Antigua is an endlessly fascinating city – flowers tumble out of every crevice, Spanish songs float out of windows, and brightly-coloured walls dilly dally with ornate doors.
It is bound to seduce you the second you step foot in its cobble stoned alleyways. If you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, you should definitely put Antigua on your itinerary.
Getting to Antigua
Your flight will land in Guatemala City. We suggest spending a day or two here just to absorb the culture and chaos of the capital of Guatemala.Try not to stay out too late in Guatemala City as it tends to have a reputation for being unsafe. Spend your time exploring downtown – Parque Central and Catedral Metropolitana are the perfect places to start. Walk around, Sample traditional Maya dishes, and pick a souvenir or two. You could also take a day trip to Tikal’s ruins.
Make sure you stay in a historical B&B or hotel – it is the easiest way to acquaint yourself with Guatemalan culture. We stayed at Posada Belen, which felt more like a museum than a hotel. The historical house is crammed with Guatemalan artifacts and furnishings. Rooms are basic but comfortable. Staff is absolutely lovely. We chose it because it is conveniently located in Zone #1 and it’s easy to walk to most prominent sights from Posada Belen.
After spending a day in Guatemala city, it’s time to board a shuttle bus to Antigua. Several buses run between the two cities. Choose a reliable and comfortable service, start early, and you’ll be in Antigua within a couple of hours. We booked our transfers with Atitlan Tours and the cost was USD 12 per person to Antigua. You will fall in love with Antigua the second you set foot in its cobbled alleyways. Here are a few of our favourite things to do in Antigua if you are there for a short city break:
Stay in a gorgeous boutique hotel
It only makes sense to stay in a distinctive hotel in a city that’s bursting with character. Antigua has dozens of hotels but we chose the quaint Hotel Uxlabil. The affordable hotel is less than a 5 minute walk away from La Merced Cathedral, so it makes for a convenient base to explore the city of Guatemala on foot. Its historical rooms aren’t super luxurious but they ooze character. They are equipped with everything you could possibly need for a comfortable stay including toiletries and wifi. But the reason we chose the hotel is the view from its terrace – the terrace offers a gorgeous view of the colourful roofs of Antigua . You can also see the city’s iconic volcanoes from the terrace of Uxlabil Hotel. Sunset here is a sight to behold. We absolutely loved it and would return in a heart beat!
Go for an early morning walk in the colonial city
The air of Antigua is peppered with magic early in the morning. There are no cars or people – just the odd Guatemalan kid rushing to school. The city is absolutely different. Set your alarm for 6 am and just go for a walk in the city. We promise you you’ll love it. While the charm of the early morning walk is to go without a plan, you must visit the clock tower (Santa Catalina Arch) – this will be the only time of the day when you’ll find it sans people 🙂
Wrap up the morning walk with breakfast at Don Diego Cafe
We discovered this small café, tucked away in one of Antigua’s colourful alleys, because our hotel’s breakfast was served here every morning. But once we discovered it, we went back to it for meals every day. Portions are big and rates are reasonable. But that’s not why it’s so popular. Don Diego cafe serves great coffee and the yummiest Guatemalan breakfasts. Try Huevo Divorciados (literally ‘Divorced Eggs’) – fried eggs that are accompanied by two different kinds of salsa and the BEST Frijoles Negros (black bean paste) we had in Guatemala. Just writing about it is making me drool!
Visit Cerro de la Cruz (Cross on the Hill Park) for incredible panoramas
If you want a picture postcard shot of your vacation in Guatemala, then head straight to Cross On Hill Park. A long walk from the city centre and a steep climb will get you to this vantage point. Entrance is free and the views spectacular. Expect to see a bird’s eye view of the historical city of Antigua with a volcano, covered by low-lying clouds, in the distance. Cerro de la Cruz is special – no wonder it is popular both with tourists and the residents of the city.
A word of warning – this area used to be quite unsafe. While there is a lot of police presence in the area now and exploring the park feels safe, we would advise you to avoid it during sunrise and sunset. Visit during daylight hours.
Shop at Mercado de Artesanias
If you want to buy just a few souvenirs or click photographs of colourful Guatemalan handicrafts, then there’s no better place than Mercado de Artesanias
. The covered market place is well-planned and boasts of dozens of shops. It is a lot less intimidating than larger, open-air marketplaces in Guatemala. Just walk around, bargain for items that tickle your fancy, and take home a colourful Guatemala shawl, necklace, or poncho. This isn’t the place for wholesale shopping but it’s perfect for picking up bits and bobs in a safe environment.
Visit La Merced Cathedral
This iconic church is the focal point of life in Antigua. Its pale yellow exteriors make it the perfect subject for photographers. But it’s not just the exterior that’s special. Devote a few hours to exploring the historic interiors as well – it will leave you spellbound.
The area is always bustling with activity but make sure you drop by La Merced in the evening – you will spot several ladies selling home-cooked delicacies just outside La Merced Cathedral. It’s the perfect excuse to sample local food straight from the horse’s mouth.
Ruins of San Jose Cathedral
If historic buildings tickle your fancy, then don’t forget to drop by the ruins of San Jose Cathedral. San Jose Cathedral dates back to the sixteenth century and has undergone several refurbishments. Both the imposing exterior and intricate interiors are impressive but we love the ruins at the South Entrance. These are still used by Mayans for special prayers and provide a rare insight into times gone by.
Ride a chicken bus
No trip to Guatemala is complete with setting food in this kitschy and colourful mode of transport. Locals use these heavily decorated buses to travel in Guatemala, so it’s super cheap to buy a ticket and experience a ride. Definitely one for the bucket list, especially if you like bright colours and adventure.
Wrap up your visit with a traditional Guatemalan meal at El Rincon Tipico
If you want to sample traditional Guatemalan fare on a budget, then head straight to El Rincon Tipico. This rustic restaurant is extremely popular because it offers set meals at affordable rates. There isn’t much choice on the menu but Rincon Tipico’s set meals are the perfect excuse to sample local delights such as hand-rolled tortillas, Guatemalan style grilled chicken, hecho con lenna (wood-fired chicken), and carne adobada (marinated pork).
We LOVED our stay in Antigua – it’s one of those cities that urges visitors to get lost in its coloured alleyways and local markets. Have you been to this gorgeous city?