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Guanajuato vs. San Miguel de Allende: The Choice Is Clear

I read a lot of travel magazines, from Travel + Leisure, CondeNast, AFAR and so on. I see the headlines, I peruse the colorful photos, but I gotta say - I feel like I missed something when they all claim year after year that San Miguel de Allende is the best city in the world. I went there for an afternoon, I saw the Starbucks full of ex-pats and Americans and the clean, artsy streets. But, where was the LIFE? I didn't see it.


Just 1.5 hrs by car away, however, I spent three nights in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Guanajuato. Only a short time, and I was convinced that not only was I in love, but I'd be happy to purchase property there (I haven't yet but don't put it past me!). Guanajuato is a vibrant community full of culture, history, food and LIFE.


So if you ask me if you should choose Guanajuato or San Miguel de Allende? The choice for me is clear, go to Guanajuato. Let me show you why.


colorful vista of a valley town


In this article you will find:



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Go to Guanajuato for the People, History and Culture


Perhaps we ventured into town on the right day, but we found Guanajuato to be bursting with vivacious energy. Parades of dancers and drummers weaved their way through the cobbled streets, with paper mache headed figures of Frida and Diego following along.


frida, diego and a skeleton parade through town

Street artists were found hard at work, children played and giggled, and the town at every moment was full of locals just enjoying life.


chalk art on the sidewalk

We barely saw tourists, definitely didn't hear any English, and enjoyed an authentic view into central Mexico that most gringos have never seen.


Founded in the 16th Century by Spaniards, we found Spanish influences around every corner. From the paella we had in the main square to the Don Quixote we spotted on our way to and from our hotel every night, Spain's influence could certainly be recognized.


Don quixote statue in town


Go to Guanajuato for the Food


Meals never disappointed and don't need to be planned. Sit down behind the market for a local experience. Saddle up to the square counters surrounding big grills and choose whatever the next guy is eating, it's probably worth it.


Some places offer up free botanas, which is a common thing in Madrid. Basically, for every drink you order, you'll get an accompanying snack or tapas plate. We enjoyed this at a place called La Clave Azul.


Crunchy delicious Mexican flautas

Another place you will find a plethora of dining options is in Plaza de San Fernando. Many of these places have terraces to enjoy passerbys, like La Inundacion de 1905 and Tasca de La Paz.


We enjoyed dinner overlooking one of the squares from an upstairs balcony at El Gallo Pitagorico, a lovely Italian restaurant.


A view of the square from a restaurant balcony in Guanajuato

Consider Los Campos for dinner one night, or step into the street near the Basílica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato (the big yellow church) to enjoy aforementioned Spanish food like paella and sangria.


a yellow church at night

Musicians will commonly roam and strum by your table enticing you to join in on the favorite past time in Guanajuato, the Callejoneadas walk.



Go to Guanajuato for the Night Life


Starting typically near the Jardin de la Union or Theater Juarez, an inexpensive night out awaits with the Callejoneadas walk. Part booze walk, part story time, this must-do activitiy in Guanajuato is around 100 pesos per person.


Each tour guest gets a small ceramic purín for drinking on the tour. I believe it's tequila, but they even make stops where you can pop in and buy a can of beer along the route. I did!


woman walking in a crowd with drinks in hand

The tour is led by musicians in outfits that resemble Ponce de Leon, if he were a Renaissance mariachi man, and most of the members of the band are students in town.


They'll take you from archway to alleyway, including the fabled alley of the kiss (Callejón del Beso) telling lively stories, jokes and playing music throughout the evening for an exciting hour of fun.


People raise a glass in a toast to each other

There's usually two tours per night so keep that in mind! No need to book in advance, just find the musicians and the forming crowds and join in!


Note that the tour is completely in Spanish.



yellow buildings with people gathered around

If you want to continue your bar night, consider booking a bar tour!


Go to Guanajuato for the Views


We stayed wayyy up a long staircase on the edge of town and were blessed with these incredible views every time we made the journey up or down to town.


a city view by day with mountains and a yellow church in the center

You can also expect these views from the top of another favorite attraction, the funicular, or take a cool tour of the terraces and scenic vistas that only the locals know about.


a city by night with mountains and a yellow church at the center


Go to Guanajuato for the Art and Shopping


Find shops and souvenirs on the streets and pick up things like ceramics or art. We found the cutest little donkey carved from wood, with little ceramic pots for holding toothpicks or qtips. The woman selling it was just sitting on the sidewalk, offering the amazing handicraft for just $5.


You'll find many treasures this way, and I recommend just browsing the lanes for them at a slow pace.


chalk art on the sidewalk

Visit Mercado Hidalgo for your typical wares, where we found a leather cowboy hat for my husband and a well made straw one for me.


market view

We also purchased a bunch of hand painted clay plates that we were seeing at every restaurant. They are now one of my most treasured Mexican souvenirs and get used frequently at home!


hand painted clay plate

You can get almost identical ones online for about $20 for 4 plates, which isn't bad if you are unable to take home this great souvenir in your luggage.



Go to Guanajuato for the Attractions


Besides wandering and eating, there is actually quite a bit to do in town. You've seen the view in one of the photos above, now experience it for yourself by taking the funicular panoramico up to the pilpila monument. This fun little ride costs next to nothing and can be easily found just behind the Teatro Juarez.


funicular tracks

When you are done, take the lovely walk back down, stopping for plenty of photos.


woman in hat with city view behind

Another huge draw in Guanajuato is its museums and mines. Guanajuato's Spanish founders led the town to become the world's leading silver-extraction center in the 18th century, so naturally I needed to get underground and see more.


One such place you can do this is at La Mina Valenciana, shown below. Don't worry - it's perfectly safe, and the tour is wonderful.


people wearing hard hats enter a mine tour


Next, an absolute must-do but not for the faint of heart, visit the town's mummy museum. These human remains have been ghastly preserved and may be uncomfortable to see. Nevertheless, I find this bone-chilling museum to be fascinating.


three mummies standing up in a showcase



The town is full of museums and walkways that are worth exploring simply by meandering, but walking tours can always be arranged and are a good way to feed into the economy.



Lastly, consider the Preso de la Olla lake, created by a dam where you can ride boats or have a beer.



Is San Miguel de Allende Worth Visiting At All?


There's plenty of charm and hidden gems worth a day trip from Guanajuato - I just wouldn't make it your home base.


clay colored buildings in san miguel de allende

There's museums, churches, art studios, and markets. The historic center boasts the impressive Parroquia de San Miguel Archangel, El Jardin and the Mercado de Artesanias (which if you ask me wasn't anything special, but it was a Monday).


church with spiky steeples

We enjoyed a road side restaurant for lunch called El Pato Barbacoa y Mixiotes, which specializes in lamb cooked underground. When they run out of food, that's it, so go early.


colorful red white and green decor in an outdoor restaurant

The greatest thing we did in San Miguel de Allende was visit a winery! I know, wine in Mexico? I write all about Mexican wine in this separate post, but yes, wineries are actually prevalent in this region and just south, in Queretaro.


The winery we visited was only 30 minutes out of town from San Miguel.


woman poses in front of red building

We visited Vinicola Toyan, where for about $25 we got an hour and a half tour of the vineyard and process, followed by a private tasting with meats and cheeses in their super cool, very eastern European cellar. Honestly, it was a little crazy!


blue hued cellar for wine tasting

Note that the tour was conducted only in Spanish, but you'll get by alright with limited Spanish (and I had my husband, a Spaniard!). The vineyard tour is enjoyably unique, with lovely grounds, buildings and statues throughout.


vineyard with statues and a gazebo



Logistical Advice


Ok, so San Miguel isn't so bad? It's not as awesome as Guanajuato! But, I do suggest that you make time for a one day side trip and I recommend getting your own rental car. We used ubers at the time, and I have to say that uber is not strong in Mexico. Our drivers were often lost or had like one star ratings. Taxis are a choice too, and in either case we didn't feel the prices were unreasonable for the day bee-bopping around.


I also recommend doing this region as an add-on to a Mexico City trip, either by car or plane - both would be easy. We were concerned about the safety of driving, but as it so happens the roads were fine and we never felt unsafe.


Want to explore more of my adventures in Mexico?


Visit the Yucatan:





Visit Mexico City:


Visit Oaxaca:

(Coming soon!)


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