Explore Mexico’s Historic San Miguel de Allende

Hot air balloons take to the sky behind the Templo del Oratorio de San Felipe Neri in San Miguel de Allende.

Hot air balloons take to the sky behind the Templo del Oratorio de San Felipe Neri in San Miguel de Allende.


Story by Kassondra Cloos; photos by Michael Ciaglo

Kassondra is a freelance travel writer based in London. Michael is a freelance photographer based in Denver.

A short road trip from Mexico City provides a perfect weekend getaway.

Visit San Miguel de Allende — about three hours northwest of Mexico City — and you’ll understand right away why the government has designated it as a pueblo mágico, one of 132 towns known for their beauty and rich history. This city, founded by a Franciscan monk in 1542, is particularly enchanting, and looks as though it belongs in a fairy tale.

And with nearby hot springs, an upscale culinary scene and the mountainous state of Guanajuato as a playground, you can easily lean into a dreamy vacation filled with a healthy balance of active adventure and relaxation.

At the center of town, you can’t miss the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, a neo-Gothic church built in the 17th century and known for its fanciful pink towers that would be at home in any theme park. Legend has it that the façade’s designer, Indigenous stonemason Zeferino Gutiérrez Muñoz, was inspired by postcard illustrations of the Cologne Cathedral in Germany and other European churches.

You’ll learn lots more about the church and other attractions by booking a walking tour with Taste of San Miguel as soon as you arrive. Bilingual guides with deep historical knowledge will lead you to the town’s best chocolate shops, food tastings, local taco haunts and dining options that offer creative vegan takes on traditional dishes. Just make sure you wear sturdy, flat-heeled footwear.

As our guide told us, San Miguel often is jokingly referred to as the “city of fallen women” because it’s so easy to turn an ankle on the cobblestone streets if you’re wearing high heels. She also pointed out San Miguel Shoes, a boutique that sells footwear with cobblestone-ready soles designed specifically to handle the town’s hilly streets. The shoes make an excellent souvenir.

San Miguel — and Beyond

We stayed at the new Amatte Wellnest Community, a restful and beautifully landscaped hotel with large suites that can accommodate groups. With the hotel’s stark white adobe walls, clean lines and statuesque cacti situated in exactly the right places, it’s hard to imagine a more Instagrammable place. Hacman’s, the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, is an essential stop even if you stay elsewhere. As you enjoy sustainable fine dining close to day’s end, you’ll enjoy panoramic views of the mountains of Guanajuato framed by more picture-perfect cacti and swathed in the richest sunset colors I’ve ever seen.

Amatte also offers secure valet parking staffed by a vigilant team. On our way to breakfast one morning, a staff member told us a valet had noticed overnight that our rental car had a flat tire. As we got ready for the day’s adventures, the parking crew kindly changed the tire so we soon could be on our way.

You could easily spend a week or longer just exploring the hilly, narrow alleyways of San Miguel, a municipality of about 174,000. Many tourists that did just that fell in love with the town and came back for good after retirement, contributing to a significant expat community. Whatever your future holds, consider hopping in your car for a day trip to Bernal, about two hours southeast of San Miguel.

Peña de Bernal, one of the tallest rock monoliths in the world, towers over the town. Rising 1,420 feet, just the sight of the natural monument is remarkable, both from a distance and close-up. For 30 pesos (roughly $1.50 US; bring cash), you can hike to a viewpoint about halfway up the monolith’s face for panoramic views of the town and the valley beyond. Though the round-trip hike is only about 1.4 miles, the short but steep trail takes some time. You’ll gain about 715 feet of elevation on the way up, and you can expect a bit of a scramble in places. If a hike doesn’t appeal, get a good gander of the big rock from one of the many restaurants in town with rooftop terraces that offer stunning views.

While you’re out, the colonial town of Santiago de Querétaro — an hour west of Bernal and south of San Miguel — is another worthy stop. In 1810, Mexico first declared its independence from Spain in Querétaro and promptly launched a rebellion that lasted more than a decade. Now the city’s center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Museums and historic sites are abundant, including the impressive 18th-century aqueduct, 75 feet tall and stretching just over three-quarters of a mile. Good food is plentiful here, too. To recharge after a day of adventure, assemble your own tacos, ordered by the kilo, at the colorful, cozy Taquería Santa Cecilia, just a short walk from the main square.

Great Shopping, Hot Springs

Back in San Miguel, before you head back to Mexico City, spend a few hours exploring Fábrica La Aurora, a former textile factory that now houses dozens of art galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Getting delightfully lost here is easy, as you’ll be mesmerized by colorful explosions of artwork mingled with clues about the building’s former life.

Afterward, pop in and out of nearby bakeries, shops and historic buildings. The community library features a sunny, quiet courtyard for reading, and Botica de Santa Teresita, an old-fashioned pharmacy, seems to always have at least one Weimaraner sitting pretty on the countertop.

Don’t miss San Miguel’s natural hot springs. Escondido Place, a park, a spa and a hotel just 20 minutes north of town, feels secret and lush, thanks to steamy human-made caves with stained glass roofs. The cost is about $10 US to get in. Take turns with other visitors to stand underneath jets of hot water that tumble through the roof to massage your muscles — an ideal treat after a long day of walking around town or hiking in the mountains.

Though it does have a reputation as a tourist hot spot for good reason, be assured that San Miguel’s enchantment is hardly overhyped. Somehow, even the highest expectations for this beloved town are no match for the reality of its beauty.

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