Travel Diaries

San Miguel de Allende: City of Contrasts

By Leslie A. Westbrook

The picturesque cobblestoned streets of San Miguel de Allende, about 170 miles from Mexico City in Guanajuato. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognized the town as a World Heritage Site in 2008.

No matter your age — or where you’re at in life — the magic and romance of Mexico’s charming San Miguel de Allende may just grab you by the heartstrings. Weekends bustle in this shopaholic and foodie destination located north of Mexico City. Whether it’s waking up to firecrackers, the peeling and clanging of church bells and crowing roosters, you’ ll find your-self enchanted by the former silver mining town. With its myriad churches or the vibrant art, design and fashion scenes, San Miguel de Allende’s deep historical roots are experiencing youthful competition: trendy boutique hotels and designer stores oozing Mexico City vibes and style vie for tourists’ eyes and pocketbooks. The city has attracted folks north of the border for decades. Hence, with a large expat community, there’s plenty of English spoken here. You’ ll need at least two weeks to explore the terrific food and Guanajuato wine region scene thoroughly — but you can get a great taste over a long weekend.

Where to eat, from the best upscale hot spots to favorite street food vendors

Look up — there are many superb open-air rooftop dining venues to explore. Your first stop should be Luna at Rosewood Hotel for tapas, cocktails and dynamic views. Or try dinner at Fatima, the latest restaurant to open, atop the chic, Moroccan-style Casa Blanca hotel styled by interior designers Andrew Fisher and Jeffrey Weisman, who call both San Francisco and San Miguel de Allende home. Here, you can practically reach out and touch the church of San Francisco. A savvy rooftop dining list should also include Trazo 1810 for amazing shrimp and jicama tacos or flavorful pulpo (octopus) at La Azotea.

Meat lovers will be wowed at Bovine (be sure to peek at the amazingly small and crowded kitchen), but Atrio, San Miguel de Allende’s most romantic restaurant boasts some of the best food in town by chef Arturo Sandoval. Don’t miss the Camembert cheesecake for dessert.

Australian chef Paul Bentley’s restaurant Bovine has made its mark in the Mexican culinary scene. Meat lovers will rejoice at the menu, a blend of brasserie and steak-house.

Its most well-known chef, Donnie Masterson (of The Restaurant and the taco bar inside hotel Doce 18), has some kick-ass women chefs nipping at his heels, like lovely Marcela Boleño of the very pretty Restaurant Marsala (her zucchini carpaccio with local cheese is a standout, along with Asian-influenced dishes). At Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada’s tranquil Parque restaurant, chef Mariel Beiza’s chunky guacamole topped with crunchy fried grasshoppers (chupalines) may be the best in town, and Lorelai Cordova of Mio Bistrock won first place at the Mezcal and Lamb festival last June with her lamb kebabs and condiments.

One local foodie reports: “The secret is to eat low.” Swing by Andy’s Pastor Taco Cart, and try the lamb barbacoa at Pato’s (near the bus station) and the carnitas cooked in the Bautista brothers’ converted garage. Don’t miss two-for-one Tuesday tostada night at the atmospheric, jammed cantina La Monontial, established in 1929.

If you want to eat “high,” hit Nomada, Aperia and any of the other chic boutique hotel eateries. We spotted Andie MacDowell lunching at Matilde Hotel, the town’s most modern outpost with a note-worthy art collection.

The local journalist Susan Knight York recommends La Doña in addition to the Peruvian cuisine at popular La Parada and its mezcal bar next door.

Where to slumber, from the tried and true to the hip and new

Tried and true hotels include the lovely, historic Belmond Casa de Sierra and the large but elegant Rosewood Hotel.

Newer, hip small boutique hotels include the Moroccan-style Casa Blanca with huge rooms, and the slick minimalist Matilde with a great art collection, pool and star clientele.

The elegant Rosewood San Miguel de Allende, which opened in 2011, has since garnered recognition as being one of the finest hotels in Mexico, if not the world. Its hacienda-style design was inspired by the town’s colorful colonial architecture. If you’re not staying there, at least swing by to Luna, its rooftop bar, for tapas, cocktails and dynamic views like the vista below.

My pick? The charming and cozy six-room Casa No Name, which once belonged to noted fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville. It’s a UNESCO site with historic murals painted by the same artist who decorated the Atonolico Church outside of town (also a heritage landmark). It’s hard to choose between the Maya room, which boasts a glass walkway over an underground tunnel with artifacts still intact, and the lovely master suite upstairs, dubbed “Aura,” with original furnishings.

If you prefer a house to a hotel, sure, there’s Airbnb, but Katharine Hibberts of Premier San Miguel represents some of the most spectacular, fully staffed houses in San Miguel de Allende, including Fisher and Weisman’s Casa Acanto, with its amazing gardens and pool ($10K a week). Villa Las Palomas, an Airbnb listing, is a standout for its tasteful décor, small pool and enough space for an entire family.

Interior designers Andrew Fisher and Jeffrey Weisman, who live in both San Francisco and San Miguel de Allende, designed the Moroccan-style Casa Blanca hotel. 

On the outskirts of town, in a rural setting, the new San Francisco hotel is located at a large vineyard and polo fields about 10 minutes outside the urban hustle and bustle. Its nearby sister pensione, Viñeros San Lucas, may well be the San Ysidro Ranch of Guanajuato. (And don’t miss the three-course lunch and wine tasting at the Ceña de Tierra vineyards, about 30 minutes away in Dolores Hidalgo, home of the Mexican Revolution.)

Back in San Miguel de Allende, follow your senses and leave your high heels at home: You’ll want to explore every nook and cranny of its cobblestone streets in comfort.

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