San Miguel City Culture

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San Miguel City Culture
San Miguel's "authentic" culture might seem elusive; after all, its authenticity, perhaps ironically, is in its blend of Mexican traditions and expat influences. But keep your eyes and ears open and you'll find plenty to capture your interest.
By Julie Schwietert Collazo, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by age fotostock
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    Find a Fiesta
    San Miguel celebrates a number of holidays and events with memorable fanfare, from cultural extravaganzas to traditional celebrations. Favorite fiestas include the Festival Internacional de Música de Cámara (International Chamber Music Festival), held each year in late July and early August, and La Fiesta de los Locos (the Festival of Crazies), held annually in June. Though it commemorates a saint's feast day, the latter features exuberant costumes and playful parades. San Miguel is also home to a flourishing literary festival, held each year in February. It attracts A-list writers and agents.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Take an Architecture Tour
    San Miguel is located in Mexico's colonial heartland, and nowhere is the legacy of the Spanish seen more clearly than in the city's architecture. Walk the cobblestone streets, whether independently or on a guided tour, to see residential casonas (mansions—some turned into B&Bs), Gothic and neo-Gothic churches, and baroque museums and public offices. You'll soon see why UNESCO designated the city a World Heritage Site in 2008. Can't-miss landmarks include La Parroquia (a neo-Gothic church), Templo de San Francisco (a fine example of the Churrigueresque style), and the neoclassical and baroque mansion, Casa del Mayorazgo de la Canal. Don't forget your camera; the architectural details are rivaled by the buildings' vivid colors.
    Photo by Lucas Vallecillos/age fotostock
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    Refine Your Artistic Skills
    For nearly a century, San Miguel de Allende has drawn artists—particularly from the United States—to settle here and practice their craft. It's not hard to see why: The well-preserved colonial architecture and the colorful cityscape, with its riot of flowers, are certainly inspiring. Many members of the expat community have crossed the threshold of Instituto Allende at one point in time; plenty of one-time visitors here on vacation do as well. The Instituto performs many functions, but chief among them is as an art school. If you want to learn or advance your skills in painting, photography, jewelry making, or weaving, the Instituto has a number of workshops. Many local artists also offer courses and art retreats.
    Photo by Jeremy Woodhouse/age fotostock
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    Shopping in San Miguel
    It may come as a surprise, given its large expat population, but San Miguel de Allende supports a large number of shops, markets, and galleries where visitors can find and purchase authentic Mexican handcrafts and artwork. Metals like brass and tin and materials like wood and wool are among the most common items used in the traditional crafts of the region; you can also find pottery and jewelry here. For these traditional objects, head to the Mercado de Artesanías. If you're looking for contemporary art by Mexican and expat artisans, the art and design center, Fabrica La Aurora, is an ideal destination. More than 40 galleries, studios, and boutiques are open to the public, and it's not uncommon to buy directly from the artist.
    Photo by Robert Harding/age fotostock
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    Go Museum-Hopping
    San Miguel de Allende is home to a variety of excellent museums, some of which are public-run institutions; others are the passion projects of private collectors. In the latter category, the mask collection at Casa de la Cuesta is a favorite stop among locals and visitors, though it requires an appointment for a guided tour with the collector, who displays his holdings of Mexican ceremonial dance masks in a room of his bed and breakfast. Another popular niche museum is Museo La Esquina, which has a 1,000-object collection of Mexican toys. Many of the pieces are handmade folk toys. Another recommended stop on a self-guided museum tour is the unfinished Siqueiros mural at Instituto Allende.
    Photo by Raymond Forbes/age fotostock
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    Literary Luminaries
    San Miguel's reputation as a creative haven isn't limited solely to visual arts. Writers from a variety of genres have also made a place for themselves here, some of them permanently (including Pulitzer-winner W.D. Snodgrass), and others as seasonal residents. Repeat visitors come to San Miguel for its annual writers' conference, a bilingual, "co-cultural" event held each February. The conference schedule is packed with readings, workshops, panels, and keynote talks; past literary superstars have included Laura Esquivel, Barbara Kingsolver, Cheryl Strayed, Calvin Trillin, and Juan Villoro. The organizer of the decade-old festival also hosts the monthly San Miguel Literary Sala, a reading and book signing event held at Bellas Artes.
    Photo courtesy of San Miguel Writers' Conference and Literary Festival
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    See San Miguel from Above
    It's hard to imagine a more vibrant sight than the color-splashed colonial-era houses lining San Miguel de Allende's cobblestone streets—unless, that is, you're seeing them from your vantage point underneath the equally colorful striped silks of a hot-air balloon. Outfitter Globo San Miguel can take you up, up, and away over the city. After floating high above the spires of La Parroquia, the balloon pilot will navigate the airy currents and guide you toward the countryside of Guanajuato. Though sunrise is typically considered the best time of day to go ballooning, and is the outfitter's standard departure time for daily excursions, Globo San Miguel staff can also work with you to create a custom trip for a special occasion.
    Photo by Steve Vidler/age fotostock
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    Take a Trip for Talavera
    Talavera, a style of pottery from the Mexican state of Puebla, is a prized purchase for many craft-lovers. Though Puebla's talavera workshops are legendary, it is not the only place in the country where the pottery is made and sold; the town of Dolores Hidalgo, approximately 25 miles outside San Miguel de Allende, is also one of the country's centers of talavera production. Many artisans allow you to buy directly from them in their workshops. Inventory may range from small pieces, such as wall and floor tiles, to dinner sets and large decorative objects like lamps and vases. Shipping can often be arranged if your purchase is too large or too fragile to carry home safely. Top shops include Talavera Cortés and Talavera Vázquez.
    Photo by Gloria & Richard Masc/age fotostock
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    Peaceful Green Spaces
    San Miguel de Allende is as picturesque in its natural landscape as it is in its built structures, and its parks and nature preserves attract visitors looking for a literal breath of fresh mountain air. In the city itself, you can visit numerous private gardens on the Biblioteca's (Public Library's) weekly House and Garden Tour, or enjoy the groomed outdoors daily in the main square, referred to in San Miguel as "El Jardín" (The Garden). Outside the city, head to El Charco del Ingenio, a botanical garden and nature reserve specializing in desert plants and succulents. You can wander the grounds independently or take a guided tour led by park staff.
    Photo by Robert Harding/age fotostock