Antigua is a small city, surrounded by volcanoes in the south of Guatemala in Central America. It’s famous for its Spanish colonial buildings, many of which have been restored since the devastating earthquake in 1773 which ended Antigua’s 200-year reign as the Guatemalan capital.
The city is absolutely stunning and it’s a great place to chill for 4-5 days, to soak up the ambiance, explore the city and climb some of the volcanoes.
10 great things to do in Antigua.
1. Parque Central
The Parque Central or the Plaza is the hub of this delicious colonial Spanish town. It’s green with trees, benches and is very safe as it’s patrolled by the Tourism Police.
Buildings make up the four sides of the square including The Palace of the Captain’s General on one side, the City Hall, the Cathedral and a side of shops and other commercial activity.
The city radiates from this hub and was built on a grid pattern, with neatly cobbled streets mimicking the Italian Renaissance so it’s easy to find your way around, especially after a short walking tour. Every day there is morning and afternoon tours by Antigua Cultural Walking Tours meeting at the fountain in the Parque Central.
The tour focuses on the City Hall, Palace of the Captain’s General, the Cathedral, its magnificent ruins and the Paseo de las Museos in the Casa Santo Domingo.
2. Arco Santa Catalina (Saint Catalina Arch)
The iconic landmark in Antigua looks like an arch but there is more to it than that.
The west side of the arch was originally used as a convent. When the convent outgrew the building they didn’t want to relocate so the administrators decided to buy the property across the street. The problem was the nuns were supposed to live in isolation so they built an arch between the two buildings. Now it’s a hotel and restaurant.
3. Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross)
High above the city is a magnificent place to take in the view of Antigua and the dominating volcanos, Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego which put on a scary display for us when we were there.
The walk takes about half an hour from the plaza but go during daylight hours when police patrol the footpath to the hill. Also, make sure to schedule your walk when Volcan Agua is visible so you catch the stunning views instead of clouds.
4. The Cathedral or San Francisco Church
Antigua is full of churches and ruins, but San Francisco Church is the diamond. It was a Cathedral but as it has no bishop it’s now officially a church although many still refer to it as the Cathedral.
Built in 1542 it has a big courtyard and the tomb of Santo Hermano Pedro de San José de Betancourt, a Spanish missionary that came to Antigua in the mid-1600s. Hermano Pedro is revered and has been named Antigua’s eternal Mayor and is Guatemala’s only canonized saint.
Behind the church are the most amazing ruins from its monastery. Well worth a visit.
5. Mercado (Market)
This market is sensational and you can find nearly anything you need and more. At a first glance it is a sprawling mess but the Mercado is actually well -organised into sections; produce, clothing, cafeterias, fruits, meat market, fish market, etc. You’ll get lost but it’s so worth it. You’ll be amazed at the odd fruits and weird animals for sale, roasted armadillo and other strange creatures!
The market is very clean, safe, and open every day. It does get crowded during “official” days (Monday, Thursday and Saturday), so it’s best to explore on off days when the crowds are lighter. Stick to shopping hours (7am to 2pm), as police presence is visible then.
6. Paseo de Museos (Museum Promenade)
I think this is the best of the many museums in Antigua. It’s part of the Hotel Santo Domingo and the museums and ruins are open to public (for a fee). Scheduled at least an hour and a half to explore everything the museums and cloister ruins have to offer. There’s a Colonial Museum, Archeology Museum, Pre-Columbian Art and Modern Glass Museum, Artist Halls, Sacatepequez Arts and a Pharmacy Museum.
7. Eat at Meson Panza Verde Hotel
This is the hotel we stayed at. Not only is this 12-room boutique hotel divine, but it has some of the very best food in Antigua. After eating at a number of other establishments in town we soon realized the best was at Panza Verde.
As Guatemala is close to the Pacific Ocean their fish including their deliciously tasty tuna tartare was divine. Plus, you’ll love the elegance and ambience.
To read more about the Meson Panza Verde Hotel, click here.
8. Walk Volcano Pacaya
Guatemala has 37 volcanos. Three are active including Volcano de Fuego which spewed hot red lava from its crater each night we were in Antigua.
About 45 minutes from Antigua is another of the active volcanos, Pacaya, which last erupted in 2014. With a licensed local guide I walked the volcano, firstly though beautiful bush until we reached the edge of the last lava flow from the 2014 eruption. The climb is approximately 500 meters and can also be done on horseback. On route we stopped and roasted marshmallows over the hot lava… unbelievable!
9. Learn about Guatemala’s coffee
I had an intriguing tour of Filadelfia coffee plantation and now have a new appreciate of what goes into growing a coffee bean before roasting.
Having never seen a fresh coffee bean growing I thought it would be like a hard unripe olive, but its soft. Squeezing the fruit, the coffee bean pops out leaving the skin and fruit, good enough to eat and great for making jam. A truly worthwhile adventure.
For more information Filadelfia tours
Catch a chicken bus
A ‘chicken bus’ is a colloquial English name for the colorful, modified and decorated buses mostly imported from the USA, to transport goods and local people between around Guatemala. Have your wits about you and ensure you have few valuables with you.
It’s a great city…have fun.