Eye Candy

San Miguel de Allende Is Also for Modernists

by Leslie Long
Hotel Photo courtesy of Hotel Matilda.

San Miguel de Allende has beauty to spare. This UNESCO World Heritage site in the central highlands of Mexico is filled with impressive Baroque architecture from the Spanish colonial era. Tile floors, lovely murals, and romantic courtyards with flora, fauna and fountains await behind almost every wall and doorway. Underfoot are uneven cobblestone streets. (Flat, sturdy shoes only!) Above are rooftop restaurants, one lovelier than the next.

In the center of town, the spires of the pink-tinged Parroquia can be seen from just about anywhere. Day and night, the dreamy cathedral showers its fairy dust over the pretty green park at its feet, and the city at large.

Located a few hours north of Mexico City, it takes some effort to arrive in San Miguel. My husband and I flew from New York to Houston to connect with another flight to Queretero Airport before a 90-minute cab ride into town. But those who make the journey are richly rewarded. Golden sunlight, a lively street life, and general feeling of good will hit us right away.

On our very first stroll, we happened upon an art opening and met a couple we bumped into several times throughout our stay, culminating in rooftop drinks together one evening. Over two weeks, we attended a classical concert, an opera, and a play — and could have gone to many more high-quality events. This place has a lot to offer — and a willing audience of cultured expats. Touring performers pass through on a regular basis.

While that dreamy colonial atmosphere is surely gorgeous, I also like a little contemporary mixed with the classic. These three places made this part-time modernist swoon.

Photo courtesy of Hotel Matilda.
Photo courtesy of Hotel Matilda.

Photo courtesy of Hotel Matilda.
Photo courtesy of Hotel Matilda.
Photo courtesy of Hotel Matilda.

A Contemporary Oasis in the Colonial Center

Like most of its neighbors, Hotel Matilda has an interior courtyard, but the similarities end here. Step in off the street to find a sleek, streamlined check-in desk, luxe living room, and gleaming white buildings.

Contemporary Latin art plays a major role throughout the hotel, which rambles beautifully through a large, private property. More than 70 works of art added moments of delight everywhere I encountered them, including at an artful mosaic wall by the pool.

Guestrooms in soothing neutrals cantilever cleverly, offering privacy and spaciousness. Rooms vary beautifully with sparkling glass lighting fixtures, Egyptian cotton sheets, and colorful, tasteful touches from wallpaper and original art. Every space, from deluxe rooms to three owner’s suites (32 rooms in all), was somewhere I’d want to be.

We started the evening at the small, charming Monkey Bar. Fully outdoors and next to the pool, we sipped on Golden Monkeys (rum, pineapple juice, apple liqueur) before moving to our table at Moxi, just steps away in the courtyard. Whimsical touches like heat lamps with huge oversized shades, reminiscent of something out of Alice in Wonderland, made us smile. And while we enjoyed San Miguel’s more standard Mexican food elsewhere, we were happy to dine on herbed rack of lamb, a quintessential cheeseburger, and chocolate soufflé. In addition to Moxi, there’s also Muï Ramen Bar, where ramen gets some Mexican zest. Mostly al fresco, the ramen bar’s huge fish mural is worth a visit alone.  

Not Your Typical Hotel Spa. Not Your Typical Massage

When checking out Hotel Matilda’s spa menu, the two-hour Lineal Treatment jumped out at me. As someone for whom massages always end too soon, I loved the longer time frame. Part of the treatment involved mezcal, a first for me, and being in Mexico, I couldn’t pass that up.

Descending a staircase behind the pool, the spa was as serene and beautiful as any I’ve seen.

I was given a sumptuous robe and a private changing area stocked with Natura Bissé skincare products. My masseuse, Samantha, had a calming, cat-like way about her, and I was soon on her table being gently scrubbed with a dark, grainy substance of inulina (an agave extract), rosemary, and arnica, cleaning my pores, preparing my skin for the next step — the body mask.

Samantha may have been small, but she was mighty: the perfect firm but caring touch. After being exfoliated, I was brought next door where a warming shower awaited.

Back in the massage room, Samantha held a lava bowl filled with red clay, arnica and rosemary again, and the magic ingredient – a shot of mezcal mixed in before my eyes. I was slathered front and back with this warming mix and wrapped in a silver blanket like a swaddled baby. Surrounded by the wonderful smell, gentle heat, and soothing music, I couldn’t have been happier. While the mask and my skin cured, I was surprised with a head and neck pressure point massage.

I was again directed to the adjacent shower to rinse off and was thrilled that only an hour had elapsed. A perfect, one-hour full body massage followed. What an experience. (Read more about the treatment, including the wrap recipe.)

On the table at Bovine. Photo by Leslie Long.
On the table at Bovine. Photo by Leslie Long.
Bovine. Photo by Leslie Long.

Sleek and Glossy Bovine Is Completely of the Moment

San Miguel is full of very good restaurants — The Restaurant, Tostevere, and Don Taco Tequila were standouts. But Bovine brasserie has a completely different feel. Up a staircase in the historic Codigo Postal Design building, its shiny black and white interior is ultra-contemporary — a perfect backdrop for their elegant meat-centric menu featuring cuts dry-aged in house.

Geometric floors, sculpted seating, a curved black bar, irreverent artwork, and whimsical china add to the atmosphere. Studded brass tabletops and low lighting give everything a burnished glow. With a dressy, special feel, Bovine caters more to a late-night crowd.

The tomato salad with peaches, burrata, and basil started things off, followed by Bovine’s famed steak au poive (perfectly peppery, but not overly so). Thick, salty fries arrived in a little cast iron pan to keep them hot, although they didn’t last very long. Fettucine with mushrooms was worthy of a special occasion. Chocolate pavlova dessert vanished within minutes.

Casa Armida. Photo by Leslie Long.
Casa Armida. Photo by Leslie Long.
Casa Armida. Photo by Leslie Long.

If You Love All This, Live It at Casa Armida

With a small store in the lobby of Hotel Matilda and larger one on the main floor of Bovine, Casa Armida’s mothership is on Ancha de San Antonio (known locally as The Ancha). The first time I passed, I admired the open courtyard from the street. An impressive fountain bubbled, a welcoming table and chairs looked meeting-ready, and a row of worn, wooden, upside down boats created a roof of sorts. I didn’t notice the discreet sign, so moved on, thinking it was some kind of cool work space or event venue.

After hearing more about Casa Armida, I returned and noticed the small sign out front. Once inside, I was overwhelmed by a room full of spectacular candles of all sizes, from votives to the most enormous pillars I’ve ever seen, in two colors: a charcoal-y black and creamy white. I could feel the individuality and slight irregularities of every candle, each with a gold stamp in the shape of an anvil. Unable to resist, I bought as many as I could fit in my bags. The next time I visited, I bought more.

The store has multiple floors and many rambling rooms and departments filled with art objects, artwork, hardware, mirrors, and curiosities. The more I looked, the more I found — enormous dining tables, huge atmospheric chandeliers, evocative lanterns, moldings of all descriptions. Upstairs were sofas, beds, chairs — just about anything and everything you’d need to furnish a home in Casa Armida style. It’s a wondrous world in black, gold, metal, weathered wood, smoky glass and cushy textures. Led by architect Luis Fabián Flores, the designs are made in Casa Armida’s workshops.

If you like one or two things here, you’ll love it all. At Casa Armida, you can start with a candle and end up with a fully furnished home.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.