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TPG Contributor Colin Stark got off the beaten path in Mexico in San Miguel de Allende. He guides us through the magical city with advice on what to do, where to stay and how to get there.
Driving into San Miguel de Allende is a huge rush. The Bajio mountains of central Mexico create a perfect little nest of a valley where San Miguel sits. As we drove over the mountaintops, everyone in the car screamed as we spied ahead of us an incredibly lush, colorful city filled with towering church steeples, vast plazas and brightly painted homes stretching across the valley.
If ever there was birthplace of “color,” San Miguel de Allende would be the place. This charming Mexican colonial town is an assault on the senses as its inhabitants have woven an incredible mix of architecture, food, art and music into one awe-inspiring destination for authentic Mexican culture.
Admittedly, up until then, my personal Mexican cultural exposure consisted of beaches, frozen cocktails, and late night dancing.
The city’s charm stems from its history as the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution against Spain in the early 1800s. Given its location in the center of the country (three hours north of Mexico City by car), this made the city an ideal setting for news to travel and people to meet. Through the years, the people of San Miguel took great pride in their independence and, thus, it became a haven for art and creativity in all forms.
What To See
San Miguel is a walking city. The historic cobblestone streets and brightly painted houses make for a great place to get lost. Traveling with a group of friends, we wandered around for hours every day.
The city is filled with ornate art galleries, cafés and churches. Of all the places I’ve been, I’d never seen a more colorful place. The jacaranda trees were in full bloom, bursting in neon purple, and every home was a shade of bright blue, aqua, and purple. The city’s walls drip in street art and murals, turning the mundane into the spectacular.
Seriously, when planning your schedule, pencil into your day, “Get lost: 2 p.m. – 6 p.m.”
The Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel marks the city center where people mix and mingle, and it’s the perfect starting point for a walk around town. This towering church was built in the 17th century and is one of the most photographed in Mexico. It was remarkably built by Zeferino Gutierrez, a brick layer by trade and self-taught architect.
Where To Eat
Nearby is Cantina Los Milagros. Go here for a full afternoon of food, drink and live music. As you enter the cantina, a sunny haze of steaming fajitas and cigar smoke permeate the air as a mariachi band plays in the distance. Here, you’ll get an awesome dose of traditional Mexican food and ice cold cocktails. Try the steak fajitas and a michelada (beer mixed with a shot of lime juice and ground chilis) – perfect for a hot, sunny day in Mexico.
Where To Shop
A short cab ride away is Fabrica Aurora, the art and design center of the city. It’s a vast maze of white, minimalist architecture filled with incredible art and antique finds. Artists from around the world sell everything from sculptures to paintings to strange trinkets. One of my favorite little places was an olive oil shop, Olio Fino, selling hundreds of fine olive oils infused with various herbs, spices, and fruits.
Where To Party
As far as nightlife goes, you’ll have plenty to choose from depending on your mood, from clubs (Mechicano’s or El Grito) to sophisticated martini bars (Patio Tres). Don’t miss the Rosewood Hotel rooftop bar for spectacular sunset views in a stylish setting where you’ll watch the sunlight fade to a dull purple over the valley as the town’s lights flicker on.
I flew a five-hour non-stop flight into Mexico City (MEX) from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) on Delta Airlines for roughly $600 roundtrip. As MEX is a major international airport, plenty of airlines have non-stops into the city. From there, San Miguel de Allende is a three-hour drive and I opted for a rental car from Hertz. This was a great way to see the countryside and get some local flavor on freshly paved roads that were easy to navigate.
Others from our trip flew into Leon, Mexico (BJX) via American Airlines (roughly $700 roundtrip from New York). While it gets you closer to San Miguel (only a 45-minute drive), most flight into BJX have a layover in Houston or Dallas. It’s easy to arrange a taxi at the airport for the drive into town at $30 each way.
We stayed at the Casa de Sierra Nevada (part of the Belmond Hotel collection), a grouping of renovated Mexican homes turned luxurious hotel (starting at $300 per night). With all of the modern conveniences at our fingertips (WiFi, air conditioning, comfortable beds), it’s a perfect mix of Mexican authenticity and luxury.
For ultra luxury, check out The Rosewood Hotel with 64 rooms, a rooftop bar, and an incredible food menu (starting at $450 per night). For a budget-conscious option, the Casa Rosada is a charming 18th century, 16-room boutique hotel (starting at $138 per night) centrally located by the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel.
While this tiny town is short on points hotels, The Best Western Monteverde Express is centrally located. A free night can be booked with 20,000 Best Western Rewards Points. Otherwise, room rates start around $85 per night and free breakfast is included.
Have you been to San Miguel Allende or any other less traveled Mexican towns? Tell us about them!
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