San Miguel de Allende: The Jewel of Mexico

San Miguel De Allende cathedral

You may have noticed the small town of San Miguel de Allende popping up on your travel radar often in the past few years. In 2008, the city was granted a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. It’s been voted “Best City in the World” by Travel and Leisure Magazine in 2013, 2017, 2018, 2020, and 2021. Conde Nast named it “Top Small City in the World” in 2021. All this is to say if you are looking for a beautiful, picturesque town, filled with history of the Mexican Revolution, and ornate, Gothic-style cathedrals, then you will certainly find it here. But if you are looking for a simple, Mexican village, with cheap prices and family-owned cafes, then you will have to look long and hard to find it in San Miguel de Allende.

The Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel at Sunset

With over 10,000 expats moving to San Miguel de Allende over the last ten years, it is easy to see why locals call the main pedestrian area of the town “Gringo Gulch”. Join a walking tour and you will be surrounded by forty white North American faces, many of them clutching matching tote bags to commemorate the destination wedding they have all flown in for. At night in the main Jardín Allende, competing mariachi bands play for tips in each of the corners of the square. From our hotel El Portal’s rooftop patio, right in the heart of the main plaza, I counted four different mariachi bands waiting to play their tunes. Each evening we walked far beyond the central walking area, trying to find a simple taco stand, rather than polished chrome and glass rooftop bars where “Mexican Margaritas” go for $20 each.

Gentrification is nothing new to San Miguel de Allende. From the Spanish conversion of the Chichimecas starting in 1552, to the De La Canal family financing of the parks and plazas of the town, to the recent influx of expatriates, San Miguel de Allende has benefited from its location along Mexico’s silver mine route, its proximity to the capital, and its reputation as an artists colony. In 1937, a young man from Chicago wandered into town and was captivated. Along with a friend and a Model T Convertible, Sterling Dickinson was making a six-month tour of Mexico, and when he landed in San Miguel, he found a home for himself. By 1938, Dickinson had founded an art school in town, and after serving in World War II, he persuaded many soldiers to study art in San Miguel with their GI Bill, where the cost of living was low and the weather was beautiful all year long. For better or for worse, Dickinson helped put San Miguel de Allende on the map, and it has only grown busier, more crowded, and more touristic in the passing years. The average house in San Miguel now costs approximately $520,000.

the cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende
The Cobblestone Streets of San Miguel de Allende

All of this is not to say that San Miguel is not a lovely place to visit. It is! But I couldn’t help but feel it was hard to find a unique and authentic experience there. We did go on a walking tour, which benefits Patronato Pro Niños (tour departs at 10 am Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and costs 300 pesos). On this tour, led by the knowledgeable guide Dalí Amaro, we learned a lot about the history and culture of the city. It was definitely worth going on the tour to get a look behind the stone walls and gates of the city.

We also found the map for a recently-created art tour of some of the barrios of San Miguel. Although the Fat Bastard Art Walk only goes on Saturdays, he helpfully created a map of 5 different walks visitors can self-navigate and see the street art that adorns other quarters of the city. We enjoyed the walks through these neighborhoods, away from the central walking zone, and eating in the cafes we found along the way.

As always, I suggest taking a local bus to really see the area. San Miguel has a huge traffic problem- so much so that it is in danger of losing its UNESCO heritage designation- so I would urge all visitors to try to refrain from cabs and Ubers, and use the excellent local bus system (8 pesos per ride and as each route makes a circuit, you really can’t get lost). Take the #8 or #9 up to the mirador for a great sunset view, or the #6 to get to the central bus station to go to another city. We had an excellent experience using BajioGo to get a shared ride to the new Queretaro airport- they charged the same as an Uber and less than our hotel’s offer of a shuttle, and we got to meet two other travelers on our way and chat with them.

For a glimpse of the real village life, look in the outer barrios of San Miguel

If you are leaving San Miguel and returning directly to the United States and need a Covid test for re-entry, you can get one at a kiosk in the parking lot of the Hotel Rosewood for 550 pesos. They take about one hour and results will be emailed to you.