Located over a mile above sea level in the central highlands of Mexico, San Miguel de Allende effortlessly blends a contemporary Mexican feel with a rich, centuries-old colonial heritage.
Founded in 1542, San Miguel has hosted two landmark Mexican events. In its first incarnation, the town served as the headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition in New Spain. You can still see the headquarters building and the Inquisition jail a few blocks southwest of El Jardin, the town plaza.
The other landmark event has to do with the city's namesake, Ignacio Allende, leader and martyr of the Mexican independence movement. Born in San Miguel in 1779, Allende and other revolutionaries plotted here against the Spanish, and instigated a full-scale revolution in 1810 when they captured the city.
The movement faced a long road ahead, however, and the Spanish soon regained control of San Miguel. Revolution leader Allende was executed in 1811, 10 years before Mexican independence was finally achieved. In 1826, the government changed the town's name from San Miguel El Grande to San Miguel de Allende. In 1926, San Miguel was declared a national monument.
Artists and Revolutionaries
The current tone of the town was set back in the 1930s, when San Miguel became an international art colony. Attracted by the colonial architecture, crystalline sunlight, and mountain scenery and air, a steady stream of writers, painters, dancers, musicians, and artists of every conceivable ilk descended upon the town. Two important schools, Bellas Artes and Instituto Allende, became magnets for students from all over the world.
As with virtually all artists' colonies, however, San Miguel has also been discovered by laypeople and vacationers, and it now is as much a retirement and getaway town as an artists' haven. Many U.S. and Canadian citizens have established winter homes here, while easy access to Mexico City brings many Mexican weekenders into town.
Consequently, art galleries and international restaurants now fill the colonial structures, and English is spoken as commonly as Spanish. As little as 15 years ago, dogs slept in the streets; now traffic jams clog the streets during the peak season. Yet the mountain air has remained fresh, and the government's tight leash on development has maintained the city's historic flavor.
Exploring the City
El Jardin, the main plaza, remains the geographic and social center of San Miguel. Everyone gathers on the wrought-iron benches under the jacaranda trees, from sketching artists to engaging old men. La Parroquia, a sandstone church, dominates the plaza's south side. Built in the late 1800s, the church was designed by a self-trained Indian mason named Ceferino Gutierrez, who gleaned his inspiration from postcards depicting European Gothic cathedrals. Supposedly, he relayed design concepts to the building crew by drawing with a stick in the sand, but this is hard to believe given the church's elaborate spires and ornamentation.
Near the southwest corner of El Jardin lies the Casa de Ignacio Allende, the birthplace of the town's namesake. The building now houses a museum and gallery dedicated to the national hero.
Further west of the plaza you can find Bellas Artes, one of the two major schools of San Miguel. Once a convent, it now serves as a place to educate artists. Visitors can view the school's rotating exhibit gallery or dine on the patio.
Just beside Bellas Artes, you'll notice the Iglesia de la Concepcion, also designed by Gutierrez. The church is distinguished by a huge dome--purportedly inspired by Les Invalides in Paris--and features neoclassical columns and pilasters, and antique oil paintings.
On the other side of town sits the Iglesia de San Francisco, an excellent example of the extremely elaborate Spanish baroque style known as churrigueresque architecture.
Charmed by the Past
While these sites shouldn't be missed, the best part of the city is simply the old-world ambience. You can stay in hotels that inhabit centuries-old buildings, listen to spontaneous musical performances, or marvel at the spring contrast of the blooming purple jacarandas against the red-ochre buildings. In the markets and galleries you can browse centuries-old styles of Indian crafts, including San Miguel's famous metalwork, or view contemporary works by international artists. Outside of town, you can explore the mountains and high desert, or simply contemplate them with a sunset view from the El Mirador lookout at the southeast end of town.
San Miguel de Allende is both a romantic getaway, and a vibrant cultural destination for art and history buffs. If you decide to go, however, be careful: like so many before you, you might find yourself seduced into staying a few days--or years--longer than you ever intended.