Antigua is, quite simply, the most beautiful city in Guatemala. The country’s former capital, the city was founded in the early 16th century and remained the capital until 1773, when Spanish crown officials left after a series of earthquakes, volcano eruptions and other natural disasters.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979, the city is a maze of cobbled alleys, perfectly kept colorful colonial buildings and incredible vistas of mighty volcanoes – with Volcán de Agua to its south and Volcán de Fuego and Acatenango to its west. Add to this the many restaurants and eateries that serve scrumptious Guatemalan food; the year-round festive atmosphere; the nearby coffee and chocolate farms; the markets that buzz with life and the chances you’ll fall in love with it are extremely high.
Curious to find out more about all the unmissable things to do in Antigua Guatemala? You’re in luck. I have been there a bunch of times (I forget how many) and I am ready to spill all its secrets!
The Best Things To Do In Antigua, Guatemala
Lose yourself in the sights and sounds of the Mercado
Chaotic, loud and colorful, the Mercado is a much-loved local market in the heart of Antigua. It’s a thriving hub where seemingly everything is bought and sold, from fresh fruits and vegetables to fruits and clothes. There are also some great cafes dotted around the Mercado so you can keep your hunger at bay or simply stop and people-watch from your table.
The market is open daily from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm, but the main market days are Monday, Thursday and Saturday – that’s when it will be busiest.
Hike up an active volcano
Guatemala is strewn with volcanoes, many of which are active and, believe it or not, you’re allowed to climb them, too. Pacaya Volcano looms over Antigua, a veritable icon of the city. First erupting over 23,000 years ago, it’s still one of the most active in Central America. But you can trek up it on guided tours that are complete with marshmallow toasting on the fumaroles! It’s one of the most popular things to do in Antigua Guatemala, so popular it’s often busy with locals and tourists, and there are even food stands.
For guided hikes of Pacaya Volcano, click here. For more information, read my post Everything You Need To Know To Hike Pacaya Volcano.
Volcan de Fuego and Volcan de Agua can be easily seen from Antigua too and are known for their frequent eruptions – think every 30 minutes or so!
Get to grips with Guatemalan gastronomy
With all that fresh produce from the surrounding area, Guatemala’s cuisine is simply delicious. So why not learn some tips and tricks from locals at a Guatemalan cooking class? The recipes you learn won’t be haute cuisine – you typically learn to prepare pepian, a meat and vegetable stew that is Guatemala’s national dish – but you’ll come away from your class with some hearty and delicious new meals up your sleeve. There are numerous places you can opt to go for a cooking class; two good ones are La Tortilla Cooking School and El Frijol Feliz.
For more information about cooking classes in Antigua, click here.
Take a breather at the chilled Cooperacion Espanola
If you need a break from the sometimes hectic city streets of Antigua, then you could always head to the Cooperacion Espanola. Not only is this place charming architecturally, with its simple Spanish Colonial design, but there’s also often art or photography exhibited. There’s even a cafe —with indoor and outdoor seating—where you can sit and sip on a coffee as you plan your next activity in Antigua.
Explore the ruins of Convento Capuchinas
Inaugurated in 1736, the Convento Capuchinas was originally set up by nuns from Madrid. Sadly much of this elegant building was destroyed in the devastating 1773 earthquake—which also levelled much of the existing city—and the convent was abandoned. But today, thanks to restoration projects over the years, it’s open to the public. You can now wander around the building, admiring its old cloister, high arch passageways, and quaint gardens.
Go hiking in Corazón de Agua Ecological Park
For a bite-sized day trip from Antigua, just 40 minutes drive from the city center, you may want to hit up Corazón de Agua Ecological Park. This natural wonderland is a quiet spot to stroll among the trees, and it’s popular with locals who come to enjoy nature themselves. Though there are many trails, the Corazón de Agua trail (2.7 km, or 3 miles)—which takes around 1 hour to complete—loops around the park, and takes in viewpoints and forests.
Learn how to salsa like a pro
Love dancing? Then you’ll love picking up the Latin rhythms of salsa in Antigua. Though it didn’t originate in this part of Latin America, salsa is still a popular pastime and as a result, there are a handful of dance studios where you can enjoy a salsa class or two. You could try out New Sensation Salsa Studio, or maybe Salsa y Mas. It’s a fun way to really feel the energy of the city.
Go for sundowners at a rooftop bar
You may have been thinking that rooftop bars only happened in cities like Sydney and Bangkok, but no: Antigua certainly has its own fair share of these elevated drinking establishments. And there’s no better time for drinks at a rooftop bar than at sunset. For this, make a beeline for Cafe Sky for tasty drinks and food to match, or for the aptly named Lava Terrace, with happy hour, music and volcano views.
Sample chocolate at the Choco Museum
Guatemala is famous for coffee, of course, but it’s also famous for its chocolate which is produced here in abundance. To really get a feel for the process, and learn about the history of the sweet stuff in this part of the world, you should head to the Choco Museum. It was the Maya who first discovered how to use the bitter cacao bean as a culinary product, becoming a currency in the Aztec Empire. The rest, of course, is history!
For chocolate workshops in the Choco Museo in Antigua, click here.
Make your very own chocolate
While the Choco Museum may be the most well-known place to learn about chocolate in Antigua, the fun and welcoming Ek Chuah is heaven for chocolate lovers. Named after the Mayan patron god of cacao, this family-run place is where you can come to learn the ancient art of chocolate-making. They offer a 90-minute workshop three times per day, or you could just visit the on-site cafe and sample chocolate of various flavors.
Enjoy the fresh produce on offer at Caoba Farms
For more gastronomic goodness, pay a visit to Caoba Farms—a self-sustainable and organic farm that supplies Antigua’s hotels and top restaurants with their ingredients. While you’re here, you can tour the farm, but you can also enjoy farm-to-table food at the on-site restaurant and cafe, which is an ideal spot for lunch.
Swing by the Arco de Santa Catalina
A landmark in the city, Arco de Santa Catalina is situated along 5th Avenue North. This yellow passageway was built in the 17th century – though the clock tower was added much later; a remnant of Antigua’s Renaissance heritage. It was originally connected to the Santa Catalina Convent, allowing the nuns to pass from building to building without going out into public. Today it wonderfully frames the Pacaya volcano behind it, looming in the distance. Camera at the ready!
Marvel at the views from Cerro de la Cruz
Just outside Antigua—around a 30-minute walk—you’ll come across Cerro de Cruz. It may not be a mountain, but it’s got some amazing views that’ll make it worth the effort to climb. Marked by a 1930s cross, the sweeping vista from here reaches out across the city to Volcan de Agua.
Enroll yourself in a Spanish language lesson or two
Being a former Spanish colony—like much of Central America—Spanish is the most spoken language in Guatemala. And if your Spanish is a little rusty, or if you’re right at square one, don’t worry: there are plenty of places to brush up your language skills in Antigua. You can opt for one-to-one lessons or just a casual class, the choices are almost endless. One popular choice is the Spanish Academy Antiguena.
People-watch in Central Park
No, not that Central Park—Antigua has its very own Central Park: Parque Central – though it’s not quite at the same scale as New York’s. It’s a central plaza (known also as Plaza Mayor) where people meet up, vendors sell ice creams and other tasty snacks, and is surrounded by historic architecture; as well as flower beds and a big fountain. This is the best spot to simply sit for a while and watch local life unfold.
Go for French food at Bistrot Cinq
For a little slice of sophistication in the center of Antigua, look no further than Bistrot Cinq. Established in 2007, this foodie spot is an authentic take on a Parisian bistro and makes for a cozy place to enjoy classic French dishes—think escargot and beef bourguignon. It’s particularly renowned for its Sunday brunches, served from noon until 5 p.m.
Soak up the elegance of Hotel Casa Domingo
Casa Domingo is a 5-star hotel situated inside a former convent, one of the largest in the Americas. Parts were destroyed in the 1773 earthquake, but a recent renovation has led to its current use as a charming hotel. You could swing by for dinner, a spot of lunch or even breakfast. Or, if you’ve got the budget for it, you could treat yourself and stay in luxury for a night or two.
You can check out the latest rates of Hotel Casa Santo Domingo here.
Feast on Antigua’s street food
On the other end of the budget spectrum, but no less wonderful, is Antigua’s street food. Rich in flavor and made with fresh ingredients, the fare sold by street vendors in the city is both super affordable and very delicious. Dishes range from pepián—one of the country’s oldest dishes, and an example of original fusion food (Spanish meets Mayan traditions)—to fried empanadas stuffed with potato and topped with salsa. Buon appetito!
Make sure you’re in town for Semana Santa
Semana Santa—or Holy Week—is a very important time of year in Catholic Guatemala, and some believe that the Semana Santa of Antigua is the world’s most beautiful. It’s a colorful affair that sees the streets festooned with flowers, sometimes in very ornate patterns. But the crowning event is the parade, which amounts to one of the largest Easter celebrations in the world. Thousands of locals fill the streets, and yet more travel to the city from elsewhere for processions and vigils. Make sure you plan ahead.
Lap up the history of Tanque La Union
Back in the colonial era, Tanque La Union was where locals gathered to wash their clothes. Situated close to the Parque Central, this historic meeting place may not be a communal laundry today, but it remains both historic and useful. It’s now used by locals, not for laundry, but as a meeting spot and all-round hangout.
Check out Hobbitenango
The suffix “nango” is Guatemalan for city / town. So you can easily figure out what this place is all about! This Hobbit-themed ecolodge is a fun place to spend a night or two. There are just two cottages and camping space, a small restaurant and plenty of activities are organized to keep you busy. But if you want, you can simply chill on a hammock.
Be awed by San Francisco Church
One of the most important churches in the whole city and definitely among the unmissable places to visit in Antigua Guatemala, San Francisco Church is where Franciscan monk Peter of Saint Joseph Betancur—a missionary who set up a hospital and other institutions in the 17th century—was enshrined. Though partially ruined, that just adds to the romantic look of its grand centuries-old facade.
Get Instagramming at La Esquina Antigua
Claiming the title of the first food hall in Central America, La Esquina Antigua is a hip and energetic spot to pick up food. With multiple stalls serving a selection of different dishes, from local to international, this funky food hall also serves drinks and desserts. It’s often busy with local families and visitors alike, who come for the food and stay for the fun decor.
Sip coffee straight from the source at a coffee farm
With all those volcanoes and highlands, Guatemala has the right climate for growing premium coffee, and the rich soil makes for even more ideal conditions. Appropriately, Guatemala is the 10th largest producer of coffee in the world, having begun coffee production in the mid-1800s.
To see where all the magic happens, you should head to a coffee farm and learn all about the process from bean to brew. The family-run De La Gente is one of these; situated just outside the city, it’s an NPO that works with local coffee-farming communities.
Soak up some culture at La Antigua Galería de Arte
Home to works from more than 70 Guatemalan artists, La Antigua Galería de Arte is located within the walls of a colonial-era mansion. Here you can admire a selection of colorful works of art, from pottery to engravings and paintings, it’s the perfect spot to take things a little slower and learn more about the color and textiles of the local art scene. You can even buy some artwork to take home yourself.
Admire the architecture at Palacio del Ayuntamiento
Situated on the north side of Central Park, the Palacio del Ayuntamiento is a grand structure that was built in 1740. It’s spread across two floors, each with colonnades and archways, making it a majestic-looking building. Today it houses Antigua’s city council, as well as the Antique Book Museum. So while you won’t be able to look in on a council meeting, you will be able to browse the gilded tomes of the museum. Or you could simply sit in the shade of one of the colonnades.
Learn at Mayan Art Museo Casa Del Tejido Antiguo
This museum is the place to come if you want to learn all about Mayan fabrics and weaving. Showcasing exhibits of regional textiles, from head coverings to embroidered tunics, the founder of this museum is an indigenous Kaqchikel lady, who’ll tell you all about the significance of the patterns and colors used.
Shop for Souvenirs at Nim Pot
If you are looking for souvenirs or presents to bring to your family and friends, look no further than Nim Pot. You’ll find the biggest souvenir shop in town next to Arco de Santa Catalina. You will find literally anything in the form of souvenirs: t-shirts, fridge magnets, coffee and chocolate, fabrics – you name it.
Make sure to read my other posts:
- Everything You Need To Know Before Visiting Guatemala
- The Best Things To Do In Guatemala
- The Best Things To Do In Lake Atitlan
- The Best Mayan Sites In Guatemala
- The Best Things To Do In Flores, Guatemala
- The Best Guide To Visiting Tikal
- The Best Guide To Chichicastenango Market
- The Best Guide To Semuc Champey
- The Best Itinerary For Two Weeks In Guatemala
- Everything You Must Know About Chicken Buses