Before the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century, there was an indigenous settlement at Izcuinapan (place of dogs). A small chapel was built and a village started near the indigenous village by Juan de San Miguel. However, a continuous water supply problem and unrest between the indigenous people and the Spanish resulted in the abandonment of the original location. The village was officially re-established in 1555 by Juan de San Miguel’s successor, Bernardo Cossin, and indigenous leader Fernando de Tapia. It was re-established both as a mission and as a military outpost. The new site was just northwest of the old one at a place with two fresh water springs. The two springs supplied all of the town’s water until the middle of the 20th century.
San Miguel de Allende has been known by various names since the Spanish founded the settlement. The Spanish originally called it San Miguel el Grande and sometimes San Miguel de los Chichimecas. The name of the town was changed in 1826 to San Miguel de Allende to honor local hero Ignacio Allende, a leader in the movement to free Mexico from Spanish rule in the 19th century.
The city also was a well-known stop on the silver route between Zacatecas and Mexico City. By 1900, silver mining production declined and San Miguel de Allende was in danger of becoming a ghost town. However, the Mexican Government stepped in and declared San Miguel a National Historic Monument in 1926, which was pivotal to the modern growth of the city. Development in the historic district was restricted in order to preserve the town’s colonial character.
In 1938, Peruvian artist Felipe Cossio del Pomar established San Miguel’s first art school, the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes in a beautiful colonial building and former convent.
After World War II, San Miguel began to establish itself as a travel destination and home to expats, particularly artists. Many former U.S. GIs discovered that their education grants stretched further in Mexico at U.S.-accredited art schools, like the privately owned Instituto Allende, founded in 1950, and the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, a nationally chartered school. By the end of 1947, Life magazine assigned a reporter and photographer to do an article on this post-war phenomenon. A three-page spread appeared in the January 5, 1948, edition under the headline “GI Paradise: Veterans go to Mexico to study art, live cheaply and have a good time.”
As a result of the publicity, more than 6,000 American veterans immediately applied to study at these schools. Enrollment rose and, in turn, attracted more artists and writers. In response, new hotels, shops and restaurants sprung up to cater to the visitors and new expat residents. Many of the American veterans who came to study in San Miguel returned to retire, and often have been credited with saving San Miguel.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared San Miguel de Allende a World Heritage Site in 2008. It was chosen both for its well-preserved Baroque colonial architecture and layout as well as its role in the Mexican War of Independence. The heritage site includes 64 blocks of the historic center and the sanctuary of Atotonilco, a nearby historic church center.
Today, San Miguel de Allende is one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico with over 140,000 residents. Much of its economy is tied to tourism and a large expat community. The city attracts over a million visitors each year and has been named by several major travel magazines as one of the top places in the world to visit and live.