As I sit down to write this, I realize that San Miguel is hard to put into words, I’d rather just show you.
I guess the first question to answer is: Why would I visit San Miguel de Allende? Short answer: cause it’s pretty. It’s a quiet city only 3 hours by bus from Mexico City where you can melt into a romantic landscape of art, greenery, and history.
How to get to San Miguel de Allende
Before Leaving America The Language, and What to Pack
Getting to San Miguel de Allende
Once you’re in the airport of Mexico City, head to the kiosk servicing buses to Queretaro. The directions to find the kiosks vary depending on where you’re arriving from, but there is a concierge that you can ask and most people within the airport can direct you to it. It’s on the second floor. The kiosks are white and there will be people sitting behind desks. Above their heads are signs that show to which city the bus is heading. Go to the one that says Queretaro.
Once you get to the kiosk, buy your bus ticket from Primera Plus or ETN for $23-25 depending on the exchange rate. If you pre-buy on the website, I believe you get a discount but the buses were so cheap anyway, I didn’t care to go through the extra step.
The bus leaves every 15-45 minutes; the first bus runs at 6AM and the last bus runs at 10:30PM. During the week of Semana Santa, you might need to book in advance.
Let’s talk about these buses. Girl. These buses are FANCY. They give you a sandwich, water, juice, a snack, free wifi, you can watch movies on the TV on the back of your seat (in Spanish, of course), it’s air-conditioned, you can recline the velvety seats, like dammmnnn. I thought I was in one of those fancy movie theaters and was just waiting on my popcorn and blanket.
Once you arrive at the Queretaro station, you go the taxi kiosk and buy your voucher direct to San Miguel. If you would like to use the bathroom at this time, the cost is 5 pesos. Depending on the exchange rate, the trip could cost you anywhere from $25-35. It’s important to note that this part of the trip is not cost per person. You can split this fare with anyone headed that way. Also, depending on your taxi driver, the trip to San Miguel will be 25-45 minutes. In our case, our cab driver got lost so we were on that 45-minute time schedule.
Where to stay in San Miguel de Allende
I stayed in an Italian painter’s house about a 10-15 minute walk just outside of the city center. The house was a 3-story concrete building, furnished with fabrics from around the world, lemon trees and blooming flowers just outside your bedroom window, a roof-top patio with potted cacti and a 360-view of the city, AND was only $21/day for 2 people. YAS. I chose it because 1) I’m poor, 2) I wanted something a bit outside of the city so I could get a feel for the general area around the center as well.
However, if I wasn’t ballin’ on a budget I would stay at the Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada because of the sick views. Rooms average from $250-$350/night. However, there are SO MANY boutique hotels with a unique history behind them that literally I think you could stay anywhere and be just as happy.
What to do in San Miguel de Allende
This is the part that is so hard to describe. What I recommend you do is take the basic bitch tourist bus that leaves from the Zocalo (El Jardin/ City Center) and takes you all around the city for $5-8. You can buy them from a man on the corner of the street next to the city concierge, in the building directly across from the cathedral. There’s only 2 tours in English, the rest in Spanish, ask the concierge for the times because it varies. I believe the last one is at 1PM. Use this bus mostly as a means to get your footing around the city so you kind of know where things are, where you want to go and spend more time, and to get a bit of history of what you’re looking at. The tour lasts around 90 minutes.
From here, all I can say is start walking. Walking up and down as many roads as you possibly can. The streets are cobblestone so meh on the heels, walking shoes are necessary. It’s a giant hill so you will be putting in major work.
San Miguel de Allende is a photographers dream. There’s a stunning scene around every corner and every time you walk down a street, you’ll see something new. This city was built during the Spanish colonial times and was designed to have small streets fit for a horse and carriage, and because of that the doors to houses are directly on the street and open up into a beautiful courtyard on the inside with rooms surrounding the garden, so as to keep the dirt, dust, and noise out of the homes. On lucky days, you’ll see the doors flung open and see what life is like on the inside.
Listed below are some of the city’s highlights in order of importance (in my opinion) but like I said, this city is NOT something you can plan. The best thing you can do is leave a blank itinerary for 2 or 3 days and just go wander.
- Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel
The most obvious thing to do in San Miguel is the cathedral, it costs nothing to enter. It looks like the Disney castle, but was actually modeled after the one in Cologne, Germany. Take as many selfies as you want outside, but inside pictures are prohibited. In this square, if you’re lucky, you can catch a wedding taking place with accompanying larger than life dolls dancing around in the center, men dressed in white the red bandanas, and women with flower headbands around their heads.
You too can buy one of these flower headbands for like $3 at the stands around the park. It is very common for people to have their destination wedding here, there’s most likely a wedding every day of the week in the center. But whatever you do, DO NOT souvenir shop in this area. Major rip off.
- Fabrica La Aurora
Think fancy art school meets vintage estate sale meets boutique furniture store all placed in an old textile mill where the machines still exist as a sort of museum/ode to its history. The Fabrica La Aurora is one giant art gallery with a million little galleries within it. The prices are high for Mexico but low for Westerners. For example, a lacquered and finished all wood table (cut from one piece of wood) is $600 whereas in America this piece would go for $10,000. Paintings, furniture, and fabrics cover this massive complex that could take you a few hours to go through. Cost to attend is free and open from 10AM-6PM. If you get there a little early, no worries, just enjoy a cappuccino and huevos rancheros at the café.
- Rosewood Hotel
The most expensive hotel in the city has open-air rooftop views with the drinks to match (I recommend the guava juice vodka). You’ll soon find out that everyone in San Miguel is adorably growing a fucking garden on the top of their roof. The live jazz-pop band they’ve hired to add to the ambience ain’t bad either. Come here to watch the sunset.
- Mercado de Artesanias on Balderas Street
This is where you’ll find the best prices in the city and is the closest to city center. Remember to always negotiate. If you’re going to buy clothes, find the stall where a lady is actually making them herself by hand, she’s gonna be your cheapest bet. The others are just middle men. You can buy anything here from food to piñatas to tapestries to ceramics to dresses at really great prices.
- Biblioteca Publica
This little public library has books in both Spanish and English, but most of all it has massive murals.
- Parque Benito Juarez
It’s a park. And it’s cute. And the houses around it are cute too.
- Galleries and hotels
Every single house in San Miguel de Allende also dubs as an art gallery. I highly recommend you walk into as many as you can, just to have a look see at not just the art but the architecture as well. A lot of the hotels have preserved the original building, so what may have been a horse stall and post office has now been transformed into a hotel with all of the original mailboxes, doors, stained glass, and murals. Like I said, there’s really nothing to “do” per say in San Miguel, but there’s so much to do. If you’re here for an extended period of time, I suggest taking an art class at the Instituto Allende.
The following day trips I was unable to do in the short amount of time I had here, but plan to in the future. I’ll leave them here for your convenience, and then maybe you can give me advice on these places!
The Springs-Escondido Place, La Gruta, and The Mayan Baths: for a nice spa day and quick dip.
Guanajuato: colonial city.
Dolores Hidalgo: Named a UNESCO World Heritage site for being the place where Father Hidalgo ran the independence bell.
Charcoal Del Ingenio: nature and hiking.
Life & Culture
Like how most history stories start out, this city started out as a settlement for indigenous peoples that were driven out during the Spanish invasion. Later used as a major hub during the war of Mexican Independence, silver was discovered in nearby areas and was completely transformed by the textile industry, providing materials for people passing through the city. The city fell to ruins and was later revived when the GI Bill was passed allowing veterans to attend the Instituto Allende for free. Ex-pats jumped at the chance to study art and have since revived the city to what it is now.
San Miguel is a hub for artists from around the world. The history and the influence of foreigners are evident. You’ll hear lots of people speaking English or different dialects of Spanish from all over Latin America. This place is around 40% foreigner, 60% Mexican, and is also a place where people come to retire since the exchange rate from dollars to pesos will get you so much more than what you could live off of a retirement check in the United States or Europe.
However, San Miguel is still very much enriched with history with various cathedrals drizzled around the city, one even from the 16th century that only opens for 1 day out of the year. The streets are so small, originally not made for cars but for horses, and the people within the city are very easy-going and friendly. You’ll see gray-haired men dressed in sports coats that randomly stop their car, get out, and start dancing in the street to Spanish ballads along with their also aging but equally well-dressed wives (I hope it’s their wives). You can catch quite a few 70’s era Volkswagon buses and beetles still going strong around the red, yellow, and orange houses that is characteristically this city. Boutiques, upon art galleries, upon specialty shops litter the landscape. But really the stars of the show, in my opinion, are the doors and doorknobs of San Miguel. They’re so intricate and unique that I wanted to stop and take a picture of every single door in the entire city. The beautiful foliage that grows up, over, and around these structures reminded me of Sicily, minus the hefty bill at the end.
San Miguel de Allende is a little Europe nested safely in the countryscape of Mexico and a site not to be missed for just a $50 round-trip bus ticket.
This trip including bus fare and accommodations was $180 for 3 days