Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Guatemala’s most beautiful colonial cities. Time seems to have stood still in this little town surrounded by volcanoes. Boarding paved streets, you’ll centuries-old yellow building, magnificent religious edifices now in ruins, and cool cafés. Antigua Guatemala is perfect for every type of traveler, either families traveling with kids or backpackers traveling on a budget and anyone in between. Read on to discover all the best things to do in Antigua Guatemala.
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Best things to do in Antigua Guatemala
1 – Visit the city’s main landmarks
Antigua is a beautiful city, strolling along its paved streets, you’ll see many stunning edifices. To discover the city’s highlights, you can take a walking tour or just go on your own, getting lost in the small streets. You’ll notice many churches in ruins, for most of them, only the facade remains, same for many other religious buildings across Antigua.
Start your visit at the Plaza Mayor, also known as the Parque Central, where you’ll see some of the city’s finest buildings. Around it, you can visit the Cathedral, the Museo del Libro Antigua (Ancient Book Museum) and the Palacio de Los Capitanes Generales (Palace of the Generals Captains). Nearby, if you like museums, you can check out the Colonial Art Museum. Next, going up the Quinta (5a), pass by Antigua’s most iconic edifice: the Santa Catalina Archway, where you can take some photos. Continue north to the Iglesia de la Merced, a beautiful yellow church from the 18th century.
Your next stop would be at the ruins of the San Jeronimo Hermitage. The place is beautiful with many flowers and trees, growing on the ancient walls. Continue south, to the Cemetery, with its white mausoleum and colorful plastic flowers.
Head back towards the Plaza Mayor and continue to the ruins of the 18th-century Santa Clara convent. Nearby, visit the San Francisco el Grande Sanctuary where you can visit the church, the ruins, and the small museum. If you like colonial houses, you can go to the Casa Popenoe. Finish your visit at the Capuchinas Convent, built at the beginning of the 18th century.
Other museums you can visit in Antigua:
- Museo del Vidrio (Glass Museum)
- Holy Week Museum
- Museum Santo Tomas de Aquino (cultural museum)
- Jade Museum (more of a shop than a museum)
Other religious edifices to visit in Antigua:
- Casa Santo Domingo
- Ermita de Santa Isabel de Hungria
- Jardin de la Ermita del Santo Calvario
- Ermita la Santa Cruz (don’t go there if you’re alone)
- Iglesia Escuela del Cristo
- San Jose el Viejo
2 – Climb a volcano
Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes, most of which are still very active. Depending on your fitness level, there are several volcanoes you can climb. In any case, you’ll need to go with a guide. The easiest option is to book a tour from Antigua, but you can also get to the starting point by yourself and hire a guide directly from the park’s office.
Pacaya Volcano is the easiest volcano to trek to around Antigua. It only takes 3 hours, and if you don’t feel up for it, you can hire a horse. It’s the easiest but it’s not easy. In the guide book I have, they say everyone can do it, children and seniors included. Children, sure, but if you don’t have a good fitness level it’s going to be hard. I exercise frequently and it was hard.
You don’t actually climb Pacaya, you climb near it. Once you reach the top, you’ll get an amazing view of the Pacaya Volcano, which is too active to climb. Then you’ll get down inside a crater, where you’ll see volcanic rocks from the 2014 eruption. In some places, there are warm spots where you’ll roast marshmallows.
The tour from Antigua is 10 USD and includes transportation and a guide. You have to pay the 50 GTQ entrance fee. Renting a horse, back and forth, costs around 200 GTQ (the owner comes with you).
The Agua Volcano is the one you see from Antigua, it’s almost perfect conical shape reach 3700 meters (12300 feet). You can reach the top in around 5 hours from Santa Maria de Jesus, mid-way there’s a parking area that can be reached with a 4-wheeler. The volcano is extinct so you can go all the way to the summit crater. The way up is really steep and is not for everyone, the climb is not to be undertaken without proper training beforehand. You can book an overnight trip or a day tour from Antigua.
The really active Fuego Volcano reaches 12,345 ft (3,763meters) and requires technical hiking knowledge and proper training. Most tours include an overnight stay as the trip to the highest point you can reach is tough. You often see hot lava pouring out of the cone and the trail is often closed when the volcano gets too active. It’s a great climb if you like challenges.
The highest volcano around Antigua (and the third-highest in Central America), Acatenango is not for the faint-hearted. The climb is tough and requires technical knowledge and training. The volcano is famous for having two cones, the highest one reaching 13000 ft (4000 meters). Climbers will be rewarded with breath-taking views, especially over the Fuego Volcano. It’s one of the most popular hikes in Antigua.
Tips for climbing volcanoes near Antigua
- Bring plenty of snacks and water with you;
- Wear layers, mornings are pretty cold but you’ll get hot and the sun can be pretty strong (as much as the wind can be chilly). If you tend to get colds or sore throats easily, I’ll advise keeping your jacket on, you’ll get hot because you’re climbing but it will still be cold and windy.
- Bring sunscreen and a hat/cap.
- Go at your own pace, the guide is supposed to wait for you.
- Wear appropriate shoes.
- Get proper medications if you’re prone to altitude sickness, or just in case if you have never been higher than 2000 meters (6500 ft).
- Bring a face mask if you don’t want to breathe dust.
- If you’re going on an overnight trip, make sure to go with a good company, even if it’s more expensive, and make sure of what’s included.
3 – Visit a coffee plantation
Visiting a coffee plantation is one of the top things to do in Antigua. There are two coffee plantations near Antigua that tourists can visit. Both are accessible via public transportation or you can take a tuk-tuk to it. Visiting one is enough, the most popular one is Centro Cultural La Azotea. They organize daily cultural tours at 9:30 AM and 2:30 PM on weekdays. There, you can visit the Casa K’Ojom, a museum showcasing music instruments, the Coffee Museum, and an exhibit on Sacatepequez culture and clothing. You’ll also find a small cafeteria there. The entrance fee, including the guided tour, is 50 GTQ.
Alternatively, you can visit the Finca Filadelfia. There, you can take a tour of the plantation where a guide will explain everything about coffee. Guided tours start every day at 9 AM, 11 AM, and 2 PM. The guided visit is 150 GTQ.
4 – Learn Spanish
Many travelers who want to improve (or learn) their Spanish choose Antigua to do so. The city is great for spending a week or more, and you’ll find many Spanish schools there. Classes are usually just a few hours a day so you have plenty of time to explore the city and its surroundings. You can also choose a more intensive option if you want to learn Spanish in a short window of time.
5 – Sample some local food
One of the best things to do in Antigua is trying the food. Antigua is filled with international restaurants which is perfect if you starting to miss the food from your country. However, you shouldn’t miss out on local food. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try the food stands at the market or the night market at the Merced Church. Otherwise, you’ll find several restaurants (for all budgets) within the city center. I can recommend the Casa de La Sopa, their food is amazing and the prices are around 60 GTQ per meal.
Amongst the most typical dish, you can try the chicken Pipian, the tostadas (vegetarian options), and the Tamales and Chuchitos (basically the same thing but different size).
6 – Take a day trip to Maya ruins
Near Antigua, you’ll find the ruins of Mixco Viejo, an ancient Maya city formerly known as Jilotepeque Viejo. When the site was discovered, archaeologists first believed they had found the capital of the Poqomam Kingdom, years later they realized they had been mistaken, the city actually was the capital of the Chajoma Kaqchikel Kingdom.
The site is incredibly well preserved and you can visit it as a day trip from Antigua (or Guatemala City). If you don’t have a car, you’ll need to go with a tour agency. Some agencies also offer tours to Iximché, but it’s closer to Panajachel, so better wait until you’re there, or stop on the way.
7 – Stroll around the local market
A visit to Antigua is not complete without a trip to the market. Its maze-like structure will surely get you lost, I went there without my phone, and it took me 20 minutes to find an exit. The variety of fruits and veggies in Guatemala amazes me, and everything is super tasty. Don’t hesitate to try the fruits you don’t know, if you speak some Spanish you can ask how to eat them, otherwise, just ask at your hotel.
Contrary to most Central American countries, people use pounds (libras) and not kilograms. One pound is around half a kilo. Don’t hesitate to ask for the prices at different stands as the prices can vary hugely from one seller to another.
How much does it cost? = Cuanto cuesta?
How much for a pound of… = A cuanto la libra de…
8 – Do some handicrafts shopping
If you intend to do bring some souvenirs home, Antigua is a good place to shop for it. Around town, you’ll find several handicraft shops, the biggest and most famous is Nim Po’t. You should also check out the Handicrafts market (right next to the regular market). It’s huge, there are probably hundreds of stands inside, the sellers are a bit annoying but it’s where you’ll have more choices.
On weekends, there’s also a handicraft market with sellers coming from the neighboring villages. The market is the set near the El Carmen Ruins. Be prepared to haggle as prices can be high.
9 – Visit the Chocolate Museum
If you have a sweet tooth, the Chocolate Museum is the place for you. It’s actually more of a shop where they explain how chocolate is made. They also offer courses if you want to make your own.
10 – Trek to Cerro de la Cruz
It takes less than an hour from the Plaza Mayor to trek to and from Cerro de la Cruz. From there, you’ll get a panoramic view of the city. Make sure the sky is clear before going or you won’t see much.
Useful tips to plan your trip to Antigua Guatemala
What to pack
Antigua can be hot during the day and cold at night, especially from October to March. So pack light clothing for the day and a pair of jeans and a jacket for night time. You might want to pack warmer pajamas as well.
If you’re planning on climbing a volcano, bring good hiking shoes that support your ankles.
You don’t need to overpack, 5 to 7 days worth of clothes is enough. You’ll easily find same-day laundry services at your hotel or at a “lavandaria”.
Plugs are the same as in the US, bring a plug adaptor if your electronics are from Europe.
Safety in Antigua and tourist scams
Antigua is one of the safest places in Guatemala. Just beware of pickpockets in crowded areas. You can stroll around at night without problems. You should also be careful when climbing the volcanoes, do not go on your own, and stay with your group.
As for tourist scams, always buy your bus or tour tickets at your hotel or in a travel agency.
Transportation to, from, and in Antigua Guatemala
Within the city, a tuk-tuk should be 5 GTQ per person. With the tourist shuttles, you can easily come from anywhere in Guatemala. The closest cities are Panajachel and Guatemala City, but you can easily come from or go to (Lanquin) Semuc Campey. There are also daily shuttles to Monterrico and El Paredon on the Pacific Coast.
Using local transportation, you can easily come from Guatemala City and go to Panajachel, or the other way around. Ask for the price at your hotel first, they tend to increase the prices when they see a foreigner.
I don’t really recommend taking the shuttles unless you have a lot of luggage or are going to a destination that would take 3 public buses to reach. Shuttles are way more expensive than local buses, they are slower and getting a comfortable seat is a gamble. They sell the folding seats even for hours-long rides, those are not comfortable at all. Sometimes the seats are broken and they still sell them. They lie about the time it takes to get to point A to point B. Why pay more if you don’t get more value?
The public buses have a bad reputation and are known to be dangerous. If you fall asleep with your iPhone on your laps, chances are it won’t be there when you wake up, but this scenario wouldn’t go differently in most places in the world. As for the buses getting attacked, well, if you’re going to rob a bus, which one do you choose? The one with tourists or the one with locals?
Where to eat in Antigua Guatemala
There are plenty of restaurants to choose from in Antigua. From local cheap eateries to fancy restaurants, you will find something to your liking. I advise trying the local places first and if you get homesick, head to a more international restaurant. There are also a ton of vegan/vegetarian-friendly options in Antigua.
For local food, check out La Casa de las Sopas, they serve delicious traditional dishes, for around 50 GTQ. You can also check out the market, where you’ll find several food stalls. At night, near the Iglesia de la Merced, there’s a food market, try the tostadas (vegan options).
For great Asian food, head to Toko Baru, the servings are huge, the prices affordable, and the food delicious.
If you want something a bit more fancy for dinner, head to Hector’s Bistro, their meat is to die for. Their cocktails are also pretty good.
For something sweet, check out Lune de Miel, a French Creperie.
Where to stay in Antigua Guatemala
Antigua is the occasion to treat yourself to a great hotel. There you’ll find a lot of small boutique hotels set in renovated colonial houses. There are also several good mid-range options as well as more budget-friendly hostels and hotels. Here are a few options:
- Hotel Casa el Calvario – Set in a small colonial house, this hotel offer dorms as well as private rooms. It’s one of the cheapest options in Antigua (10 US for the dorm and 20 US for a private room). They have a nice rooftop terrace from which you’ll see the volcanoes. They serve breakfast and the staff is super friendly.
- Barbara’s Boutique Hostel – The best hostel in Antigua, they could charge way more compared to the other places. The dorms (14 US a night) and the common areas are beautiful, it really is a boutique hostel. They have a kitchen you can use, a living room and an outdoor area. They also offer private rooms worth staying in (around 50 US a night).
- Hotel Palacio de Dona Leonor – One of the most luxurious accommodations in Antigua, this hotel is set in a stunning colonial house, stepping inside, you’ll feel like royalty transported back in time.
Spending 3 days in Antigua is enough, but the town is so nice you can easily stay longer. You can take two days to visit the city and a coffee plantation, and a third to climb a volcano.
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