San Miguel de Allende, or SMA as the locals call it, is a small town in Central Mexico, in the state of Guanajuato, that I had never heard of.
So, how then, did I end up there this July, you ask? My husband’s college roommate was getting married and this was the destination. Little did I know that Time Magazine was going to give it the Travel + Leisure award for The World’s Best Cities or that it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008. It truly was an amazing and surprising experience.
SMA is only a short plane ride away from Los Angeles but it’s not a direct route. You have to fly into a nearby city, we flew into Leon, and then either take a smaller plane or a shuttle to the city; totaling about four hours of travel. Neither me nor my husband were excited at the thought of getting into a very small plane so we opted for the shuttle. We used a shuttle service called Bajio Go that is based out of SMA. Since it was just us that morning, the shuttle driver was able to share a lot of information about the area and culture and point out points of interest during the drive.
For several years we have used AirBnB to book accommodations instead of using hotels; often it’s more affordable but it also enables us to feel more involved in the surrounding neighborhood and get a better sense of the culture, which is important to us. We ended up booking an apartment very close to El Jardín, or central square, next to Parroquia de San Miguel.
This is definitely a walking city because the Zona Centro is made up of mostly one way streets and during the day there is often a lot of traffic. The central part of town reminds me of San Francisco in that it has a lot of hills to walk up and down. There is lush plant life every where, a mix of cacti and trees, that made this place all the more beautiful. There is also a ton of art in this town. Some of it is displayed as pop-up art galleries in hotel courtyards while others are displayed for the buying in the park. Either way, there’s plenty of it to keep you busy during your walks.
Within hours of being there, a group of us hopped on a trolley and were taken on a tour around the city by Recorridos Turísticos. We learned that this town is founded in the early 1500s (?!) and reflects very European architecture. This is also the city where the Mexican Revolution against the Spanish started and we were even shown the exact building where the meeting was held! The streets are all cobblestone and the sidewalks are hand-laid slate. All the buildings have flat fronts that often open up into beautiful courtyards and are all in rich colors of reds, oranges and yellows. And the doors … huge, intricate doors are something I became obsessed with while we were visiting Italy and this town had some amazing ones. It’s very obvious that the people who live here take great pride in their city; it was so clean and I never saw any litter or even gum stuck to the streets.
We also were taken up to a place called El Mirador, which is just a lookout point that gives you a view of the city. One thing to note about this city is the elevation is about 6,300 feet above sea level and unless you’re used to being at a higher elevation you will experience some elements of elevation sickness; getting winded easily while walking, swollen extremities and dehydration are common.
This town is definitely a fun place to be; there’s always something going on, especially in the central square. There were many weddings scheduled the weekend we were there and each one gets a small parade where all the guests dance to live mariachi music. The one for the wedding we were attending got rained out by a huge thunderstorm but that didn’t stop the party! We ended up partying under an awning and taking shots of tequila why thunder clapped and lightening flashed and then running through the rain; it was so much fun!
Let’s get to the fun stuff: places we liked!
- Hecho SMA was a cool shop that we happened to pass by. They sell all handmade body care products for both men and women. The people running it were super friendly and helpful when we were asking questions about their products. It smells amazing in this small store! We ended up purchasing lip balms, exfoliating/moisturizing hand scrubs and some shaving supplies as gifts for our family back home.
- Lavanda Cafe was a restaurant my husband wanted to go to. Be aware – there is often a line that stretches out the door. We waited for about 15 minutes on a Sunday morning. The staff were very polite and attentive; it didn’t matter if a person was your designated server or not, they all helped out when they saw the need. They are a coffee shop that serves breakfast and lunch. Their specialty is drinks that have lavender added in. I ordered the sparkling lemonade with mint and lavender and it was AMAZING. The molletes with chorizo were also delicious as well.
- Cafe De La Parroquia was a spot I chose and it did not disappoint. This one had a beautiful courtyard that had a flowing fountain with fresh flowers in it. As our meal ended, a guy started playing a guitar and singing (easy listening songs, not Spanish) – he was really good! Although I could tell that our server was new and struggled with some of our questions, the service was still good. The enfrijoladas with chorizo were perfect. My husband even later called his own mother and told her she has to start making them this way! They also served avocado salsa with bollilos as a breakfast alternative to chips and salsa and we devoured them all!
- La Alborada was a place that I desperately wanted to go to because pozole is one of my favorite mexican dishes. We were able to make it here on our very last day, literally an hour and a half before we had to leave. I was there promptly when they were listed as opening but the older lady who was cleaning around the open door told us they weren’t ready yet, so I sat outside like an impatient little kid. The service was fine but nothing special. The pozole was delicious and worth having if you’re around and feel like having a comfort meal. The chips and salsa were also yummy!
- Salon Oaxaca is a restaurant that specializes in Oaxacan food and mezcal. We didn’t eat here but we did get some mezcal to take back for family. Mario, who helped us, was very knowledgeable and helpful in selecting a blend. He was also courteous enough to meet us on a day that they were closed so that we could get some before we left back home. The main sign is faded now but the name can still be made out.
- San Augustin Chocolates & Churros was something we heard about from our first hour of being in SMA. Almost everyone we spoke to was raving about them being the “best churros you will ever have!” so we had to go and try them out. Living in Los Angeles, I’ve been exposed to my fair share of churros, either at fairs or by driving down to Mexico and getting them at the border; so my expectations were high for this. The offer churros plain or with toppings (nutella, chocolate, lechera and strawberry). We tried a plain one and one with nutella and one hot classic hot chocolate. The churros were good but would I call them the best? No. Nor would I wait in a line that goes down the block for them, which we saw almost every time we walked by it. The hot chocolate was described by my husband as “a melted chocolate bar with milk”. They have two lines; one of to-go orders and one to be seated. There’s a small courtyard across the street from the restaurant so we took ours and ate while people watching one evening and it was perfect.