View down a colorful street in San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende: The Mexican Expat Hub Having an Artistic Revival

Tim Leffel

Tim Leffel

October 13, 2023

5 min read

San Miguel de Allende—the historic city in the state of Guanajuato in the mountains of central Mexico—has certainly won the hearts of many visitors. With its colorful houses, cobblestone streets, frequent fiestas, and buildings that went up before the US was even a country, there’s an enchanting atmosphere that makes visitors fall in love. 

The UNESCO World Heritage city continually places near the top of travel magazine reader’s polls as one of the top cities in the world. Many who visit are so smitten that they start making plans to move. In fact, of a population of about 175,000, it’s estimated that 10% of people in San Miguel de Allende are international expats. 

From independence to artistic revival

View from a rooftop in San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende was officially founded in 1542 by Franciscan monk Juan de San Miguel, whom the city was originally named for. Allende was added to the name thanks to the heroics of a resident nearly 300 years later. 

When the Mexicans started making plans to break free of Spain’s rule in the early 1800s, San Miguel played a role in the planning and the action. A local named Ignacio Allende marched troops to the state capital of Guanajuato for the first battle of the revolution. After he became a martyr in the 11-year struggle for independence, Allende’s name was added to that of the city’s. 

While it’s now easy to call San Miguel de Allende Mexico’s most picturesque city, nobody was saying that a century ago. Much of the population emptied out after a flu epidemic, and many of the buildings sat abandoned for decades. 

It wasn’t until the 1960s, when San Miguel de Allende became a favored artists’ destination for foreigners, that the path to reconstruction started. Lured by attractive prices and year-round nice weather, the trickle of immigrants eventually became a flood and helped turn the city into a showpiece. 

Aspiring artists still come to study at Instituto Allende and Zenteno Bellas Artes. Many eventually find a place where they can live and work long-term. The art scene is more vibrant now than ever, with the added bonus that there are enough people with money to sell to, so the painters, sculptors, and jewelry makers don’t have to be starving artists. Fábrica La Aurora, a former textile factory converted to a space for dozens of quality galleries and workshops, is a great place to start for a peek at the city’s artistic side. 

History lives on  

The beautiful painted ceiling of a church near San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende is more of a strolling destination than a “see and do” destination filled with museums, but about 15 minutes away is a separate UNESCO World Heritage site on its own. Known as “The Sistine Chapel of Mexico,” the 16th-century Sanctuary of Atotonilco has an interior completely covered with paintings of biblical scenes (some rather gruesome) that artists Miguel Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre and Rodriguez Juárez created over the course of three decades. 

The city’s most famous site is the neo-Gothic church, La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, fronting the main plaza. The original church went up in the 17th century, but in 1880, a self-taught architect named Zeferino Gutierrez added the more fanciful façade, which was modeled after a stamp on a letter from Europe—a continent he never visited. 

There are a few large hotels built from the ground up this century, but others are renovated mansions that date back to colonial times. For example, Casa No Name used to be the home of a prominent priest and had tunnels connecting it to a nearby convent. And the main restaurant building of Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada was once the grand home of the archbishop (his former bedroom is now the bar). 

They might be giants 

Traditional giant puppets in San Miguel de Allende

Among Mexicans, San Miguel de Allende is known for two things: destination weddings and mojigangas—the giant paper mache figures featured prominently in the opening of the James Bond movie Spectre

The two elements come together for those fortunate enough to catch a wedding celebration, since bigger-than-life-sized figures representing the bride and groom will sometimes be parading down the street. The mojigangas (which were brought from Spain to Mexico in the 1600s) also show up in different forms in parades and festivals, often dancing around to the music. 

Any excuse for a fiesta  

Person stands in the street among traditional puppets during a festival in San Miguel de Allende

In San Miguel, there’s something to celebrate every month. One of the events unique to the city is Dia de los Locos—Day of the Crazies. Taking place in mid-June, it’s a visual delight of wild costumes, mojigangas that range from comical to macabre, and jocular dressed-up groups throwing candy to the kids. 

San Miguel is also one of the best places to experience Day of the Dead, which really takes place over three days from October 31 to November 2 and features core elements like altars, sugar skulls, and roaming locals in skeleton makeup and fancy clothes.

Many holidays around religious days are celebrated with gusto, whether that’s fireworks and exploding effigies filled with candy at Easter, all-night revelry during the Feast of San Miguel Arcángel in the autumn, or parties and parades for more than the 12 days of Christmas.    

Dining where the sun shines (almost) every day 

With its pleasant year-round climate at 6,000 feet and some 330 days of sunshine, it’s easy to spend a week in San Miguel de Allende without ever eating indoors. More than 20 rooftop bars and restaurants have city views, while others are located in open-air courtyards. 

San Miguel’s dining scene is heavily influenced by the year-round availability of fresh produce, as well as by its expat community, with gourmet dining options that stretch the boundaries—and plenty of interesting tequila cocktails in the mix.

While there’s no true signature dish for the area, Mexican staples like chicken enchiladas, carne asada, and chilaquiles can be found on menus or sold at food stalls around the city. Follow the locals’ lead and order a big arrachera platter to be shared. This is a big serving plate of grilled steak, chorizo (spicy sausages), onions, peppers, and queso fundido (melted cheese). Pop what you want into warm corn tortillas, add some salsa, and enjoy. 

An ancient pyramid that tells time

A step pyramid near San Miguel de Allende

A strange cosmic pyramid outside of town changed the map of Mesoamerican history. Before its discovery, historians thought that advanced science and astronomy in this part of the world was limited to the Aztecs and the Mayans, with a vast knowledge wasteland in between. Local tribes, who were primarily Otomi, constructed the complex over a period from 540 to around 1050 BCE. 

Now called the Cañada de la Virgen archaeological site, it’s located near a rugged canyon that’s also good for horseback riding and hiking. The pyramid lines up with certain planet and star formations at different times of the year, plus the pyramid is aligned so the sun sets in certain points for solstices, planting time, and harvest time. 

Mexico’s up-and-coming wine country  

A woman sips wine near San Miguel de Allende

While the northern Baja Peninsula of Mexico produces around 85% of the country’s wines, the Bajio region (which includes parts of the states of Aguascalientes, Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Querétaro) has been growing grapes for two centuries longer. 

The Spanish started growing grapes here as early as the 1550s. Now there are more than 30 wineries across the region, with several open for tastings within a half-hour of San Miguel de Allende, including Dos Búhos (Two Owls), Tres Raices (Three Roots), and several La Santísima locations. 

They all grow a wide variety of grapes (and incorporate a good bit of experimenting), but some grapes that do best in this climate are sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc, tempranillo, and several varietals that work well for dry rosé. The state tourism office publishes printed wine route maps you can pick up for free, though you’ll need to use your Spanish language app to translate to English. 

San Miguel on the screen and page 

Surprisingly few films are set in picturesque San Miguel. Perhaps this is because the big-budget Robert Rodriguez film Once Upon a Time in Mexico disrupted life so much for the residents that they don’t want to repeat the experience. The film is worth seeing for the visuals—though the script doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its all-star cast including Johnny Depp, Antonio Banderas, and Salma Hayek. 

The city is the setting for several books, however. The best-known is On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel by Tony Cohan, about the author and his wife moving to the city and renovating a dilapidated 250-year-old home. Although its 1999 publication preceded the boom to come, it still captures the city’s essence the best.

Good to Know

Is San Miguel de Allende expensive? 

Despite being an expat and tourist hotspot, it’s relatively inexpensive to visit San Miguel de Allende. That said, the city does tend to be pricier than many other cities throughout Mexico. A double hotel room runs $134 per night on average; there are also plenty of nice hotels that cost half the price. Dinner at a nice restaurant will be $20–$30 per person, though you can certainly enjoy some delicious street food, like a plate of tacos or gorditas, for $5 per person. In general, you can have a nice time in San Miguel de Allende for about $50–$75 per person per day, not counting lodging.

Best time to visit San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende gets nearly year-round sunshine, so there’s no real bad time to visit. November–April gets the most optimal weather, though keep in mind that the city receives an influx of visitors around the winter holidays and Easter.

What languages are spoken in San Miguel de Allende?

The main language in San Miguel de Allende is Spanish. Most people in San Miguel de Allende (locals and visitors) speak English, particularly those who work in the service industry.

San Miguel de Allende with kids

San Miguel de Allende is a wonderful destination to visit with kids, with plenty of good eats, festive celebrations throughout the year, and safe outdoor spaces where the little ones can blow off steam. El Jardín in the central square has plenty of green space, and La Esquina Mexican Toy Museum has a wealth of toys (that the kids will love) in stunning traditional Mexican designs (that even parents will love). Note that a trip to San Miguel typically includes a lot of walking, particularly on cobbled streets, which can be difficult for some little ones, as well as those with physical disabilities.

San Miguel de Allende public transportation

The main way to get around San Miguel de Allende is on foot. Driving can be a hassle, as many of the roads are narrow, steep, and winding, but there are taxis if needed. Just be sure to lock in your price with the driver before taking the ride.

Is San Miguel de Allende safe?

Mexico ranks #136 out of 163, according to Vision of Humanity’s Global Peace Index. San Miguel de Allende is generally considered one of the safest cities in Mexico. Practice caution as you normally would in any major city when traveling.

Mexico also ranks #24 with a score of 75/100 for LGBTQ+ equality, according to Equaldex's LGBT Equality Index. San Miguel de Allende is generally considered very gay-friendly. 

Getting to San Miguel de Allende

  • Main airport: ‍BJX
  • Average Going deal price for cheap flights to San Miguel de Allende: $283 roundtrip

More Mexico destinations

Tim Leffel

Tim Leffel

Freelance Writer

Published October 13, 2023

Last updated March 12, 2024

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