We arrived at this beautiful UNESCO Heritage site with no expectations. In fact the only thing we had researched ahead of time was where to stay in Antigua, Guatemala. Our plan was to make our way down to the adventure-filled destination of Semuc Champey and the party atmosphere of Lake Atitlan, in order to break up the journey we decided to start in Antigua. Best decision ever! It is now one of our favorite cities in Latin America.
What makes it so special? Well for starters the entire city of Antigua has been named a UNESCO Heritage site and within minutes of arrival we could see why. With the colorful colonial architecture, the cobbled streets and the beautiful churches and cathedrals it’s a delight for culture and history lovers. Throw in the lively squares, the many great restaurants and the proximity to nature and adventure and you have a winning destination in anyone’s books.
What to Do in Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala sits in a valley surrounded by three volcanoes and is laid out in a grid pattern of cobblestone streets. These charming streets are lined with a mix of newer colorful buildings (built in the last 200 years), impressive 16th Century architecture and intersting ruins of buildings largely destroyed in the earthquake of 1773. I happen to be crazy for ruins and architecture so I was in heaven and pulled Nathan around the city for hours exploring preserved monuments, churches, and convents. Of course being a photographer this gave him plenty of inspiration.
Note: There are walking tours of the city sights that you can take from Parque Central, a hop on hop off bus tour or horse and buggy rides around the city, but we chose to create our own walking tour.
As with most Latin American cities, it is always best to start in the main square as that is where the heart lies. Parque Central is no exception and should be at the top of the list of things to see in Antigua, Guatemala. It’s a beautiful park full of trees, statues, fountains and benches for sitting and watching Antiguan life unfold around you.
Catedral de Santiago
Much of this beautiful 16th century cathedral was destroyed in the earthquake of 1773, part of it was rebuilt and now houses the parish of San Jose. Be sure to go around the back to enter the roofless ruins of the original cathedral and walk amongst the massive brick pillars and grand arches adorned with reproductions of intricate plasterwork and moldings. It really is something special and has the feeling of a scene from a fairytale.
Santa Catalina Arch
This beautiful 17th century yellow and white arch used to serve as a passageway for the nuns to travel between the buildings of the Santa Catalina convent. Now it is the iconic Antigua picture in everyone’s photo album, especially if it’s backed by a bright blue sky.
La Merced Church
La Merced is the most ornate of all of the 35 churches in Antigua and is probably the most photographed. Like the Santa Catalina Arch it is painted a vibrant yellow with white decoration and is a stunning example of colonial architecture. It is the last church built in Antigua and was home to the very first monastery in the city.
San Franscisco Church
This Franciscan brotherhood built church is the oldest functioning in Antigua and is likely the most respected of the locals. This could be in part because the church is home to the tomb of Hermano Pedro, Guatemala’s only canonized saint, who built a hospital for the poor.
Casa Santo Domingo
This hotel and museum sits among the ruins of the 16th century convent of the order of Santa Domingo de Guzman and is stunning composite of old and new. They have retained and revived some of the grandeur of the original building and have beautifully melded this with a lavish, elegant five star hotel. Wander the pretty grounds strewn with statues and treasures before enjoying an al fresco meal or drink at the lovely restaurant.
Cerro de la Cruz
A 30 minute hike to the top of a big hill brings you to a large cross overlooking the city and the three volcanoes (Agua, Fuego and Acatenango) within view of Antigua. This is definitely on the list of things to do in Antigua but it’s recommended to go only during daylight hours due to possible petty crime at night.
There are four accessible volcanoes in the area but Pacaya is the best for a day trip from Antigua. You can take a tour or shuttle bus from the city and then hike or ride a horse up the steep 2552 m active volcano. The hike to the summit is less than two hours but it’s fairly strenuous and requires good shoes (no sandals). Also be sure to bring marshmallows for the rare experience of roasting marshmallows on the hot lava.
Like Parque Central the best way to get a real taste of life in the city is by exploring Mercado Antigua. Join the locals and take a walk through the food and household goods area of the market then switch to tourist mode and browse the handicrafts side of things. Allow a couple of hours to fully experience this colorful distraction.
Volunteer or Learn Spanish
If you like to balance your travels with education or contribution then Antigua is a good choice. There are many immersion programs to learn Spanish in Antigua and it has become a very popular choice due to affordability and high quality courses. Sadly, the high poverty rates and political/social injustices in Guatemala also make it a great choice for volunteerism. To learn more we suggest going to the site of Maximo Nivel.
Where to Stay in Antigua, Guatemala
There is an abundance of places to stay in Antigua ranging from simple hostels to 5 Star hotels so there is something for every budget and many include breakfast. As always we suggest using a booking site like Hotels Combined which will give you a broad range of prices and reviews. Here’s a few that we either stayed in or visited while in Antigua that looked like great options.
Budget Hotels in Antigua
Yellow House Hostel is friendly, comfortable and well located with a pretty little terrace for relaxing and having breakfast. Check reviews and availability.
Villa Esthella is a place we stayed for one night and had the most wonderful experience with the owners which you can read about here. It is basic but comfortable, clean and centrally located with a lovely rooftop terrace.
Mid-Range Hotels in Antigua
The lovely Cacao Boutique Hotel is located just outside of the center so it is very peaceful. If you don’t mind being away from the main hub a little this is definitely one of the best values in Antigua. Check reviews and availability.
Luxury Hotels in Antigua
Casa Santa Domingo is our first choice for a luxury accommodation in Antigua. As you will have read above this hotel is a former convent and is beautifully decorated to display 16th century artifacts and an impressive art collection. The grounds and interiors are all lovely and a perfect setting for a memorable vacation. Check reviews and pricing.
Porta Hotel Antigua is a charming upscale hotel with a full spa, a swimming pool and even a Temascal (Mayan sauna). It’s is in a great location for walking to the sights of Antigua and the staff are superb. Check reviews and prices.
Where to Eat in Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua actually has quite the impressive food scene going on these days. With fabulous local cuisine and quality international options you can find something for every taste bud. You can even find some American fast food chains but thankfully they haven’t taken over and are pretty visually low key which is nice. Here are some of our favorite places to eat and drink in Antigua.
Rincon Tipico is, as the name suggests, a typical Guatemalan eatery with a small menu of daily specials at a ridiculously low price. The food is good and hearty and the place is buzzing with activity which shows it’s popularity among locals and tourists alike.
Las Palmas is a funky little place with dark wood, candlelight and fabulous murals on the walls. The food is Spanish/International and is consistently good and they also have live music and salsa dancing to work off the calories.
Cafe Condesa is a bit of an institution in Antigua and has been serving great food and exceptional coffee since 1993. Popularity has made it somewhat touristy now but it’s still well worth a visit. Condesa started as a bookstore and art gallery but now serves a menu of fresh, locally sourced food and coffee and works with the philosophy of “comimos de la misma olla” (we all eat from the same pot).
Cafe No Se is a “must see” when visiting Anitgua even if you don’t drink. This funky, hole in the wall bar serves up the famous “Ilegal Mezcal” in a space that is split into three sections. In the front bar you have live music, the back bar offers fabulous cocktails and behind the fridge door is the magical mezcal.