How San Miguel de Allende Won— and Broke— My Heart as Best City in the World
Lest you be skeptical of that “Best City in the World” designation in the title, dear readers, let me begin by saying that Travel + Leisure magazine in 2017 bestowed that very designation on San Miguel de Allende, as had Condé Nast Traveler magazine in 2013. And many other publications have granted very similar titles to our little village over the past several years.
My bias for San Miguel, however, began many years before.
In 2001, my then-wife and I— both exhausted and overworked— made our first trip to visit San Miguel de Allende as the culmination of a years-long quest to seek a slower pace of life in a warm, affordable country close to the U.S. I say “culmination” because we had researched and stayed in every other expat destination throughout Mexico first, having heard that San Miguel de Allende was the most expensive city in Mexico in which to live.
When we arrived, that “most expensive” designation immediately dissolved as a stumbling block. Knowing our goal was to be full-time expats living in Mexico year-round— as do about 1.2 million other Americans— while there are many who like it, we simply could not imagine ourselves living parked in front of an air conditioner seven months of the year in popular coastal destinations like Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Mazatlán, Zihuatanejo, and many others. And we had already realized that expat community activities in all those destinations revolved primarily around alcohol-related activities—bar hopping, best Happy Hour deals, etc. That’s just not my lifestyle.
San Miguel won my heart back then for its diverse cultural and community activities (“What will it be tonight, hon, symphony, opera or theater?”), rich dining options, temperate climate (those air conditioners I deplore don’t exist here),organic gentrification, walkability index… in short, this city of about 89,000 people offered what even most cities of 750,000 have a hard time offering, and all of it is only a short stroll from your front door.
Yes, San Miguel won my heart! I finally returned again in 2006 intent upon realizing my goal that year of purchasing a plot of land to build my next custom home (I’m an architect by training; it’s in my blood!). And by December of 2006, the first shovel of dirt had been turned over on what would become my first heartbreak.
Remember that title, won AND broke my heart? Yes, this city—this culture, in fact—is not without its drawbacks.
I chronicled that experience of building my home here in a multi-part story for International Living, waxing poetic about the process of learning charming Mexican cultural traditions— like Dia de Santa Cruz, when construction workers hosted the first fiesta in my new home— as well as the introduction to life in a small village.
In fact, author Tony Cohan garnered fame and riches for his tome, On Mexican Time, glossing over his transition to living in a slower culture, where the word mañana does not actually mean “tomorrow,” it just means “not today.” My favorite lifestyle writers Frances Mayes—Under the Tuscan Sun remains my anthem to this day—and Peter Mayle of A Year in Provence also left me dreamy for an alternate life, one I envisioned I’d find here in San Miguel.
However, reading about those lifestyles curled safely in your armchair is a world removed from actually living it.
Since moving to San Miguel de Allende, I’ve suffered the heartbreak of a dishonest contractor delivering a home 12% over budget and about 35% over-schedule, only to begin repairs on that home the day I moved in. The strain of that process and moving to another country ended a 20-year marriage within months in a country where the then-current Napoleonic Code of Law (now thankfully a dated memory) made the divorce process in Mexico nearly a five-year process, replete with 13 crooked attorneys before the 14th proved a winner. Eight years later, I’m still single in this highly couple-centric village, a modern-day Peyton Place where the word “chisme” (it means "gossip") is the third word most gringos learn upon moving here, after "por favor" and "gracias."
But guess where I am today as I sit here sharing this history with you? San Miguel de Allende remains my home to this day— it continues to win my heart daily.
This city has transformed even more in the last few years, building upon our UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2008. We’re now the second largest wine route in Mexico, a gastronomic destination for the entire world, the site of international film festivals, writers’ conferences and art exhibitions. We draw entertainers, musicians, writers (in fact every form of creativity is honored here) from all across the globe on a weekly basis. The 120 NGO non-profits warm my heart daily with their community outreach. And the smile on my face as my 10-minute walking commute across town doubles in length—allowing time for hellos—warms my heart hourly.
Will San Miguel de Allende win your heart, too? Be prepared to get out the Lady Justice scales—weigh the pros with the cons—but for 99% of us, you’ll find it easy to acclimate to what I call the “Random Aztec Parade Syndrome," where you find yourself turning off the car engine to sit and wait on a 475-year-old cobblestone street, trapped by the awe and wonder of a centuries-old tradition that shuts down the street for ten minutes.
That meeting can wait, your heart just got won again!
Pictures, from top to bottom:
- San Miguel de Allende with Parroquia lit at night.
- New Year's Eve at Rosewood Hotel in San Miguel de Allende
- Street in San Miguel de Allende