By Carole Reedy
They didn’t choose Paris, Florence, Prague, or Buenos Aires. In a readers’ choice survey, more than a million Conde Nast Traveler magazine readers chose the quaint highland city of San Miguel de Allende as the best in the world. First reactions to the news here in Mexico ran from “Great for tourism” and “Well deserved” to the shocked “Why us and not Paris?”
Having lived in San Miguel and visited regularly over the past 15 years, here are my thoughts on SMA’s top award, chosen by a group of travelers who enjoy luxury but who also want adventure.
First, it’s remarkable that the relatively small city/large town of SMA–designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO–is able to provide sophisticated services to residents and tourists alike. The city runs as smoothly as possible in Mexico (anyone who lives here or has traveled here knows that’s high praise) and has cultural programs to delight the most cosmopolitan of travelers. The architecture is colonial and stunning, from the large array of churches to the winding, steep, cobblestone streets and charming neighborhoods. There are good hotels and restaurants to accommodate any pocketbook. Public transportation and taxi service is efficient. And the people—both locals and foreigners, not surprisingly–are friendly and gracious.
In a nutshell, San Miguel de Allende is an easy place to visit, with plenty of creature comforts while being “foreign enough” to make it adventurous and exciting. You can almost literally walk everywhere, and while the cobblestone streets can be a challenge, it is a pleasure to roam the calles and callejones. Electric and phone lines have been buried here, unlike in other Mexican cities, so your line of sight is unrestricted as you stroll.
Make your first stop the Jardin (San Miguel’s zócalo), where the city gathers. Meet your friends here, connect with tours, enjoy a cappuchino, or just sit and watch the world go by while drinking in the famous pink Parroquia. Ponder these outstanding features, which you’ll want to explore on your next visit. Give yourself enough time to venture outside the city a bit too.
First thing: buy the newspaper ATENCION every Friday in the Jardín and at many other locations. There are listings of all events–including lectures, yoga classes, Spanish-language classes, walking tours—as well as real-estate information and interesting articles about the city itself.
Apart from the year-round Mexican festivities, which are abundant (since Mexicans love a good fiesta), San Miguel attracts entertainers and performing groups from around the world. Every February, a writer’s conference is held in SMA during which famous authors give writing workshops and lectures. The dates for the 2014 conference are February 12 to 17. Featured writers will include Calvin Trillin, Yann Martel, and Laura Esquivel, among others.
An exciting week in SMA takes place in October. While the world-famous Cervantes Festival is taking place in Guanajuato, San Miguel is hosting a Fringe Festival. Award-winning theater of all types is featured. As the word fringe indicates, the presentations are daring, different, innovative, and downright entertaining. Don’t miss this week, one of my favorites in the city.
A most outstanding two weeks of chamber music takes place every August, with the finest string quartets and pianists at various venues in the city. For jazz fans, November is the month to visit for the annual Jazz Festival.
Readers will be delighted to know there’s an excellent library (at Insurgentes and Reloj streets), with a fine selection of English-language books. Pick up a temporary library card during your visit and don’t miss Thursday mornings, starting at 10 am, when the library has a book sale. You can pick up good books in English for around 20 pesos.
Art galleries are scattered throughout the streets of San Miguel, the excellent natural light of the desert city having attracted artists in the 1950s and 60s, which accounts for the influx of foreigners to the region.
It’s remarkable that a town the size of San Miguel offers such a variety of eating. The Mexican food, of course, is tops. Be sure to try Café Parroquia, El Correo, and any of the small restaurants surrounding the Jardín.
Should you have a hankering for other foods, look for exceptional Indian dishes at Bhaji, the Hindu curry house on Cuadrante 34A. The variety and imagination of the menu, as well as the reasonable prices, are impressive. Be sure to go with others so you can share several dishes and enjoy the maximum diversity of flavor.
Tasty Lebanese morsels can be found at Fenicia (Zacateros 73). This is another excellent place to share dishes with friends. Or if entertaining at home, you can ‘carry out’ some appetizers, such as hummus, stuffed grape leaves, tasty pita bread, among other Middle East specialties
The popular OKO noodle bar and restaurant is located in the shopping center on the corner of the libremento Zavala and the Salida de Celaya. Co-producer of the Fringe Festival and ex-New Yorker John Morrow offered his review: “It’s a very hip and lively new restaurant, the food a mixture of various classic Thai and oriental dishes, with newly created specialties featured by the chef and owner Sam Decker. Katie, his wife and co-owner, often concocts some fresh and exciting cocktails. Special surprise entertainment is featured on weekends, from silent movies and full blown rock and roll musicals (such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch) or one-man comedy shows. The great food and drinks make for an ambiance that’s a constant draw. It is affordably priced. You’ll enjoy it.”
Be sure to visit the comfy terrace of the Rosewood Hotel at sunset to soak up the golden tones of San Miguel over a drink and appetizer. A bit pricey, but the view and attentive waiters make it worth the extra pesos.
If you’ve got a hankering for a good old hamburger, a Ruben sandwich, or a big salad (yes, you can eat one safely here), head to Hecho en Mexico on Ancha de San Antonio. For a perfect ribeye or filet and a real Idaho baked potato, or ribs, walk a little further down the Ancha to Salida a Celaya ·2, where you’ll find the Longhorn Smokehouse. Owner and host British-born Keith Thompson will greet you and grill the meat to your specifications. If you’ve been away from home for a while, these two restaurants will satisfy your urge for some gringo food that may even be better than you get at home…and for a more modest price. Keith serves daily specials at prices we find hard to believe.
Vegetarian selections and restaurants are easy to find in SMA. Be sure to visit Via Organica market and restaurant. Young or old, women or men, whatever your desire, there are bars, clubs, discos, and cantinas for all ages and interests.
Just outside the city
Hot Springs! Need a day to relax and rest your weary bones and feet? Take a bus or taxi out to La Gruta or Escondido and soak in the hot springs of the desert and enjoy a day in the campo.
Side trips to the towns of Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, and Leon (featuring leather shoes and other items) are worthy diversions for travelers with more time. The botanical gardens, just on the edge of town, are a delight. Wander the desert gardens or take an informational tour at 10 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The Bajio region is the Cradle of Independence. Here is where the insurgents gathered to plot against the Spanish in 1810. In all started in Queretaro and spread to San Miguel and then Dolores Hidalgo, where Padre Miguel Hidalgo gave his famous grito (shout of Independence) on September 15, 1810.
Services and shopping
There are hotels in all price ranges, some with pools (such as the popular Real de Minas), from small boutique hotels such as Matilda to larger deluxe ones, such as the Rosewood. You can rent houses and apartments by the week or month. Check into VRBO.COM to find a wide selection of these.
Taxi drivers are friendly and many speak English, and the taxi rides are inexpensive (30 pesos within the centro area). Buses are another travel option.
Artesania mexicana galore of the highest quality sprinkles the streets. For bargain hunters and second-hand store lovers, don’t miss Tuesday Market. Be prepared: it’s enormous, populated with locals and foreigners, and a wonder to behold. It is outside the centro area and across from the new shopping mall. Take a taxi or bus to LA PLAZITA, the loving nickname for the market.
Two consignment stores are favorites for the ladies. Fantasia is owned and operated by Gail McClure, who has a fine eye for elegance and practicality. There is a selection of fancy-dress and casual clothing at her shop at Sterling Dickson #28 Plaza Pueblito, int. 6, in Colonia San Antonio. Gail’s selection is quite eclectic. I always return to DF with two new jackets and am the envy of my friends in D.F. because of the variety, uniqueness, and reasonable prices of Gail’s items. Her inventory moves, so there are always new choices.
At Segunda Llamada on Codo and Hernandez Macias Flo, the owner, speaks perfect English and is utterly friendly. It’s another favorite stop on every visit to SMA, and I’ve never left empty-handed. She, too, has a variety of clothing, shoes, and jewelry. The clothing in these stores is impeccably displayed and in excellent condition. You may want to return to San Miguel just to shop!
The best times to visit
March and April are two of the finest months anywhere in Mexico. In San Miguel and Mexico City, the purple-flowered jacaranda trees and other desert plants are blooming. December and January can be chilly, if not downright cold, but in February things start to heat up. Christmas in Mexico is magic. Summers are nice and warm, but there is rain in all of Mexico starting in June and lasting through October. September and October are perfect months to visit, however, because of the big Independence Day celebrations (September 15 and 16) and then San Miguel Day celebrations that run the last two weeks of September and the beginning of October.
In SMA, church bells ring at many hours, day and night. Those of us who are accustomed to it laugh when visitors exclaim: “Why are those damn church bells going off again?” Don’t question–just soak in the ambiance of the city.
The best way to describe a place is often through the eyes of a first-time visitor. Here’s part of a letter that I received from my friend Martha Larson (from the Washington, DC, area), describing a day in San Miguel:
“Thought of you last night. We strolled down to El Jardín about 9 pm to hear the music and found the place lit up like Vegas! All the white lights on the side streets were blinking like crazy, the Christmas tree was ablaze and the street trunks in the square were roped in red lights. The giant puppets (catrinas?mojicas?) were dancing to the band and shimmying in people’s faces…in short it was going strong. Sue mentioned that the Atención wrote that the tree lighting would be on Dec. 6th! And we all chimed in “not according to Carole! She said it’d be Dec. 1st!” Right again, kiddo. You know your pais!
Earlier in the day we were overwhelmed by the scene in front of the church. On our way to the house tour at the Biblioteca we ran into a full blown indigenous procession complete with incense, flowers, Aztec drumming, and ankle seed pod rattle dancing on their way to the Parroquia. On our way back from the tour the plaza was surrounded by ambulances from the Cruz Roja and we thought there was a major disaster. Oh no, it was merely the finish of a huge bike rally complete with hundreds of cyclists in biking gear and helmets who had come in from Queretaro. All their hundreds of bikes were parked upside down and it looked bizarre in this ancient setting. But that wasn’t all…the Fellini atmosphere spread as the bikers joined in with the Latin dancers who were enjoying the DJ in the gazebo. The street was teeming with families and vendors and decorated burros and children on horseback and a crew of 6 actors on stilts in costumes….all of this rolling past us as we ate outside at a cafe. This town is hard to wrap around one’s mind. So busy. So full of life!”