In and Around Antigua: 12 Hidden Travel Gems is about the most famous city in Guatemala and some tips and destinations for discerning travellers.
Church bells chime, fireworks explode, and engines roar. The cobblestone streets are lined with cafes, bars, hotels, restaurants, and shops. Colourful buildings boast heavy timber doors, iron window bars, and antique lanterns, while bursts of bright bougainvillaea add to the vibrancy.
Welcome to the colonial city of Antigua, the crown jewel of Guatemala.
First founded in 1543 in the Panchoy valley in the department of Sacatepéquez, Antigua was once one of the most important Spanish colonies in the Americas. The city was the capital of the Captaincy-General, the seat of the Spanish colonial government in what was formerly known as the Kingdom of Guatemala, which included Chiapas (southern Mexico), Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
The small city is situated in a remarkable and largely untouched mountainous landscape, flanked by three volcanoes: the extinct Volcán de Agua and Volcán de Acactenango, and the most active volcano in Central America, Volcán de Fuego.
Around 40 km from the capital, Guatemala City, Antigua is well connected to many other destinations in the country, making it a central gateway for travellers.
Colonial architecture remains the prominent identity of the city, and in 1979 UNESCO recognised Antigua Guatemala as a “World Heritage” site, suggesting regulations prohibiting its re-construction and any modernistic styling.
What to do in Antigua
Over three turbulent centuries during which it survived earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions, Antigua has acquired a number of outstanding Baroque-style principal monuments, buildings, and church, cathedral, and convent ruins. You can explore many of the ruins for small admission fees and learn insight into the city’s turbulent history.
Travel tip: The most striking ruins that are open to the public are the Antigua Cathedral, Museo del Hermano Pedro, Convento la Recoleccion, and Iglesia San José el Viejo.
Some iconic buildings have withstood the test of time, along with the city’s famous plazas and domestic architecture. The Parque Central (Central Park) is surrounded by the Catedral de San Jose (Cathedral), the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (Palace of the Captain General), and the Municipalidad de Antigua Guatemala (City Hall).
The Parque Central plays an essential role in various national events, celebrations, festivities, parades, and religious holidays, and throughout the year it is bustling with souvenir sellers, pop-up markets, and varying entertainment.
The grand “Fuente de las Sirenas” (Fountain of the Sirens) is the park’s focal point, with surrounding flower beds and benches making it a popular place to stroll and assemble. Seasonally, the Jacaranda trees of the park blossom with lilac flowers that have become synonymous with Holy Week (Easter) in Antigua.
Travel tip: The Parque Central holds biweekly artisanal markets at the weekends. It’s also intrinsic to Holy Week celebrations during March and April, and in mid November, the park is filled with floral decorations and installations at the annual Festival de Flores (flower festival).
Most tourists arrive in the city to soak up the history or tackle the infamous Volcán de Acatenango hike. But there are many more things to do in and around Antigua. You’ll find activities for all ages, including chocolate tours, Spanish schools, cooking classes, bar crawls, walking tours, and ATV rides.
A must stop is the clock face of the Santa Catalina Arch, Antigua’s most iconic structure. The yellow and white archway dates back to the 1600s and was built as a secret, hidden passageway between a historically placed monastery and an adjoining school.
Another popular site is the Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross), where, following a short uphill climb, you can take in panoramic views of the city and the volcanoes from a hillside monument and garden.
The Mercado (market) is the heart of life for locals from Antigua and the surrounding towns. The indoor market is a labyrinth of tiny stalls stocking essential supplies as well as clothing, technology, and jewellery. Outdoors is more of the same, but with stands piled high with tropical fruits and regional vegetables.
Neighbouring the main market is the artisanal market, where you can snap up authentic souvenirs and hand-made items. At the rear of the Mercado is the bus station, where you’ll find the famous, customised Guatemalan chicken buses that provide notoriously ropey but cheap travel around the country.
If you’re in need of some pampering and self-care, Antigua has a plethora of barbers, salons, beauty bars, gyms, and spas that offer relaxing treatments and therapies, ideal for recovering from a volcano hike or simply refreshing and rejuvenating while on the road.
Finding attractions around Antigua is easy, with many reliable tour agencies and travel providers who can facilitate excursions or arrange travel to further destinations.
Travel tip: For the best prices, it’s best to buy your tours and travel directly from the agencies or their street reps.
In terms of gastronomy, Antigua has much to offer, with great food available no matter the budget.
Antigua is rich in culture, and there are numerous high-end restaurants dotted throughout the city, serving cuisine from all over the world, including the United States, South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
But backpackers on a budget will find an expanse of choice too, with traditional restaurants, taco shops, burrito and burger bars, pizzerias, and all of the famous fast-food joints.
Travel tip: Some top recommended mid-level restaurants in central Antigua are: Akai Sushi (sushi), Angie Angie’s (pizzeria), Como Como (French), Fermento (grill), Puerto 11 (grill), Pappy’s BBQ (US grill), Toco Baru (Asian and mid-Eastern), Maxán (traditional), Ni-fu Ni-fa (Argentinian), Rincon Tipico (traditional), El Punto (Italian), Central Park Pizza (New York-style pizzeria), Samsara (vegan), Tacorazon (tacos/burritos)
Street-food stalls can be found across the city in parks and public spaces, with one of the most popular spots being the Iglesia de la Merced (the Merced Church). Here, you can sample some of Guatemala’s famous delicacies like carnitas, chicharrónes, chile rellenos, frijoles, shucos, tostadas, and sweet offerings like tres leches.
Travel tip: for the safest street food, look for the stalls with plastic coverings over the food and those with the most hand gel on display.
For travellers who go self-catering in a rented house or Air BNB, there’s the central supermarket La Bodogona and a number of delicatessens, bakeries, butchers, and specialty food shops scattered around Around.
Guatemala is famous for its coffee, and café culture permeates the streets. The fertile land, rich with minerals from volcanic ash, produces a wide range of flavours and aromas, which can all be found in the innumerable coffee houses spread around the city.
Travel tip: The best coffees are found in the non-commercial shops. Try El Portal, Café Boheme, Café Estudio or, for coffee with volcano views, Rooftop Antigua.
As well as restaurants and cafes, Antigua is known for its lively social scene, and the hostels, bars, salsa clubs, and cantinas ensure that there is always a fiesta to be found where you can party into the night.
Travel tip: For lively parties, the most popular bars and clubs are: El Barrio, Doce Bar, Reillys Irish Tavern, La Sala, Tropicana Hostel, Las Vibras de la Casbah, Ruwa Jay and Las Palmas salsa club.
For some out-of-the-box travel inspiration and places that are not as famed on the tourist trail, read on for 12 Hidden Travel Gems: In and Around Antigua.
1. Cervecería 14
A 15-minute car ride from Antigua, through the neighbouring town of Ciudad Vieja, takes you to Cervecería 14, a craft brewery. The cervecería is set on a coffee farm and is a popular place for families and groups. There’s an onsite restaurant with cuisine from local chefs Annie and Felix, and pop-up trucks rotate weekly to showcase some of Antigua’s best food. There’s a children’s playground, tree house tables, and an amphitheatre where local live music acts entertain the crowds. At night, fires and flame-heaters are lit to create a welcoming and warm atmosphere.
Travel tip: Cervecería 14 is a great place to watch the sunset over the volcanoes between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
2. Finca El Pilar
Finca El Pilar is located in the mountains just outside of Antigua. The Finca sprawls over acres of mountain jungle, and here you can enjoy a series of swimming pools filled with pure mountain-filtered water. There’s an onsite café, but you can bring your own refreshments and music to enjoy the refreshing waters of the aqua blue pools. There’s also a mountain trail and a climb to the summit, where dramatic views can be enjoyed. El Pilar is the perfect place to relax and immerse yourself in nature. There’s also a glamping site and picnic areas dotted around.
Travel tip: Finca El Pilar closes at 4 p.m., so when tackling the mountain trail, it’s better to start in the morning.
Around 10 kilometres up into the mountains from Antigua lies Hobbitenango, a visitors’ attraction and eco-park inspired by the world of the hobbits in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. You can enjoy a number of viewing points that provide memorable photo opportunities, including their famous giant hand. There are two bars, a restaurant, and outdoor dining areas, as well as rope swings, games, and hill-set hobbit houses that are available for nightly rent. Shuttle buses to the fun family attraction are available directly from Antigua.
Travel tip: Hobbitenango is best during the day; later in the afternoon, due to the altitude, the temperatures can suddenly begin to drop
4. Circo del Aire Canopy
The Circo del Aire Canopy is an eco-friendly adventure attraction in the Efrain Recinos Cultural Park, which is a short distance outside of the entrance to Antigua. You can take a canopy tour through pine and Cyprus treetops and make your way across a circuit of zip-lines, platforms, and hanging bridges. On the final zip-line of the tour, adventurers can choose a conventional or Superman harness to take them down the 600-meter-long wire. The adrenaline-pumping tour offers breath-taking views of the city and its surrounding natural beauty.
Travel tip: To avoid crowds and queues, visit the canopy park in the morning.
5. El Bosque
On the outskirts of Central Antigua lies El Bosque, a small woodland concealed from view by high surrounding walls. Inside, you’ll find a microbrewery with craft beers from Antigua Cerveza, restaurants, and food trucks. There is a small coffee plantation and art installations for photo opportunities. Although it’s in the city, at El Bosque you can experience being immersed in nature. Gather around the central fireplace with friends or enjoy the giant Jenga and Connect-4 games.
Travel tip: After dark, El Bosque is magically lit with lights and fire pits, but, due to the trees, be prepared for mosquitoes.
6. Girasoles de Antigua
Girasoles de Antigua is a sunflower farm attraction situated in San Pedro Panorama, a 5-minute drive from the centre of Antigua. Here you can meander through fields of sunflowers, with a variety of species showcased. Art installations and features are situated throughout and provide locations for Instagram-worthy photos, surrounded by the bright yellow flowers. There is a restaurant-bar that holds live music events throughout the year, and helicopter rides can be arranged that take in aerial views of the farm and its surroundings.
Travel tip: The sunflower farm can get busy during the day, so for uninterrupted photos, it’s better in the morning or late afternoon.
7. Museos de Casa Santo Domingo
Casa Santo Domingo is an upmarket hotel and spa, situated at the main entrance to Antigua. The hotel is built on the grounds of an old monastery and is also home to a series of six small museums and two art galleries. For an entrance fee, non-guests of the hotel can enter the museums and explore the vestiges of the site, learning about its history and restoration. The museums house encased relics, handcrafted artefacts, paintings, silver, ancient texts, and objects from the Classic Period of Mayan culture (200-900 AD).The hotel spa is also open to non-guests.
Travel tip: It’s best to check which museums are open in advance, as they are not always open at the same time.
8. Finca San Cayetano
Finca San Cayetano is near the town of Alotenango, a 25-minute drive from Antigua. It’s an ecological hotel and high-end restaurant that serves international haute cuisine. There’s also a cocktail lounge with 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape. The Finca is situated up near the Fuego volcano, and luxury cabins equipped with hot tubs overlook it. There are activities provided like mountain bike trails, horseback riding, and bird-watching experiences. Further attractions include a coffee plantation, a petting farm, and walking trails.
Travel tip: It’s best to reserve a table with a view when dining at the San Cayetano restaurant.
9. Cerro San Cristóbal
Situated in the small town of San Cristóbal al Alto, 6 kilometres away and above Central Antigua, are the restaurant and gardens of Cerro San Cristóbal. The mountainside restaurant boasts epic views of Antigua and the Panchoy valley and serves a selection of wholesome food and drinks. You can take a walk around the pretty botanical grounds, where there’s a medicinal garden, plant nurseries, and charming water features. There’s also a shrine where you can pay your respects to Maximón, the Mayan deity of hedonism.
Travel tip: To take in the views, it’s best to visit Cerro San Cristóbal on a clear day and around lunchtime rather than later.
10. Caoba Farms
Caoba Farms is a few minutes’ walk out of the centre of Antigua and is a family-owned organic, sustainable farm. It has become a community gathering point with volunteer opportunities, a farm-to-table restaurant, a store, a butterfly farm, live music, and fitness and yoga classes. The farm practises biointensive agriculture, producing a huge variety of crops as well as exotic flora and fauna. You can take tours of the farm to learn about sustainable farming and see animals like rabbits, ducks, pigs, lambs, and goats roaming the grounds.
Travel tip: Every Saturday is the weekly farmers market with a variety of vendors selling organic produce.
11. Finca La Azotea
Finca La Azotea is just a couple of kilometres outside of Antigua, in the bordering town of Jocotenango. La Azotea is a sprawling coffee farm where you can take walking tours and see the start-to-end process of coffee production. For a small entry fee, you’re invited to walk the grounds, hire bicycles, or visit the selection of onsite cafes and restaurants. In the grounds of Azotea there’s also gardens, sculptures, ponds, and an equestrian centre and stables where you might see horses and dressage competitions.
Travel tip: Check their Facebook page, as depending on the day, sometimes there are free entry offers.
12. Antigua Brewing Company
Antigua Brewing Company is a craft brewery and bar centrally located in Antigua. The company has one of the best terraces in Antigua, where DJs regularly play for guests as they sample beers and food while admiring the city views. Inside, the brewery regularly hosts on-stage live music, trivia nights, and movie screenings. But aside from the brewery and terrace, Antigua Brewing Company also holds a secret. Step through the red London phone box and you’ll enter their hidden bar, where bartenders mix a wide range of special cocktails.
Travel tip: Friday and Saturday sunsets are when the DJs play, but for groups, it can be worth calling ahead to make a reservation as the terrace gets busy.
For a small city, Antigua has a lot to offer. There’s a blend of cultures, tastes, and activities, and plenty of cool spots to soak up the vibes. These were some personal favourite stops, and for a bonus tip, I’d always recommend finding a cosy terrace at night, getting a drink, and simply watching the spectacle as Volcán de Fuego lights up the sky with lava.
Would you like to go to Antigua? Of have you visited any of these travel gems? If you enjoyed this post please feel free to share or comment down below!
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All text ©J. Thomson, 2023