For over 70 years, San Miguel de Allende has well been known as an artisan community and expat haven. Travel & Leisure has named it the Best City in the World two years in a row and we can see why. Cobblestone streets, multi-colored buildings, a culinary scene that ranges from street food to fine dining, and exquisite art give San Miguel that real Mexican charm that people desire.
A Bit of History
Back in the 1930s, Stirling Dickinson, an American artist and writer, and Felipe Cossio del Pomar, a Peruvian author and painter wanted to create an artist colony in the heart of Mexico.
Pairing the advertising genius of Dickinson with the political contacts of Cossio del Pomar, San Miguel de Allende became a well-known sought-after artist retreat. After WWII, U.S. veterans were permitted to study abroad under the G.I. Bill and flocked to the tiny town.
Even today, without an airport to support the influx of tourists, San Miguel de Allende is a destination to be experienced. San Miguel retains most of its charm with haciendas transformed into boutique hotels, restaurants or art galleries. The art and architecture of the colorful streets of San Miguel de Allende are mesmerizing, but here’s what not to miss when visiting San Miguel.
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With 153 art galleries in San Miguel you are bound to find something you love. San Miguel is best enjoyed by walking, and this gives you a great opportunity to window shop or peek in through the narrow doorways and see what is on display. Since art is relative to each person, I will just say there are some interesting one-artist galleries around town with exceptional artwork, and some not so much. Take note, many shops and galleries are housed in narrow buildings with many small rooms that go back several feet. It’s best to walk into a place to see all that they offer.
Walk down Calle Hidalgo away from the Parroquia (pink church), past many expat restaurants and you’ll discover “free” art for that awesome selfie. This street heads towards Colonia Guadalupe known as the Art District. Twice a year there is a Muras en Blanco Festival where local and international graffiti artists can come and paint. More than 100 murals can be seen around town. Take a few hours and wander the streets to find as many as you can or join a street-art mural tour that will take you around to show you as many murals as you can stand. Now that you know about the street art, you’ll be looking for it all the time like we did!
This one is my favorite because of all the images associated with Mexico such as the rag dolls made by the Otomi, Day of the Dead and masked wrestlers just to name a few.
Fabrica La Aurora
Still walking down Hidalgo, you’ll cross the river and see iron sculptures of horses at the entrance to Fabrica La Aurora. Once a textile mill, today it is a collection of art galleries, shops and studios. Prices are much higher here, but it’s worth a visit even if your budget is miniscule just to admire large scale paintings, glass sculptures and light works. Some of the artists are known internationally like one of our favorites, Moyshen M. You can also find some of their artwork on the Saatchi Art Collection website.
Cultural Center Ignacio Ramirez also known as Belles Artes
The Belles Artes as it’s fondly called is named after Ignacio Ramirez, a prominent writer, poet, journalist, lawyer, and defender of education for women and the indigenous Indians. I find it amusing that the cultural center, library and many other buildings dedicated to the arts and history are named after him because he was an atheist in a predominately Catholic country. The cultural center itself is an ex-convent known as the Convent of the Immaculate Conception originally constructed in the mid-1700s. Today it offers classes in music, loom-weaving, pottery, painting and many other arts.
The Instituto Allende is more of an actual visual arts school associated with the University of Guanajuato. It offers Bachelor and Master degrees in the Arts. It’s a beautiful building and worth a visit.
On the weekends you’ll find many painters and artisans line the outer pathways of Benito Juarez Park with their works of art. Some are drawings, others are large oil paintings. Sometimes you can find crafts, leather goods and even local honey vendors enjoying the great weather while trying to make a little extra money. The park is a nice green oasis south of the Centro Historico.
Check out our hotel review of Casaliza Hotel Boutique near Juarez Park.
For Original Art Souvenirs:
Artisan markets are everywhere in San Miguel, but the largest is connected to Mercado Ignacio Ramirez which houses fruits, vegetables, meats and small eateries. You can enter from Calle Colegio or from Calle Hidalgo and walk down Calle Lucas Balderas where a street art painting of an indigenous woman marks the way. Handcrafted jewelry, paintings on leather, clothing, metalwork, glassware and ceramics are piled high in cramped vendor stalls, but prices are reasonable and the craftsmanship is extraordinary.
Abrazos is a design shop filled with loud funny fabrics. Tom loves the shirts here. On our last visit he bought a Mexican shirt with wrestlers on it and skulls with roses. We bought a few other items like a calendar girl tortilla warmer and napkins with more traditional artwork. They have rolls and rolls of weird and vibrant fabric prints. If you want something really unique, they can make you a dress for around $100.
Abrazos Is located on Calle Zacateros. Many other fine clothing stores and artwork are on this street, so it’s worth a stroll. Just a few doors down is the El Zaguan Bed&Art which has great food perfect for a second breakfast or light lunch. Even better, stay at the hotel so that you are in the heart of the Centro Historico.
Art is the heart of San Miguel de Allende. You see it in the dresses of the indigenous women and the architecture of the haciendas. This is just a small sampling of places to see and explore. If you have visited (or live) in San Miguel and have other suggestions, please feel free to put them in the comments. We still have much to explore and we would love to know what you love!