Journey into the Heart of Mexico: San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende is Mexico the way it should be experienced. A Unesco World Heritage site, the beautiful city perched on a hillside in the Sierra Madre Mountains combined 500 years of history with modern attractions, like super restaurants and wonderful shopping, that do nothing to detract from her charm. A charm that’s also boosted by a consistently pleasant climate found at more than 6,000 feet above sea level.

Rated year after year as one of the country’s top attractions, San Miguel de Allende offers twisting cobblestone streets, historical colonial architecture and joyous Mexican fiestas whose come-hither looks have wooed travelers and artists alike. In fact, it is home to a sizable community of artists, musicians and writers, who help to create a vibrant cultural tapestry that woos and satisfies tastes both sophisticated and simple.

One of the most striking venues to enjoy art is the 250-year-old Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramírez “El Nigromante” (Bellas Artes), whose soaring traditional brick ceilings and double stories or arched colonnades contain five gallery spaces.

Of course handicrafts and artisan treasures can be found on practically every street,  stores and stalls selling hand-painted pottery or hand-blown glass bird feeders can be found beside fashion boutiques, often with homegrown talent, selling vests made from coffee-bean burlap bags or hand-embroidered dresses, or there are  jewelry stores with original designs. Typical crafts in the region are made of wool, brass, tin and wood.

One of the best places to people watch, enjoy live music performances, admire the colonial architecture is its main square, Jardin Principal, with its abundant laurel trees and other greenery. Overlooking this is San Miguel’s most-famous structure, the 17th-century, multi-spired Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel church, whose dusty rose Neo-Gothic facade is unique in Mexico.

San Miguel is a feast for more than the eyes. You can dine traditional Mexican or contemporary bistro, or some remarkable fusion of influences. Much of the fare is from locally grown and locally raised produce and livestock. Even a foray into a traditional “hole-in-the-wall” cantina, through swinging stores, can reveal a drink menu with ginger or tamarind margaritas that refresh.

A morning breakfast of huevos divorciados, with fried eggs topped by red or green salsa, might be followed later by dinner in a restaurant found in a farmhouse, serving organic dishes made from the food in its fields. Or in a bistro run by a Peruvian Cordon Bleu chef who specializes in unique ceviches   (marinated, raw seafood).

Only nine miles away from San Miguel is another Unesco World Heritage site, the 250-year-old Santuario de Atotonilco, an ornate baroque marvel, whose every inch of wall and ceiling space is filled with detailed biblical scenes and passages. A pilgrimage for penitents, the church is also known as Mexico’s Sistine Chapel. Nearby are numerous thermal springs, allowing relaxing soaks in super-heated baths.

One of the best ways to enjoy the bounty of this mountain city is to stay at a villa that lies in its picturesque, colonial heart, only steps away from artisans’ markets, language schools and restaurants. Casa Encantada offers an oasis within its walled gardens, roof terraces, courtyards and classic Spanish architecture that has been featured in design magazines. Guests can dine alfresco in the cool evening breeze on the largest rooftop terrace that hosts an outdoor kitchen with covered dining area.

They  can also go to the main kitchen and watch their private chef create sumptuous menus, or even arrange for cooking classes there to extend their own culinary range. Other chances for relaxation are afforded by a heated swimming pool, luxurious hammam spa with jetted shower, and spacious guest suites with private sitting areas and cozy gas fireplaces

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