San Miguel de Allende is a picture-perfect city that repeatedly takes the top spot on lists of best Mexico travel destinations. Leading my Mexican bucket list too, my visit revealed both unexpected treasures as well as some adjustments to my lofty expectations.
It earned it’s keep as an excellent hub for outdoor exploration of the surrounding highlands and for its unmatched preservation of colonial architecture. But it left me wondering if perhaps its beauty and appeal has led to a new era of colonization by foreigners.
As the first Spanish settlement established in Guanajuato and, later, an attractive destination for respite after World War II, San Miguel de Allende has experienced centuries of foreign influence.
Over the course of several decades, the expat presence grew exponentially and it became a notable home for artists and crafters. Though it remained relatively quiet and secret to the masses for many years, this UNESCO World Heritage Site does feel a bit like Mexican Gringolandia in some parts of town now.
Nevertheless, with English widely spoken, many lavish restaurants and lodging options, and easy navigability, San Miguel de Allende is very accommodating for travelers hoping to get their feet wet in Mexico or seeking more westernized comforts in a historic Mexican destination.
Things to do in San Miguel de Allende
El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Gardens
Make a stop to this 200-acre botanical garden and canyon a priority for your trip.
Looking for a nice scenic hike, I headed here and was stunned by how spectacular the landscape is. For those seeking a short visit, you will find a smaller walking garden and greenhouse with a nice selection of native species.
If you have more time, continue the dirt path for additional paths great for walking, jogging, picnicking or meditating. There are a few different routes you can take, so make sure to pick up a map at the entrance gift shop.
Taking the main trail, you will find some towering cacti, historic buildings, metal sculptures, and a most impressive canyon.
El Charco del Ingenio is named for the spring fed natural pool found in the canyon where, according to legend, the spirit of the underworld, El Chan, lives and shows its “terrible power” to those that approach it. Seriously…approach at your own risk as it requires repelling down an tall vertical ladder.
The gardens are open daily from 9am-5pm and is easily accessed by a 10 minute taxi ride. The gift shop/info center can call a taxi for your return when you’re ready. A hat, sunscreen, and plentiful water is recommended for hiking.
Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel
One of the most popular sites in San Miguel de Allende that is worth mentioning is this central 17th-century Neo-Gothic cathedral.
This soaring, ornate church can be seen and heard throughout the city and surrounding hills. Every hour, a person climbs to the bell tower and manually tolls the bell by pushing giant wheels.
A spectacular sight, a visit during bell ringing is recommended, but do expect entertaining numbers of self-proclaimed Instagram celebrities and ritzy couples staging photographs in front.
Antique Toy Museum
This museum is an interesting option to break up the day for children and adults alike. Housed in an old colonial home, this museum offers several rooms with antique and hand-crafted Mexican toys presented in a semi-organized fashion.
From simple wooden figures and miniatures to interactive games, Lucha Libre masks, and paper mâché sculptures these toys portray decades of Mexican history in a fascinating way. Be sure to make your way to the upper terrace where you’ll find an excellent view overlooking city center.
Casa de La Cultura CitiBanamex
An interesting stop I found by simply walking around town was this old palace, now converted into an art museum and exhibition space. The deep red and ornate embellishments of the building’s outside facade were a major draw of my curiosity and shouldn’t be hard to miss if you go exploring.
Inside, the expositions vary but you can expect to find several small, but thoughtful presentations of local and international historic, modern, and popular art works. Here, “quality over quantity” is honored.
Even those who aren’t drawn to art will find the inner courtyard to be worthy of a visit with its grand orange trees and surrounding arched balconies. Guided tours are offered Monday through Friday 1-5pm.
Ride around the city on horseback
Seeing the city by the seat of a horse makes for a great adventure while also learning a new skill. There are several horseriding tours that offer guests the chance to become vaquero for a day while they learn how to ride a horse.
After your training, you’ll ride into the city and explore the beautiful colonial-era cobblestone streets, marvel at the Spanish baroque architecture, and learn about what makes San Miguel de Allende stand out as a city.
When you’re done riding, hitch up near one of the many cantinas, enjoy a cold beer, some food, and your childhood dream of being a cowboy will be complete.
Learn about the origins of chocolate
The growth of cocoa beans and their cultivation in Mexico and Mesoamerica spans over 4000 years. Archeologists have discovered remnants of chocolate and cocoa in Mayan and Olmec ruins meaning that these native people were enjoying the delicious flavours of the cocoa bean long before colonization.
While they consumed cocoa in a fermented beverage format, it was also commonly ground into a paste and mixed with other ingredients such as chilies, honey, and corn.
San Miguel de Allende has a long history of chocolate consumption and production and now you can learn about the history of Mexican chocolate from savoury to sweet. Hop on a tour and discover chocolate production in San Miguel de Allende while you see local landmarks, learn some history, and of course sample some delicious chocolate.
Shop for local art at Fabrica La Aurora
For almost 100 years the La Aurora factory was one of the most important industrial operations in the city. The space was a textile factory that originally opened in 1902 before coming to a close in 1991.
The building itself is a beautiful and authentic example of architecture and design from that era and since it is such an important part of the local history, people didn’t want to simply tear it all down. So instead, the La Aurora Textile Factory became Fabrica La Aurora.
Since 2004, Fabrica La Aurora has been something of a unique place in San Miguel de Allende. Part museum, part mall, and part workspace, the grounds are some of the most important for creatives in the city. Walking through the factory you’ll notice industrial machines, apparatuses, and giant looms from the factory’s textile days, while in between all of that is art being sold, gallery spaces, and even a few cafes.
Thursdays are open studio so you can check out the artists while they work.
See pre-hispanic pyramids at Cañada de la Virgen
Located southeast of San Miguel de Allende is the fascinating archeological site of Cañada de la Virgen.
The complex resembles a large pyramid that supposedly was built sometime around 300 AD. Allegedly the site was used up until sometime around 1050 AD and primarily functioned as a ceremonial site. Human remains have been found nearby giving researchers the impression that the pyramid served as a sacrificial site but one of the most notable aspects of the site is that the temple lines up with the planets.
While getting here is a relatively easy endeavor if you wish to come along with a tour guided by professional archeologists and anthropologists, booking a tour here is a popular San Miguel activity.
Sip on some local wine
The valley around San Miguel de Allende is one of the best wine-growing spots in the region and is home to over a dozen vineyards and wine producers.
Exploring the wine region around San Miguel de Allende can be done on your own or by booking a vineyard tour with an expert guide. Learn about the process of growing grapes and making wine all while sipping on some samples and enjoying some local cheeses and other finger foods.
Soothe yourself in a thermal bath
After a day of walking around art galleries, exploring the hills, checking out the historic sites, and meandering through the streets, why not soothe yourself at one of San Miguel de Allende’s thermal baths.
Just outside the city and off a quiet dirt road is La Gruta. A beautiful little spot with spa services, heated pools, and plenty of peace and relaxation. Escondido Place is a little smaller but features great amenities and amazing thermal baths.
Where to eat in San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel de Allende can be a pricey place to eat out and I found fewer street vendors than in other destinations.
There is a central “artisan market” with a small, generally unimpressive, variety of cheap foods and goods.
As upscale eateries and luxury tourism has increased in the city center, many local families have been pushed to the outskirts of the city. So if you’re in the mood for some great food…take a taxi just out of the city center.
The region is home to many families who cook traditional barbacoa, pit-roasted sheep or lamb. And while I’d normally refrain from giving names, a must-have culinary experience is that of barbacoa at El Pato Barbacoa y Mixiotes.
The very passionate owners personally walk through every step of the cooking process and show materials used as you enjoy multiple platters that can include consome, mixiotes, and barbacoa.
How to get there
Travel to San Miguel de Allende is cheap via first or second-class bus from Mexico City’s Mexico Norte Terminal.
From Leon, the easiest route is via private shuttle as no reliable public bus makes this route currently. In town, both Ubers and taxis are available and cheap.
While the city is compact and easily walkable, the pervasive cobblestone streets and sidewalks and hills could be challenging for people with mobility issues. While the hills take more effort, do make your way up at least one during your trip to enjoy a sunset. The sunsets are fantastic almost nightly as it reflects the golds, reds, and oranges of the buildings below.
Original guide written by Tiffany Mead. Updated with additional sights and activities by Indie Traveller team.
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