There are lots of things to do in Antigua Guatemala, and it’s the perfect place to relax and explore an old colonial capital.
Antigua Guatemala, which in English translates to Old Guatemala, is the former colonial capital of Central America and since 1979 a UNESCO World Heritage centre.
It’s a beautiful town. Lined with cobblestoned streets, colourful houses and nestled in a valley surrounded by three volcanoes.
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Things to do in Antigua Guatemala
Antigua is one of the most visited places in Guatemala, and there’s lots to do around here.
The most popular activities and sights include volcano hiking, learning Spanish, taking a Mayan cooking class, and seeing all the historic buildings and churches around town.
In this post, I’ll share the most essential tips and information to help you plan your visit to Guatemala. You’ll find the best things to do in Antigua Guatemala, where to stay, safety tips, and more.
When to visit Antigua
We went to Antigua in late April, which is at the end of the high season (Nov-April). Although the weather wasn’t perfect, it was a great time to visit since there weren’t many visitors around.
While November to April is considered the best time to visit Guatemala, I’d like to highlight Easter (Thursday and Friday before Easter Sunday) in particular. Here, at Semana Santa you will experience processions and the making of alfombras sacred carpets made out of dyed sawdust, vegetables and flowers. It’s a unique experience.
Cultural things to do in Antigua
1. Iglesia de la Merced and other churches
Antigua has 35 churches, most of which are close to the central park. The majority of them are adorned with beautiful artwork, and the gardens and crypts are really interesting as well.
One of the must-see churches in town is Iglesia de la Merced. It has an impressive yellow baroque facade with lovely stucco work, as well as two solid looking bell towers. Definitely worth a visit.
Other beautiful colonial churches you should visit:
- San Francisco Church (one of Antigua’s oldest active churches)
- Santo Domingo Monastery (the ruined church and cloisters are particularly stunning)
- Convento Santa Clara (beautiful ruins)
- Catedral de San Jose (well-kept white facade)
- Convento de las Capuchinas (see what life was like for the nuns who lived here)
2. Shopping at the market
There are lots of artisan markets in Antigua, where you can buy handicrafts and souvenirs. You can also find small bags of coffee and chocolate, which are great as souvenirs (we brought home a bunch for friends and family – a big hit). Another thing to look for is jade, although you’ll find the best quality in a store, not at the markets. Antigua is known around the world for having the best jade.
Try these handicraft markets:
- Nim Pot – located next to Santa Catalina arch is the largest souvenir shop in Antigua
- Mercado de Artesanias – located at the west end of town just below the main market, this is where to shop for colourful masks, blankets, jewellery, purses and much more. Remember to bargain.
3. Walk the cobbled streets
A great way to get a sense of the city is to stroll down the streets.
In many of the doorways, you’ll see local vendors selling homemade pancakes, coffee and foods, while the huge Central Park offers the best spot to watch local life go by. All this gives Antigua the relaxed and informal vibe it’s so famous for.
4. Relax in Parque Central
One of the hotspots is the Parque Central. It’s a great place for people watching and entertainment, such as puppeteers. Everyone hangs out here from retirees reading the paper and drinking coffee to sweethearts holding hands and kids running around playing.
5. Salsa lessons
We’re in Latin America after all, and one of the more educational things to do in Antigua Guatemala is learning how to salsa. You can take lessons or join a free class at Salsa Dreams on Mondays and Tuesdays at 5:00 pm. Here, everyone dances with everyone and teaches people the moves. It’s super fun.
6. Practice your Spanish
Guatemala is known as the best place in all of Latin America to learn Spanish. That’s because Guatemalans naturally speak slowly and don’t use much slang, which makes it much easier to learn and understand the language.
We both know enough Spanish to communicate and ask questions, but we’ve always wanted to speak it fluently. Especially because it’s such a common language when you travel in Spain, Central and South America. Even if you’ve only got a week in Antigua, you can take Spanish lessons and learn some basics that will help you on your travels.
7. Cooking class
Try this cooking school: La Tortilla
Cooking classes are so much fun and one of the best things to do in Antigua Guatemala. You’ll learn how to cook authentic Guatemalan dishes such as pepían (a hearty stew), tortillas, atol blanco (a hot drink) and rellenitos (deep-fried plantains with chocolate). And did I mention that you get free wine?
You get free wine.
8. Join a Guatemalan coffee tour
Some of the world’s best coffee is grown just a few kilometres from Antigua. The three volcanos surrounding the city provide a very nutrient-dense soil, which packs the coffee beans with flavour.
To visit one of the coffee farms, you can either join an organised tour where everything is taken care of, or you can do it independently for less (you’ll need to find a coffee farm and transportation on your own). This tour, for instance, takes you to a coffee farm and to the best things to do in Antigua Guatemala.
The town offers plenty of coffee bars and shops, too, where you can taste Guatemalan coffee. Try Bella Vista Coffee (great coffee with a view of Volcan Fuego) or Cafe Boheme (amazing coffee and charming rustic interior)
9. Chocolate museum
If you love chocolate, like yours truly, visiting a chocolate museum could easily be one of the best things to do in Antigua Guatemala. You can buy chocolate here, but best of all – you can also make it yourself! I also tried this in Switzerland and it’s so much fun!
10. Visit Caoba Farms
Caoba Farms is an organic farm with lots of vegetables (such as arugula) that can’t be found anywhere else. During the week and weekends, there are all sorts of activities (farmer’s market, live music, board games and yoga classes). You can also taste their produce, including honey, free-range meat, and fruits & vegetables, at the onsite restaurant.
It’s located 20 minutes walk from Antigua.
Adventurous things to do in Antigua
11. Hike a volcano
If you like adventure, one of the best things to do in Antigua Guatemala is to climb a volcano. Guatemala has no less than 37 volcanos, and 3 of them are active.
See Volcan Fuego Erupt. Hiking Volcano Acatenango is quite challenging and hard, but if you complete the 2-day hike to the top and around 7 hours of climbing, straight uphill, you’ll be rewarded with a view of Volcano Fuego erupting (every 30 minutes or so).
Toast marshmellows on Volcan Pacaya. If an overnight hike doesn’t sound that interesting, you can do an easier day tour to Pacaya volcano. The hike takes around 2 hours to the top where you can experience an otherworldly landscape and even toast marshmellows over hot rocks. You can also rent a horse to take you to the top for about $45.
Viewpoints in Antigua
12. Sunset at Cerro de la Cruz
Cerro de la Cruz is the best viewpoint in Antigua. You’ll get a beautiful panoramic view of the mountains and city from the top.
Consider joining a free walking tour at 10am or 3pm daily to Cerro de la Cruz. Some years back you needed a police escort when visiting due to reports of robberies and kidnappings. Although that’s no longer necessary, you still need to keep your wits about you.
13. Santa Catalina Arch
One of the prides and distinguishable landmarks of Antigua is the Santa Catalina Arch. Built in the 17th century, it originally served as a way for the Santa Catalina nuns to pass from one building to the other without going out on the street. The place is extra beautiful in the evening when it lits up.
When the weather is right, you can get a picture of the arch with Volcan Fuego in the background.
14. Chichi – the largest market in Central America
If you’re done exploring all the things to do in Antigua Guatemala, why not take a day trip out of town?
Chichicastenango (Chichi) is the largest native market in Central America and it’s a must if you’re interested in culture and handicrafts. Each Thursday and Sunday, this HUGE market is packed with stalls of textiles, handicrafts, wood carvings, pottery and jewellery in the streets around the main square.
Read next: How to visit Chichicastenango Market
15. Lake Atitlan
Another memorable day trip is Lake Atitlan, which is 2,5 hours drive from Antigua, Guatemala.
Atitlan is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and it’s Guatemala’s most important tourist attraction. You can visit for a day, but most people hang around to enjoy the views, to kayak, volunteer, learn Spanish, take a Mayan cooking class, hang out by the lake, do yoga or all of the above. It’s the perfect place to just get away from it all and relax.
Read next: 17 unique things to do in Lake Atitlan
Where to stay: Yellow House
During our time in Antigua, we stayed at Yellow House. The place is impeccably clean, breakfast is amazing(!) and it’s very close to everything. Plus, it’s really cheap. We only paid $15 per night for a private room.
Get the latest prices here: booking.com
Safety in Antigua
Antigua is relatively safe. As I mentioned earlier, robberies and kidnappings have been an issue in the outskirts of town and on some of the hiking trails. It seems (from what I hear from other travelers and newspapers) that the safety situation has gotten better within the last few years, so that’s positive.
Although you’ll need to take more safety precautions when traveling in Guatemala, it shouldn’t put you off from visiting. Some cities in Central America are down-right dangerous and best avoided, like San Pedro Sula, Guatemala City or San Salvador. But Antigua is not like that.
It’s a peaceful town and you just need to follow some basic safety guidelines. We simply did the below and had a wonderful trip with no safety issues whatsoever.
- Read my general travel safety tips, because many of them will apply here as well
- Avoid walking after dark (take a tuk tuk)
- Avoid empty streets if possible
- Don’t flash your valuables
- Hire an experienced guide or tour if you want to do a hike (especially to Cerro de La Cruz and the volcanos)
- Take shuttle busses/collectivos instead of chicken busses. They’re safer and in better quality.
Looking for more things to do in Antigua Guatemala? Ask me in the comments!
More posts from Guatemala you might like
- The ultimate guide to San Pedro la Laguna Guatemala
- A quick Guatemala travel guide
- How to visit Chichicastenango Market – all you need to know
- Exploring a colorful Guatemala cemetery (San Pedro la Laguna)
- 17 unique things to do in Lake Atitlan
- How to visit Santiago Atitlán and Maximón (the chain-smoking saint)