Picture-perfect San Miguel de Allende doesn't just get top billing in its home state of Guanajuato. The stunning colonial center, excellent hotels and restaurants, and many artists and artisans have found fame beyond Mexico's borders. But the rest of this state, located in the central highlands of the country, offers much more.
A golden triangle of historically important, architecturally blessed cities are all within a short drive of each other, and in between are chances to see a side of Mexico generally overlooked by visitors. A sunny, mild climate makes it a year-round destination too and, like most of Mexico, it’s very safe to travel here. So by all means start with San Miguel, but make sure you don’t finish there too.
San Miguel de Allende
Along with Cabo and Cancún, San Miguel de Allende is probably the most visitor-friendly city in Mexico. Unlike its coastal siblings however, San Miguel feels thoroughly Mexican. Yes, it's a very manicured Mexico and you're almost as likely to hear English spoken on the streets as Spanish (the ex-pat population, mostly from the US, is huge), but the city contains everything you've probably put on your Mexico checklist. Low-rise, colourful streets. A liberal sprinkling of churches. A vital role in the country's history (Allende, one of the instigators of the independence war, was born here and was honored when the town was was renamed 'de Allende' after his death). And friendly, fun-loving locals who like a fiesta. Plus high quality accommodations and eating.
In terms of what to visit, there are no must-see sights here. Rather the whole town is the highlight: browse galleries; pop into the churches; shop in courtyards-turned-mini-malls; sit back and people-watch over a chocolate con churros.
Legends of San Miguel walking tour – each evening costumed actors tell amusing, rather tall tales from the city's past. Check with the tourist office (visitsanmiguel.travel) in Plaza Principal for details on English-language times.
Hotel Matilda – contemporary cool in the heart of the old town.
Áperi – a destination restaurant with top quality, inventive food.
San Agustín – best place for a chocolate con churros energy boost. Get them to go and sit in the pretty church garden opposite to enjoy them.
Circuíto del Nopal tour – hugely entertaining guided tour showcasing multipurpose nopal (cactus) that includes a tractor ride, hay bales, live music, soap making, and a nopal-based lunch. Tours leave from Valtierrilla, an hour southwest of San Miguel.
State capital Guanajuato (gwan-a-wa-tow) impresses on many levels. The verdant valleys of Mexico's northern central highlands are the perfect backdrop for the city's architectural glories – churches and grand mansions built on the fortunes of the local silver mines, and multi-colored houses dotted across the hills. Creepy-cool tunnels are arguably the city's defining trait though. Cut into rock, these snake through Guanajuato, linking different neighbourhoods and allowing both drivers and pedestrians to get around town without having to navigate the torturous hills.
Then there's the culture. One of Latin America's biggest arts festivals takes place here every October with a celebration of the great Spanish writer Cervantes. If you can't make it for that, throughout the year there are over two dozen museums to visit, including artist Diego Rivera's childhood home, and the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a massive stone fortress that played a legendary role in Mexico's struggle for independence. And when evening comes you can join an estudiantina (see below) or enjoy a show in one of the city's many handsome theatres: most impressive is Teatro Juárez. And along with all the natural, architectural, cultural charms are the friendly locals. The enthusiasm for life found across Mexico is particularly evident here. Even in the not-infrequent rain, Guanajuatenses will be out on the streets each evening to take in the city's beautiful architecture and eat at one of its many restaurants.
Estudiantina – join a group of strolling minstrels dressed in 17th-century costumes as they meander Guanajuato's alleyways performing everyone-is-welcome-to-join-in songs (in Spanish but the fun knows no language barriers). Sign up for one in Jardín de la Unión in the city center – just look for the costumed ticket sellers.
Hotel Villa María Cristina – a maze of old mansions, with traditionally furnished rooms and some lovely public areas.
Los Campos – tasty tapas and delicious Mexican wine in an intimate setting.
Mine tours – head underground and explore the mines that made Guanajuato wealthy.
Parador Turístico Sangre de Cristo – a few kilometers outside the city, this visitor center has shops, a cafe and three museums covering mining, Day of the Dead celebrations, and mummies found in a local church.
Smaller and with less wow factor than Guanajuato or San Miguel, what Dolores Hidalgo lacks in grandeur, it makes up for in national status. History was made here in 1810 when local priest father Hidalgo appeared on the steps of the Dolores church and proclaimed Mexico's independence from Spain. That day, 16 September, is now celebrated annually as Mexican Independence Day but back in 1810 success was far from certain – it would be a long and bloody 11 years after Hidalgo's rallying cry before the country secured its freedom.
The church and pretty square in front of it, dominated by a statue of the religious revolutionary, are the main draws here, but for any Mexican music fans, a visit to the house of mariachi superstar, José Alfredo Jiménez, is another reason to visit the town.
Stand on the church steps and make your own Declaration of Independence (nobody made a note of Hidalgo's words that day so your guess is as good as anyone's).
Wine tasting – you might not think of wine when you think of central Mexico, but Cuna de Tierra vineyard, a short drive north of Dolores Hidalgo, is hoping to change that.
Hotel Hidalgo – Dolores Hidalgo is an easy day trip from Guanajuato or San Miguel (under an hour's drive from both) but if you do decide to spend the night, the Hidalgo is a reliable option.
DaMónica – tuck into Italian cooked by an Italian (Mónica), or snack your way around the main square, taking your pick from the food stalls.
Parador Turístico José Alfredo Jiménez – another of the mini-mall paradors worth checking out, this one is a collection of businesses selling most notably maiolica pottery (they can explain their techniques) and food from the local Otomi community.
Roads around Guanajuato state are good, especially the toll roads, so renting a car is an option, especially for getting to the more off-the-beaten-path places like the nopal tour and the paradors. Otherwise public transport connects the major centers, and taxis are plentiful and inexpensive for the inbetween places.