Antigua is one of Guatemala’s most charismatic cities and its cobblestone streets provide an inspiring place to base yourself for a few days (or weeks). The historic architecture, dramatic volcanic setting and rich artisan history combine to lure visitors a little longer, with a great range of activities and courses to keep you busy. So if you’re looking for things to do in Antigua Guatemala, here is our pick of the top ten.
1. Get lost in Antigua’s atmospheric streets
From the 16th to 18th centuries, Antigua served as the colonial capital of the America’s Spanish Empire. But a devastating earthquake in 1773 destroyed much of the city and the capital was moved to nearby Guatemala City. The ruinas which remain and the grand colonial buildings which were built in the following years are an evocative legacy and were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Wandering its streets and admiring the architecture should be high on every visitor’s list, with grandiose buildings like the Palace of the Captain Generals standing alongside elaborate convents like Las Capuchinas and the white-washed Cathedral of Saint James which once contained the remains of conquistador Pedro de Alvarado. Don’t miss the iconic, mustard-colored Santa Catalina Arch which connects a convent of the same name to a school across the road or the magnificent City Hall on the northern edge of Antigua’s Main Plaza.
2. Take in the views from the Hill of the Cross
Watching over Antigua on its northern edge is Cerro de la Cruz, or Hill of the Cross, which provides spectacular panoramas of the city’s historic center, framed by the surrounding volcanoes. It’s just a ten-minute walk from town and is best visited in the morning when cloudless skies offer the most impressive views. While it used to be infamous for muggings, police are now permanently stationed along the route between 7 am and 6 pm to ensure it remains safe for tourists.
3. Delve into Antigua’s mercados
Experience how locals like to shop at El Mercado which is situated near the bus terminal and packed full of merchants selling fresh fruit and vegetables, furniture, home goods and DVDs. It’s a great place to sample exotic fruits such as tamarind, jocotes and soursop, as well as witness the huge diversity of beans and corn which are available in Guatemala. The entire market is open Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, although a few stall owners are there throughout the week.
Nearby is the Mercado de Artisania which offers a fantastic range of Guatemalan handicrafts, including textiles, masks and jewelry. It’s the perfect opportunity to gain an insight into local artisan traditions and purchase a few souvenirs to take back home.
4. Make your own Guatemalan handicrafts with a local artisan
If you feel inspired by Guatemala’s handicraft tradition, then one of the best things to do in Antigua is learning how to make your own with a local artisan. The city is home to a number of workshops and studios where you can work alongside artists and designers to learn the secrets of producing traditional textiles, woodwork, jade and hand-made cosmetics, then be able to take home your creation at the end of the day.
5. Hike a volcano (or two)
Antigua is backed by a spectacular volcanic landscape and for those who like a challenge, it’s possible to trek to the top of these dramatic features for magnificent views. Hiking to the summit of Volcán Pacaya is one of the most popular things to do in Antigua, taking around one and a half hours to the crater rim, followed by a steep scramble over scree to the summit. Hot volcanic gases steam from the belly of the volcano as you soak up the views and if you visit in the late afternoon/early evening, you may even witness the lava illuminated against the night sky.
If you’re after a more challenging hike, then you can attempt the summit of the highest peak in the region, Volcán Acatenango. It’s an 8-10 hour hike to the 3,976 meter Pico Mayor from where there are unparalleled vistas across the surrounding landscape. Many opt to camp out overnight to catch a glimpse of the incredible light show at nearby Volcán Fuego.
6. Make your own chocolate
Guatemala has a long history of cacao production dating back to the Mayan period and the ChocoMuseum is an ideal place to gain a better insight while making your own chocolate in the process. The step-by-step process is completely from scratch, starting with the cacao beans themselves, and offers a fascinating insight into what actually goes into making this ever-popular sweet treat. You can even opt to visit a working cacao plantation to meet and chat with local farmers to gain a whole new perspective on chocolate.
7. Learn Spanish
Antigua has a reputation for being one of the best places in Central America to learn Spanish (with one of the most beautiful settings). There are countless language schools to select from, with the choice of group lessons or one-on-one tuition, and a great option for those who plan on volunteering in Guatemala or spending an extensive amount of time traveling through the region. Learning Spanish while being immersed in the local culture and practicing your skills on a daily basis will be an enriching and rewarding experience.
8. Go Ziplining
If you need to get your adrenalin pumping in Antigua, then don’t despair as Antigua Canopy Tours offer exhilarating ziplining adventures in the surrounding landscapes. It’s a bumpy jeep ride into the mountains before being strapped into harnesses and given a safety briefing, then fly through the forest canopy or across a plunging canyon floor. If you can’t decide between the two options, they offer both tours for a heavily reduced price.
9. Visit a coffee farm
Guatemala produces some of the highest-quality coffee in the world and there are a number of coffee farms near Antigua where you can learn step-by-step the process that goes into making your morning brew. You’ll get to meet real farmers who will talk you through the harvesting, fermenting and roasting stages, then sample the finished product or work alongside them to produce your very own.
10. Learn to salsa
If you’re looking for something to do after dark, Antigua has an abundance of salsa schools where you can find your rhythm while learning this quintessential Latino dance. Scheduled group classes are held in the evenings throughout the week or you can book in for a private lesson whenever it suits you.