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Romance in Mexico

Old world enchantment in San Miguel De Allende

Home to Mexico’s Sistine Chapel and boasting a climate of “eternal spring,” San Miguel de Allende draws travelers from all around the globe with its vibrant arts scene and rich history. New York Times writer and author of The Mother of All Field Trips, Jeannie Ralston, sits down with TASCHEN’s Sarah Wrigley to discuss the city’s magnetic charm.

How does San Miguel de Allende differ from other, more visited Mexican travel destinations?

I’ve traveled all over Mexico, and I still find San Miguel the most beautiful and accessible city. It’s not too big, not too small, and I can’t think of a city of this size anywhere else in Mexico (or the U.S. for that matter) that is packed with so much history, culture, and sophistication. You can walk to almost everything, and who knows what you’ll come across on that walk. Whenever I’m out and about, I almost always find a new store, view, architectural detail, or taco cart that gives me a thrill. What more can you ask for?

What advice would you give to a tourist trying to find a balance between the old and the new in this 500-year-old city, that happy medium between San Miguel de Allende’s first-class accommodation and restaurants and its old churches and cobblestone streets?

The wonderful thing about San Miguel is that you get that balance every time you walk the streets. The architecture is old—sometimes half a millennium old—but often what’s inside is modern, clever, and cheeky. I love that about the town. Yes, there are historical buildings that are preserved just as they were, such as the home of Mexican hero Ignacio Allende on the main plaza in town (known as the Jardín). But the town itself doesn’t have the feel of a museum. It’s crackling with energy and spirit. For instance, the shop Mixta on Pila Seca is the best place to go to find playful takes on Mexican tradition.

What are your must-see sites for the spiritually, historically, and culturally minded traveler?

I love the building called Bellas Artes. It used to be a convent and you can feel the history there; the stone steps are worn where nuns climbed them for years. The garden area in the courtyard is so peaceful—a nice refuge from the bustle of the city. And while you’re there you have to see the mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros, who was a contemporary of Diego Rivera and almost as well known. It’s been called the most famous painting in San Miguel. I also recommend a trip to the nearby town of Atotonilco. The Mexican Baroque sanctuary there has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site (as is all of downtown San Miguel). People call the sanctuary the Sistine Chapel of Mexico. The walls are covered in extremely ornate frescoes and paintings—some a bit on the frightening side, but beautiful just the same.

Where can a tourist go to find the best culinary feats San Miguel has to offer?

I was just down in San Miguel in January, and I love that more ethnic restaurants are popping up. You can find good Asian food at Chao Ban in the Centro, for instance. But some of my favorite spots are still going strong, such as La Parada, which offers Peruvian food and The Restaurant, which specializes in locally sourced, global comfort food. One restaurant that my sons insist we eat at every time we visit is El Pegaso, which is a revered institution in town. You can get everything from chiles en nogada to chicken mole dishes and some Asian specialties as well. El Pegaso recently opened up a gorgeous rooftop terrace with views over Centro.

all images: Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times