san miguel de allende.
[our San Miguel soundtrack]
The timing could not have been better…the day after returning from my first trip to San Miguel this past October, Condé Nast Traveler announced the winners of its 26th Annual Readers’ Choice Awards. As they do each year, CNT readers vote on a number of different travel-related categories, including the world’s best cities. Paris, for example, was surprisingly down the bottom of the “Top 25 Cities in the World” list at number 22, however quaint little San Miguel came in as number 1 !! A big call, perhaps, but it certainly was love at first sight, when I arrived in this special sixteenth-century city. I was completely swept away by the magic.
This artist colony town – only 4hours North-West of Mexico City - is full of beauty and romance, cobblestoned streets, art galleries, beautiful churches, amazing views and great restaurants. It is also heaving with expatriates (particularly Canadian and American retirees) – largely the reason San Miguel was on my radar in the first place. One of my oldest and best friends from Canada’s father - Jim - has lived here for the past eight years. And it was on invitation by Jim, that I made my first trip to San Miguel in October. The Mayor of San Miguel, as I like to call him. There was no better tour guide.
Always alive with color and sound – expect to be woken by the ringing of church bells, firecrackers, brass marching bands, or if you are there in December – the sounds of Las Posadas. Christmas is always our favorite time of year – but especially so in San Miguel – where the streets are aglow with fairy lights, Christmas decorations, nativity plays, stalls selling brightly red poinsettias, las posadas, food markets, Christmas trees and so on. There is a special magic in the air.
Having been given the opportunity to sublet a friend’s casita for a couple of months, I decided to make San Miguel my temporary home in the lead up to Christmas... here are a few of my favorite things.
1. For breakfast and coffee…
Start the day with coffee and an omelette on the rooftop at Buen Dia Cafe. Carlos the owner/barista, has a kind face and warm smile, and does the best lattes in town. We love the William omelette (egg whites, cheese, mushrooms, spinach and avocado) with your choice of salad, potatoes, beans, and then fruit juice or fruit salad, as well! This is our daily stop.
For something a little more special…venture beyond the red façade of this hidden gem. Posada Corazon is a beautiful B&B and organic garden, serving healthy and high quality, organic breakfasts (available to non-guests as well), using fruit and vegetables from their own garden. All sauces, tamales, bread, granola, yoghurt and orange marmalade (a traditional San Miguel recipe) are homemade at the Posada. For 165 pesos ($13)…you will be offered tea, coffee or homemade Mexican hot chocolate (which is a must: this rich, creamy, sweet sensation, is quite possibly the best cup of chocolate you will ever experience), freshly baked cookies, homemade tamales and then your choice of main meal (eggs (try the “divorced eggs”), homemade granola and yoghurt, oatmeal etc).
2. For lunch…
Mesa Grande is a cute corner bakery/café with amazing homemade breads (we love their sourdough baguette), pastries, salads, sandwiches and wood-oven pizzas. Decent coffee as well. They also open for dinner some nights, check menu on the door.
El Café de la Mancha: cute little place, tucked away on Recreo Street, just two blocks from the Jardin. Run by young and friendly locals. Great coffee, delicious chai, juices, smoothies, paninis etc, and very happy service.
Café Rama: down the street from the Rosewood Hotel, Café Rama has a lovely ambience. Open fireplaces keep the space warm in winter. Big, comfy sofas you can relax on. Interesting and diverse menu. Good juices too.
Via Organica: this cute organic café and providore, is a fabulous healthy option. Part of the not-for-profit Mexican organization – Organic Way AC, whose mission is to promote healthy eating through organic agriculture, fair trade, a healthy lifestyle and protecting the planet. Local farmers provide organic produce. Come here for lunch or dinner. Great soups, salads, vegetarian lasagna and other delicious healthy options. Alcohol served as well.
Rent bikes (see below) and pedal out to: La Temporada– an organic farm and restaurant, 20mins out of town. Be warned that it’s a bumpy ride along the cobblestoned streets to get there…but the ride is worth it. You will find a lush and sprawling organic farm, with a cute store selling organic greens, and a little café (made from shipping pallets) with a changing organic menu. Friendly service, in a quiet and peaceful setting. A lovely afternoon outing.
3. For an afternoon treat…
Stop by Helado Italiano, for all-natural homemade ice cream, just meters from the Parroquia. My friend was a happy man when he discovered their mantequilla (peanut butter) flavor! A delicious range of yoghurt and sorbets as well.
4. To drink…
Visit the rooftop terrace of the Rosewood Hotel at dusk, for a sundowner. Watch the beautiful colors of San Miguel change in front of you. There is no better view. If it is summer when you are visiting San Miguel, be sure to spend a day by the pool: non-guests can use the pool if they spend USD20 per person on food and drinks.
Happy hour at Hanks (previously known as Harry’s!) - a mainstay (according to Jimbo!) on any San Miguel Itinerary. Owned and operated by an American expat. Known for its two-for-one specials – sit amongst other expats, enjoy a couple of Coronas (the complimentary popcorn) during happy hour! Very gringo, but a busy and fun atmosphere. A good place to start the night.
5. For dinner…
La Sirena Gorda (The Fat Mermaid) is a must. Originally a cantina in the 1800’s – where women, members of the military and police officers were not allowed – this old-style gentlemen’s club still has its swinging bar doors, dim light and the original urinal in the wall of the bar (so men didn’t have to stop drinking in order to relieve themselves). Great tacos. We favor the marinated octopus on flour tortilla. also loved the white fish ceviche tostadas. shared an artichoke as well - the biggest thing I have ever seen so far!! and fish tacos were great as well. Super strong margaritas (order their signature ginger or tamarind ones), great cosy little vibe.
Or, street tacos…there are dozens of taco carts to choose from. We favor the big taco stand on Insurgentes, near Calle Relox. Order tacos, carnitas, tortas and tamales!
The Restaurant: Donnie Masterton is the well-renowned chef/owner of this high-end restaurant, with its “ultra-urban-hacienda” décor, and famous for its “burger night” each Thursday. The burgers are delicious. We love “La Hippy” – the veggie burger with quinoa, carrot, garlic, onion, sprouts, cucumber, tomato and tahini yoghurt; the “La Griega” – ground lamb with roasted tomatoes, feta, pickled onions and spinach; or the “El fillet o fish” – a wasabi salmon burger with apple-jicama slaw, sesame ginger mayo and sweet potato chips. All burgers are served with house cured pickles and crisp potatoes. Be sure to hit up Hotel Matilda for a post-dinner drink, to take advantage of the Thursday night “ladies’ night” drink specials!
La Parada: a beautiful space, La Parada is a Peruvian bistro on Recreo serving up some seriously good ceviche! Our favorite, the house ceviche is a lovely combo of white fish, sweet potato, corn and coconut milk. We also love the “arroz afrodisiaco”: the Peruvian version of paella, jam-packed full of delicious seafood. Good selection of wines. Nice, airy room. Attentive (but somewhat over-bearing) service.
Fenicia: a great option when you are craving something from the Middle East! This little Lebanese restaurant is nothing fancy, but offers great hummus, babaganoush, falafel…and all the other mainstays.
6. To market, to market…
Visit the Organic Market, held near the Instituto Allende, each Saturday morning from 8:30am-2:30pm. Make sure you are hungry for lunch, as you will find some delicious tacos, tamales and burgers on offer. Grab a seat at one of the long tables, and hang out with other locals. You will find stalls selling everything from organic ice cream to cheese to chocolate to olive oil to fruit and veg, plus a lot more.
Natura: visit this cute organic store (opposite the Instituto Allende) – for all your organic groceries – their granola is a stand-out. Also, home made peanut butter, soups, and salads.
7. To sleep…
Casa Calderoni: we love the location of this cute Bed and Breakfast, opposite Buen Dia Café, in a cute cobblestone street. Lovely views from the rooftop terrace, Travel and Leisure Magazine ranked Casa Calderoni “one of the two best valued accommodations in all of San Miguel”.
Rosewood: if you are looking for something more high-end, this large-scale luxury boutique hotel is perfect. The rooftop terrace/bar here offers undeniably the best vantage point over San Miguel – the views are insane. There is a large pool, with comfortable daybeds, gym, spa, yoga etc.
Hotel Matilda: this modern boutique hotel – with 32 rooms and suites – is nestled among the brightly colored houses of Calle Aldama. Featuring an eclectic collection of art – including a Diego Rivera portrait of the hotel owner’s mother Matilda in the lobby – this hotel was voted one of the best hotels in Mexico by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine in October 2013.
La Cocina Cooking School and B&B: we found this cute spot on AirBnB. Located in San Antonio, one of San Miguel’s neighboring suburbs (only 15mins walk to the center), this is a nice, more local and quiet alternative. Kristen Rudolph (an American) and her Mexican partner are lovely hosts. Their colorful casita has a few lovely, well-appointed rooms with views over the mountains, comfortable beds and spacious bathrooms. Kristen has lived in Mexico for many years, and has been running La Cocina Cooking School for sometime. La Cocina offers one day classes in Mexican cooking – from basic guacamole, to more complex moles. Kris generally teaches classes twice a week, by reservation only (email:email@example.com).
8. To do…
Rent bikes and explore San Miguel and its surrounds.
For some pampering, visit the Jasmine Day Spa: run by a lovely local guy – Carlos Ortega (whose art adorns the walls). Come here for a massage, waxing or nails. Lovely staff. Nice, airy space, upstairs in the centre of town.
Visit Fabrica La Aurora: a former textile factory that has been turned into a beautiful art and design center – housing artist studios, contemporary art galleries, antiques, and cafes.
Learn Spanish!!...take some private lessons with Griselda. A lovely, gentle local woman, and wonderful tutor – Griselda charges 130 pesos per hour (for one person), or 150 pesos per hour (for two). You can choose where you meet for your lesson. My pick: Buen Dia Café, on the sunny rooftop, with a Carlos latte in hand.
Jump on a horse…we highly recommend getting out into the countryside on horseback. No better way to experience the amazing rivers, canyons, mountains and stunning vistas of San Miguel’s surrounds – alongside local cowboys. We suggest booking with Beth at Leisurely Country Horseback Riding. Originally from New Jersey, Beth has lived in San Miguel for 8 years, and started this horseback riding business, working with a local community, about 2 years ago. For a 2.5 hour trail ride (tailored to your experience level) expect to pay USD60. Beth and her team of local cowboys, will take you on a wonderful journey. For an extra 70pesos (USD5), enjoy a delicious home made lunch of fresh homemade chaya (a green superfood) juice, home made corn tortillas, quesadillas, cactus salad, guacamole, rice, and beans.
Do yoga…plenty of options available, but our favorite is Alejandro’s 8am class (Mon/Wed/Fri) at the Arthur Murray Dance School. A bargain at 70pesos (USD5)for 1.5hours. A Hatha yoga class, this is a beautiful way to start your day. We also tried an Ashtanga yoga class at the Rosewood Hotel – held in a small, sunny room inside their gymnasium.
Spend an afternoon by the pool at Shanti San Miguel. 20mins out of town, this Indian-style haveli is run by an American woman, Brett, and is a lovely place to sit and chill and enjoy the sunshine. Brett can pick you up from the Mega supermarket in town, to drive you out to her property.
Do what the locals do, and hang out in the Jardin. Park yourself on a park bench and watch the world go by…witness locals selling ice cream or blackened corn; balloon-sellers; tourists taking photos of the Parroquia; old men in cowboy hats soaking up the sun; and the mariachis playing their tunes. There is always something going on. I am still completely awe-struck every time i look at the beauty that is the Parroquia, my most favorite church in the world. I could sit there and stare at it for days!
Day trip to Guanajuato: a colorful (even more so than San Miguel) university town, less than 2 hours away. Get a bus or cab. Wander the steep streets. Grab lunch at the huge undercover market (Mercado Hidalgo) and meander through all the stalls – from food to handicrafts and everything in between.
The closest airport is in Leon/Guanajuato…one hour from San Miguel. Alternatively, fly into Mexico City and then take the bus. We love the buses in Mexico. More comfortable (and more leg room) than a first-class flight, you will travel in comfort and style, receive a lunch bag, and have wifi for your journey! There are many different bus companies to use: a one-way trip will cost you around USD30-40. From the bus station in San Miguel, it is a short 5-10min cab ride into the town center.