The old-fashioned tour trolley rumbles along the cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende.
“Look inside those open doors!” gushes our trolley guide.
Hidden behind the large half-open doors fronting the streets of this colonial Mexican town, we glimpse magnificent Baroque and neo-Gothic mansions, built around garden courtyards with fountains; many house boutique hotels, designer shops, restaurants and art galleries.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Miguel’s entire historic center – more than 24 blocks – looks as if it popped right out of a fairytale. And taking a trolley ride through the city is one of the best things to do in San Miguel de Allende when you first arrive.
Apart from being fun, the trolley ride gives you a good overview of the key San Miguel de Allende attractions.
Then over the course of your visit, you can return to the different sights and enjoy exploring them more leisurely.
Things to do in San Miguel de Allende
At 6,000 feet above sea level in the heart of Mexico, San Miguel de Allende (aka “SMA”) has no beaches.
So why visit San Miguel de Allende?
Because it makes up for that lack in spades with its art, architecture and culture – and its wonderful climate.
It’s safe and one of the world’s hottest (as in most fabulous) spots to visit. In 2018, it was named the “Best Small City in the World” by Condé Nast Traveler for the second consecutive year.
San Miguel has even been rated the best city in the world. In 2013, Condé Nast Traveler readers voted it the world’s best city for its “great atmosphere, excellent restaurants, culture and ambience galore.”
It’s certainly one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico.
Recommended reading: Los Cabos Travel Guide to an Awesome Holiday!
When you’re ready to explore more of Mexico beyond the usual sun-and-sand holiday destinations, San Miguel de Allende should be on top of your list.
Try to stay a few days at least. If not possible, you can visit on a day tour from Mexico City.
Ready now to take a closer look at what to do in San Miguel de Allende?
1) Take the trolley
Let’s start with a little more about that trolley ride…
We crane our necks to see where the guide is pointing.
An important center along the old silver route – when Spanish mines supplied more than a third of the world’s silver – San Miguel is studded with well-preserved 17th and 18th century buildings lining higgledy-piggledy cobbled roads.
Most buildings are painted in orange, rust and pink colors; strict guidelines ensure renovations conform to historical standards.
The problem is there are too many beautiful buildings vying for our attention to let us focus on just one! Our heads swivel like those bobblehead dolls you sometimes see inside cars.
If anything, the bumpety-bump tour is too quick. The only solution is to revisit on foot some of those sights immediately afterward…
Map showing the San Miguel de Allende tourist office:
2) Gawk at La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel
The San Miguel de Allende church known as La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel is the town’s most iconic sight.
You can’t miss it. Just look for the soaring pink spires rising up from the church’s pink neo-Gothic façade.
The local stone mason who built it got his inspiration from a postcard picture of Gaudi’s quirky Sagrada Familia in Barcelona – or so the legend goes.
If there’s no service going on, you’re welcome to enter the church and have a look inside too. But you won’t be able to take pictures of the interior.
3) Retire here
Some 80,000 residents live in the actual town.
About 20% are expatriates. Most are from the U.S.; the balance are from Canada and Europe. They came to visit San Miguel de Allende. Then they stayed.
They’re an engaged lot of talented people who paint, sculpt, make jewelry, offer art and culinary classes, run bakeries and beguiling boutique hotels, raise funds for restoration projects, teach Spanish, operate restaurants, volunteer and generally have helped turn this Mexican colonial city into a thriving, friendly, cultural community.
If you’re looking for a great place to retire, consider San Miguel de Allende. You’ll be in good company.
The cost of living is also less expensive than, for example, in the U.S. (Except that housing prices have gone through the roof in recent years as more and more expats move to live here.) And the climate is mild year-round, averaging in the 70s F most days.
It’s no wonder so many expats choose to retire in San Miguel de Allende!
4) Tour the mask museum
One of those very interesting expats is Bill LeVasseur.
One moment, the former advertising executive and his wife were building a retirement home in San Miguel. The next, he became the curator of a remarkable non-profit mask museum, called Another Face of Mexico.
The museum showcases more than 500 indigenous Mexican masks. (LeVasseur’s passion with ceremonial Mexican masks has also led to frequent speaking engagements at American universities).
After we set up an appointment, Le Vasseur invites us to first meet over a glass of wine at his B&B, Casa de la Cuesta (which the retirement home morphed into). He tells us how he’s traveled all across rural Mexico, collecting ceremonial masks used in dances and rituals. Then he tours us around the museum across the lane.
The variety of masks is bewildering.
We see masks adorned with bull horns and boar bristles, and death masks with devil figures.
One strange mask is in fact a thick wooden belt with a horse’s head the size of a football sticking out the front – it symbolizes the Spanish general on his horse, leading the Christian charge against the Moors during the Arab occupation of Spain.
The whole exhibition is a fascinating introduction to the important role that masks play in Mexico’s many native cultures.
5) Admire the Sanctuary of Atotonilco
About a 15-minute drive away from San Miguel de Allende, you find the Sanctuary of Atotonilco.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the church is decorated with the most amazing frescoes. They’re so beautiful that the church has been dubbed the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico.”
6) See the Church of the Immaculate Conception
The Church of the Immaculate Conception (Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepcion) is another of the San Miguel de Allende churches to see.
Crowned by a cupola decorated with Corinthian columns, the church rises beside a striking yellow convent on Canal Street.
“Back in the 1700s, the enormously wealthy Canal family’s 16-year-old daughter wanted to be a nun, so she asked the King of Spain if she could build a convent for 72 nuns,” our trolly guide rattles off on our tram tour.
Known locally as Las Monjas (The Nuns), the church still operates for the sisters of the convent.
7) Dig the plants at the botanical garden
Okay, don’t actually “dig” the plants. But if all that art and architecture begin to overwhelm, you can find serenity outdoors at El Charco del Ingenio.
Created by a private citizens’ initiative, this 67-hectare botanical garden and nature preserve on the town’s outskirts is home to a sprawling array of cacti from around the world.
The man-size, Y-shaped cucharilla, over 300 years old, gets our vote as the most unusual cactus.
Miles of hiking trails also wind through peaceful countryside overlooking a river carved into a valley floor, home to egrets and ducks. Sip a cactus juice, then refreshed, you can easily tackle the scenic 15-minute walk back to town.
8) Try fried grasshoppers
This is definitely one of the more unusual things to do in San Miguel de Allende.
Fried grasshoppers are a popular local snack. They’re good as a salty, crunchy topping on guacamole – or so we’re told…
9) Check out the lovely hotels
San Miguel de Allende is home to many fabulous and artsy hotels and B&Bs.
They usually have very pretty courtyards, and you should pop in and take a peek at some of them. They make for great photo backgrounds too.
10) People-watch at El Jardin
This one is pretty easy. You’ll probably do it anyway without any planning.
Plant yourself on a bench among the rose bushes of El Jardin – the main garden square – and engage in some good old-fashioned people-watching.
We’re particularly amused by the residents who putter by on ATVs (very practical vehicles, by the way, for those hilly cobbled streets).
11) Sip drinks at a rooftop bar
At sunset, rooftop bars are popular for drinking in the views (as well as the margaritas).
Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar nails the rooftop bar experience. On top of the deluxe Rosewood hotel – overlooking the Gothic-inspired La Parroquia church, twinkling lights and terracotta roofs – Luna is hands-down the best place at sunset for stupendous views of the city.
Bartenders mix up inventive cocktails like hibiscus and tamarind margaritas. The “Oasis San Miguel” drink even contains artisanal ice cubes made of green tea, lemon and Angelica.
Perhaps order Baja-style lobster tacos and other tapas to go with those drinks?
And when the sun sets, you’ll be totally transfixed by the changing light and colors as the sky first turns gold, then pink and finally a deep velvet purple.
If you get chilly, heat lamps and blankets add cozy warmth as you settle back into down-filled cushions.
Yes, this San Miguel de Allende rooftop bar is magic, pure and simple!
12) Smile at the Toy Museum
Want to feel like a kid again?
With such a cultural side, it’s probably no surprise that there are several museums in San Miguel de Allende. But the most fun one is its delightful toy museum, the Museo La Esquina.
13) Visit Fabrica La Aurora
If you like art, then make your way to Fabrica La Aurora.
It’s a very interesting collection of art studios, art galleries, jewelry shops, home decorating stores and cafés, all housed within an old fabric factory. You’ll see all sorts of high-end original paintings, textiles and sculptures.
On the first Saturday of each month, there’s an “Art Walk” where the studios and shops stay open late, live music is played and drinks and snacks are offered.
14) Eat at great restaurants
Don’t get us started on the food scene – we may not stop! But we’ll try to be brief…
From lowly (but delish!) tacos to imaginative tasting menus, San Miguel de Allende is a foodie paradise.
One of the best restaurants in San Miguel de Allende is The Restaurant.
With a lovely Moroccan courtyard setting near the main square, it’s popular with expats (try the tuna tartare with wasabi, corn and avocado).
When it pours one evening, the candle-lit, cave-like La Grotta is our cozy refuge for soul-satisfying, wood-oven pizza.
15) Stroll the streets
But our favorite experience?
Simply soaking up the colonial charm while getting lost amid San Miguel’s tangle of narrow atmospheric streets.
Just strolling the cobblestone lanes and alleys – peering into various nooks and crannies – is really one of the top things to do in San Miguel de Allende.
When the sun sets and the town’s wrought-iron lamplights cast a golden glow, the town feels absolutely magical. If you decide then and there that you’re never going to leave, or will return to live here permanently, you won’t be the first person to do so.
Where to stay in San Miguel de Allende?
Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada:
We stayed at the colonial-style Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada. Exquisite!
Read our review: Colonial Living at Belmond Casa De Sierra Nevada
Rosewood San Miguel:
Another 5 star hotel in San Miguel de Allende is the Rosewood San Miguel, a swank historic-looking hacienda.
Casa de la Cuesta:
Owned and run by Another Face of Mexico’s mask museum curator and his wife, Casa de la Cuesta is one of the best B&Bs in San Miguel de Allende.
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We first wrote about San Miguel de Allende for Cruise & Travel Lifestyles and Compass magazines. And we’re super excited that our articles won a couple of travel writing awards! You can see some of our awards here.
Photo credits: 1, 3, 5, 7, 8 , 10, 15 to 22, 24, 28 and 34 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 2, 4, 6 and 9 Visit San Miguel | 11 and 33 Rosewood San Miguel | 12 to 14, 31 and 32 Pixabay | Remaining photos courtesy of the respective hotel, restaurant or business