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 present 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.

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.

It is a vibrant host to numerous international festivals, retreats, and workshops for artists, writers, musicians and spectators. Even for the seasoned traveler…there’s much to see and enjoy, particularly if you explore beyond the buzz-worthy attractions. Include these stops for a trip that balances essential highlights and lesser-known gems.

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. An 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.

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 the golds, reds, and oranges of the buildings below.

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