After a few casual walks through the colonial streets of San Miguel de Allende, it is easy to see why it was named the top city in the world by Travel + Leisure in 2017. There is a seemingly endless assortment of charming alleys and boutiques to explore, while a delicious culinary scene will keep your belly full for days on end.
With high-profile accolades raining down on San Miguel in recent years, this Mexican destination is definitely on the tourist circuit (with the tourist prices to show for it!) and SMA isn’t the quaint place it maybe once was years ago. It may have lost some of the charm as more than 10,000 of the 60,000 residents are expats, but don’t let this scare you off. There is still plenty to enjoy about SMA.
Between my two visits to San Miguel in recent years, I enjoyed the laid-back nature of my travels here. In both cases, I traveled with tourism-industry professionals. This post was written in collaboration with content created by my Greenheart Travel colleague Sara Thacker as we compiled our top travel tips to spending a few days in this beautiful city.
14 things you need to know before visiting San Miguel de Allende in Mexico!
Immigration and Customs
You will be required to fill out an immigration and customs form while on the plane to show to officials when you land. The customs form is in Spanish, so if you need help you can ask the flight attendants. As a general rule say “No” for every question (even if you’ve been hanging out with cows a lot lately).
For the immigration form you will give it to the immigrations officer and he will give you back the bottom part. You MUST keep this “departure card” for when you exit Mexico. Your airline will not allow you on your plane home without this departure card, so just tuck it inside your passport and put it somewhere safe.
Arrival to San Miguel
San Miguel does not have a public airport within the city, and the closest airport is in Leon at Guanajuato International Airport. Several major airlines fly to BJX, but a great budget option is Volaris which offers direct flights from a few US cities including Chicago. Volaris is a budget airline so your basic ticket comes with one checked bag and no carry-on.
Once you land at BJX, you’ll need to transfer to San Miguel via car or bus which takes about 2 hours driving. You can take a shared shuttle, private shuttle, taxi or rent a car. There are many shuttle service options and I think this is the best option. There isn’t really a need for a rental car once you arrive in San Miguel. Tipping is expected for shuttle drivers and I recommend around 60-70 pesos ($3-4) per person.
Mexican Pesos and Currency
You can order Mexican pesos with your bank ahead of time, if you want. This is easy and convenient and you can pick them up before you go. If you aren’t able to order them ahead of time, there is an ATM at the BJX airport in the lobby area. Once you exit into the main area where people are waiting for their rides, walk around the corner to your left and you will see it there on your right. The exchange rate is 20 to 1, so 3,000 pesos is around $130 for reference. If you don’t have time to get money at the airport or ahead of time, there are plenty of ATMs in San Miguel, with many around the main square.
Getting Around in San Miguel
San Miguel is a very walkable city, and you can get to most places by walking within 20 minutes. Your main point of reference will be the Parroquia. It’s the main church in the main garden square, called the Jardin. You can see (and hear) the church from most places in the city, so it’s easy to orient yourself if you get lost – just head to the Jardin! The Jardin is also a fun place to sit and people watch. It’s the liveliest spot in the city!
If you do want a taxi they are very cheap ($1-2 USD) and are great for getting home if you don’t want to walk the cobblestones after too many tacos and margs. They are all over the place so just flag down a green taxi. The light being on or off on top doesn’t seem to indicate anything in my experience.
Streets of San Miguel
All of the streets in San Miguel are cobblestone and the city has a lot of hills and terrain. Our AirBnb was located on top of one of the main hills, which offered amazing sunset views, but it also meant we had a treacherous daily walk up and down the hill. Let me repeat that — all of the streets are cobblestone! High heels are not recommended, and you should opt for comfortable walking shoes instead. Your feet will feel every stone and crack which can take a toll after a few days of walking.
You cannot drink the water in San Miguel; however, any Airbnb, hotel, or restaurant in the city will have filtered water for their house water (from the faucet). If you are at a random hole in the wall I would avoid it, but anywhere else you will be fine. If they are serving you water or ice as a gringo at a hotel it’s fair to assume its drinkable. A rule of thumb is that ice from filtered water is cylindrical with a hole down the middle.
Weather in San Miguel
The weather in San Miguel is really nice throughout the year, with a few months of hot weather in the summer. The best times to visit are the spring and fall when the highs will be around 85F and lows around 55F. San Miguel is in the mountains and it can get cool at night.
Plugs & Power
Mexico uses the same plugs as the USA so you can plug anything you need to into the outlets at your AirBnb or hotel.
Cell Phones & Wifi
You can usually use your phone in Mexico depending on your provider but it will be slightly more expensive. Providers do have international plans that you can set up ahead of time, but I usually find this to be unnecessary. I have TMobile which offers free international roaming anyway. Otherwise, you can use your phone to send iMessages, Instagram, etc on wifi when you are at your AirBnb or hotel. All hotels and houses will have wifi provided for you.
Download Google Maps for Offline Use
Before you leave the USA go to San Miguel de Allende on your Google Maps app. Hit the three bars on the top left and select “Offline Areas”. Select “Custom Area” and the hit “Download” with the map over San Miguel. This will allow you to use Google maps in San Miguel even when you don’t have wifi or service!
Mexican culture loves fireworks anytime of the year, but they are especially prevalent if there is a festival or celebration. You will definitely hear fireworks at night! The city is small, so you will be able to hear any fireworks shot off anywhere in the city and they will be LOUD. Don’t be alarmed, it’s totally normal. It’s good to bring earplugs for sleeping, as there are also church bells early in the morning.
Shopping in San Miguel
San Miguel has some lovely small boutiques, range from high-end clothing and accessories to indigenous art markets where bartering is common. The colors and textures of this beautiful place will likely inspire you to bring home a few souvenirs! If you want to bring home some goodies The Artisan Market is a must. Head here for souvenirs, clothes, pottery, jewelry, and lots more. It’s also attached to the already mentioned, Mercado Ignacio Ramirez, where you can get lunch.
Language Barriers and Speaking Spanish
Don’t worry about language barriers, San Miguel is a very popular destination for tourists, and nearly everyone you interact with at hotels, restaurants and shops will speak decent English. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try a little Spanish. Even if you only know a few words in Spanish, many of the locals will appreciate that you attempt to communicate in the local language. I got lots of big smiles when I would say simple things like “Hasta Luego” after casual interactions.
Departing San Miguel
Airports do not work the same way they do back in the US. When we arrived at the airport to fly home, there was a line of around 300 people to check in with Volaris. We panicked, but no one else seem worried so after a few minutes of waiting, we calmed down. Bottom line, don’t panic. We made it through the check-in line in approximately 30 minutes and security only took around 10 minutes, even though the line was super long. Don’t forget your departure card!