You've heard that San Miguel de Allende is an artists' retreat, where the beauty of the surroundings, coupled with the inspired bent of those who seem to be drawn here, results in a proliferation of all things creative. There are literary readings, photography workshops and an ever-more-impressive writers conference, art shows, music and film festivals, as well as yoga classes, meditation, and much more—much of it produced by and for the large, English-speaking population of expats and snowbirds.
For travel novices, San Miguel can be a painless entry-level experience, practically free from concerns about culture clash and language problems. But even newcomers to Mexico shouldn't make the mistake of spending their whole trip here.
The city began luring foreigners in the late 1930s, when American Stirling Dickinson and prominent local residents founded an art school in this high desert town ringed by mountains. The school, now called the Instituto Allende, has grown in stature over the years—as has the city's reputation as a writers' and artists' colony. On any cobblestone street you'll run into expats of all nationalities, but particularly Americans and Canadians. Some come to study at one of the many language schools, some to escape harsh northern winters, and still others to retire.
San Miguel—declared a national monument in 1926 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008—retains its Mexican characteristics. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mansions, monuments, and churches are all reminders of the city's illustrious past. Explore the downtown area on foot, and you’ll find old fountains that once provided fresh water (still functioning, although, of course, residents now get their water via underground pipes), ornate facades, ancient doors with unique brass knockers, and other remnants of architectural history. Some women still chat as they wash clothes, as has been done for centuries, at the collection of red concrete tubs above Parque Benito Juárez.
Bear in mind that the city is more than a mile above sea level, so you might tire quickly during your first few days if you aren't accustomed to high altitudes. Also, the streets are paved with rugged cobblestones, and narrow sidewalks are paved with smooth stones that get especially slippery when wet. Most of San Miguel's sights are in a cluster downtown, which you can visit in a couple of hours.
Independence Day, celebrated on September 15 and 16, is San Miguel's biggest fiesta, with fireworks, dances, and parades; events related to the celebration of San Miguel’s patron saint, the archangel Michael, fill out the remainder of the month. But many more holidays bring increasing crowds of revelers from Mexico City, Querétaro, and other nearby cities, as do weekends.