You will never see anyone hurrying in San Miguel; observing the locals going about their business is soothing in itself. The delicately pretty central plaza – called el jardín – is where people gather to watch the world go by, do business, natter and buy Atencíon (the English-language weekly published from an upstairs room of the library). The plaza has been pedestrianised and is surrounded by handsome 18th-century mansions. In the evenings, musicians come down to the jardín to busk for pesos and entertain families, couples and tourists.
You’ll probably spot an artist or three recording the scene on canvas, and at dusk, birds swoop down from all directions to roost noisily in the bushy trees (it will be obvious, but be careful where you sit). You will share the small neat space with women from Amealco, Querétaro, who come here to sell little dolls dressed in traditional clothes.
Walking just one block downhill, west of the jardín, you reach the convent of La Concepción, topped by one of Mexico’s biggest domes. The complex houses a famous art school, the Escuela de Bellas Artes which attracts visitors from all over the world to study dance, music, painting and weaving. It was this cultural centre – together with the Instituto Allende – which drew the first significant numbers of visitors to San Miguel in the 1950s, and acted as the catalyst for the resident artist population today.
One of the rooms off the courtyard contains a large unfinished 1940s mural by David Alfaro Siquieros. Turn on the light switch next to the door and stand in the ‘footprints’ marked out on the floor to help you get the best perspective.
The Las Musas café off the courtyard is a great place to relax. Bellas Artes is an ex-convent, and if you’re here around four in the afternoon, you will hear the nuns ring the bell of La Concepción next door. The nuns are only seen in public during Holy Week.
Anyone wandering the narrow steets cannot fail to be charmed by colourful mansions and shops. As Tony Cohan writes in his book, On Mexican Time, “in San Miguel shades of red rule, from pinkish rosa mexicano to deep magenta.”
This area of central Mexico had been inhabited by Guamare and Purépecha nomadic Indians. Then, in 1542, a friar, Juan de San Miguel, founded the community of ‘San Miguel el Grande.’ The town grew rapidly as a stopover on the main silver route from Zacatecas, and as supply centre to Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí.
San Miguel el Grande was also an important town between Dolores Hidalgo and Querétaro during the struggle for Mexican Independence. In 1826 the name of the city was changed to San Miguel de Allende in honour of Ignacio Allende , Hidalgo’s chief lieutenant and a hero of the Independence movement.
The Casa de Don Ignacio Allende (corner of Allende and Umarán; Tues-Sun, 10:00am-4:00pm, N$25), overlooking the jardín, was Allende’s birthplace and is now a mildly interesting historical museum. According to the museum, “Allende was the initiator and Hidalgo was the executer” of Mexican Independence.
While there are arguably not as many sights of major historic interest in San Miguel (in comparison to other towns in this part of Mexico), the whole city is has been designated a national monument, and it can boast some of the most unusual and distinctive architecture in the whole country.
On one side of the jardín at the heart of the town stands the bizarre and fantastical fluted spires and turrets of the neo-Gothic Parroquia. Even though ‘parroquial’ means ‘parish church’, locals call this the cathedral and all important events take place here. In the 19th-century, the church was remodelled by a self-taught local stonemason called Zeferino Gutiérrez, who supposedly learned about architecture from studying postcards of the great Gothic cathedrals of France.
The Oratorio complex of 18th-century churches, chapel and cloisters is located to the northeast of the jardín where Insurgentes becomes Calle Llanos. The main interest of the pale pink Oratorio de San Felipe Neri is a series of 33 oil paintings inside the church depicting scenes from the life of San Felipe Neri, a Florentine. They are attributed to Mexican painter Miguel Cabrera.
Estimates put the expatriate artist population in San Miguel at 5% of the total population – adding to its distinctiveness. It sometimes seems like almost every other store in the centre of town is selling some form of art and crafts – tinware, stonework, papier maché (especially clowns) , hand-blown glass and pottery. A wonderful place to shop! Cafés and restaurants are also decorated with beautiful local art.
You would expect to find a good bookshop in a town like San Miguel: ‘Tecolote’ is the place (pricey though), with seemingly every book published about Mexico in the English language. Another – ‘El Colibri’ – has more books in Spanish.