Gringos with taste have had a love affair with San Miguel de Allende since 1947, when modernist photographer Reva Brooks set up shop there, creating an art colony. Delirious with spires and cupolas, the sixteenth-century city is the closest thing Mexico has to Florence. And this year, an ambitious civic government has set to polishing things up, with a fanatical approach toward historical accuracy. Centuries-old churches are being meticulously restored; stuccoed walls lining the sometimes perilously steep cobblestone streets are being recast in their original bright tones of terra-cotta and sienna. Go anytime (all four seasons in the Guanajuato highlands feel a lot like spring), and plan to spend at least five days soaking in the sun-baked, old-world flavor of vibrant San Miguel and its surrounding Colonial towns.
1 Continental Airlines will get you to León-Guanajuato airport and back for $590 (seven hours each way, with a stop in Houston). The airport is 90 minutes from town; book a transfer van in advance (viajessanmiguel.com/ leon.htm; $27 each way).
2 Stay at Casa de Sierra Nevada (011-52-415-152-7040; $240), where the archbishops lived in the 1700s. Occupying five houses from the 1500s, the hotel hasn’t declined in splendor. Some of the 33 bedrooms have canopied beds, others fireplaces or terraces; all feature Colonial antiques and hand-painted tiles. A 75-minute massage and body wrap at the tiny lavish spa is only $45.
3 For a chunk of Mexican history, stroll down the block from your hotel to the Jardín (the lively town square). Order a milk shake at the ice-cream parlor on the northeast corner, and park yourself on a bench in the central garden to watch women selling dried flowers, balloon-sellers attracting swarms of gorgeous children, and old men in white cowboy hats snoozing in the sun.
4 Put on something nice, and dine at La Capilla—haute Mexican and international cuisine in a renovated chapel. The patio offers a front-row view of the Parroquia, the Gothic-style parish church that looms over the south side of the Jardín. Even better, check to see whether Donnie Masterton is staging one of his exquisite dinners (audiochef1 at yahoo dot com). The James Beard Award– winning chef from L.A. has resisted pressure to open a restaurant, preferring to hold court in rotating locations.
5 In the morning, rent an ATV or a couple of scooters and drive ten minutes to El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden. Less a garden than a vast, semi-wild conservation area, this is where rare Mexican cacti are kept from extinction. Trail-hike through 225 acres of surreal prickly plants.
6 After your nightly dose of post-dinner mariachi music in the Jardín, walk to San Agustín restaurant for hot chocolate and sweet fried churros. Locals crowd this place, not least because owner Margarita Gralia is a TV megastar who recently appeared in Mexican Playboy.
7 On Sundays, meet in front of the Biblioteca Pública at noon for a two-hour House and Garden Tour; the most exquisite bits of San Miguel are hidden in the quasi-Moorish courtyards of the local millionaires’ homes ($15; tickets go on sale at eleven).
8 Take a day trip to Guanajuato, whose even steeper streets and more feverish colors are less than two hours away by taxi or bus. Stop in the Museo de Las Momias to visit the famous mummies: unfortunates who couldn’t pay the rent on their grave sites and so were dug up and put on display.
9 Hire a taxi (they’re cheap), and head 25 miles northwest to Dolores Hidalgo for ceramics and ice cream: unrelated, but both famous. A few minutes away is Atotonilco, a miniature Sistine Chapel of sorts. End your day steaming in one of the hot springs at nearby La Gruta.
10 The airport van often leaves hellishly early. So why sleep? The nightlife in San Miguel is riotous. Salsa lessons are often free at Mama Mia’s, and bohos meet borrachos (er, drunks) at La Cucaracha, a roaring cantina; the pierced and tattooed crowd hangs at En Agua, where chef Masterton has been known to D.J.