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Antigua, Guatemala: A Rich Blend of Traditions

The picturesque city of Antigua is a delight. Where else can you stroll along cobblestone streets lined with Spanish Baroque architecture, sample international cuisine, and witness frequent volcanic eruptions in the distance?

A popular stop on the Central American circuit, Antigua's eclecticism draws visitors from all over the world. Expats and locals strive to keep the historical essence intact while also modernizing infrastructure to help travelers explore with ease.

Brad and I stayed in Antigua for five weeks to soak up as much Guatemalan culture as possible. The experience was especially memorable because my Dad spent a week with us touring markets, drinking coffee, and hiking a volcano.

Below I've compiled a list of our favorite attractions and restaurants with a separate section for day trips. The radiating beauty of Antigua, along with a few volcano treks, will leave you breathless!

Historic Downtown

Immerse yourself in the vibe of Antigua with a relaxing walk through the grid style cobblestone streets. Admire colonial buildings in weathered shades of colorful paint with terracotta roofs and wrought-iron window guards.

Peek inside entryways to see lush courtyards functioning as restaurants, cafés, shops, and galleries. The lively city center is a great area to stay with ample options for budget, mid-range, and luxury travelers.

Parque Central (Plaza Mayor)

The ideal place to rest your feet is the main plaza in the center of downtown. Grab an ice cream cone, take a seat on a bench, and watch the world go by.

Friendly vendors will undoubtedly try to sell you magnets, table runners, and jewelry as you admire the bustling jets of the restored Fuente de las Sirenas. Completed by sculptor Rodolfo Galeotti Torres in 1949, the landmark fountain has four stoic mermaids and several winged cherubs playfully expelling water.

Ornate arcades border three sides of the park and offer shelter to wait out an afternoon rain shower. Admire the striking white façade of the Catedral de San José on the east side of the park. A devastating earthquake in 1773 left a portion of the church in ruins, which can be explored via the entrance on the south side for 20 GTQ ($2.54 USD).

Museo Nacional de Arte de Guatemala (MUNAG)

If you desire to learn about Guatemalan art and ancient Maya artifacts, spend a few hours at MUNAG. The museum is located in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales with exhibits covering Pre-Hispanic, Colonial, and Republican periods. Entry and audio equipment are free!

Some of my favorite pieces included artifacts recovered from the burial site of ruler K'utz Chman of Tak'alik Ab'aj. The jadeite necklace featuring a vulture hatchet and clay figurines representing maidens of the royal court are spectacular.

El Arco de Santa Catalina

The most popular tourist attraction in Antigua is the beautiful pastel yellow and white Santa Catalina Arch. On a clear day you can see Agua Volcano to the south! Built during the 17th Century, the landmark provided cloistered nuns direct access between Santa Catalina convent and a school. A clock was added in the 1830s.

Head just a few steps north of the Santa Catalina Arch to find authentic souvenirs. Nim Po't has a huge collection of pottery, handicrafts, Maximón (folk deity) figurines, and regional huipils (tunics) in stunning fabrics.

Iglesia y Convento de La Recolección

Antigua has several glorious ruins of old churches and convents perfect for photography, architecture, and history lovers. Check out this helpful DIY walking guide if you desire to see them all.

My favorite ruins were at the Order of the Recollects monastery located on the west side of the city. Construction finished in 1717, but a series of earthquakes unfortunately destroyed parts of the church and cloisters. Wandering in between massive sections of collapsed brick walls and abandoned rooms was a magical affair.

Spanish Lessons

Interested in improving your Spanish? You're in the right place! Antigua is a popular hub for Spanish schools offering one-on-one classes and home immersion options. Brad and I completed a Monday-Friday afternoon course from 1:00-5:00 PM through Antigüeña Spanish Academy for 850 GTQ ($109 USD) per person.

I highly recommend my instructor, Carlos, who was patient and knowledgeable. I was able to build on my previous Spanish classes in high school and improve my vocabulary. Helpful instructional packets with homework exercises are provided.

The Spa at Hotel Casa Santo Domingo

Sometimes you just need a day of rest and relaxation. Brad and I scheduled a much-needed couples massage at The Spa at Casa Santo Domingo after our intense Acatenango and Fuego Volcanoes overnight hike.

The impeccable facilities include a jacuzzi, sauna, steam room, and pool with plenty of plush ergonomic lounge chairs. We ate a delicious pumpkin ravioli lunch and traditional dinner at the onsite alfresco restaurant in our comfy robes. The customer service, attention to detail, and free chocolates made it hard to leave!

Restaurants & Cafés

Antigua has a reputation for delicious eats ranging from international staples to upscale steakhouses. Check out some of my favorite options below.

• Coffee - I honestly believe it's impossible to have a bad cup of coffee in Antigua, so my advice is to try whichever cafés cross your path. You won't have to look far! Don't worry tea lovers, I gotcha covered. Grab an intense hot matcha at Artista de Cafe, creamy chai latte at Qahwa Coffee Shop, or iced matcha at Basil & Coffee. The aforementioned spots have comfortable seating and strong Wifi.

• Lunch - Take a world sandwich tour at Hector's Deli when your stomach grumbles. I devoured the Mr. Bond piled high with roast beef, melty cheese, and whole grain mustard while Brad enjoyed the classic lox bagel known as El Vikingo. For vegan options, head to La Bruja and try the falafel burger with sweet potato fries. The homemade condiments are insanely delicious!

• Dinner - In search of comfort food to warm your heart during the chilly nights? Sip the intensely rich broth of the vegan ramen at Kombu Ramen Shop, munch on colorful tuna tostadas with a spicy margarita at Restaurante Fridas, or indulge in a steak feast with a view to match at Casa Escobar. These popular restaurants live up to the hype.

• Dessert - For a slice of heaven, order a piece of blackberry cake at Café Condesa off the main plaza. The delicate cream and airy sponge had the perfect balance of sweetness. Dessert connoisseurs will have a tough time deciding which work of art to sample at Sofía Cobían La Pastelería. My favorite after several visits was the tangerine cheesecake with chocolate cookie crumble.

• Cocktails - Ulew Cocktail Bar is a speakeasy with inventive cocktails. Step inside the red phone booth to enter. The mixologists create drinks based on your desired tastes instead of a set menu. Just tell the server your favorite flavor profiles and bottoms up! The unique glasses and trays add a funky touch.

Day Trips

Head out of the city to see natural beauty, Maya ruins, and vibrant markets. All of the attractions below can be reached by vehicle in 2.5 hours or less. Check out TransPaiz for comfortable and affordable shuttles. We used the company exclusively to travel around Guatemala.

Acatenango & Fuego Volcanoes Overnight Hike

Up for a physical and mental adventure challenge? Consider a two-day overnight hike to see mesmerizing views atop Acatenango Volcano and glowing lava erupting from Fuego Volcano. Over the course of two days you will traverse 41.49 km (25.78 mi) of difficult terrain and reach an elevation of 3,976 m (13,044 ft). Watching the sunrise from the summit was one of the greatest moments of my life!

There are a variety of tour companies offering guided treks to the volcanoes from Antigua. Check out my post detailing our experience with OX Expeditions.

Pacaya Volcano Hike

If you are unsure about the intensity of the overnight trek or want to conquer all three of Antigua's volcanoes, consider a half-day hike to Pacaya Volcano. Our guide, Alonso with OX Expeditions, took us along a private circular path through lush forest before reaching the summit with an elevation of 2,552 m (8,373 ft).

Even though the lava rivers had already cooled off before our visit, the landscape with rusty jagged rocks and lava chambers was otherworldly. You can get up close to the remaining hot spots and roast a few marshmallows. Don't miss out on the sterling silver jewelry inlaid with volcanic rocks available for purchase at the gift shop.

Chichicastenango Market

Ready to jumpstart all five senses? Get lost in the largest market in Central America to find authentic souvenirs, intricate fabrics with dazzling designs, and mouthwatering street food. Weave your way through makeshift stalls and practice your bargaining skills.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the market is the church of Capilla del Calvario. Shamans and worshippers gather alongside to pray before candlelit altars. If you need a break, head to the nearby cemetery to see pastel mausoleums dotting the hillside. Check out my post to see why Chichicastenango is a hidden gem not to be missed!

Lake Atitlán

Renowned as one of the most gorgeous lakes in the world, Lake Atitlán formed after a volcanic eruption approximately 84,000 years ago. The clear blue water is surrounded by dense forests, quaint villages, and three volcanoes (Atitlán, Tolimán, and San Pedro).

Multiple boats transport passengers between the villages for 25 GTQ ($3.23 USD) per person or less depending on the destination. My favorite towns included Panajachel (shopping), San Pedro La Laguna (restaurants and nightlife), Santa Catarina Palopó (blue houses), and San Juan La Laguna (artwork and murals). Admire the vistas with a smooth cup of coffee or tasty falafel pita sandwich.


The Maya site of Iximche is worth a visit if you can't make the trip to Tikal. Inhabited by the Kaqchikel between 1470-1524, the grounds include over 160 structures including ball courts, pyramids, residential buildings, and plazas. Excavations revealed decapitated skeletal remains confirming sacrificial practices.

Local pilgrims seek the guidance of shamans who practice spiritual ceremonies at the site. Witnessing this cultural tradition was a beautiful moment and attests to the important heritage of Iximche.

Final Thoughts

Antigua is an idyllic colonial city with a captivating energy. You don't need to leave the city to have an adventure, but a plethora of activities are close by if you choose to explore. The safe atmosphere, friendly locals, and filling cuisine make you feel right at home from the start.

Sharing the culture of Guatemala with my Dad was a wonderful experience. To host him for a week on our backpacking trip was truly special and a memory I will never forget!