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Spanish colonial splendor in Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende

Recently my wife and I traveled to San Miguel de Allende in the highlands region of central Mexico. Designated a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2008, San Miguel’s historic town center features nostalgic cobblestone roads lined with beautifully preserved 17th and 18th century Spanish colonial architecture. In sunlight, the buildings pop in vibrant hues of yellow, orange, pink and red. It’s old-world, romantic, and beautiful.

Remarkably, San Miguel has mostly avoided the westernization of its culture and commerce, for outside of one Starbucks I never came across a single chain restaurant or business. Every cantina, restaurant, art gallery, and boutique was unique and appeared to be locally owned and operated.

The town center is anchored by the neo-gothic La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, a Catholic church designed by Zeferino Gutierrez, an indigenous bricklayer and self-taught architect who was inspired — rumor has it — by travel postcards displaying European churches. With its brilliant pink spires towering overhead, this church is both the iconic symbol of San Miguel and its center of activity. By day, the area is abuzz with merchants selling homemade ice cream, ears of roasted corn, balloons, and souvenirs. By night, the music of mariachi bands fills the air as families gather, sing, and dance.

With its mild climate, gorgeous architecture, vibrant arts scene, and sensational local cuisine, it should come as no surprise that San Miguel has received an influx of retired ex-pats from Canada and the United States. San Miguel has also attracted the attention of travel media, including Travel & Leisure magazine where San Miguel has been voted the world’s best destination, two years running.

For those living in North America (like me), San Miguel de Allende gives travelers the charm and old-world experience of Europe, but without the long flight, expense, and busloads of tourists. Venture away from the town square and you’ll find block after block of fantastic architecture, quiet cafes, and casualness to everyday life which feels suspended in time. San Miguel isn’t the most exciting place for younger kids, but for adults who love great food, ambiance, shopping, and culture, it’s got it all.