In the dry grassland and desert of the Central Mexican heartland, San Miguel de Allende is a World Heritage city with a large community of artists as well as retirees from the United States and Canada.
San Miguel’s name was changed in 1826 in honour of Ignacio Allende, a commander in the insurgency during the Mexican War of Independence.
You could say that San Miguel was a cradle for the independence cause as Miguel Hidalgo, a key figure in the struggle was a priest at the city’s Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel church.
The city prospered in the colonial period through gold and silver mining, and that wealth is evident in its bold Baroque monuments and mansions.
San Miguel is a joy to photograph, with scurrying streets flanked by houses painted in earthy tones of green, yellow and red.
Let’s explore the best things to do in San Miguel de Allende:
1. Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel
On San Miguel’s main plaza, or Jardín Allende, the parish church is the symbol of the city and can’t be compared to any religious building in Mexico.
The monument goes back to the 1600s, but the neo-Gothic facade was designed in 1880 by Zeferino Gutiérrez.
He was an indigenous bricklayer and self-taught architect, and is believed to have referred to lithographs and postcards of European cathedrals for inspiration.
The interior layout hasn’t changed since the 17th century, and just by the entrance is a plaque commemorating the independence leader Miguel Hidalgo’s time as a priest at this church.
To the side is the smaller Santa Escuela de Cristo Church, dating to the 1740s with beautiful Baroque ornamentation on its facade in the form of pilasters and floral motifs.
2. Sanctuary of Atotonilco
Included in the same World Heritage Site as Santiago de Allende, the Sanctuary of Atotonlico is a Baroque church complex 12 kilometres to the north.
The sanctuary was founded by Jesuits in 1740 and built with high walls, giving it the appearance of a fortress.
The church is essential is for the murals and oil paintings adorning its interior, regarded as one of the high points of New Spanish Baroque art.
The oil paintings are the work of Juan Rodríguez Juárez, while the breathtaking murals of the life of Jesus, the Passion and Last Judgement were painted by Miguel Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre and reflect the intersection of European and Indigenous cultures happening in Mexico at the time.
During the Mexican War of Independence Miguel Hidalgo took a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe from this church, and it became the banner of the insurgent forces.
3. Cañada de la Virgen
Thirty kilometres west of San Miguel, the Cañada de la Virgen is worth every second of the trip.
Set on private property, this Otomi city thrived between the 6th and 11th centuries and was only surveyed for the first time in 2002 and opened for visitors in 2011. You could say that the Otomi people lived their whole lives according to the Sun and the cycle of the Moon and Venus, and all of the monuments at Cañada de la Virgen have been shown to be astronomically aligned.
The most important monument for observing the sky was the pyramidal “House of the 13 Heavens”, which you’re allowed to climb.
Consider visiting with a guide who will be able to explain the sophisticated configuration of the monuments.
4. El Jardín
The plaza in front of the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel is the first place to come to feel the pulse of the city.
As well as the parish church, the square is fronted by the Palacio Municipal (Town Hall) and the Casa Ignacio Allende, which we’ll visit later.
El Jardín was plotted in the French formal style, and its Indian laurel trees have even been topiaried into perfect cylinders.
Pause a moment on a wrought-iron bench to take in the scene, and see the ice cream vendors and shoe-shiners hard at work.
There are roaming mariachi bands most days, and regular musical performances in the central bandstand on weekends.
5. Charco del Ingenio
This Botanical Garden is just past San Miguel’s western limits on the south shore of the Presa Las Colonias (reservoir). The garden shows off the full diversity of Mexico’s cactus and other succulent species, and many of the examples planted here are endangered.
Setting off from the visitor centre the trail leads past delightful botanical displays and remnants of a Viceroy-era irrigation system, and up to scenic vantage points for bird-watching.
There’s an interactive garden for children to see, smell and touch, while regular workshops are organised for little ones.
Guided tours of the park are provided on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
6. Juárez Park
Central San Miguel’s largest green space, the well-maintained Juárez Park is another place where people gather for public celebrations.
In early November, during the five-day La Calaca that coincides with Día de Muertos there will be face-painting, decorated skulls everywhere and even more vendors selling food and souvenirs.
On a typical day you’ll happen upon artists selling their work, while yoga, tai chi and zumba classes take place under the dense foliage.
Paths wind off into the greenery, leading to fountains a sweet wrought-iron bandstand.
Around early February the Candelaria flower fair unfolds in the park, organising a programme of events and adding even more colour.
7. Museo Casa Ignacio Allende (Museo Histórico)
San Miguel de Allende was one of the places where the rebellion and push for independence gained momentum in the 1810s.
This building was the family home of Ignacio Allende, a captain in the Spanish army who came to fight alongside the independence leader Miguel Hidalgo, leading the independence forces before being captured and executed in 1811. The museum maps out these events, presenting a biography of Ignacio Allende, together with a broader history of the town in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, beginning with its birth as a mission.
Especially interesting are the details of the area’s historic gold and silver deposits, a major source of Spain’s colonial income.
Upstairs you can take a look at the family apartments, decorated with representative 19th-century furniture.
8. Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramírez El Nigromante (Bellas Artes)
Just two blocks from El Jardín this cultural centre is run by the Mexican National Institute of Fine Arts.
This fine 18th-century building was originally a convent, and after a few fallow decades was revived as the Escuela de Bellas Artes in the 1930s.
There’s a notice board at the entrance explaining what exhibitions are on.
If you’re just doing some idle sightseeing, the centre is free and the cloisters with two levels of arcades is very photogenic.
You’ll find murals by the likes of the 20th-century painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, and the rooms on the lower level around the courtyard are all galleries and studios.
Classes, seminars and workshops take place on the level above, while in the northwest corner is an auditorium staging performances during the Cervantino Festival every October.
9. Fábrica La Aurora
A light walk from El Jardín, Fábrica La Aurora is an art and cultural centre in a former textile mill.
This operated from 1902 to 1991 and lay empty until the first artists set up their studios in the factory in 2004. Before long the Fábrica La Aurora was the hub for San Miguel’s burgeoning art community, hosting furniture workshops, art galleries and shops for jewellery, interior design, embroidery and antiques.
The biggest draws are the workshop-galleries where you can watch artists’ creative processes in action, while there are three cafes and restaurants around the patio.
10. Mask Museum
This attraction is not for profit, with proceeds going to a local nursery.
Over nearly 30 years the amateur anthropologist Bill Le Vasseur has assembled a collection of more than 500 ceremonial masks from all corners of the country.
For the most part these were produced in isolated indigenous communities that Bill would visit to document traditional rituals.
A curious thing about these masks is that they would often only be used once for one event before being destroyed or sold off.
Complementing the many striking creations are photos, videos and enlightening descriptions.
Bill and his wife Heidi are normally around to field any questions you might have.
11. Templo de San Francisco
Constructed across 20 years up to 1799, this late-Baroque church was funded partly by donations from local wealthy families and also by takings from bullfights.
The main cantera-stone facade on Plaza de San Francisco has abundant ornamentation, and at the top you can see St Francis and the Madonna either side of Christ.
The tower is a little newer, completed at the turn of the 19th century and designed in the Neoclassical style.
The church interior is more in keeping with the Spartan Franciscan style, but boasts some beautiful frescoes and paintings.
12. San Miguel Parque de Aventuras
On the southeastern outskirts of the city are the Salto de las Tinajitas waterfall and the Cañón del Águila Cola Roja gorge.
They set the scene for an adventure park that you might need to avoid if you have a fear of heights! The showpiece at the Parque de Aventuras is a 110-metre-long wobbly suspension bridge, 70 metres over the falls and canyon.
There’s a quicker way to cross the gorge, and that’s by zip-line.
The park has seven to ride, and the longest is more than 240 metres long.
The park also provides a range of other activities like horse treks, ATV excursions, mountain biking and overnight hikes.
13. El Mirador
On high ground on the east side of the centre of the city is a terrace with a complete view of the city.
You can use the telescopes and take a while to pick out the landmarks, like the Parroquia de San Miguel and the Allende Dam.
Get up here on foot, by taxi or on one of city’s tram-style tourist buses.
The Mirador is a treat in spring when the jacarandas are in flower.
Next to the viewpoint is the former home of the singer and actor Pedro Vargas, now a guesthouse and souvenir shop, with a monument for the man in front.
14. Templo de la Inmaculada Concepción
Known locally as “Las Monjas” (The Nuns) this quiet church is on the south side of the Bellas Artes cultural centre and used to be part of the same convent.
It was founded in 1765 by the daughter of one of the city’s most distinguished families.
The most remarkable piece of architecture at the church is the Neoclassical dome, installed in 1889 and designed by Zeferino Gutiérrez (famed for the parish church facade). With two tiers of arched windows this magnificent structure was modelled on the dome at Les Invalides in Paris.
15. Local Cuisine
One dish that taps into the Guanajuato state’s mining heritage is enchiladas mineras.
These satisfying stuffed tortillas go back to the Viceroy era and were made by miners’ wives and brought to them at the end of their working day.
Enchiladas mineras are corn tortillas loaded with onions and potatoes, seasoned with chilli, garlic, oregano and cumin and crumbled with ranchero cheese.
Pacholas meanwhile are beef patties with meat ground by a traditional metate grinding stone and mixed with breadcrumbs, cumin, ancho chilli and garlic.
Cold cuts are also a much-loved regional delicacy, as are cueritos (pickled pig skin) and frijole beans with chicharrón (fried pig skin).