13 Best Things to Do in Antigua Guatemala
Antigua Guatemala is a beautiful city located in Southern Guatemala and surrounded by volcanoes and mountains. The city is known for its Spanish architecture with many of the buildings restored after a major volcano eruption occurred in 1773. Antigua used to be the capitol city of Guatemala until the eruption where the capitol moved to Guatemala City. The city, which has a population of less than 50,000 people, is also a Cultural World UNESCO Heritage Site. Keep reading to find the best things to do in Antigua, Guatemala.
If you’re looking for a mix of beautiful mountain scenery, authentic Guatemalan culture, and a bit of adventure, Antigua is the perfect city for you. Antigua is full of picturesque buildings on the outside which makes you feel like you’re walking through an ancient city. What’s remarkable is that many of these old buildings are fully renovated on the inside, which now house high-end jade shops, upscale hotels, and restaurants that boast an eclectic mix of culinary fare.
For me visiting Antigua was like a breath of a fresh air. Once I arrived in Antigua from the shuttle ride from Guatemala City, the vibe felt crisp and refreshing. It reminded me of being in the mountains of Colorado or Wyoming back in the United States. The elevation in Antigua if 5,000+ feet, and I could definitely feel the impact of the thinner air. In this article, I’ll share all of the unique things you can do while visiting Antigua.
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Best Things to Do in Antigua, Guatemala: #1 Take a Picture of the Famous Arch
The most famous image you’ll see of Antigua is the yellow Santa Catalina Arch. The arch was built in 1694 located on Calle del Arco (“street of the arch”) and is beautiful to see and take photos with. However, the original purpose of the arch wasn’t just aesthetic. With convents located on each side, the arch was built to allow cloistered nuns to walk from one side of the street to the next. The nuns lived on one side of the arch and taught in a school on the other side.
Today, the arch is a central hub of the city with bars and restaurants located down the street and bustling with activity day and night. If you aim your camera just right, you’ll see an entire view of Volcán de Agua through the arch, which makes for a striking photo next to such a historic landmark. After you take a picture with the arch, walk around to buy some local crafts from the sellers on the street; hop into Frida’s for a Mezcal happy hour; or walk into Tobacos y Vinos for a glass of wine (the tiniest wine bar you’ll ever see).
Best Things to Do in Antigua, Guatemala: #2 Ride a Chicken Bus
If you’re looking for some adventurous transportation and an experience you’ll never forget, you’ll want to hop on board a “chicken bus.” These are old school buses which have been transformed into colorful, affordable means of transportation around Guatemala (and many other Latin American countries as well). To give you an idea of cost, for a one-way ticket from Antigua to Guatemala City, you can expect to pay around 10Q (or $1.25).
Be prepared for a crowded situation if you do choose to ride a chicken bus. They’re known to be quite packed and most lack seat belts or much space to bring aboard many extra belongings.
Best Things to Do in Antigua, Guatemala: #3 See the City on an ATV Tour
Driving around the City of Antigua by ATV is by far one of the coolest things I was able to experience in Guatemala. The tour took us through the mountains where we witnessed amazing views of coffee plantations, the cityscape of Antigua, and Volcán de Agua. We booked our tour through Simoon Tours on Trip Advisor and weren’t disappointed at all.
After we met our tour guide (a big, friendly guy who identified himself as half Guatemalan and half Honduran), he gave us a quick overview of how to use the bikes, and then we were off!
Originally, we booked a sunset tour where we would end up at our last spot just in time to watch the sunset slide down over the mountains. However, it was a bit rainy that day, so we opted to re-book the following day and head out earlier to avoid any afternoon showers.
We cruised our way out of town zipping in and out of cars and trucks. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous at first, but I was able to get the hand of the controls pretty quickly.
Our first stop was to San Critobal where there’s a big restaurant located on the side of a mountain with at least three floors. The ride up the mountain was steep (and felt even steeper on the way back down), but the views of Antigua and the landscapes were breathtaking.
Next, we visited Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). This landmark has a giant cross that looks out over the city. Fortunately, we were able to avoid the steep staircase as we rode up the hill on our ATVs.
Finally, we drove up further past Cerro de la Cruz on some winding roads to Earth Lodge. When we got to this eco lodge, we were greeted with a hippie, relaxed vibe. The lodge grounds also feature an avocado farm, so each of the restaurant’s menu items contain some type of avocado in the dish as an ingredient. Once we parked our ATVs, there was yet another steep walk down to the lodge (and super steep climb back up!).
The restaurant closes by 5pm and only serves lodge guests for dinner. As a guest staying at the lodge, everyone eats dinner family style and then sits around the bon fire enjoying the sounds of the surrounding mountain nightlife.
4 Visit a Coffee Plantation
Guatemala is one of the largest coffee producers in the world, and for good reason. The climate and altitude makes for excellent growing conditions. You can’t come to Antigua without heading out on a tour of a coffee plantation to see firsthand how the beans are grown and roasted.
I visited Filadelfia coffee plantation which has a restaurant and a five-star resort on the property. The tour cost 140Q ($20 USD) and lasted around 2 hours. After our tour guide gave us a quick briefing of the property, we hopped in a big SUV and headed out further onto the grounds to see where the beans are grown up-close.
The last part of the tour included a tasting of the coffee, either as an espresso or americano style (served with hot water).
5 Take a Self-Guided Night Walking Tour
Antigua is beautiful during the day, but it’s even more enchanting at night. As soon as the sun begins to set, the air gets a bit cool which leads to perfect conditions for taking a self-guided night walking tour.
Many of the old churches and buildings are lit up at night. The town seems to take on a lively vibe in the evening with plenty of bars, restaurants, and nightlife to check out. If you decide to take a night walking tour, start at Parque Central in the middle of town where there always seems to be something going on. The town is laid out in a square pattern, so walk a few blocks in either direction to discover an outdoor walking museum of authentic Guatemalan architecture.
While Antigua always felt quite safe to me, be sure to exercise caution at night, keep your belongings close to you, and walk with a friend if possible.
6 Chocolate Museum Tour
Antigua has its very own ChocoMuseo where you can take a tour, learn how the chocolate is made, and of course have a few tastes. During the tour, you’ll learn about the history of cacao, the cacao tree, and the importance of cacao in Guatemala.
The museum offers hands-on experiences, special workshops, and local chocolate products for purchase. It’s definitely worth a visit to try out the samples and take a few bars home, even if you don’t end up taking the full tour. They also have a museum location in Panajachel at Lake Atitlan just a couple hours away.
7 Drink Coffee at Bella Vista for the View
One of the best kept secrets in Antigua is Bella Vista Coffee Shop. Located on Avenida Norte 1, you’ll first walk into a wine shop on the bottom floor. Keep going to the back of the shop, head up the staircase a couple floors, and you’ll walk out into an amazing view of the city and mountains.
Bella Vista has plenty of food and tasty treats to choose from, along with locally sourced Guatemalan coffee. The café is set up nicely for remote workers with plenty of people typing away on their laptops inside and outside on the balcony space. Grab a pastry and a cup of coffee to enjoy the views and get a bit of work done while you’re at it.
8 Sip on a Cocktail at Café Sky
If you search for popular cafes and restaurants, Café Sky will be one of the first to pop-up and for good reason. The rooftop hot spot boasts incredible panoramic views of Antigua and surrounding the volcanoes.
Located a block from Iglesias de San Francisco El Grande is a small local hostel, Hacia El Sur. Step through the hostel entry to find a small spiral staircase that leads to a rooftop with a simple bar and menu. The best part of Café Sky is by far the views at sunset. Grab a cocktail and sip away while taking in breathtaking views of the mountains and sounds of the city streets below.
9 Drink Some “Ilegal” Mescal at Café No Se
“Because Every Dive Needs a Town…” Head to Café No Se if you’re looking to find a hole-in-the-wall bar where time seems to have stood still. With a mix of backpackers, tourists, and those just looking for a good drink, its apparent that Café No Se is the place to be. It’s kind of like a “Cheers” bar but for Antigua. In the front bar you’ll find lively music, the back bar plenty of cocktails, and through the tiny French door is the infamous Mescal bar.
Café No Se has become a staple for Antigua visitors and a perfect place to unwind and reflect on your day’s adventures. They have nightly live music, but the main attraction is “Illegal,” a Mescal made for the establishment by three artisanal Oaxacan distillers.
Buy a book in the attached bookstore (Dyslexia), and you’ll get a free beer!
10 Take a Morning Spanish Lesson
Want to brush up on your Spanish? What better way to learn conversational Spanish than practicing with a native speaker in Antigua!
There are plenty of Spanish language schools available in Antigua that cater to Americans and Europeans. Simply drop into a class before you head out for the day exploring the city. Practice your “Hola’s” “Bueno’s” and “Dónde está el baño?” so you can feel more like a local during your drip. The top Spanish language schools include Antiguena Spanish Academy and Antigua Plaza.
11 Stock Up on Crafts & Produce at El Mercado
No visit to Antigua would be complete without heading to El Mercado, a major market featuring literally everything you could imagine a market could sell. There are rows and rows of stalls with local crafts, produce, meats, flowers, spices, and food vendors. It’s an overload on your senses with bright colors, distinct smells, and noisy sounds. It can be chaotic, but that’s part of the adventure!
Toward the north side of the mart is the paca, a huge warehouse packed with unique t-shirts and plenty of cafes offering delicious traditional food, so bring your appetite.
The main days for the market are Mondays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays, so show up on these days when it will be bustling. Also, be sure to bring plenty of cash as most vendors won’t take credit cards.
12 Eat Local Guatemalan Food
No visit to Antigua would be complete without sampling some of the local dishes. If you’re looking to nosh on some tasty stews and Guatemalan dishes, visit La Cuevita de Los Urquizú which is about as authentic as you can get in Antigua.
When you walk into the restaurant, you’ll find several ceramic pots full of thick rustic stews which are the staple of Maya cooking. Dig into some famous pepián, which is a dish with chicken and vegetables in a pumpkin seed sauce; spicy turkey stew called kaq’ik; or jocón, an herbed green stew containing chicken or pork with tomatillos. Once you choose your main dish, you’ll get to select two accompanying side, and then dig in!
13 Hike a Volcano
One of the most unique aspects of Antigua is that it’s nestled in the valley with surrounding mountains and volcanoes. You have Agua Volcano which towers over the town, Fuego Volcano which is active and spitting out smoke and lava, and Pacaya Volcano which is live but a bit of an easier hike. If you’re up for an adventure, strap on your hiking boots and join a tour to the top of a volcano. How often can you tell your friends that you just hiked a volcano!?
Most of the hotels and hostels in town will be happy to book a hiking tour for you. While you can head out on some of these hikes solo, this is one of the occasions that it’s likely worth it to hire a guide. Safety is important while traveling, and you don’t want to risk ending up in the hospital unnecessarily. Once you get to the top, grab your camera and take some breathtaking pictures of the city below.
Antigua is a fascinating city just a couple hours from the Guatemala City airport, hidden away in a valley with lush green landscapes. It’s the perfect place for a relaxing week away with plenty of adventurous excursions right at your fingertips. If you love coffee, this is the place to be. If you’re into hiking volcanoes, then sign up right away. Or, if you just like getting lost in a city with incredible architecture, Mayan food, and all the Guatemalan crafts you can pack in your luggage, put Antigua on your list!
Have you been to Antigua? Are you reading to plan your trip to Guatemala? Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!
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