Antigua Guatemala is a delight to explore and one of the most enjoyable walkable cities on earth – as long, of course, that you’re mindful to dodge window balconies that overhang sidewalks and are adept at stepping over and around missing cobblestones. A couple days – or even a week – aren’t nearly enough to discover all there is to see and do in Antigua. However, here are – in our humble opinion – the top 10 things to do in Antigua Guatemala.
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***Will you be visiting Antigua with children?
Look at our list of top things to do in Antigua Guatemala with children (click link to open new window).***
Top 10 Things to Do in Antigua Guatemala:
#1 – Parque Central (Central Park)
Where: Bordered by 4ta and 5ta Calle and 4ta and 5ta Avenida
The “Place” to people watch. If this is your first visit to Antigua, it is required viewing. As with most Spanish-era colonial towns, the plaza was known as the hub of activity and Antigua is no exception. Livestock and produce were sold here and official ceremonies performed – even executions!
Today, Parque Central boasts beautiful trees, benches, and it’s constantly patrolled by Antigua’s Tourism Police, making it a safe place to visit at all hours. Plus, it makes for a convenient meeting place. An oasis during the week, it becomes crowded on the weekends with visitors from Guatemala City.
TIP: Don’t forget to take a picture standing in front of the Fuente de Las Sirenas (Fountain of the Sirens – not mermaids), a must-do for tourists, both local and foreign alike. Also, look for the curiously out-of-place Ron L. Hubbard plaque on the east side of the park.
#2 – Arco Santa Catalina (Saint Catalina Arch)
Where: 5ta Avenida Norte, between 1ra and 2da Avenida Poniente
The iconic landmark in Antigua and a treat for photographers of all skill levels. Originally, the building – now a hotel/restaurant – to the west side of the arch was used as a convent for nuns. Eventually, the convent outgrew the building and not wanting to relocate to another site, the administrators decided to buy the property across the street. The problem was that the nuns were supposed to live in isolation, with very limited contact from the outside. And that’s why the arch was built, as a safe passage between the convent on the western side of the street and the religious school across it.
The arch is a great photo-op, specially on a clear day, where the arch gracefully frames Agua Volcano to the south.
TIP: The street is busy with vehicular traffic during the week. It becomes pedestrian-only during the weekends. On the weekends, go early mornings for best pictures, as it tends to get crowded in the afternoons.
Entrance Fee: FREE / Q5 Parking Fee if driving up and parking in their lot.
Where: Access via footpath/trail at the end of 1st Avenida. Alternatively, drive by following road to El Hato.
This is a magnificent place to take in the view of Antigua and its buildings and of the three volcanoes within viewing distance of Antigua (Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego – the last one active). While there isn’t much to do at the top, the view make the trip worth it. To see a detailed trip report, click here.
TIP: Go during daylight hours, when Police patrols the footpath to the hill. Also, make sure to schedule your trip during days when Volcan Agua is visible to make sure you catch stunning views instead of cloud cover.
Where: Access via steep road next to the town of Santa Ines, at entrance of Antigua.
Amazing open-air art gallery featuring works by Efrain Recinos, dubbed by some the Guatemalan Picasso. Owned by upscale Hotel Santo Domingo, this place is immaculately kept, as are the grounds, which are decorated throughout with artwork from well-known Guatemalan artists. Cerro Santo Domingo also features a small aviary, canopy rides, a tiny museum commemorating Pope John Paul II’s last visit to Guatemala, and a restaurant (Tenedor del Cerro). I still can’t believe entrance is free. See a detailed trip report here.
TIP: The road up the hill is long and steep, though well paved. Don’t have a vehicle? No problem. Hotel Santo Domingo (3ra Calle Oriente #28) offers free shuttles every hour. Closed Mondays.
#5 – San Francisco Church
Where: 1st Avenida Sur and 7ma Calle Oriente
Antigua is full of churches and church ruins, but as far as significance it’s hard to top San Francisco Church. Built in 1542, it is the oldest functioning church in the city. It features a big courtyard and the tomb of Santo Hermano Pedro de San José de Betancourt, a Spanish missionary that came to Antigua in the mid-1600s. Hermano Pedro is revered here and has been named Antigua’s eternal Mayor and is Guatemala’s only canonized saint.
San Francisco Church also boasts the ruins of its monastery and a museum that houses Hermano Pedro’s former clothing and personal effects. Of interest is the section devoted to housing all sorts of relics, like wheelchairs and crutches, donated by faithful who claim Hermano Pedro heard their prayers and performed miracles to heal them. Well worth a visit.
Tip: Stroll towards the back of the monastery’s ruins, towards the small hill, and find the Lovers’ Tree. Find a spot to carve your name and that of the person to whom you swear undying love.
#6 – La Merced Church
Where: 6ta Avenida Norte and 1ra Calle Poniente
A favorite of locals and tourists because of its distinctive yellow façade. Unlike most churches and ruins in the area, La Merced is run independently from the others, therefore conservation efforts have depended on donations for maintenance and restoration efforts. Efforts to make its convent ruins more appealing to the public have led to the creation of display stands which work very well in explaining the mission of the convent, its history, and life of former inhabitants. Signs are both in English and Spanish, a welcome surprise.
Informative, inexpensive, and offering amazing views of all three volcanoes, a visit is highly recommended. Click here for a visitors guide to La Merced.
TIP: For the best experience, go early in the morning because it’s more likely that the convent’s fountain (largest in Central America) will be in operation. Check the cloud cover on Volcan Agua and Volcan Fuego before you go in, so you’re guaranteed an excellent view from the top of the convent.
#7 – Handicrafts Markets
We here at UnwireMe believe in the value of community, appreciating local flavor and supporting local artists whenever possible. But we also understand that not everybody has the opportunity to meet local artisans and develop relationships with them. Sometimes you just need to grab a few trinkets to show the folks back home that you were thinking of them even while having the time of your life in Antigua.
In well-developed tourist spots, such as Antigua, there’s an already established marketplace for “authentic” goods. But it’s likely you’ll suspect something is amiss when the same trinkets keep showing up on every stall. If you want something truly unique – and not have to pay an arm and a leg for it – you’ll have to shop around. Here are four great places to start your search, all within walking distance of Parque Central.
The first place you should visit is Nim’Pot (5ta Avenida Norte #29 – very near Arco Santa Catalina). This is a consignment shop for local artists. Here, you can find nearly every type of craft you may be looking for at great prices. Well laid out and organized, it’s a great place to window shop. The drawback? It’s a retail store, which means it’s not possible to bargain, which is half the fun of market shopping. Still, come here to get the fair baseline price of items and see if you can beat them by going to the other markets.
Up next, is the Mercado next to El Carmen Ruins (3ra Avenida Norte and 3ra Calle Oriente). While the indoor market is open every day, sellers typically display wares in front of the scenic El Carmen Ruins on the weekend. Be ready to bargain, as the first price you’re quoted for any item is likely to be almost double than the real price they’re willing to sell it for. Quality of items varies.
To actually start meeting some of the artisans, head to the Mercado de Artesanias (Handicrafts Market), at the end of 4ta Calle Poniente and past Calzada Santa Lucia – market is behind Pollo Campero. Keep in mind this is separate from the main Mercado, which we’ll discuss next. At the Mercado de Artesanias, you’ll find various stalls, often manned by the artisans themselves or relatives. The quality is very high, but so are the prices – at least at first. Bargain hard and don’t be afraid to walk away. Prices previously set in stone miraculously start dropping with every step you take away from the stall.
TIP: There are other markets on the outskirts of Antigua (like the ones in San Felipe and San Antonio Aguas Calientes) that are well-worth the visit. But sharpen your bargaining skills first if you want to make your money go further.
#8 – Mercado (Market)
Location: Many entrances, but easier via Calzada Santa Lucia, entry points located at the end of 3rd Calle Poniente and 4th Calle Poniente.
We love this place for grocery shopping, though truth be told, you can find nearly anything you need here. A sprawling mess at first glance, the Mercado is organized into sections (produce, clothing, cafeterias, fruits, meat market, fish market, etc.). It’s a given you’ll be lost the first time you dive inside, but no matter, it’s worth it. You’ll be amazed at the odd fruits and weird animals for sale (roasted armadillo, anyone?).
The market is very clean, safe, and open every day. It does get crowded during “official” days (Monday, Thursday and Saturday), so it’s best to explore on off days, where the merchandise is just as varied, but the crowds lighter. Stick to shopping hours (7am to 2pm) when on the inside, as Police presence is visible then. Not recommended late afternoons, when many sellers are gone for the day and Police presence barely felt.
TIP: I wouldn’t recommend buying prepared food at the market. Many locals will warn against it, as food prep and handling isn’t always the most sanitary and quality lackluster. Also, wait until you get back to your place to wash fruit/produce/meat before you eat it, no matter how tempting it is to take a bite of that fruit.
#9 – Paseo de Museos (Museum Promenade)
Entrance Fee: Q40
Location: Inside Hotel Casa Santo Domingo (3ra Calle Oriente #28)
There are various museums inside Antigua, but none more well-displayed and kept than Paseo de Museos. Part of Hotel Santo Domingo, the museums and ruins are open to public (for a fee). Scheduled at least an hour and a half to explore everything the museums and cloister ruins have to offer. There’s a Colonial Museum, Archeology Museum, Pre-Columbian Art and Modern Glass Museum, Artist Halls, Sacatepequez Arts, and a Pharmacy Museum.
#10 – Convento de las Capuchinas (Capuchinas Convent)
Location: 2da Avenida Norte and 2da Calle Oriente
One of the most beloved ruins in Antigua due to its quiet gardens and unusual architecture, which is perfect for a game of hide-and-go-seek. Definitely enjoyable on its own, you’ll get a lot more out of it if you hire a guide to give you a private tour. Because of the arrangement of the living quarters, it is thought to be the first apartment complex ever built in the continent.
TIP: Don’t miss taking a peek at the circular hall, where the nuns’ private chambers are located, and go downstairs to see what you find ;) Reportedly, paranormal activity has been detected here, which definitely will add to the excitement.
This is definitely not an exhaustive list, by any means, just the attractions we consider most interesting if you’re short on time.
How many attractions on the list have you visited?