In the past few years San Miguel de Allende has been all over the press, but it’s been around for almost 500 hundred years. In the 1940s it became a hangout for artists and expats lured by its charming colonial setting, amazing climate and cheap prices. Today the UNESCO World Heritage site has changed in many ways but it certainly retains its charm.
Mark and I heard from many friends that San Miguel was a “must see”destination as well, and so we put it on our very long list of places we want to go, and went this past January. Here are our thoughts on visiting this town. Our way of traveling isn’t everyone’s “cup of tea”. And I’d never presume to say this is the the only way to visit the place. In fact there are many folks that are probably far more knowledgeable than we are and over 10,000 expatriates who live some portion of the year there and no doubt have a deeper understanding of the place and its culture. You can search the web for restaurants, places to stay etc. But, this being said, as Chefs with a champagne appetite, we had a great four days and the following might be helpful if you want to travel there. Especially if you like Champagne too...well, maybe in this case, great tequila!
First off, when we travel if we’re in a place for under a week for the first time we usually stay in a hotel. Since we love the “good life” a little too much, a gym is important to us. There are tons of beautiful places to rent from AirBnB in San Miguel and this would be a great way to stay in the town on a second visit or for a longer stay. Also there are plenty of reasonably priced hotels that are right in the colonial Centro and have lots of charm. We stayed at the Rosewood which was pretty close to perfect. It is located within walking distance to the Zocolo (central square), has a beautiful vast garden setting, huge pool and a great gym that a lot of locals use. To top it off the roof top bar has one of the best views of the spectacular town. Our room was beautiful, quiet and comfortable. In addition one of the really nice aspects of this place is that they seat for their amazing breakfast until noon. Wow, what a concept, can’t tell you how many times we’ve scheduled around the hotel's breakfast schedule not ours. Don't miss this breakfast, it is terrific. We tried eight of the Mexican dishes in our four days and each was pretty much a home run. The service at the Rosewood was special too. It was gracious and welcoming, but on a number of occasions staff member went out of there way to do special things for us. As a note for the hotel our only complaints were that the check in was very slow (45 minutes) that bordered on interminable after a full day of travel! A little supervision by management of the gym dudes might be in order as well, as they were unwelcoming and not terribly helpful. We had to introduce ourselves and ask for equipment etc.. this was completely inconsistent with the rest of the staff! But, these were minor issues, and overall the place is tip top.
Our first day we spent exploring the town which is very easy to navigate as it is laid mainly out on a grid. The streets around the center of town are immaculate although the cobblestones are a bit rough on the feet. Just wear good shoes and you’ll be “cool and the gang”. Everywhere you go you will encounter lovely upscale boutiques and galleries. The boutiques around the Zocolo are of course some of the pricier with the feel of Florence or other high end European stores with prices to match. We found that a fun aspect of exploring this pristine city was walking into the many labyrinthian courtyards only to discover another cozy cafe, photographers studio, chocolate bar or coffee shop. On the corner of the zocolo you’ll find the usual Starbucks. Apparently many of the locals and expats fought its arrival to no avail. Ironically, they seem to be flocking to it now as it’s jammed with obvious expats. Happily just up the hill is the very hip KiBoK CoFFEE. The coffee there is delicious and the owner is a charming and handsome guy From California’s Central Valley. Chat with him at the bar or take your java to the rooftop patio for a spectacular view. They also have their original branch in Tulum. So tuck that some where in the back of the brain!
For our first night we had dinner at Matilda, Chef Enrique Olivera’s outpost in this colonial town. His web site declares that he is The Best Chef in Mexico. You can be the judge of this, if you choose to visit this place.
Chefs don’t seem to be able to visit a town and not go to the market and San Miguel's was great. It’s a great introduction to a traditional Mexican market and not nearly as overwhelming as Mexico City’s or for that matter even Oaxaca’s. From piñatas to plastic toys and exotic herbs and insects they’ve got it all here. It’s also a great place to grab a snack. Just make sure the stall is clean and the food is hot! And we mean caliente not piquante!
Yearning for traditional well prepared food of San Miguelle, we asked everyone in site where to go on our second night. La Posadita, near to the centro kept coming up as a good option. Prior to dinner we had libations on the rooftop of the Rosewood. It was chilly and the ever observant staff brought us warm blankets. Other guests about us were convivial and fun. On our way to the restaurant we heard music playing in the center square. A tremendous mariachi band direct from Jalisco was playing, people all about were in colonial costume and everyone, locals, expats and tourists alike seemed to be soaking it all in. This is when you realize you’re “not in Kansas anymore”! What a blast to be emerged in a culture that is full of music; it’s a far cry from our ice bound culture in Maine.
Dinner at La Posadita, served on a charming rooftop was a home run too. We had a perfectly prepared escamole (ant larvae) dish served with two sauce, a perfect guacamole and crispy jicama to start. Followed by delicious pazole soup with six condiments and a perfect enchilada. This perfect meal was finished by a perfect and very traditional flan. Service here was friendly and professional which is always a nice idea.
Many Canadians and Americans and a smattering of other nationalities have made their permanent or winter homes here. We thought it would be interesting to see what’s available in the housing market. Looking at houses also allows you to learn about a town, how it’s changing, what are the up and coming neighborhoods and who are the developers everyone hates. For those of you who have fantasized of owning a casita in a picturesque Mexican town this may well be the place. Prices, though definitely on the high side for Mexico, are still reasonable by U.S. standards. Warning though, If you’re looking for a place where you’re not going to hear much English, this ain’t the town!
Walking here is easy and fun, and yes an old fashioned map will actually work! The Artisans studios set in the towns former textile mills are a perfect destination for an afternoons stroll. The streets to the old mill are lined with excellent galleries and shops that tend to be less precious (and also less costly) than the ones nearer to the zocolo. This is a great area to look for the gifts for Christmas. One could actually spend days at the mill itself, where a myriad of very high quality art, furniture and housewares shops are clustered. There is a pleasant cafe in one of the courtyards as well which is a perfect place to collapse after much walking and shopping overload!
After all this walking, it was great to take a late afternoon dip in the hotel’s gorgeous pool and then my favorite indulgence a long hot bath in our rooms deep deep tub. Totally unglued we headed off to what was recommended to us as a “locals” place. Actually I’d call it an expat place, as there was nary a Mexican in sight. In addition the crowd probably had an opportunity to vote for Eisenhower. After this wrong turn however, we made a right turn; dinner!
Aperi a restaurant headed by famed Chef Matteo Sales was a home run. We were seated in the courtyard of the restaurant which was peaceful with burble of intelligent conversation all about us. Although an ancient courtyard building the restaurant has been outfitted in mod furnishings and cool art touches. We were served a series of expertly executed dishes with clear roots in the tradition of the region that had been masterfully updated. The service matched the quality of the food. In short this was a great place to end an introduction to the town of San Miguel de Allende
If you plan to go, the two closest airports are Queretaro which is about 45 minutes from the city and Leon/Guanajuato which is about an hour and fifteen minutes away. There are a number of direct flights from seaside towns in Mexico as well as from the states, especially to Leon. You can also, easily fly from Mexico City. If you are inclined to drive, the roads are quite good and there is a good highway from the capital. Of course a hotel car can easily be arranged to pick your party up at any of these destinations or you can rent a car. Driving into San Miguel can be a bit confusing however and be forewarned the streets are very narrow for cars!