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How San Miguel Become One of Mexico’s Leading Luxury Destinations

Casa de Sierra Nevada

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“Quaint” and “charming” aren’t going to suffice as descriptors for much longer

Hundreds of revelers from the international bar community gathered in San Miguel de Allende in early May for the North America’s 50 Best Bars 2023 awards ceremony. Clad in a black suit paired with a black dress shirt, Mauricio Trejo, the town’s municipal president, kicked off the night as dozens of bar teams awaited their ranking fates, surrounded by assorted friends and hangers-on, along with social media stars and scribes, either of whom could also be described as friends and or hangers-on.

San Miguel de Allende is no secret. It’s been honored as the “world’s best small city” by Condé Nast Traveler three years running, and its historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet, in some ways, this raucous celebration signals an emergence, an elevation to a higher plane for the quaint commune already situated at a lofty perch of some 6,233 feet while resting atop such aforementioned lists and pulling in a range of additional accolades.

Is San Miguel still an almost impossibly charming little village? Yes. But has it also emerged in full as a world class destination and one of Mexico’s leading tourism draws? No doubt about it. San Miguel de Allende is here to stay as one of the premier places to post up on holiday across the whole of Mexico, even while lacking the beachfront that so many stateside travelers prioritize when heading to the country. There’s a sensational culinary scene, luxury hotels and resorts, and that picturesque aesthetic that appears as if conjured up from a fairy tale.

Mexico’s Leading Luxury Destinations

The streets of San Miguel, Jake Emen

San Miguel consists of hilly, cobblestone streets, with centuries old two-story buildings painted in infinite shades of red, yellow, pink and orange. Green vines hang off the edge of rooftops where one trendy bar or restaurant or another beckons passersby to pop in for a reprieve from the heat. Around every corner is another flower-filled plaza or architecturally stunning church.

“It is a very small city, but it’s very beautiful,” says Joel Echeveste, the front office manager for Casa De Sierra Nevada, a Belmond Hotel. “San Miguel is like the heart of Mexico.” He’s referring not only to its central locale, but also its history, art and culture.

The town predates the Spanish arrival and conquest of Mexico, though was formally founded in 1542. Eventually it became a noted destination for American and Canadian travelers and expats by the middle of the 20th century. “Then it all started to change when the Mexicans started to come to San Miguel,” says Jose Morales, a local driver and guide who was born and raised in San Miguel. In other words, when Mexicans from elsewhere in the country started to come to San Miguel for their vacations and weekend trips, that’s when its tourism bonafides were established.

In a town with approximately 100,000 residents, about 15 or 20% of whom can safely be assumed to be American, the dynamics at play in San Miguel are a bit different than in other places around the country. “Ninety percent of all the Mexicans you see here on the weekends will be tourists,” Morales says. “I joke that if you see a white person; that’s the local.”

Mexico’s Leading Luxury Destinations

San Miguel de Allende Cathedral, Jake Emen

San Miguel’s storybook setting and unique blend of locals, tourists and expats creates a convivial atmosphere that bolsters its appeal even further. “There’s always something going on in San Miguel,” Morales tells me. “People say that in San Miguel we’re always looking for any excuse to have a festival.”

One of the destinations in town that seems to be in the center of the celebrations is Casa Dragones, the lauded tequila brand founded by Bertha González Nieves. “We launched in San Miguel in August 2009, with a party in La Casa Dragones,” she says. “It was our first party and our debut of Casa Dragones Joven. Since then, Casa Dragones has been part of the social fabric of San Miguel de Allende; we consider San Miguel de Allende our spiritual hometown, and La Casa Dragones our spiritual home.”

That spiritual home was a 17th century stable built for the Dragones cavalry, a band integral to winning Mexico’s independence in 1810. La Casa Dragones reopened in fall 2022 after a lengthy restoration project, now offering bookable tequila tastings and experiences, and during the North America’s 50 Best Bars celebration became the epicenter for an endless parade of bar parties, pop-ups and guest shifts galore. “We’re proud to be an integral part of the fabric of San Miguel de Allende, and we’re proud to be part of the rich, vibrant community that calls San Miguel de Allende home,” Nieves says.

Here’s how you can explore that community for yourself:

How to Get to San Miguel de Allende

Choose your own adventure to arrive into San Miguel. The closest two airports are Queretaro International Airport (QRO) and Guanajuato International Airport (or Bajío International Airport, BJX), either of which is about a 90 minute drive from the city. Alternatively, Mexico City is a 3.5-hour drive away, and some might prefer that route while avoiding an extra flight connection, or for extending a trip after a perfect weekend in CDMX, perhaps.

Mexico’s Leading Luxury Destinations

The pool at Case de Sierra Nevada, Jake Emen

Where to Stay in San Miguel de Allende

Casa De Sierra Nevada is the preeminent luxury retreat in town. It’s two blocks from the city’s main square and the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, its main attraction, and consists of half a dozen historic buildings spanning several blocks. It’s at once part of the town itself while still managing to feel like a private enclave.

The hotel’s central hub is a lush, grassy courtyard with a pool and lounge chairs, offering a sultry touch that weaves together the property’s historic appeal and Mexican style with modern amenities geared toward indulgence. Rooms feature clay tile floors, bathrooms with large copper soaking tubs and white and blue tiled vanities, and outdoor patios with private, heated plunge pools as well as indoor-outdoor showers.

A new addition to the property is the rooftop Tunki, a space operated by Mexico City’s Handshake Speakeasy, which was crowned Mexico’s best bar during the North America’s 50 Best reveal in town. In addition to offering well-made cocktails showcasing local ingredients and Peruvian fare, the bar serves up some of the best views in town, a sensational, direct shot of the church’s famed pink spires soaring above the rolling hillsides of the city center.

The hotel’s Restaurante del Parque is a separate outpost located a five-minute walk away, amid a garden-like setting. Here, Oaxacan cuisine is crossed with fare from Puebla and matched with drinks, including several dozen labels of Mexican wine. The restaurant’s mole tasting, with four moles arranged from sweet to spicy on a platter along with fresh green corn tortillas, is one of the city’s must-have plates.

Mexico’s Leading Luxury Destinations

Casa de Sierra Nevada, Jake Emen

While Case De Sierra Nevada is integrated into San Miguel’s existing structures and streets, Live Aqua is an entity of its own. Billed as an Urban Resort, the hotel is a swanky retreat whose showpiece is a sleek resort pool lined with tiers of daybeds and cabanas, along with a series of outdoor lounges dotted with hammocks, swing chairs and hot tubs.

The property is separated into multiple wings and boasts gigantic art installations and eye-catching sculptures, while rooms showcase contemporary, eclectic and colorful décor. The property is arty and airy, modern and chic, and in a word, sexy. There are several in-house dining and drinking options, including Spice Market and its Southeast Asian fare, Zibu Allende, which meshes Mexican with Thai, a casual pool bar which serves as the center of an all-day party when the sun is shining, and Bar Casa Dragones, a bar and cigar lounge run in conjunction with the tequila brand.

Mexico’s Leading Luxury Destinations

Mole tasting at Restaurante del Parque, Jake Emen

Exploring San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel is best enjoyed by dedicating an afternoon or two to simply strolling its streets, taking in the stunning sights found down every back alley and in every square or plaza. Pick a direction and go, and you’re bound to come upon the city center’s major sites with ease, while finding the true treasures tucked away in the form of small craft stores and family run shops, and endless restaurants, bars, cantinas and cafes.

There’s a new generation of small businesses and entrepreneurs found in San Miguel, exemplified by an establishment like Bekeb, a trendy rooftop cocktail bar run by Fabiola Padilla, a veteran of Enrique Olvera’s Cosme in New York. “We are the first modern cocktail bar in San Miguel,” Padilla says.

After opening right before the pandemic, the Guadalajara native soon found herself living in the hotel building that the bar crowns, utilizing the otherwise empty space without any other option but to see herself, and her bar, through to the other side of the crisis. “I was on my own at the whole property,” she says. Now, Bekeb is a testament to her perseverance, and yet another feather in the cap of the city’s emergence on the international scene.

Such stories are readily found across the city. Mamá Mela is a homey burrito shop featuring a range of daily house-made options such as cochinita pibil and mole, as well as vegetarian choices including huitlacoche. Store owner Humberto reopened the family operation three years ago, and has since transformed it into a lunchtime destination, carefully crisping up each burrito on his flat top grill while chatting with visitors and offering occasional pours of beverages such as aguamiel, pulque and mezcal. The long, thin burritos, focused on its rich, slow-cooked star ingredients and free of unneeded fluff, are far removed from the typical burritos you’ll find stateside. They’re such a satisfying, belly-filling bargain that I visited three times in a four day span.

Mexico’s Leading Luxury Destinations

Mama Mela, Jake Emen

There’s plenty to do outside of the city center, too. Fabrica Aurora, walkable from town, though not quite central, is lined with an array of artisan shops, galleries and workshops. Moving into the countryside, there are vineyards to visit, such as Viñedos San Lucas, Vinícola Toyan and Cuna de Tierra. Spend a day horseback riding through the rugged terrain at Xotolar Ranch, or go on an ATV or quad bike tour of the surrounding hillsides. Soothe those saddle sores at one of the region’s numerous hot springs, such as La Gruta Spa, the Mayan Baths, Xote Parque Aquatico or Escondido Place.

Back at the North America’s 50 Best Bars party, New York’s Double Chicken Please emerged as the surprise number one winner. The whole of Mexico’s bar scene was in town for the fiesta, spearheaded by Mexico City’s fantastic cocktail community including Handshake Speakeasy (#2), Licorería Limantour (#4), Baltra Bar (#16), Rayo (#17), Hanky Panky (#20), Cafe de Nadie (#25), Kaito del Valle (#26) and Brujas (#47), and also featured other bars from across the country such as Zapote Bar (#11), El Gallo Altanero (#21), Sabina Sabe (#22), Arca (#23), Selva (#31) and Aruba Day Drink (#40).

San Miguel did not feel out of place as the host for such luminaries. It shined, its humble setting belying its exceptional capabilities, offering a tantalizing taste of what’s on tap in town all throughout the year. Pretty soon, in fact, quaint and charming aren’t going to suffice as descriptors for San Miguel de Allende.