opening paragraph, makes it (in our open opinion) a great place for the first-time visitor to Mexico.
Intrigued? Then read on for our summary of some of the main things to do in San Miguel de Allende and our thoughts on the town.
Table of Contents
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- Start your visit at El Jardin
- See the Parroquia at different times of the day
- Wander the streets of the historico centro
- Enjoy the door and window porn
- Visit a museum or gallery (or two)
- Check out the Guadalupe street art
- Explore the less touristy parts of town
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About San Miguel de Allende
Like many towns in this region, San Miguel was borne out of the silver mining frenzy of the 16th Century. Situated halfway between the silver-rich mines of Zacatecas and the capital, Mexico City, it was a natural resting place for the mule trains that travelled between the two. As a result, the town’s prosperity grew and attracted the cream of the region’s wealthy silver barons. To the point where, by the late 18th Century, it was larger in size than New York City.
Its fame amongst Mexicans was assured in the early 19th Century when one of its sons, Ignacio Allende, became a hero of the Mexican War Of Independence (1810). Although he was eventually beheaded (and martyred) by the Spanish for his trouble, his name lived on after the renaming of San Miguel de Grande (as it was previously called) in 1826 to its present form.
Apart from its obvious aesthetic charms, modern-day San Miguel is also noted for its thriving arts scene. Starting with the founding of the Escuela de Belle Artes in 1938 and the Instituto Allende in 1951, the town attracted artists and writers, together with a steady stream of foreign students. All of which contribute to its undoubted cosmopolitan vibe.
And it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
View towards Correo from Corregidora
Things to do in San Miguel de Allende
Start your visit at El Jardin
El Jardin is San Miguel’s central plaza and the best spot to get yourself oriented. Typical of a Mexican colonial town, it’s a tree-lined square surrounding a central bandstand. Around it are some of the town’s best-preserved and important buildings. And on two sides, beautifully arched arcades provide shelter from the sun.
It’s undoubtedly San Miguel’s tourist hub with street food vendors, ice cream shops, cafes and balloon salesmen all doing a roaring trade. But it’s at night when the whole place comes alive. Especially at the weekend or during a holiday.
Live music is guaranteed courtesy of the mariachi players who roam the square looking for an impromptu audience. But there’s plenty more besides. For instance, during our stay, the annual jazz festival culminated in three nights of live music on a hastily built stage.
Arched gallery at El Jardin
Mariachis perform for a couple in El Jardin
There’s a good chance you’ll see fireworks, too, for which the town has a seemingly endless supply. And they can be pretty spectacular. Particularly when viewed as a multi-coloured backdrop to the Disney-esque church, Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel.
As a taster, here’s a photograph from our fellow traveller and photographer friend, Ian Gough, who’s managed to capture one of the firework displays in all its glory.
See the Parroquia at different times of the day
This gorgeous pink-stoned Neo-Gothic church is probably the most photographed building in town. And it’s unlike any other church we’ve seen in Mexico. With its many pointed arches and assorted arrowed spires, it serves as a striking contrast to the traditional colonial buildings elsewhere on the plaza.
If you can, revisit the church at different times of the day. For instance, the early morning sun casts an amazing pink/orange glow onto the already pinkish facade. There’ll certainly be fewer people around. And you may catch a glimpse of numerous hot air balloons trailing across the sky behind.
On the other hand, after sunset, the church’s arches are lit up in a display that fully accentuates its fairytale appearance. Unforgettable.
Parroquia de San Miguel Archangel
To be honest, there are so many other photogenic churches in San Miguel, too. We won’t even try to list them here but you’ll come across many as you wander around. Including the baroque Templo del Oratorio de San Felipe Neri on Calle Insurgentes.
Wander the streets of the historico centro
The streets of San Miguel’s centro historico are so rich in colour and character that they’re just begging to be explored. Just bear in mind that many of them are steep and you’ll be walking along narrow pathways or cobblestones for much of the time. Which means jumping on and off the road to avoid oncoming pedestrians when it’s busy.
Once again, early morning can be a good time to wander when the streets are relatively empty and the traffic is quiet. Because, believe us, the traffic will steadily get worse as the morning progresses.
Later on, during the “golden hour” of the late-afternoon or early evening, the pastel shades of the buildings pop into golden yellows and blood oranges.
And then, as dark approaches, the subtle lighting of the mounted street lamps combines with the cobblestones to create an atmosphere that feels like a different age.
No need for a map if you don’t want to use one. Just lose yourself wandering about, taking a turn into another beautifully maintained street as you see fit. You can always look for the spire of the Parroquia to get your bearings and then return to El Jardin before exploring in another direction.
And while you’re at it, look out for any passing parades, brass bands, wandering mariachis, or giant-sized papier-mâché dolls known as mojigangas. Although their mystique was somewhat dampened for us when we saw the pair below rushing to a wedding they were obviously late for.
Two mojigangas in need of a wedding
Two additional tips.
Firstly, make sure you take a stroll along Calle Aldama (heading back towards El Jardin) for possibly the most striking view of the Parroquia. Jutting skywards at the top of an impossibly quaint street, it’s a photographer’s dream at any time of the day. But especially early morning and at dusk. And, if there are fireworks, you’re in for a treat.
Calle Aldama – with special thanks to “Molly”
And secondly, head to the arched entrance for Barrio D La Aldea and, immediately after the cafe on the corner, turn right into an inconspicuous alleyway. As you follow it around you’ll enter a quiet world of street art, beautifully restored buildings and uber-photogenic antique doors.
A photogenic alleyway in La Aldea
Enjoy the door and window porn
We’ll freely admit, we’re rather partial to an antique door or window. And the more rustic the better. Luckily, San Miguel is chock-full of them. So, even if you’ve never considered an old door or window frame as a thing of beauty, you can feast your eyes on some of the lavish examples to be found all over town.
Visit a museum or gallery (or two)
To be honest, we didn’t visit the museums as we’d already been to many in other parts of Mexico. But two that are regularly featured in travel guides are La Esquina (showcasing an eclectic range of Mexican toys through the ages) and Museo Historico de San Miguel de Allende (which also happens to be the birthplace of Ignacio Allende).
Meanwhile, small independent art galleries can be found all over town. Usually tucked away in side streets. But if anything sums up San Miguel and its focus on aesthetics, Fabrica la Aurora fits the bill as a stylish complex featuring the highest concentration of galleries and craft stores around. And, of course, you can always visit the two founding institutions of Escuela de Belle Artes and the Instituto Allende.
Check out the Guadalupe street art
If you enjoy street art, don’t miss the opportunity to take a stroll through Guadalupe, a barrio on the edge of the historic centre. The whole area seems to serve as a blank canvas for mural artists, who come here from all over the world. Representing Mexican culture and history, the murals are some of the most colourful we’ve ever seen.
Explore the less touristy parts of town
As we’ve already alluded to, San Miguel’s historic centre is undoubtedly beautiful. And its hyper-sanitised streets are where most short-term visitors spend 100% of their time. Which is perfectly fine. But, if you do have the time, we’d recommend venturing further afield and visiting one or two places that aren’t necessarily on the usual go-to list.
For example, the Tianguis de la Martes, on the outskirts of town, is a chaotic beast of a local market that takes place every Tuesday. Selling everything from cheap designer clothes to fruit and vegetables, it’s something of an institution for local Mexicans. And even if you don’t buy anything, it’s worth the effort just for the experience. And, of course, as with any Mexican market there are food stalls everywhere.
Although it’s called the Tuesday Market, it’s also open on Sundays, albeit on a reduced scale.
Meanwhile, back in town, Mercado Ignacio Ramirez is a permanent market where you can once again try hot food from one of its many stalls. And, if you’re self-catering, it’s a good place to stock up on meat, fruit, vegetables and, of course, spices.
We spent a month housesitting in Olimpo, a barrio on the edge of town, near to the bus station. Along with the neighbouring barrios of Santa Julia and Providencia, it contrasts markedly with the upmarket cafes, boutique shops and international restaurants of the town centre. But the cobblestones, street art and a steady influx of new buildings suggest that the area is a prime one for gentrification over the next few years.
Where to eat and drink
We’ll be honest. We didn’t spend too much time troubling the high-end restaurants whilst looking for the best places to eat in San Miguel de Allende. Although there are plenty of them if that’s what you’d prefer.
Instead, we can recommend a few places that offer great food at very reasonable prices.
For instance, Tacos Don Felix is a family-run eatery in the San Rafael area. Set in the owner’s substantial home (having started out as a simple taco stall), the food is centred around its superb enchiladas and combination plate of tacos with seven different fillings. Including one filled with huitlacoche – a fungus that grows on corn (also known as “corn smut”). Seriously, try one!
Washed down with their signature giant margarita and finished with a slice of chocolate cake, you won’t leave disappointed. Just bear in mind they’re only open Friday to Sunday.
Then there’s El Puerto Seafood. As the name suggests, the menu is purely fish and seafood-based and includes a range of ceviches and seafood cocktails. All of which is beautifully presented.
But if you’re craving a seafood taco, then head to Baha Fish Taquito where you can pick from a selection of octopus, crab, marlin and shrimp fillings. Or indeed, have one of each! Especially if you can bag one of the tables on the rooftop.
Ceviche at El Puerto Seafood
Fish tacos at Baja Fish Taquito
Meanwhile, the street food scene doesn’t get any better than at Andy’s Taco Cart at Insurgentes 85. Something of a San Miguel institution, if you’re new to Mexico and haven’t yet tried the street food then this is the perfect place to start. Just pull up a chair at the front of the cart (if there’s one spare) and feast yourself on freshly prepared el pastor (a Mexican version of doner kebab), beef or chorizo tacos. Not forgetting the selection of salads and salsas to load up on, too. You’ll find Andy there most evenings.
We had a similar approach when choosing the best bars in San Miguel de Allende. Sure, there are plenty of contenders for having the best rooftops and the best views. For instance, the Luna Tapas Bar (on the rooftop of the swanky Rosewood Hotel) has fine views of the Parroquia. But with suitably swanky prices.
At the other end of the scale, Cantina El Tanempa is a tiny, no-frills, one-roomed bar, with a single set of table and chairs, that looks like it could have been used as a film set by Quentin Tarantino. With an old-school jukebox in one corner and a hardly-private toilet in the other, it appears to be completely uninterested in the town’s otherwise rampant gentrification. And it’s all the better for it. Don’t expect fancy margaritas. Do expect under-the-counter mezcal, cheap beer and singalong Mexican music.
However, if that sounds a bit too rustic, try Cantina El Manantial which is much more aligned to San Miguel’s upscale character.
Housesitting in San Miguel de Allende
As a major tourist destination for both international and domestic visitors, there’s no shortage of accommodation in San Miguel. But, because of the large ex-pat population, there are also plenty of opportunities to housesit (or petsit). Which is how we spent our month-long stay there.
Apart from the obvious benefits of staying in very comfortable accommodation for free, we love the fact that we can shop in the local markets and cook our own food, in addition to eating out.
If you’d be interested in travelling this way as an alternative to staying in a hotel or Airbnb room, check out our article on what housesitting is all about, and how to get started. Or just browse our Housesitting page.
Interested in housesitting while you travel?
We were able to spend a month in San Miguel de Allende, housesitting in the Olimpo neighbourhood. If you’re interested in doing something similar, you might want to consider joining Trusted Housesitters – the world’s largest housesitting platform. And you can do so with a special 25% discount off your first year’s subscription through our link below.
How to get to San Miguel de Allende
There are two international airports near San Miguel de Allende.
Del Bajio Airport (BJX) sits in-between Leon and Guanajuato and is about an hour-and-half west of San Miguel by road. There’s a shuttle bus direct from the airport, or you can get a scheduled bus from Guanajuato bus station.
Queretaro Airport (QRO) is a similar distance away, but southeast of San Miguel. The same shuttle bus service operates.
However, depending on where you’re coming from, it might prove much cheaper (and more convenient) to fly into Mexico City. From there, take an Uber to Mexico Norte bus station (15 minutes) and then a luxury bus to San Miguel de Allende with either ETN or Primera Plus. Both services take up to four hours (depending on the traffic in Mexico City). They’re also safe and extremely comfortable.
In fact, we travelled from Guadalajara using ETN, passing through Guanajuato en route.
Mariachis having some down time
Final thoughts on things to do in San Miguel de Allende
Depending on your budget, there’s certainly plenty of things to see and do in San Miguel. And it would be difficult to find somewhere in Mexico that’s more aesthetically pleasing. But you do have to take into account that it’s very much geared to tourism, with prices to match.
And there’s no escaping the obvious disparity between the affluence of the gentrified parts of town and the conditions of some of the outlying barrios. This thought-provoking article (together with its comments section) outlines the issue and is a very interesting read.
But we’d certainly recommend at least a two or three-night stay. Especially when combined with another two or three nights in nearby Guanajuato, its grittier but fascinating neighbour.
Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel
Templo del Oratorio
Barrio La Aldea
Museo La Esquina
Museo Historico de San Miguel de Allende
Fabrica La Aurora
Tianguis de la Martes (Tuesday Market)
Mercado Ignacio Ramirez
Tacos Don Felix
El Puerto Seafood
Baja Fish Taquito
Andy's Taco Cart
Luna Tapas Bar
Cantina El Tanempa
Cantina El Manantial
Where is San Miguel de Allende?
It’s situated in the state of Guanajuato, it’s 290 kilometres (180 miles) northwest of Mexico City, at an altitude of 1,900 metres (6,200 feet). The distance from Mexico City to San Miguel to Allende is 290 kilometres (180 miles) and takes between three and four hours to get there by road.
When is the best time to visit San Miguel de Allende?
The climate here is certainly influenced by the town’s altitude of 1,900 metres (6,200 feet). Peak season is during the winter months (December to February), which also happens to be the coolest. But with daytime temperatures in the low to mid-20s centigrade (70-80 F), combined with blue skies and limited rain, it’s a great time to explore. Although the early mornings and evening temperatures can drop considerably lower so be prepared.
Most other times of the year are also pleasant. However, the summer months (between June and August) bring hot and sticky weather, together with thunderstorms and heavy rain at times.
Can you recommend any day trips from San Miguel de Allende?
The are around San Miguel de Allende has plenty of mountain scenery and is rich in history – especially in relation to the Mexican Revolution and the country’s silver mining heritage.
But if you only have time for one day trip, make sure it’s Guanajuato (the state’s capital). Like San Miguel, it’s built around a number of hillsides, featuring a range of colourful buildings and a historic centre. But it’s also grittier and feels more like an authentic working town. We loved it so much we spent two months there! Look out for our full guide, coming shortly.
Is San Miguel de Allende safe to visit?
In general, yes. Crime in San Miguel de Allende’s tourist areas is relatively low. But, as with anywhere else in the world, tourism attracts opportunists, so just use the same common sense precautions as you would use anywhere else in the world.
Any other questions?
If there’s anything you’d like to ask about San Miguel de Allende that we haven’t covered here, there are a few ways to get in touch with us.
Firstly, you can simply ask your question in the Comments section below. You can also get in touch using our contact form. Or, if you’d like to join our community on Facebook, you can ask directly there.
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What did you think? Do you have any recommendations on things to do in San Miguel de Allende? Or perhaps you’re planning to visit in the near future? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
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Hi, we're Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we'd like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.