What to Do in San Miguel de Allende

People come for the culture, the climate and the countless expressions of creativity in this 500-year-old storybook city that really hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. It is safe and welcoming, and its festive, south-of-the border ambiance of laid-back luxury is especially appealing. No wonder Travel + Leisure readers voted it the best city to visit in Central and South America and the third best city in the world. Here’s what visitors like best:

A Fascinating History and an Unchanged Cityscape

Situated right in the center of Mexico, San Miguel de Allende’s biggest claim to fame is the role its namesake played in the war for Mexican independence from Spain. But long before that, Spain established an outpost of the Catholic Church here, and when silver was discovered nearby, the town prospered as an important hub on the Silver Trail. The Mexican government recognized its architectural importance in 1926, and it was decreed a World Heritage Site in 2008 by the United Nations, forever preserving its romantic, Spanish colonial glory. To learn more about its architectural gems and historical importance, click here.

Spectacular Shopping
You can scarcely walk a cobblestoned block without running into a stylish boutique or a shop brimming with carnival-colored folk art– in fact, you’re likely to run into quite a few. And the town’s design scene has recently exploded with sophisticated shops selling some of the coolest and most creative furniture, lighting, and housewares you’ll find anywhere. That’s one reason why big spenders and bargain hunters come from all over Mexico and North America to take advantage of the town’s legendary shopping. Start in the Artisan’s Market for a crash course in the arts and crafts of Mexico and then take your time browsing shops that showcase the work of Mexico’s best jewelry, fashion, houseware and interior designers. For more on shopping, click here.

A Stellar Culinary Scene
Whether it’s humbly delicious, like Alborada’s deeply savory pozole or deliciously artful, like the painterly small plates crafted by the star-powered chef at Moxi, the gastronomic scene in San Miguel runs the gamut from traditional cafes and simple streetside vendors to chic dining rooms draped in white-tableclothed splendor.

The cuisine is infused with classic Mexican flavors like cumin, chili powder and cinnamon, but new spins on old favorites bring in additional flavors and take advantage of the region’s plentiful agricultural bounty. Chefs here play to tradition in all its definitions– the traditional fine cooking techniques learned in top culinary schools and kitchens around the world together with the traditions passed along in local grandmothers’ kitchens. Inventive new chefs and skilled and seasoned experts keep opening new places — to learn more about them click here.

A Creative Mecca for Art Appreciators
Some say it’s the quality of the light that makes the town so attractive to artists, others its historic beauty and two venerable art institutes, but whatever the case, artists have flocked here for decades to study, live and work. Art-loving out-of-towners come here to admire and collect, or visit the astonishing number of private galleries – at last count there were more than 100. Creativity has gone viral in this colonial town and visitors, as well as artists, are among the beneficiaries. Here are some of our favorite places to appreciate the town’s artistic output.

Plentiful Activities and Excursions
There’s plenty to keep you busy in town for weeks, but when you’ve had your fill of wandering the picturesque streets poking into the shops and enjoying the restaurants, it’s time to dig deeper or get out of town to explore further. Culture buffs can attend classical, jazz and opera concerts throughout the year; top-chef wannabes can learn to whip up Mexico’s signature dishes; and thrill seekers can take dawn hot air balloon rides, ATV excursions or guided horseback and bicycles tours throughout the region. Visits to one of the area’s wineries and natural hot springs or to 6th-century pyramids are among the many other options. You can get the details here.

Party On…Festivals and Events
If there was a prize for Mexico’s best festival-throwing town, San Miguel’s streets would be paved in gold medals. Religious festivals like Day of the Dead and Easter are both meaningful and celebratory with parades, processions, decorations and fireworks. And the fireworks! Loud, and spectacular, they seem to be a town signature and just about every weekend there is something to celebrate, whether it’s a wedding or a Saint’s day. June’s Parade of the Locos might be the most flamboyant celebration of all, where groups of locals dress up in crazy homemade costumes and brass bands play. Food and music festivals take place throughout the year, and Mexican Independence Day in September and New Years Eve can be counted on for the most elaborate fireworks shows of the year. See more on each one here.

Laura Sutherland is a travel writer based in California who travels regularly to Mexico. You can follow her at WanderAndTaste.