Home » 5 reasons why Antigua is the highlight of any trip to Guatemala

5 reasons why Antigua is the highlight of any trip to Guatemala

written by Jen Welch March 8, 2018
what to do in Antigua Guatemala

Guatemala is crazily beautiful in all the ways you’d imagine a Central American country to be.

You’ll see brightly painted chicken buses overloaded with passengers, blaring reggaeton tunes and firing their horn like it’s going out of fashion. But this country is as tranquil as it is colorful. The people, so warm and welcoming, bring a sense of calm that is contagious, and the scenery is spiritual in its beauty. And no place is better to experience all that Guatemala has to offer than the traveler haven, Antigua.

Antigua is like finding an old jumper that you haven’t worn for a while – it fits perfectly and makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. The town is small enough to navigate easily, which means that it quickly becomes familiar, and you can’t help but feel at ease as you stroll among its cobbled streets. Centuries-old Spanish architecture and crumbling churches sit amid vibrant markets, inviting restaurants, bohemian cafés and countless bars. The towering peaks of the surrounding volcanoes provide a perfect backdrop, and are easily accessible for day trips or longer hikes.

what to do in Antigua Guatemala

Locals in Antigua

Fancy sunrise from the top of a volcano? How about toasting marshmallows on lava? Then coming back to your favorite cozy café to journal about the experience? Welcome to Antigua.

What to do in Antigua #1: soak up the history and architecture

The first thing that will strike you about Antigua is how photogenic it is. Pretty much anywhere with cobbled streets does well on Instagram. But throw in some colorfully-painted Spanish churches and arches, with the silhouette of a volcano as a backdrop… it doesn’t get much better.

Historically, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was the capital city, and that’s where the beautiful buildings originate – the influence of the Spanish is still very present – with Baroque style arches and rustic tiled rooves. In the 19th century, volcanic eruptions and devastating earthquakes triggered the relocation of the capital to what is now Guatemala City but thankfully, despite nature’s threats, the city has stayed largely intact and well preserved. What remains now is a beautiful relic to the past. The Santa Catalina arch is iconic, and the Cathedral by Parque Central is gorgeous.

what to do in Antigua Guatemala Parque Central

Be sure to also visit Convento Santa Clara, Casa Santo Domingo and the Iglesia de San Francisco if you get the chance.

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What to do in Antigua #2: embrace the café scene

The region surrounding Antigua has a long history of coffee farming thanks to its year-round temperate climate. In fact, Guatemala has some of the best coffee around, which is why Intrepid’s sister company Urban Adventures offer a day trip to fincas just outside the city so you can understand more about the history of the bean. (Plus, see more day trips they offer in Antigua here!)

If you’re not out exploring the farms, there are ample cozy spots within the city to sit back and simply indulge in a few cups. Café Boheme is a café with a conscience – its biodegradable straws put it ahead of some Western countries in terms of environmental awareness, and its vegan grub is highly recommended. Similarly ethically driven, Rainbow Café hosts talks every Tuesday by local NGOs, which help to raise awareness of local needs (plus they have live music every night of the week).

what to do in Antigua Guatemala

Another bonus of the cafe scene: the food

Though not hosting events or spearheading any environmental movements, my personal favorite was Café Refugio. For one week I took Spanish classes in Antigua, and every afternoon would wander down to this spot and set up on their comfortable red sofa to revise what I’d learnt with a beautifully decorated latte. It doesn’t seem like much from the outside and is only small, but the baristas make you feel so welcome and are genuinely passionate about coffee, happily explaining their blends and making recommendations.

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What to do in Antigua #3: enjoy the bar scene

When the sun goes down, the town comes alive. If you fancy something familiar, Reilly’s Irish Pub is good fun, especially on Quiz Night. For somewhere a little livelier, Por Que No (translation: Why Not?) is where you can dance the night away.

But expat favorite Café No Se is the place to go for true character. Expect to have a good long chat with either the barman or the person beside you in dimly lit, moody surroundings that make for the best memories.

What to do in Antigua #4: browse the markets

Artisan markets what to do in Antigua Guatemala

Artisan markets in Antigua

There are a number of different markets to check out, even in such a small town. Some offer Guatemalan textiles and carved wooden souvenirs. The most vibrant, authentic and local is the Mercado in the north of the city. You could easily spend half a day browsing – they have everything from colorful fruit and veg stalls, to pirate DVDs, watches, and children’s toys.

READ MORE: 12 THINGS YOU PROBABLY DON’T KNOW ABOUT GUATEMALA

During one of my Spanish classes, my teacher took us to the Mercado to point out the best fresh snacks and drinks – the best way to experience local cuisine! By far my favorite part of this market is the clothing. Keep walking to the far north end, and you’ll find piles and rails overflowing with clothes. It’s the best thrift shop you’ve ever seen. A lot of the clothing has been cast off by Americans and sent south, so you’ll find recognizable brands as well as random gems, for bargain prices.

what to do in Antigua Guatemala

Food market in Antigua

What to do in Antigua #5: explore the volcanoes

The most memorable thing about Guatemala is its nature, specifically its volcanoes. These adventure playgrounds are beautiful to look at from below, but trust me, the views from the top are moments that will stay with you for life. The bit in the middle – the climb – can be tough for sure, but you can find a volcano to suit you.

From Antigua, Volcan de Pacaya is achievable for any age, any physical ability, and is very accessible, therefore the most popular. When the conditions are right, you even get the opportunity to roast marshmallows on the hot ground. Those up for a challenge should sign up for Volcan de Acatenango. She’s a steep beast, and you’ll be out of breath within the first 30 minutes of the six-hour ascent, but at the top you’ll be able to see the whole of Antigua below, as well as a few other volcanic peaks, including Volcan de Fuego beside you, which erupts almost continuously.

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Acatenango volcano what to do in Antigua Guatemala

Sunrise from Acatenango

Sat around a campfire on the slopes of Acatenango, my group watched (and listened to) one of nature’s most impressive displays as Fuego erupted to our right, while a thunderstorm danced in front of us, above the twinkling lights of Antigua. After a few chilly hours of sleep, our smiling guide roused us in the dark, in time to shuffle out of our sleeping bags and witness one of the most stunning sunrises I’ve ever seen.

On the last night of our stay in Antigua, I hiked with two friends up to the Cerro de la Crux. Only a 40-minute walk from the cobbled grid of the town, up a hill on one side, this viewpoint is a perfect place to look over what lies below and reflect on the fun you’ve had there, and probably plan your return.

Ready to explore and delights of Antigua? Check out Intrepid Travel’s range of tours in Guatemala. 

(Volcano sunrise image c/o Jen Welch. All other images c/o Intrepid Travel.)

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9 comments

Welcome Guatemala February 20, 2020 - 7:43 am

Thanks Jen for sharing about our beloved country! Greetings from Antigua, Guatemala 🙂

Reply
Anonymous June 3, 2018 - 6:40 am

Please answer mr. Dumas question. How safe is Antigua these days?

Reply
Mike Toulsen October 24, 2018 - 4:46 am

I would say that traveling to Antigua Guatemala is pretty safe really. I guess following the same precautions you would when traveling most destinations in the world and you would be fine. I wouldnt be walking around with my high-end camera all the time for instance… just relax and enjoy.
I went there for almost two weeks and had a wonderful time, people are very friendly. I stayed at San Rafael Hotel ( https://www.TheSanRafaelHotel.com ), this is very close most to Central Park, studied Spanish for a week at https://www.SpanishAcademyAntiguena.com . There are nice restaurants around town to choose from… lots of them really. I even needed to have a tooth fixed and Dr De La Cruz was very professional ( https://www.tuclinicadelacruz.com/ ).
I would also recommend to visit to a coffee farm and a hike to a near volcano.
Just enjoy your trip !

Reply
Scott R March 22, 2018 - 2:34 am

Nice city, good place to learn Spanish for those so inclined. Fairly safe for Central America due to special policing driven by the value of tourists spending dollars. Gals, beware – you can lose more than your wallet, especially well outside specially policed areas. Do not hike in the nearby mountains unless in a tourist area unless you are ready to meet armed thugs/ ex military. Ask locals where it is safe. Amazing number of ancient buildings, well preserved. Many ancient churches in the outlying neighborhoods see very few/no tourists. Great food, expensive for Guatemala, but very cheap compared to the US.

Reply
Mary March 14, 2018 - 4:33 pm

I just spent two weeks there. I volunteered at an adult day care in the mornings and took Spanish classes at Maximo Nivel in the afternoons. They arranged everything.

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Edda M Knight March 13, 2018 - 8:20 am

Hi Rebecca, please go to http://www.SpanishAcademyAntiguena.com (I believe the manager’s name is Julio)
ask for Casa Ana as a home stay. I have been there twice and loved it. They have wonderful teachers and they teach in
a Park setting , one on one. If you stay at Casa Ana, say hi to Pasquela and her wonderful staff, Rosa and Beatrice.
Happy Travel, Edda M Knight

Reply
Alex Dumas March 12, 2018 - 6:33 am

How safe is the city, especially Italy for senior travelers?

Reply
Edda Marie Knight March 8, 2018 - 8:30 am

I could not have said it any better, I have been to Antigua several times, once a 4 week Spanish class participation and
visit to Lake Atitlan, I am plotting my next visit. It is just amazing and beautiful.
Thanks, Edda M Knight, Atlanta, GA

Reply
Rebecca March 12, 2018 - 8:35 am

Hey Edda! Would you mind letting me know which Spanish school you went to please? I’m planning my trip now and any personal recommendations would be great – thanks!

Reply

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