Admittedly, my husband and I donned rose-tinted glasses for our recent trip to San Miguel de Allende, the Mexican metropolis known as SMA. Just four months after our wedding, the long weekend was a second honeymoon of sorts. We came for the fuss (why has Travel + Leisure’s twice named the city their favorite in the world?) and stayed for the Baroque Spanish architecture, delicious food and charming art galleries. That our visit happened to coincide with Mexican Independence Day, with SMA hosting one of the country’s largest celebrations, only added to the excitement.
Although each quaint corner begs for an Instagram post, SMA’s location on the Mexican plains—hours from the closest beach—has prevented it from becoming as mainstream as Tulum. The small city’s expat population has bestowed it with the kind of creature comforts that tourists won’t find elsewhere in central Mexico (like a Starbucks in the main square), while maintaining its local charm and culture. Consider this your chance to experience the real Mexico without straying too far off the beaten path.
Below are our top tips for a perfect weekend in the city.
Best Hotel: Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada
Many luxury tourists opt for the Rosewood San Miguel de Allende, with its modern furnishings and stunning rooftop bar. We, however, chose to stay at the Casa de Sierra Nevada, a five star hotel formed by nonconsecutive 17th- and 18th-century mansions. No two rooms are alike, but each is packed with local flavor and old world charm. And while the property isn’t a resort, it does boast several stellar dining options and a pool—and perhaps the city’s most central, action-packed location. It’s only a few blocks to the city’s famed pink church, the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel.
Best Upscale Dinner: The Restaurant
I had my qualms about a restaurant with such an on the nose name, but the Restaurant did not disappoint. Helmed by celebrity chef Danny Masterton, do not expect tacos in this cozy courtyard. Instead, you will be find upscale Mexican cuisine with international influences. Standouts include the Brussels sprout salad, the raw crudos and the ribeye steak. (Thursday, aka burger night, is the night to see and be seen.)
Best Tacos: Tacos Don Tomas
Great tacos can be found across the city, but our favorites came from this humble street cart. The establishment has no address, and is therefore impossible to find on a map. Trust you’re in the right place when you spot the herd of hungry locals. A limited number of tacos and tortas are on offer, the best of which (in our opinion) are the al pastor.
Best Brunch: Lavanda Cafe
This quaint cafe is frequented by locals and tourists alike—anyone hunting for the city’s best brunch. Enjoy a creamy cappuccino (which is available with an eponymous lavender twist) and traditional chilaquiles (a Mexican breakfast dish often served with eggs, tortilla chips and warm salsa). Ask for a seat in the rustic courtyard, where there is live music on weekends.
Best Coffee: Ki’bok Coffee SMA
Given the large number of tourists, it’s no wonder that Tulum-based Ki’bok chose to open its second location in SMA. This three story cafe, complete with a shaded rooftop terrace, is the closest you’ll find to an American coffeeshop. The food, while simple, is both delicious and fresh. However, it’s the coffee that kept us coming back day after day (often with croissants in our pockets from Panio Bakery up the street).
Best Rooftop Bar: QUINCE
SMA is a city of rooftop restaurants, each claiming to have the best view in town. It’s possible, however, that Quince actually does, especially when you consider its location just one block from the Parroquia church. The food here is surprisingly good, especially the sushi, but it’s the view and the vibe that you’re paying for. Reserve in advance and make sure to request a table near the bar and close to the action. Although packed with tourists, most appeared to be hip Millennials traveling down from Mexico City.
Best Gathering Place: Doce 18
Much of SMA’s activity centers in the city’s main plaza, El Jardin Principal, where locals gather each night to gossip and play soccer. However, you can also while the hours away at Doce 18, a synagogue-turned-high-end-food-court that reminded us of New York’s Chelsea Market. Stop by Taco Lab before sampling the region’s most sought-after tequila, Casa Dragones, in their proprietary tasting room. (There are also pizzas, burgers and other international fare on offer.) Warning: Those who drink too much Casa Dragones will want to steer clear of Doce 18’s adorable boutiques.
Best Cultural Site: Sanctuary of Atotonilco
Just 30 minutes north of the city, this 17th century church—often called “Mexico’s Sistine Chapel”—was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The building’s Baroque mural work, which took more than 30 years to complete, continues to draw 5,000 tourists each week. Plus, you’ll feel better about last night’s tequila if you do something cultural during the day…