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Recently named an American Capital of Culture for 2019, San Miguel de Allende is a great place to experience Mexico’s rich local heritage and traditions, pre- and post-Spanish rule.

Located in Guanajuato, about four hours north of Mexico City by car, the city boasts cobblestone streets and a UNESCO World Heritage historic center. Even sweeter — many of the top things to see and do around town are entirely free. Here are five of our favorites.

Explore the Jardín Principal

The best place to begin exploring this pedestrian-friendly city is its central square, the Jardín Principal, commonly referred to as “El Jardín.” Named after the immaculately manicured garden at its core, this is the city’s local gathering point and the primary site of its spirited festivals and celebrations. Strolling around San Miguel’s center won’t cost you a single centavo, and you’ll be surrounded by some of its most noteworthy buildings, including the grand dame of the city’s skyline, La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. Built in the 17th century, this neo-Gothic landmark is best known for its distinct rose-colored spires and elaborate interiors that have it booked for weddings for two years out. The church is free to enter, as is the neighboring Presidencia Municipal, the first city hall constructed in Mexico post-independence. Also located on the square is Casa de Allende, the former home of Ignacio Allende, who was a central figure in the Mexican War of Independence. The house has since been converted into the city’s primary history museum. Admission is only $2.50 USD and free on Sundays.

Visit Mexico’s Sistine Chapel

After you’ve explored the city center, head to nearby Santuario de Atotonilco (about 20 minutes from San Miguel by car). This important church and pilgrimage site is known as “the Sistine Chapel of the Americas” for its ornate Baroque murals — recognized by UNESCO as one of the best examples of Baroque art in the New World. Though the complex was established in 1740, the land surrounding it has been considered sacred since before the arrival of the Spanish, due to mineral hot springs. Today, Mexicans continue to come from all over the country to pray here. While entry to the Atotonilco and its seven chapels is free, formal tours cannot be conducted inside since it is a place of worship.

Admire the Mojigangas

One of San Miguel de Allende’s most iconic artistic traditions are the mojigangas, giant puppet costumes worn by dancers to lead revelers during festivals and other celebrations. These vibrant works of art are made from paper mache, fabric, and paint and can weigh up to 45 pounds. While you can try to catch their merrymaking in the streets, the best way to guarantee a sighting is to stop by the studio of mojiganga craftsman Hermes Arroyo, a native of San Miguel. His exhibition space, located a few blocks from el Jardín on Calle San Francisco, is free to visit and is usually open to the public.

Catch a Festival

San Miguel de Allende is known for its festivals, which occur year-round and offer a chance to see the city at its liveliest — when traditional costumes, music, and folkloric dance fill the streets. All of San Miguel’s major celebrations are open to the public and are free to attend. Mexican Independence Day (September 15-16) is celebrated with an impressive fireworks display, and the city hosts one of the Mexico’s most epic Dia de Los Muertos celebrations (beginning November 1), which is drawn out over a weeklong party known as Festival La Calaca (Skull Festival). To catch an even more local celebration, plan a trip to coincide with the annual Alborada (late September), which honors the city’s patron saint. If you’re lucky, you may even catch the Danza de los Voladores, a Mesoamerican ritual in which dancers in traditional attire descend from the top of a 30-meter pole, attached only by a rope tied to one ankle as they spin around to the bottom. This unique spectacle has made it onto UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage ceremonies.  

Check Out the Art Scene

San Miguel is home to an exceptional international arts scene. The largest concentration of galleries can be found at Fábrica La Aurora, an abandoned textile factory that has been converted recently into an arts and design complex. The venue hosts regular art walks and open studio evenings, when visitors can drop by to see artists at work. Those interested in street art should head off the beaten path to the burgeoning Arts District in Colonia Guadalupe, where buildings’ exteriors have been revitalized with vibrant murals. Take a stroll around the neighborhood and enjoy the work of some of the country’s most talented mural artists.

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