It’s an enchanting and atmospheric town where 500-year-old churches with sharp spires soar skyward and narrow cobblestoned streets flanked in spice-colored walls reveal lush, shady courtyards inside. These places have seen the passing of time for generations and it’s fascinating to explore them all. But this beautifully preserved UNESCO heritage town is also known as the land of stylish shops where big spenders and bargain hunters come from all over Mexico and North America to take advantage of its fine art, folk arts, fashion, house wares, handcrafted furniture and Mexican antiques.
Mercado de Artesanias– the Artist’s Market
To start off, walk through Mercado de Artesanias – the Artist’s Market – it’s such a riot of colorful creativity that it should be on every psychiatrist’s prescription pad. Even the crankiest traveler or snootiest great aunt won’t be able to resist its cheerful charms. Sightsee along the three long blocks of small storefronts and stalls selling folk art from all over Mexico and take it all in before you bargain and buy – there’s so much to choose from.
I love the hand-painted ceramic dinnerware and elaborately patterned pottery soap dispensers that turn any bathroom into a party. Hand-crocheted and felted stuffed animals have enchanting individual personalities, and once you’ve taken a few of the intricately punched tin lanterns home and popped some candles in, your evening will sparkle with a cascade of tiny shooting stars. Carved wooden bowls, Mexican pewter platters, funny piñatas, cowboy hats, handwoven tablecloths , painted toys, silver jewelry – the market is filled with all that and more.
As soon as you venture beyond the market, you’ll see shops selling colorful folk art on nearly every block. Some carry the same items as the market, while others have more elaborately crafted items or handcrafts from different artisans. There are so many that it’s important to spend plenty of time wandering the streets and exploring whatever catches your fancy.
The best selection of hand embroidered blouses and dresses is at Nuevo Mundo, where the colors seem brighter and the embroidery extra lavish. The clothing comes in a rainbow of hues and multiple styles, and there are all kinds of other items here too, like embroidered purses and cute little soccer playing skeletons.
Bazar El Viejo Oeste
If you’re a fan of angels, Bazaar El Viejo Oeste’s grand emporium of hand-carved wooden angel wings come in every size imaginable, including some so big they’d rival the wingspan of an albatross – or at least span the wall of your dining room. The rest of the store showcases other carved architectural pieces along with massive tables crafted out of impressive slabs of wood.
Joyas de Autor
In a town packed with stunning silver jewelry stores, Joyas de Autor stands out as especially worth a stop. Upscale Mexican silver – collars, cuffs, earrings and more – designed by internationally renowned jewelers María Belen and Roy Nilson have been crafted in a compelling classic contemporary style. If you only have time to stop in one jewelry store, let this be the one.
The Yam Gallery in Instituto Allende features the work of mid-century silver jewelry designer William Spratling who established a silver studio in the early art colony days of San Miguel. He’s now very collectible and hard to find, but this gallery represents and sells his statement-making pieces.
Topacio Jewelry Store
Set aside some time to browse Topacio Jewelry Store if you have lots of people to buy for. Its selection of silver jewelry is so vast that indecisive types might want to arrive when it opens. Styles are both simple and classic — and arty and unusual.
San Miguel Shoes
Cobblestone streets and sidewalks don’t really lend themselves to stilettos… so if you’ve left your comfortable shoes at home, hobble over to San Miguel Shoes to try on their line of locally made shoes created with wide straps of brightly colored elastic –then fashionably flounce around the town in ease and style.
Displays at boho-chic Mixta are quirky, eccentric – and incredibly cool. Tall forked trees anchor racks of modern clothing designed by Mexican fashion designers; linen mannequins sport sleek skirts of dried flowers and grasses and showcase exotic jewelry at their necks; housewares and gifts are displayed in an elegant frescoed room recalling Pompei if Mexican artists had worked there.
For a high fashion, lux spin on the traditional Mexican serape, head to Recreo to try on their elevated versions of the classic poncho. Made from Italian silks, fine wools and luxurious textiles from European fashion houses, these are sewn at a workshop near town. I lingered awhile admiring a pale pink cashmere number so I could watch a stylish young beauty try on a woven metallic poncho that would kick up a pair of jeans or work equally well on a red carpet.
Casa Armida might be my very favorite store in San Miguel, even though many of the furniture and decorative pieces were sadly too big to fit in my suitcase. With its vintage industrial and steam punk vibe, its two stories of elaborately carved cabinets, cowhide-covered dining tables, and giant chandeliers were something out of a museum.. And then there were the bizarre and fabulous series of elegant farm animal portraits – horses and goats in particular – all dressed up and dignified like elegant English nobility.
The best shop in town for Mexican antiques is La Calaca, with its distinctive pieces curated from collectors all over Latin America. Its religious artifacts, masks, textiles, tree of life candelabra, and tabletop pieces are like lessons in Mexican history.
La Europea Liquor Store
Don’t let its name fool you – La Europea Liquor Store. Of course it has a decent European wine section, but more importantly, its tequila and mezcal selection fill up an entire wall. If its mezcal you’re after, look for the joven or clear for the highest quality spirit.