Why San Miguel de Allende is a great destination for families
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I’m all for destinations that take me by surprise. Those are often places that are super family-friendly when I had them wrongly pegged in my mind as quite the opposite. Case in point: San Miguel de Allende, the UNESCO World Heritage city in Central Mexico that I had somehow imagined to be a blue-haired, baby boomer bastion for Americans looking to live better off their social security south of border.
What I found during a visit this summer, instead, was a youthful, vibrant and family-welcoming city with a deeply Mexican soul that was perfect for a vacation with my two toddlers.
I recently spent three weeks in the hilltop city with my husband and two children. At an elevation of 6,234 feet, it stays pleasantly cool here even during the summer and especially at night. Despite being a nearly impossibly hilly place to navigate with a double stroller (definitely bring your baby carrier and your narrowest umbrella stroller), it’s one of the most kid-friendly spots I’ve been yet.
There was one rooftop bar where we were told our toddlers weren’t welcome (it’s called La Azotea, and it’s totally worth hitting on a night when you can arrange a sitter so you can enjoy the amazing jicama tacos and passion fruit margaritas). Otherwise we rolled with our kids everywhere and were welcomed with open arms and mucho warm, Mexican hospitality.
The first thing to know is that San Miguel de Allende requires more work to get to than, say, Cancun.
The easiest and closest airport is Del Bajío International Airport aka Guanajuato International Airport (BJX), which is about an hour and 15 minutes from San Miguel. The airport is serviced by American Airlines, United and Aeromexico from the US. Queretaro International Airport (QRO) is about the same distance away from San Miguel and is serviced by United Airlines and American Airlines from the US. From either of those airports, you can travel by bus to San Miguel, take a taxi or arrange a private transfer in advance with your hotel.
The far and away most inexpensive airport to fly into, though, is Mexico City International Airport (MEX), aka Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juarez. This is the option I chose with my family, since I landed flights with JetBlue from Orlando, nonstop, for less than $300 round-trip per person.
Once we landed, we made our way to the Primera Plus bus terminal, located right inside the airport, and booked tickets on the next bus to Queretaro (about $20 [~£16] per person, half-price for kids, for the three-hour ride). From Queretaro, we paid about $30 (~£24) for a taxi for the remaining 45-minute ride to San Miguel de Allende. (You can also travel by Primera Plus from Queretaro to San Miguel, but we were tired from the early morning flight and wanted an immediate departure at that point.)
Many San Miguel de Allende hotels can arrange private transfers to the airport in Mexico City and you can expect to pay around $260 (~£211) one-way for a sedan and upward of $320 (~£260) one-way for a Suburban. It’s about half that price for private transfers to the Guanajuato and Queretaro airports.
Free and Affordable Things to Do With Kids
San Miguel de Allende’s main square, called the Plaza Allende, is the heart of the town and a relaxing place to sit at a cafe, enjoy an ice cream from a street vendor and just take in the pulse of life around you. The square is totally closed to vehicle traffic at its perimeter, so it’s a great place to let the kids roam free. Young ones will no doubt be drawn to the vendors selling scores of balloon animals and cheap sound-making toys.
Roaming mariachi bands arrive later in the afternoon and into the late evening hours to serenade the crowds, and you can munch on an elote (corn on the cob) or handmade potato chips from the food vendors lining the square.
Parque Benito Juárez
A few blocks stroll downhill (on narrow sidewalks and stone roads) from the main square brings you to the best playground in town, set within San Miguel’s main city park. Tree-shaded, paved paths lead to gurgling fountains and quiet squares within the park with vendors selling crafts and snacks. Kids will hone in quickly on the playground, right at the park’s northern entrance, which has an area for older kids and one geared more toward toddlers. It also has climbing contraptions, swings and slides. I noticed that local playgroups tended to meet here on weekend mornings, if you’re looking to meet some expat and Mexican parents in a convivial setting.
I loved the parklike setting of this popular cafe attached to the renovated textile mill-turned-art gallery hot spot called Fabrica La Aurora, Geek&Coffee. It’s a friendly little open-to-the-fresh-air cafe selling cakes, muffins, salads and espresso drinks that also has a wide-open grassy space contained by a fence and an on-site playground. You can sip your cuppa while your kids burn off some energy with the local kids. The cafe also has a little area stocked with kids’ books and toys and a their-size table (a kiddie corner of sorts) in area shaded from the sun.
La Gruta Restaurant & Spa
To the north of San Miguel de Allende, there are several hot spring-fed pools and grottoes to enjoy. The warm waters, paired with the dry air, make for a delightful sensory experience. We hired a taxi for five hours (about $40/£32) and spent a wonderful Sunday at La Gruta, which friends recommended to me as the most beautiful of the bunch.
There are several pools in which to soak in waters of varying temperatures, a neat grotto you access through a short tunnel partially filled with water (my son loved this, and we did it on repeat) and large, open grassy areas where you can relax and picnic. The on-site restaurant is affordably priced and sells things like chilaquiles and pancakes. Admission includes lockers but you’ll want to bring your own towels. Admission is about $12 (~£10) per person and free for kids under 3.
Mercado de Artesanias
For souvenir and trinket shopping (you can’t leave San Miguel de Allende without at least a heart fridge magnet, featuring the town’s omnipresent symbol), spend a few hours wandering the downhill trajectory of silver, leather, metalwork and jewelry shops within the Mercado de Artesanias, right in the center of town.
La Biblioteca Publica (Public Library)
Right in the heart of el Centro (the town’s historic center), San Miguel’s public library has ongoing dual-language (Spanish/English) events, children’s books in Spanish and English and a kids’ play area set off a pretty courtyard with a fountain. There’s also a lovely cafe here in a shaded open-air setting with strong, free Wi-Fi.
Hot Air Balloon Flight
Gaze skyward any early morning in San Miguel and chances are you’ll see a colorful hot air balloon (un globo) or three flying overhead. Flights over the colonial town and the countryside sprawling around it make for a singular family adventure. Coyote Canyon Adventures is a well-respected and established operator to go out with, and trips include breakfast after your flight. It’s an early morning for the kids, but worth it for the spectacular views. Prices: $170 (~£138) per person, $130 (~106) for kids ages 4 to 9, free for kids 3 and under.
Horseback Riding and Ranch Fun
Kids ages 2 and up can take part in the awesome horseback riding excursions with Coyote Canyon Adventures. They’ll pick you up in town and take you out to the countryside for 2.5 hours of riding followed by lunch prepared at one of the casitas back at the ranch. If you have a full day to spend at the ranch, consider bringing the kids along for a fun program that will see them gathering chicken eggs, learning roping skills, rappelling off a cliff face, horseback riding and exploring the ruins of a 400-year-old church nearby. Horseback riding adventures start from $110 (~89) per person.
Hotels run the price gamut in San Miguel, from small family-run posadas to lavish luxury resorts. Mexican hospitality is a theme most anywhere.
San Miguel de Allende isn’t a place with many chain hotels at all, but the Rosewood San Miguel de Allende qualifies on that count, even if it doesn’t have a loyalty program (the chain does offer free night promotions sometimes, however, so be sure to ask). For me, this stunning property, landscaped with lavender bushes and olive trees right in the historic center, is the best spot in town for a family stay. Our room was enormous and luxurious, and thoughtful touches like bath amenities for my kids and even a kiddie tub and crib were in there without me even having to request them.
The rooftop bar, Luna, has the best views in town and semicircular couch-style seating where you can cordon yourself off with little kids.
The property has a shallow kiddie pool where they can play and offers fun things like family cooking lessons in an outdoor kitchen. The best part is you’re just a one-minute stroll to Parque Benito Juarez, home to the best playground in town.
With a sophisticated design aesthetic right in the heart of the old town, Hotel Matilda is another top option for families that’s located steps from that playground at Parque Benito Juarez and a short stroll (uphill) to the main square.
I loved taking the kids for a swim in the pool and sitting on our balcony in the morning and watching the hot air balloons on the horizon. The rooms have oversized bathtubs that are perfect for bathing kids and a lovely outdoor restaurant, Moxi.
If you prefer a more intimate stay with the family, you’ll love the feel of this boutique property with just five lavish suites set around an interior courtyard with a gurgling fountain. Hotel Amparo has the feel of a riad, and is a quiet oasis right in the historic center. There’s a rooftop restaurant and a great little coffee shop and street-level bar.
But what really sets this place apart is the exquisite design sense that blends modern furnishings with Mexican art and textiles for a real sense of place.
For an inexpensive pick in the historic center, families love the bed-and-breakfast style Villa Mirasol for its traditional Mexican décor and suites that can sleep four with terraces and patios. The hotel is located within steps of the main square and Parroquia de San Miguel cathedral.
Where to Eat
Street food abounds in San Miguel and is the far and away least expensive way to feed the family, thought not every traveler feels comfortable eating that way.
I loved picking up tacos for the family for dinner or a “pollo paquete” (chicken package) from street-side stalls that came with tortillas, a whole chicken, tortillas chips and salsa for around $5. There are lots of great restaurants in San Miguel, too. You’ll never go hungry in this town.
Cafe Buen Dia
Affordable Mexican mainstays like huevos rancheros and chilaquiles are on the menu at this favorite family-friendly cafe with indoor and outdoor seating on Hidalgo Street (the main street leading to the central square). For lunch, Cafe Buen Dia’s menu has a great selection of sandwiches and salads.
This inexpensive Mexican chain focuses on rotisserie chickens served up with all the fixings like tortilla chips, tortillas, salsa and roasted peppers. You can dine in at several Pollo Feliz locations around town or make for an easy meal in by ordering a “chicken paquete” to go.
Hecho en Mexico
Nachos, quesadillas, hamburgers and fajitas make for classic kid pleasers at this atmospheric restaurant with tables set in an interior courtyard. Hecho en Mexico has great prices, too. Just avoid sitting at the table set atop a stage-like area if you don’t want to be chasing your toddlers from the edge your entire meal. I’m speaking from experience.
San Augustin Chocolates & Churros
Especially on weekends, expect a long line outside this wildly popular sweet tooth spot inside a 19th-century townhouse in the city center, where cinnamon pastries called churros are served up with piping hot cups of hot chocolate for dipping. Your kids are sure to thank you (and beg for a return trip) due to the pure dunking pleasure.
With two locations in the center, Los Milagros does breakfast, lunch and dinner and a steady stream of Mexican standards like fajitas, mole dishes and quesadillas as well as more exotic shrimp and seafood dishes for adult palates.
Whether for a long weekend or an even longer stay, San Miguel de Allende makes for an affordable Mexican family vacation that’s a real departure from the all-inclusive experience that dominates the country’s coastlines. For culture, great food and warm Mexican hospitality in a delightful colonial city, this is the spot.
Featured image by Terry-Ward.com
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