It’s a picture-perfect colonial town with narrow cobblestone streets and tall spice-colored walls with carved wooden doors that open to reveal hidden courtyards and gardens inside. Historic churches and centuries-old buildings here 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, haute couture, handcrafted furniture and Mexican antiques.
MERCADO DE ARTESANIAS
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 can’t possibly 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.
EL NUEVO MUNDO
The best selection of blouses and dresses with folkloric embroidery is at El 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. San Francisco 17.
On the way to Fabrica Aurora from the town center is Casa Michoacana, a shop that showcases a carefully selected group of folk artists from the Michoacan region and other parts of the country – textiles, wood carvings, pottery, paintings and more—48 families of artisans in all who are the masters of the Mexican folk art world.
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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 candelabras, and tabletop pieces are like lessons in Mexican history. Mesones 93
LOS BAULES REMIGIO
Handwoven Oaxacan textiles of the finest quality – shawls, scarves, ponchos, throws and more — are featured in Los Baules Remigio’s small shop. A weaver often works on a traditional loom in the back so you can see the time and the complex indigenous weaving techniques that create these authentic treasures. Correo 6, Centro.
BAZAR EL VIEJO OESTE
If you’re a fan of angels, Bazar 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 store showcases other carved architectural pieces along with massive tables crafted out of impressive slabs of wood. Calle Codo 12
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 jeweler María Belen Nilson has 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. His mid-century sterling pieces are now very collectible, but luckily now his old business partner’s daughter has permission to recreate many of his original, statement making pieces. The Instituto offers art classes, including metalworking in case you want to try to make your own.
Set aside some time to browse in Joyeria David if you have lots of people to buy for. Its selection of jewelry is vast so indecisive types might want to arrive when it opens. Styles are both simple and classic — and arty and unusual, and much of it is made on the premises. Zacateros 53
SAN MIGUEL SHOES
Cobblestone streets and sidewalks don’t really lend themselves to stilettos… so if you’ve left your comfortable walking 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.
AGAVE SKY BOOTS
If it’s boots you have a hankering for boots, head to Agave Sky for limited edition embroidered cowboy boots decorated with leaves and flowers, skulls, butterflies and swirling patterns. Choose from cowhide booties, knee high leather boots, slides and other items crafted of leather and suede and decorated with elaborate embroidery, most made in San Miguel de Allende by skilled artisans.
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 manikins sport sleek skirts of dried flowers and grasses and showcase exotic jewelry at their necks; and housewares and gifts are displayed in an elegant frescoed room recalling Pompeii — 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. Recreo 26
When I first heard that Sindashi featured handpainted clothing I thought of 1960’s hippies, but that’s as far from reality as you can get in this wearable art gallery of beautiful dresses, blouses, shawls and capes. Some items have impressionistic images from Mexican history and culture while others are inspired by the animal and botanical worlds. But most glamorous are the black haute couture gowns painted in shades of gold and embellished with glittering gold beads that would make the best-dressed list of any red carpet event, from the Grammys to the Oscars.
An explosion of sophisticated, arty, and sometimes edgy interior design and furnishing stores has turned San Miguel into the red-hot center of design. Mexican and local designers are at the forefront of the trend, resulting in some of the most astonishing shops in any small town in the world, much less big centers like New York City or London. Whether the clientele in San Miguel is more forward thinking or the interest in fresh and forward interior design has a bigger market, the town is a hotbed of exhilarating ideas.
Casa Armida has plenty of items I’d like to take home, although sadly many of the furniture and decorative pieces are 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 are something out of a museum. And then there is 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 biggest store is at Ancha de San Antonio 26 and a smaller branch is in Codiga Postal Design on Canal 16
CODIGO POSTAL DESIGN
Trendy shopping and dining enclave Codigo Postal Design contains three chic establishments downstairs — a small branch of Casa Armida (see above); La Colektiva Hojasanta showcasing haute couture fashions by all-Mexican designers; and Elisheva and Constance with their cutting edge jewelry designs fashioned from natural stones, crystals, gold, silver and bronze. The black and white graffitied walls and lavish, arty furniture topped by a series of enormous ropy chandeliers create a Versaille meets Burning Man vibe. Bovine Brasserie is upstairs. Canal 16. Codigapostaldesign.com
Core is an art and design showroom that calls itself a “lifestyle curator.” We think that means they’ve selected the coolest and most unusual furniture, art and accessories to turn your home into a shelter magazine-worthy feature. The design sensibility is right out of a modern art museum but with a Mexican twist. Pila Seca 8
While Fabrica Aurora is the place to go to check out its 40+ art galleries, its shops are worth a visit, too. Stop in at leading Mexican luxury brand Pineda Covalin to admire colorful silk scarves and shawls so light and fluttery they almost float in the air like the butterflies prints on some of them. Other gorgeous scarves, shawls and ties are filled with explosions of color and patterns that celebrate Mexico and Mexican folk art. Four generations of jewelry makers have been creating fashionable jewelry at Cerroblanco Joyeria, and their pieces are both refined and chunky and incorporating gems and particularly masterful metal work. Ricardo García, the owner of Hilo Negro, creates paintings, platters, vases, and decorative objects using burnished clay, hammered copper, carved wood and embossed silver in styles both modern and classical.
Contemporary and traditional Mexican crafts are showcased about 15 minutes outside of town in the village of Atotonilco at Galeria Atotonilco, one of the largest and most impressive collections of quality Mexican folk art anywhere. Owner and collector Mayer Shacter has developed relationships with the best artists throughout the country and purchases their finest works, so the gallery is a mind-blowing treasure trove of religious paintings, ex-votos, paper maché, masks, Huichol art, Mexican pottery, vintage serapes, fanciful Oaxacan animals, and Jalisco pottery. This is a must see, and you need to contact the shop to reserve your visit.
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 fills up an entire wall. If its mezcal you’re after, look for the joven or clear for the highest quality spirit.