"You need to go behind the closed doors, peek inside the court-yards in San Miguel de Allende,” said Bertha González Nieves, the co-founder of Casa Dragones, a luxury, small-batch tequila company she started with media veteran Bob Pitt-man in 2008. “Here, everything goes back deep.” González was sitting in the courtyard of the cavernous Casa Dragones, once the 18th-century stables of Los Dragones, an elite cavalry that helped lead Mexico to independence. Although González shuttles between Mexico City and Manhattan, she calls San Miguel de Allende the spiritual home of the brand.
“There’s an energy here—this is where the revolution started,” González said. “It’s also the center of the country. And the light! It’s the reason why artists and photographers fall in love with this place.” A picturesque hill town about 150 miles northwest of Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende started luring international visitors in the 1930s, when 27-year-old Chicago painter Stirling Dickinson came through and was immediately enchanted. He would go on to establish the El Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramírez (also known as Bellas Artes) in a former convent and recruit hundreds of young American veterans to study there under the GI Bill. (González advised me to explore the buildings’ cloisters to see an unfinished but dramatic mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros, a contemporary of Diego Rivera who taught many of the GIs.) In the postwar years, artists and retirees alike were drawn to the city; today nearly 10 percent of the population is from the U.S.
It’s been referred to as the Florence of Mexico, and you can see why. The main square is unexpectedly European: The Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, a giant pink sandstone cathedral with neo-Gothic spires, is one of many churches in town. There are manicured parks with sculpted laurel trees and fountains, and the most treacherous cobblestoned streets you’ll ever navigate. And as with its Italian counterpart, those streets are thronged by an endless procession of tourists.
All kinds of tourists: athleisure-clad seniors basking in the year-round perfect weather; college students taking pottery and weaving workshops at venerable cultural institutions like Bellas Artes and the Instituto Allende; and Mexican wedding parties from Monterrey and Guadalajara posing for family photos in the stately Parque Benito Juárez.
“I never really had a desire to visit, because I had heard it was full of tourists,” said Laura Kirar, an artist and designer who moved from Brooklyn to Yucatán in 2017 to restore an old hacienda with her husband, Richard Frazier. She started visiting San Miguel for business and to escape Yucatán’s summer heat and was soon enthralled.
“The creative community here is strong, and it isn’t just painters and musicians,” Kirar told me. She works with Mexican artisans across the region to make her sisal-and-henequen woven bags and copper objects, which she sells at Dôce 18 Concept House, a stylish retail complex in the historic center. “The entrepreneurial spirit seems to be thriving here,” she said. “It’s a place of connectors and doers.”
For the most part, the Americans and Europeans who’ve settled in San Miguel aren’t just snowbirds here for the weather. Whether it’s designers and decorators working with regional craftsmen to make their wares, hiring local chefs to cook in restaurants serving new riffs on traditional Mexican cuisine, or volunteering (there are nearly 100 charities in the area), the expats who’ve settled in the area tend to be actively engaged with the community. On Halloween night, I watched the older American expat couples (who seemed as excited for the holiday as the Mexican children) hand out treats to swarms of kids.
“You have to remember that San Miguel’s expat community originated from that first group of people who came down here to study the arts,” said Jeffry Weisman, who bought a place here in 2011 with his husband and business partner, Andrew Fisher. The San Francisco–based designers, known for their opulent interiors, had always loved Mexico but assumed they would buy near the beach. “But then my sister came down here for a bridge tournament and told us we’d fall in love with it,” recalled Weis-man. Once they discovered a former tannery for sale, they traded in their Sonoma Valley ranch for San Miguel de Allende. The façade of their property looks simple enough, but after you pass through the wooden doors, it’s an architectural extravaganza. They’ve added stone terraces, statement chandeliers, and hulking stone fireplaces. All of the rooms look out onto a lush garden that leads to a pool with a guest casita and 100-year-old jacaranda trees, which were what clinched it for Weisman. But it was also the weather. “It’s 75 and clear most of the year,” he said. “I love the old-world scale too. None of the buildings are taller than two stories, and it’s still cobblestoned streets.”
It’s proven to be an ideal place to work. With so many family factories and craftsmen in the region, the designers can produce many of their pieces there. Fisher, who is also a painter and sculptor, has a loftlike studio in town and spends nearly all his time in San Miguel. The pair recently finished work on Casa Blanca 7, an intimate new hotel just off the main plaza, where they added Moroccan flourishes to a classic colonial design.
“It’s pennies on the dollar to make things here,” said Taylor Goodall, a Houston-based lawyer and the co-owner with his wife Mariana of Hotel Amparo, which opened this January. Though they shipped in midcentury pieces from abroad, they’ve furnished much of the five-room guesthouse with textiles from Oaxaca, hand-carved poster beds, and papier-mâché objects. It’s an enviable mix, and I found myself wanting to know the provenance of every piece. “We want guests to feel like they’re staying at their coolest friend’s house,” said Goodall, who plans to open a shop in the lobby to sell commissioned pieces from local artisans. A lot of creative cross-pollination going on in San Miguel de Allende. Dôce 18 Concept House houses a floral studio, a clothing boutique, a ceramics kiosk, a macaron stall, several galleries, a small independent hotel, and a Casa Dragones tasting room. One afternoon González took me through a flight of sipping tequilas at her tiny space as a stylish Mexican couple with a large sheepdog watched through the sliding glass door. The complex was busy with international visitors but also young couples from Mexico City who’d come for the weekend. Afterward, we headed next door to the very popular Jacinto 1930 restaurant, where we sopped up the alcohol with oyster-mushroom tacos and suckling pig in mole sauce.
For more casual fare, Dôce 18 has a food hall in the back of the building where Donnie Masterton, an L.A. native, has opened a taco stand as well as a grass-fed-burger joint. In 2008, Masterton, San Miguel’s de facto culinary ambassador, came to the city and opened what would become a hugely popular outpost of haute cuisine called the Restaurant. He had moved down to Mexico a few years before to take a break from kitchens, having cooked professionally since he was 15. He fell in love with San Miguel de Allende and realized there was an opportunity to open a restaurant focused on local ingredients. He’s been deeply involved in the town’s burgeoning farm-to-table movement and is building a small eco-ranch just outside of town to grow factories and craftsmen in the region, the designers can produce produce and raise livestock, which will supply his restaurants. “From a business perspective, there are fewer hoops to jump through than in the States,” Masterton told me. “It’s way more fun to do it down here.” He just opened Fatima, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Casa Blanca 7, the boutique hotel that Weisman and Fisher designed.
On Thursdays, the Restaurant holds burger night, a tradition that started during the recession and still brings in the crowds. However, on most evenings the place serves as a local social hub. The night I stopped by, I met a DJ from Dallas, a Pilates instructor from San Francisco, and a reunion group for one of the two San Miguel Burning Man camps, and I even bumped into Kirar again. I asked all of them why San Miguel was so popular. A few in the Burning Man group told me about the town having an energy vortex or an “acupressure point.” Kirar admitted she didn’t want to sound all woo-woo, but she agreed. “There is something special here that makes me breathe deeper and smile wider.”