Antigua is a popular spot on the typical “Gringo Trail” that winds its way through Mexico and Central and South America. Many travelers stop here before or after visiting Lake Atitlàn or Semuc Champey. It’s an ideal city to use as a base for hiking volcanoes, learning Spanish, delving into the country’s rich history and drinking a whole lot of great coffee.
I had such a great time in Antigua. Its compact size, colorful architecture, mysterious ruins and dramatic surroundings make it such a fun place to explore. The entire city center is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s not hard to see why.
Heading to Antigua for the first time? Here are a few suggestions to help you get acquainted with this beautiful city.
First, A Little History
Antigua was colonized by the Spanish in the 16th century. This is why much of the city’s architecture has such a wide variety of colonial European influence.
The city’s grid pattern of streets facing North-South and East-West was inspired by the Italian Renaissance. It remains one of the best examples of Latin American town planning. It’s also the only remnant still in tact from its 16th century settlement – and something that I, as a visitor, very much appreciated!
During colonization, Antigua became the region’s most prominent and influential city, its prosperity lasting more than two centuries. However, due to its vulnerability to natural disasters including floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the country’s capital eventually moved to Guatemala City, with some residents deciding to stay behind in ‘La Antigua Guatemala’.
The city lay largely forgotten for almost a century, until coffee, grain and other agricultural endeavors brought life back to the area. The partial abandonment of the city for almost 100 years is actually credited with allowing the city to retain the high number of Baroque-style buildings and ruins that remain in Antigua today.
Antigua’s main square is a great place to start your exploration of the city. Enjoy views of the Catedral de Santiago, admire the Fuente de las Sirenas (mermaids’ fountain), and observe the comings and goings of locals and visitors alike.
Just off of the park you’ll find Café Condesa, one of the many Antiguan cafés with a beautiful hidden courtyard, a trademark of the city.
You Might Also Like: Seven Cafés You Shouldn’t Miss in Antigua, Guatemala
Parque Tanque La Unión and Place de la Merced are two other great parks to visit during your time in Antigua. Tanque La Unión is home to a series of pilas, where women traditionally washed their clothes during colonial times. Place de la Merced is home to Iglesia de la Merced, a beautiful example of Baroque architecture.
Antigua’s main market is a whirlwind of color and activity. When looking for the market, we first found ourselves inside a building full of craft stalls. While it was interesting to look at the products, I was determined to find the food – which is always my favorite part of any market!
Next, we ended up back outside, but in a long aisle of tent after tent selling things like DVDs and deodorant. Not exactly what I had in mind, either.
I was just about to give up, assuming we hadn’t come to the right place, when Dan encouraged me to walk further in. We soon found ourselves in a completely different world, with vendors shouting back and forth to one another and customers jostling each other to get a better look at a selection of spices or cut of meat.
I found myself wanting to stop and take photos, but the tight quarters left little enough room for walking, much less a disruptive photo shoot. I didn’t have much of a choice but to continue with the steady and determined flow of local traffic.
After weaving our way past the initial outdoor stalls and through the large, buzzing building, we found ourselves outside again. This time we were surrounded by vendors, each one shaded by a colorful umbrella, their immediate area piled high with produce and bouquets of flowers.
I wish I could give more concrete advice on how to visit the market, but to be honest, it was all a bit of a blur! Just remember: don’t give up at the DVD stands. The good stuff is coming. Just try to stay out of everyone’s way!
The market is open every day, from 6 am to 6 pm on Monday, Thursday and Saturday, from 7 am to 6 pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and from 7 am to 1 pm on Sunday. Monday, Thursday and Saturday are the best days to visit.
Coffee and Courtyards
Guatemala is known around the globe for its delicious coffee. Pair those world-renowned beans with some of the most beautiful courtyard and rooftop settings you could ask for, and you have some seriously great coffee date opportunities!
For a list of my favorite cafés in Antigua, click here.
Cerro de la Cruz
This elevated viewpoint overlooks the city as a whole and offers great views of Volcán de Agua on a clear day. The walk to the lookout is quite steep but doesn’t take very long, and leads you through a quiet, pretty neighborhood on the way to and from. The path used to be notorious for muggings and is now patrolled by local police during the day. We felt perfectly safe exploring the area and saw a variety of fellow visitors as well as a handful of locals going for runs or walking their dogs.
La Tienda de Doña Gavi
This little tienda was my favorite spot to indulge in something sweet mid-day, as one is required to do on vacation! You’ll know it’s open if the ladder is out. After browsing the shop’s candles, enamelware and dried flowers, treat yourself to a cone of homemade ice cream. My favorite was the mango – so refreshing – and there were plenty of other classic and quirky flavors to choose from, including avocado, carrot and coconut.
One of the most popular activities in the city is taking a volcano hike. The two main options are a day trip to hike Volcán Pacaya or an overnight trip to hike Volcán Acatenengo. The former is known to be the easier option of the two, reaching a height of 2,500m, while the latter climbs to 4,000m and offers close-up views of the active Volcán de Fuego.
Despite their popularity, we actually ended up not doing either. In addition to how much fun we were having enjoying the city itself, we were intimidated by the reviews of the Acatenango hike, with many climbers commiserating over how challenging it was. In hindsight, I kind of wish we had just gone for it! The pictures we’ve seen since our trip have been incredible.
That said, the opportunity to see Volcán de Fuego erupt several times a day – even from a distance – was one of my favorite parts of being in Antigua. That was really something this Upstate New York native does not see every day.
Holy Crêpe, That’s a Cheap Steak
I loved having dinner at La Luna de Miel, a cozy crêpe restaurant at 6a Avenida Norte #40. They have a candlelit rooftop patio and the crêpes are delicious. I wasn’t expecting to find great crêpes in Guatemala, but who am I to argue with a good thing?
I also loved our meal at Travel Menu. The small open kitchen serves up a variety of options. Every Thursday is steak night, and you can get steak frites with a glass of wine for 69Q (roughly $9 USD). We also received vouchers for free shots at the Irish pub next door.
You won’t feel like you’re among the locals here, as this is pretty clearly a place catering to travelers; however, it was a great budget option and we loved the food. Find it at 6a Calle Poniente #14.
Regardless of your budget, the bar and restaurant scene in Antigua is great. There are so many places to choose from. With more time I would have loved to visit Frida’s, Los Tres Tiempos, and Y Tu Piña Tambien. For a night cap (or a mid-day treat…vacation, remember?!) a popular bar option is Café No Sé.
Centro de Formación de la Cooperación Española en La Antigua Guatemala
A cultural, religious and educational center dating back to the 16th century, this complex of buildings was revitalized in 1992 through an agreement between Spain and Guatemala. With several art exhibits, a library, a café, and a handful of beautifully preserved courtyards, it’s definitely worth a stop. Plus, admission is free!
Santa Catalina Arch
The most iconic and enduring symbol of Antigua, the Santa Catalina arch has stood tall since 1694, when it was originally built to allow nuns to pass discretely between the two convents located on either side of the street.
When we first arrived in Antigua, I couldn’t contain my excitement to finally see the arch in person. As we got closer, I went from walking excitedly (like a weirdo) to practically running (also like a weirdo).
My excitement deflated like a balloon as I turned the corner onto 5a Avenida Norte, where the arch is located. It was completely covered. In scaffolding and high green fencing. Like some sort of cruel joke!
While I understand and support routine restoration on such iconic and historic structures, I was so bummed. Luck was on my side, though, because when we returned to Antigua after a few days on Lake Atitlàn, the scaffolding was gone!
In addition to the many colonial remnants that are still largely in tact, there’s a wide variety of 17th and 18th century ruins to explore in Antigua, as well. You’ll happen upon them organically as you wander around the small city center, but there are many sites where you can pay a small fee to visit the entire property.
Santo Domingo del Cerro
Our first Airbnb host in Antigua was the lovely Ana Maria. A retired woman of seventy, she started hosting guests just over a year ago and has since racked up more than 100 5-star reviews on the lodging site.
Each morning she made us breakfast, calling up from downstairs, “Niños, desayuno!” (“Breakfast time, kids!”) Over pancakes or French toast, we’d tell her about our plans for the day and she’d offer suggestions.
One thing she didn’t want us to miss in her hometown of Antigua was Santo Domingo del Cerro. And while we weren’t entirely sure what she was recommending to us at the time, we wrote down the name and headed in its general direction.
So… what is Santo Domingo del Cerro?
A museum. An open-air sculpture space. A craft market. An aviary. A garden. A restaurant. An event space. A playground. A zip line course!
There’s a little bit of everything happening at Santo Domingo del Cerro.
The park is located outside of the city center on the Cerro Santa Inés, and there’s a free shuttle that runs back and forth throughout the day. You can find the shuttle in the small parking lot at the intersection of Calle de la Chipilapa and 3a Calle Oriente. It’s located just down the street from Casa Santo Domingo, one of the city’s nicest hotels. If you have any questions, just ask the hotel staff!
Side note: you can also explore the inner courtyards of the Casa Santo Domingo. With lush gardens, fountains and Roman ruins, they are an attraction in and of themselves.
I couldn’t get enough of the city’s brightly colored homes and buildings. If Antigua weren’t so easy to navigate (remember that street grid?), I would recommend just “getting lost” in the city streets. There seemed to be more splashes of color and character waiting for us around every corner.
Even if you can’t get lost, I would recommend taking a different route every time you go somewhere new. Change your path by just one street and see what you stumble upon.
Have you been to Antigua or elsewhere in Guatemala? What did you think? Share your thoughts below!
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