Antigua is a beautiful historical city in Guatemala and an essential stop for anyone traveling through Central America.
Not that long ago Guatemala was mainly a backpacking destination, but over the years Antigua has become a popular travel location for quick getaways.
In fact, my friend met us in Guatemala for an extended weekend, and we were able to see all of Antigua’s highlights in just 2 days (plus hike an active volcano!).
Antigua itself is quite small, but it’s packed with culture, churches, ruins and tons of cool landmarks. Located less than a 2-hour drive from Guatemala City, Antigua is also easily accessible for day trips.
If you’re interested in a guided walking tour, consider signing up for this tour that will take you to all the top spots around the historic downtown area.
If you’d rather go on your own pace, here are 8 amazing things that we suggest to see and do around Antigua:
- Santa Catalina Arch
- Iglesia De La Merced
- El Carmen Church & Market
- Antigua Guatemala Cathedral
- Tanque La Union
- Iglesia De San Francisco
- Cerro De La Cruz
- Pacaya Volcano
Santa Catalina Arch (Arco De Santa Catalina)
When you think of iconic spots that represent Antigua, the Santa Catalina Arch always comes to mind. As a traveler, you can’t really claim that you’ve been to Antigua unless you’ve taken a picture at this beautiful landmark.
This brightly yellow colored arch was originally built in the late 17th century after the local women’s covenant acquired a new building across the street. The covenant nuns were not allowed to go on the street or interact with the public so as a solution the Santa Catalina Arch was built providing a closed passageway for the nuns to cross the street from one building into the other.
The arch doesn’t serve as a passage anymore and now is just a major tourist attraction, especially for photography. The Santa Catalina Arch is located on the outskirts in the city’s northern area and now serves more like a welcoming gate for Antigua’s visitors.
If you do want a picture with the colorful Santa Catalina Arch, make sure to go early as it can get quite crowded especially on the weekends. On the upside, the street where the Santa Catalina Arch is located gets closed to car traffic during the weekends so your pictures will look even better and more authentic without cars parked in the background.
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The Arco De Santa Catalina is surrounded by other colorful colonial buildings and on a clear day, you can even get a cool shot with the Agua Volcano peak in the background. Once you’ve snapped that epic picture of the arch, make sure to check out all the cute little shops and restaurants like the highly rated FRIDAS restaurant on this street.
Location: 5a Avenida Norte & 2a Calle Poniente
Iglesia De La Merced
Just a half a block away from the Arch is the beautiful Iglesia De La Merced church, another spectacular landmark in Antigua’s historic downtown area. This cheerfully yellow colored church was built in baroque style with lots of ornate details decorating its façade.
While the Arch was built to be a part of the female convent, the Iglesia De La Merced was built in the 18th century to be a part of the male monastery. Add a few centuries of earthquakes, volcano eruptions, abandonment and looter in the mix and it’s quite the miracle that this church is still standing in such great shape.
After suffering some damage from the natural disasters, the church underwent a bit of restoration and is now open again for prayers, weddings, and other services. For a small fee, visitors can also roam the adjacent courtyard with an elaborate water fountain and arched walkways.
Places like this are part of what makes Antigua one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited. Around every corner, you’ll find another remarkable church, convent or a landmark with its own story to tell. It’s easy to lose yourself walking the streets of Antigua admiring the thought, work and time that went into making these structures.
Location: 1a Calle Poniente & 6a Avenida Norte
Cost: Free to enter the church, 15 Guatemalan Quetzales ($2 USD) to enter the convent ruins
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El Carmen Church & Market
Antigua is no doubt a city that’s best explored by foot. As you make your way around the old town area through the rugged cobblestone streets, you’ll pass plenty of shops along the way selling anything from colorful textiles, purses, paintings, key chains, to any little trinket that you could think of. But souvenirs at these shops are usually targeted towards international tourists, often very overpriced and chances of bargaining down the price are pretty low due to the expensive overhead costs that these shop owners have to consider into the price.
When shopping for souvenirs we always look for places where the local tourists would go. For a more authentic experience head over to the El Carmen Church that hosts an open street market where you will be able to purchase the same items that you will find at the fancy stores but for a bargain price. Here you’ll get to interact with the locals and support the Guatemalan community by purchasing from the sellers directly.
This charming street market is organized and set up on the weekends in front of the El Carmen Church. Iglesia Del Carmen is yet another beautiful and elaborate Catholic church that was built in downtown Antigua and later abandoned after suffering damage from multiple earthquakes. The church itself is not open to the public but market visitors can see the intricate façade consisting of 24 giant columns from the outside.
Before heading to the El Carmen street market, make sure to become familiar with the currency exchange rate and brush up on some basic Spanish phrases like “Cuanto cuesta?” –“How much does it cost?” Since most Guatemalan locals don’t speak English this will help you communicate better and not get ripped off with outrageous prices.
Location: 3a Avenida Norte & 3a Calle Oriente
Antigua Guatemala Cathedral (Cathedral De San Jose)
While the Santa Catalina Arch holds the #1 spot as the most iconic landmark in Antigua, the Antigua Guatemala Cathedral is undeniably the most picturesque spot in the entire city.
The Antigua Guatemala Cathedral (also known as Catedral de San Jose or Catedral de Santiago) is one of the most impressive churches in Antigua and at one point was considered one of the largest cathedrals in Central America.
This church consists of two parts – the “New” cathedral that can be viewed and accessed from the main Antigua’s plaza and the adjacent old cathedral ruins in the back of it. The newer church is free to visit and looks especially stunning at night when the entire church gets illuminated in lights showing off its beautiful exterior to all by-passers. But the real show-stopper is the old church that was destroyed over the years from multiple earthquakes leaving behind a skeleton of giant Greek-looking pillars and arches.
To be honest, if we hadn’t done extensive google image and Instagram research ahead of time, we would have missed this spot completely which would have been a shame. Depending on what you read, this church goes by a few different names and the old ruins are not so easily spotted from the street.
Visitors can access the ruins from the main church that faces the Central Park or from the side street entrance off 5a Calle Oriente. Once we figured out where the entrance was located, we were pretty stoked to spend a few hours exploring these impressive ruins. For a small fee, you could also hire a local guide to show you around, but we chose to explore the Antigua Guatemala Cathedral ruins at our own pace.
Location: 5a Calle Oriente 5 & 4 Avenina Sur
Cost: Free to enter the church, 20 Guatemalan Quetzales ($3 USD) to enter the ruins
Tanque La Union
During our 5 month long trip through Central America one of the hardest parts was trying to find a place to do our laundry. Coin machines are just not a thing that exists in Latin America and most people just wash their clothes at home (or if you’re really desperate in your campervan’s kitchen sink like we occasionally had to).
Some cities offer public laundry spots for the local resident’s but it’s not every day that you see one as beautiful as the Tanque La Union in Antigua. The Tanque La Union public laundry pool was built in 1853 as a place for locals to come and wash their laundry while catching up on social issues and a bit of gossip at the same time.
Although the Tanque La Union is more of a major tourist attraction nowadays, you might still spot a few locals washing their clothes in this fountain every once in a while. In other towns, public washing places like this are still widely used since water is not a luxury that every household in Guatemala has access to.
The Tanque La Union fountain is located next to a beautiful park with giant palm trees providing shade and a spot for resting, especially for those on a self-walking tour of Antigua’s old town. Grab some street food, find a shaded spot to relax and enjoy a view of the smoking volcanos in the distance before tackling the rest of Antigua.
Location: 6a Calle Oriente & 2a Avenina Sur
Iglesia De San Francisco
As the capital city between the 16th and 18th centuries, Antigua was the cultural and religious epicenter of Guatemala. Eventually, the capital was relocated from Antigua to Guatemala City due to the frequent earthquakes that kept destroying all the churches and residential buildings in this area. What we now see in Antigua are the remains of religious temples that used to be the biggest and grandest of their time.
What makes Antigua so charming is that each of these historical churches was built to showcase its own character and often incorporate a few different architectural influences. At the Iglesia De San Francisco sanctuary, visitors can see the baroque style used in the facade and colonial paintings in the interior gallery.
The Iglesia De San Francisco is located on the outskirts of Antigua in a quiet plaza alongside noteworthy convent ruins and a museum. The plaza also has a handicraft market, local fruit stands, and refreshments. After touring the church, this market is a wonderful spot to grab some delicious fruit and mingle with the locals.
Location: 7a Calle Oriente & Calle De Los Pasos
Cerro De La Cruz
Compared to the enormous Guatemala City, Antigua carries itself with the essence of a small town and architecturally looks confined to the 18th century. The lack of modernized buildings and obstructing skyscrapers can be especially appreciated from the Cerro De La Cruz viewpoint that overlooks the entire Antigua city. The Cerro De La Cruz overlook is yet another iconic spot that is recognizable for the dramatic cross that was placed on this hill in the 1930s marking this viewpoint.
The Cerro De La Cruz viewpoint looks especially stunning on a clear day when the Agua volcano can be seen in the background. The hilltop is a popular gathering place for locals and visitors alike and usually, you can count on it getting pretty crowded. After touring the city by foot, this is a nice spot to wrap up the day, grab a drink or a snack from one of the vendors and enjoy a panoramic view of Antigua.
This viewpoint is located on the edge of the northern border of the city. To get there you can tackle a set of stairs that lead to the viewpoint and will leave you breathless, or take the easy way out and grab a little Tuk Tuk motor cab for a few Quetzales. These little cabs are a quick and cheap way to get around the city and are typically colored in bright red color so they are easy to spot.
We’ve heard that the stairs leading to the Cerro De La Cruz hilltop used to be a hot spot for petty theft and robberies so make sure to hike this hill in a group or ask for a police escort if you don’t feel comfortable going on your own. Although we felt very safe walking around Antigua (even at night) this is one place in Antigua I would advise against going on your own especially when it’s dark. For the ease of mind, the city has placed police patrols around this area to prevent any trouble from happening.
Location: Stairs entrance is located off 1a Avenida Nte
Hiking the Pacaya Volcano is one of the most popular things to do around Antigua for those in search of something a bit more adventurous. But planning a trip to hike the Pacaya volcano on your own is not exactly straight forward as there are multiple entrances, locals can get pretty pushy trying to sell you on guides, horse tours, walking sticks and parking fees at the entrance (none of which is required) and just getting there can be a hassle itself.
We had our own vehicle with us which made things a bit easier, but there certainly are benefits to taking the easy way and signing up for a guided Pacaya Volcano Trek like this one that will pick you up from Antigua, provide transportation and a guide to take you up to the volcano and back.
If you do choose to hike the Pacaya Volcano on your own, make sure to get an early head start from Antigua to beat the crowds.
There are two entrances for hiking the Pacaya volcano. One of them is marked as “Centro de visitantes, Volcan Pacaya” on Google maps or “La Corona Community Centre” on Maps.me. This is the entrance that we chose to go from.
The second entrance is marked as “Entrada: Parque Nacional Volcan De Pacaya” on Google Maps and Maps.me. To our understanding, both entrances are very similar and there isn’t much of a reason to use one over the other.
When you arrive at the volcano entrance, you’ll be swarmed by locals pushing you to get a guide, but the trail is pretty straight forward and you can certainly do it on your own with the help of Maps.me, Google maps or iOverlander app.
While we do recognize that tourism business is a major income stream for the locals, personally we’re not big fans of guided tours since they often feel very rushed so we opted to tackle the hike on our own. After a bit of bargaining and negotiating, they eventually let us through the entrance without hiring a guide.
Starting from the La Corona Community Centre entrance we followed Maps.me trail that mostly led along main roads and had to take a few turns before we started seeing black volcanic rock and the volcano peak. Once you get closer to the top there really is just one trail to follow plus you’ll see other people hiking there.
The Pacaya is an active volcano and along the trail, you’ll occasionally see hot lava exploding from the top and sliding down the volcano. But the trails are a safe distance away so we were never concerned about the lava or eruptions.
Occasionally we found sections along the trail where the volcanic rocks are hot enough to give off super strong heat. Most people bring along marshmallows and place them on long sticks to experience cooking a marshmallow on top of an active volcano – now that’s quite the fun story to tell your friends when you get back home!
The Pacaya Volcano hike took up most of our day but we were able to complete it in time and head back to Antigua to enjoy a nice celebratory dinner in the downtown area.
Location: La Corona San Vicente Pacaya Escuintla, Guatemala
Cost: 50 Quetzales ($6.50 USD) for entrance + 200 Quetzales ($26 USD) for a guide (optional)
Ready to book a plane ticket to Antigua? With so many incredible things to see & do around this historical city, we don’t blame ya! Start by searching for all the best Antigua hotels and accommodations here.
Looking for more Central America inspiration? Check out our post on these 10 unbelievable destinations to visit in Central America!
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