I didn’t have high hopes for San Miguel de Allende, despite the fact that the city was named by Travel + Leisure as the World’s Best City for 2017. Yep, even though it topped the list for the first time in the 22-year history of the award and even beat out Oaxaca City (a place which I loved and would happily return to time and time again), I was kind of…meh about the whole place. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I had to go. I mean, it’s one of Mexico’s premium tourist destinations (ugh) and supposedly the most beautiful city in the entire country, but I wasn’t enthused about this overwhelming sense of obligation.
Even so, I sacrificed it all for the cause and dragged myself up there one Saturday morning to see what all the damn fuss was about. My trip did not get off to a great start, only hammering home the foreboding sense of ‘why am I even going here?’ that had been hanging over me since I finally took the decision to stop by.
First, the website blocked my online bus ticket purchase the night before I was due to travel (it blocked not one, but two cards, both Mexican and British), which is an ominous warning signal if ever I saw one. Then, ticket-less and tired, I overslept and missed the bus I’d planned to take. Never mind, I’ll get the next one. Yeah, OK Lauren. You’re travelling to one of the favoured destinations of the rich and wealthy in Chilangolandia and you’re doing it in the last fucking week of July (a.k.a. the one time in the year that families are all free to take holidays). There was no chance I was going to get a ticket by rocking up flustered and unprepared 20 minutes before the departure time. So, in the end I had to stump up an extra 100 pesos to take a slightly later bus with the ETN line (but they give you free Krispy Kreme donuts though!), instead of hanging around another three hours in the Terminal del Norte for the next Primera Plus. Fucking Primera Plus, where are you when I need you?! Either way, I made it successfully and, actually, I was pleasantly surprised…although perhaps not for the reasons you might think.
First of all, I’d heard that San Miguel de Allende was a premiere enclave for emigrating US and Canadian expats who wanted to while away their golden years in one of Mexico’s many charming colonial cities. I was not down for hanging out with a bunch of likely non-Spanish speaking, greying North Americans, so this expat haven image that San Miguel de Allende goes hand-in-hand with wasn’t my idea of a selling point. But actually, it turns out that unwisely and unknowingly choosing to go in peak Mexican national travel season (seriously, don’t try and travel in Mexico at the end of July) swelled the ranks of the natives in the town and kind of pushed the overriding American influence into the background.
So, I was down for hanging out with the locals, perhaps with the exception of the harangued looking lady on the bus who demonstrated the characteristic Mexican inability to give accurate directions (no, I’m not going to get off the bus here, my GPS shows that I’m still really fucking far from my hostel). Despite her slightly confused sidewards glance as I refused to get off the bus where instructed, I made it to my hostel in one piece with the help of a considerably more knowledgeable man and was treated to perhaps the best and most unexpected surprise of the whole San Miguel de Allende experience; the Guadalupe neighbourhood where we (me and Eemma from Always a Gringa) would be staying for two nights.
Culture + Art in San Miguel de Allende
Honestly, this neighbourhood was perhaps the best thing about my trip, followed up in close second by the pretty markets littered with tin ornaments, burning hearts and, best of all, decorative hanging stars, which glinted happily in the sun and convinced me to buy three even though I’m leaving the country in a month. (By the time you’re reading this, I’ll have already left!)
If I’m being honest, I was initially sceptical when Eemma booked a hostel that was a little over my budget and seemed kinda far from the centre (it 100% wasn’t, I’m just dramatic and unable to read maps accurately). However, I think staying there was the best decision we made on the whole trip, up there with waiting 45 minutes for breakfast at cult San Miguel de Allende breakfast joint Lavanda (trust me, it’s a game of attrition – you just have to wait for the people in front of you to get bored of waiting and then you’ll be at the head of the queue in no time).
Why? Well, I think it was possibly the best place for street art I’ve ever been to in Mexico and I live in Mexico City, the supposed birthplace of Mexican street art. However, the distinct advantage that San Miguel had was the compactness of the Guadalupe neighbourhood in which I found most of the street art. You could dedicate, say, two hours to wandering through the bizarrely confusing one-way streets, slowing down to snap photos of enormous purple buildings and beautiful blue doorways, complemented by flowing fronds of bougainvilleas along the way, and still capture most (if not all) the gorgeous graphic murals on offer.
Related Post: Street Art Mexico: San Miguel de Allende Edition
There was also another excellent budget artsy activity just round the corner from our hostel too, in the form of the fabulous Fábrica La Aurora (a converted textile mill turned art gallery). Let me be clear though, you don’t go to this art gallery to shop (it is expeeeensive), you go to browse. And preferably to take an Instagram-famous picture in front of the loteria card backdrop. (Confession: the only reason I wanted to go to La Aurora was to get a picture in front of that backdrop and I was royally thwarted by a torrential rainstorm which meant that my photo is less elegant and more laughable. But still cool. 10/10 would do again, although I feel the rain was a punishment for my overwhelming vanity at going somewhere just for a photo. Lesson learned Tlaloc, lesson learned.)
Alternatively, alongside art, San Miguel de Allende also hosts some of the country’s most traditional celebrations (during Easter and Independence Day), as well as throwing some truly modern spectacles into the mix, like June’s weird and wonderful Fiesta de los Locos. There are also plenty of activities in and around the city that will satisfy adventure hunters and history lovers, like riding in a hot air balloon, stopping by the little-known Cañada de la Virgen Otomi archaeological site or even the Mayan Bath hot springs.
Eating San Miguel de Allende
But what about the food? Ah, yes, the food. The source of all my spending, whether I’m at home in Mexico City ordering my third Sushi Roll of the week or travelling and can’t be arsed to cook. Well, I’d heard all about San Miguel’s street dining scene and it was…OK. I found really great tacos (albeit a bit pricier than I’m used to) on the corner of, I want to say, Insurgentes and Relox in the evening, and they were just the right level of greasy and patronised by plenty of locals for my liking. Then there was the relatively reasonably priced burrito joint, Los Burritos San Miguel, on Calle Hidalgo that’s great if you’re on a budget and want something relatively filling.
Finally, if you want to go all out, queue up for a table at Lavanda Café for breakfast. It might have been slightly pricier than I would have liked, but it was uber cute and totally worth it. Even if I did accidentally rile up some regios while waiting in the line, by telling them that Monterrey was ugly (I’m sorry, but it is). For the record, you should definitely order multiple dishes and split them if you’re travelling with a partner – we ordered the chilaquiles rojos and Egg’s Benedict, plus a signature lavender latte each and then a plate of fruit and cream cheese French toast for breakfast dessert. All breakfasts should come with dessert, I’ve decided.
Anyway, the only other place I would have liked to try in San Miguel was the supposedly reasonably priced Victoria’s on Ancha de San Antonio. The opening hours were totally screwy though and we didn’t have time during out flash in the pan visit to make it there.
As for drinking, we stopped by the tiny, quirky café-cum-cocktail bar Tres Hojas Café one night and I would recommend it if you want a casual drink, although you’ll need to get there early to grab one of the few seats.
I can’t say it was particularly good for budget eats though, to be honest. And the elote I had just after I arrived was average to poor at best, although my elote eating days have been truly ruined by the absolutely perfect one I ate a few weeks ago in Tlatelolco, Mexico City.
Related Post: A Perfect Day in Tlatelolco, Mexico City (COMING SOON) | A Quick + Dirty Insider Guide to the Best Neighbourhoods in Mexico City
Overall, San Miguel de Allende’s a petite town, made for wandering up and down the admittedly quaint (but also narrow and crowded) cobbled streets and taking pictures of the show-stopping main church (although I’m yet to see a good amateur photo of this building, given that it’s towering and surrounded by selfie snapping tourists at all hours of the day).
But let me be clear, there is, objectively, not that much to do in San Miguel de Allende, and if you don’t like street art, all my waxing lyrical about Guadalupe won’t have done anything to convince you to visit. Verdict? Pretty, but not great for budget travellers, although it is an iconic Mexican town that should be squeezed into your itinerary if possible.