Is this small Mexican city the best in the world?
SAN MIGUEL de ALLENDE, Mexico — We all love a good list. Best chocolatiers in Brussels? Yes, please. Top places to shop in Paris? Let’s hear it. Best cat videos on the Internet? Not travel related, but still very relevant to my interests.
However I’m a bit dubious when a list broadly declares a place to be the best city in the world. How can you determine the best city? It’s like trying to choose your favorite Backstreet Boy or Spice Girl (impossible!). Despite this, the readers of Travel + Leisure magazine seem quite clear on their favorite city in the world. In both 2017 and 2018, it was San Miguel de Allende. It landed in the top three in 2016.
When I heard this, I wondered how a city of 60,000 in the center of Mexico could one-up London, Tokyo, Reykjavik, or Sault Ste. Marie. Maybe not so much Sault Ste. Marie, but you get the picture. It’s a Herculean task given the beauty, diversity, and culture that you can find while globetrotting.
I decided to conduct my own investigation. I needed to see San Miguel de Allende for myself.
After a few days and a bit of exploration, here’s my take on the Travel + Leisure list: San Miguel de Allende is not the best city in the world. But the thing about these addictive, easy-to-digest lists and surveys is that they are purely subjective. One traveler’s San Miguel de Allende may be another traveler’s Oslo, Cape Town, or, yes, even Sault Ste. Marie.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved San Miguel de Allende. After my trip I certainly understood why T+L readers went bonkers for it. It is an insanely charming place. I was smitten. It’s dripping with Spanish colonial-era charm, it’s not terribly expensive, and it has a vibrant arts and culinary scene. At the center of it all is Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, a pink, neo-Gothic cathedral that gives the city an unexpected level of grandeur as its spires rise majestically like the nearby mountains.
The UNESCO-protected city is so authentic that the jagged cobblestones give your calves a better workout than any CrossFit program. I learned this my first day when I went for an art tour through the city with visual artist Jose Luis Arias.
Art is an integral part of the city’s history. Foreign artists arrived en masse in the late 1930s, pulled in by the grapefruit-hued twilight and gasp-worthy scenery. US soldiers studying art on the G.I. Bill flooded the town after World War II, drawn by schools such as Bellas Artes and Instituto Allende. Frida Kahlo hosted her famous salons here, and wherever Kahlo went, Diego Rivera was sure to follow.
It no longer possesses the same bohemian spirit, but the artistic legacy continues with plentiful galleries selling work created in and near the city over the past 100 years. I also got a look at the courtyards and cloisters of the historic art schools. I recommend you do the same. Not only are they peaceful and immaculately groomed, they’re also splashed with striking murals.
The galleries are thriving in San Miguel de Allende, and so are the foreigners. Thanks to the low cost of living and temperate climate, expat retirees seem to be as abundant as the souvenir shops around the main square of the city. Before I forget, don’t go to those souvenir shops. Go to the Mercado de Artesanias for gifts instead.
Some folks I chatted up, both locals and foreigners, bemoaned the large population of Americans in San Miguel de Allende. I understand why they may feel this way. As a place grows more popular, prices rise for everyone. At times it felt as if I was in an episode of HGTV’s “House Hunters International.” I imagined that American couples who were frittering away afternoons sipping wine at Dôce 18 were trying to decide between one of three homes a real estate agent had just shown them.
Perhaps the upside to the influx of expats, which is between 10 percent and 30 percent of the population, depending on who you ask, is a booming gastronomy scene. I was in the city less than a week and felt as if I needed more time to explore the restaurants and markets. I would generally start my day at Panio, a comfortable bakery where I would pick up almond bread or a croissant to help me power over cobblestones. On a slightly more indulgent morning I went to MuRo Café for Mexican-style eggs with onion, green pepper and tomato.
For the sake of tasting a broader cross-section of eateries in my limited time, I took the Taste of San Miguel Food Tour ($80). These tours can be hit or miss, but I found this one to be helpful in learning about the history of the city. It was also helpful because a woman on my tour with a Kathie Lee Gifford-like thirst for wine was ready to order a bottle of vino at every stop. Sí, por favor.
Thanks to the city’s foodie culture, cooking classes are popular. They’re also a smart way to learn about good restaurants. Most start with a visit to the Mercado San Juan de Dios, where instructors will walk you through the food stalls and show you the ingredients you’ll be using for cooking. One of the most popular classes is taught by Kris Rudolph, the owner of El Buen Café and author of several cookbooks (classes start at $120). I recommend trying Sazon, the class taught at the Belmond Casa Sierra Nevada.
And while we’re speaking of the Casa Sierra Nevada, I’d also recommend it for your accommodation. Not only did I appreciate the central location, but the hotel also gives a sense of the colonial Spanish architecture that’s prevalent throughout the center of the city. Open the massive 18th century wooden doors and you step into a courtyard with a fountain, a pool, and spectacular views. Starting at just over $200 a night, it’s slightly more expensive than other options in town, but I was a fan of both the location and the dining options.
San Miguel de Allende really is about the views. From your lunch view (try La Posadita), to your pre-meal cocktail (Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar at the Rosewood Hotel) to dinner (Antonia Bistro), you should spend time seeking out the best vantage points. On a clear day, put on your most comfortable shoes and trek up to the El Mirador lookout. All that calorie burning will give you an excuse to visit more eateries, such as the Restaurant (just the Restaurant), Jacinto 1930, Moxi, and the many mom and pop restaurants. Learn the Spanish for “What’s your favorite restaurant?” (¿Cuál es tu restaurante favorito?) and start quizzing the locals, not the expats.
You’ll spend your days here touring the baroque and renaissance churches, going to the botanical garden, the hot springs, or browsing art. This city is not the easiest to reach from Boston, so do as much as you can while you’re here, or tack it onto a Mexico City getaway. There are no direct flights from Logan, and it’s more than a three hour drive from Mexico City. Even the nearest airport in Leon (Del Bajío International) is more than an hour away.
But no matter what you do, don’t think of where you’d rank San Miguel de Allende in a list. I forgot about all the top city in the world malarkey after my first day. Instead, I simply thought of it as a special place that I was fortunate enough to visit and soak in the views.