Not that long ago Guatemala was mainly a backpacking destination, but over the years Antigua has become a popular travel location for quick getaways. On our most recent trip, we were able to see all of Antigua’s top highlights in just two days, plus hike the active Pacaya Volcano!
Antigua itself is quite small, but it’s packed with cultural landmarks, churches, ruins, and lots of interesting attractions earning it the title of a Unesco World Heritage Site. 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 tour of Antigua, consider signing up for a guided Cultural Walking Tour that will take you to all the top spots around the historic Old Town area.
Here are 8 amazing things that we suggest seeing & doing around Antigua, Guatemala:
- Best Things To Do In Antigua, Guatemala:
Best Things To Do In Antigua, Guatemala:
1. Santa Catalina Arch (Arco De Santa Catalina)
When you think of iconic spots that represent Antigua, the Santa Catalina Arch always comes to mind. For travelers, this is one of the top locations to visit in all of Antigua!
This brightly 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 of the city’s northern area and now serves as a welcoming gate for Antigua’s visitors.
Photography Tip: If you do want a picture with the colorful Santa Catalina Arch, the best time to visit this attraction is early in the morning since it can get crowded later in the day, 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 without cars parked in the background.
Pssst! I use the Sony a7c camera for my travel photos. This is the smallest and lightest full-frame camera available on the market – perfect for traveling, hiking, and outdoor trips – while still maintaining the same incredible image quality as Sony’s full-frame cameras!
The Arco De Santa Catalina is surrounded by colorful colonial buildings and on a clear day, you can even get a shot with the Agua Volcano in the background. Once you’ve snapped that epic picture of the arch, make sure to check out all the charming souvenir shops and eateries along the nearby cobblestone streets, like the highly-rated FRIDAS restaurant.
- Location: Santa Catalina Arch
- Cost: Free
2. Iglesia de la Merced
Just a half a block away from the Santa Catalina Arch is the beautiful Iglesia De La Merced church, another spectacular landmark in Antigua’s historic Old Town area. This cheerfully yellow-colored church was built in the baroque style with lots of ornate details in 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 and volcanic eruptions in the mix and it’s quite a miracle that this church is still standing in such great shape!
After enduring some damage from natural disasters, the church underwent restoration and is now open again for praying, weddings, and other services. For a small fee, visitors can also roam the adjacent courtyard that features 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 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: Iglesia de la Merced
- Cost: Free to enter the church, 15 Guatemalan Quetzales ($2 USD) to enter the convent ruins
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3. El Carmen Church & Market
Antigua is no doubt a city that’s best explored on foot. As you make your way around the Old Town through the charming cobblestone streets, you’ll pass plenty of souvenir stores selling colorful textiles, purses, paintings, key chains, and many other little trinkets. But souvenirs at these shops are often very expensive and leave no room for bargaining.
When shopping for souvenirs we always look for places where local tourists would go. For a more authentic experience head over to the El Carmen Church 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 local 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 street vendors don’t speak English this will help you communicate better when bargaining for better deals.
- Location: Mercado de Artesanias El Carmen
- Cost: Free
4. Antigua Guatemala Cathedral (Cathedral De San Jose)
The Antigua Guatemala Cathedral is undeniably one of the most picturesque locations in the entire city. The Antigua Guatemala Cathedral (also known as Catedral de San Jose or Catedral de Santiago) is an impressive church and at one point was considered one of the largest cathedrals in all of Central America.
This church consists of two parts – the ‘New cathedral’ which can be viewed and accessed from the main square and the adjacent ‘Old cathedral’ in the back of it. The new church is free to visit and looks especially stunning at night from the outside when the entire building gets illuminated in lights showing off its beautiful exterior. But the real show-stopper is the old church that was destroyed over the years by multiple earthquakes leaving behind giant Greek-looking pillars and arches.
We almost missed this spot on our visit 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 Plaza or from the side street entrance off 5a Calle Oriente. Once we figured out where the entrance was located, we were pretty excited to spend a few hours exploring these impressive ruins. For a small fee, you can also hire a local guide to show you around, but we chose to explore the Antigua Guatemala Cathedral ruins at our own pace.
- Location: Antigua, Guatemala Cathedral
- Cost: Free to enter the church, 20 Guatemalan Quetzales ($3 USD) entrance fee to visit the ruins
5. Union Tank (Tanque La Unión)
During our 5 month long trip through Central America, one of the hardest parts was trying to find a place to do our laundry. Thankfully, some cities offer public laundry spots for the residents 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. 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. This is a great place for taking a break, 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 active volcanos in the distance before tackling the rest of downtown Antigua!
- Location: Union Tank
- Cost: Free
To learn more about Antigua you can sign up for a Cultural Walking City Tour that will take you to all the top spots in town! During this 3-hour guided tour, you’ll learn more about the city’s history, culture and visit some of the top architectural landmarks & museums in Old Town.
6. Iglesia De San Francisco
As the capital of Guatemala between the 16th and 18th centuries, Antigua was the cultural and religious epicenter of this region. Eventually, the capital was relocated from Antigua to Guatemala City due to the frequent earthquakes that kept destroying all the churches and residential buildings. 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 unique 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 featured in the facade and colonial paintings in the interior gallery.
The Iglesia De San Francisco is located on the outskirts of downtown Antigua in a quiet plaza alongside historic 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 fresh fruit and mingle with the local people!
- Location: San Francisco the Great Sanctuary
- Cost: Free
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7. Hill of the Cross (Cerro de La Cruz)
Compared to the enormous Guatemala City, Antigua carries itself with the essence of a small town and architectural looks confined to the 18th century. The lack of modernized buildings and skyscrapers can be especially appreciated from the Cerro De La Cruz viewpoint that overlooks the entire Antigua City.
The Cerro De La Cruz is an iconic spot that is recognizable for the large cross that was placed on this hill in the 1930s marking this overlook. The Cerro De La Cruz viewpoint looks especially stunning on a clear day when the Volcan de Agua can be seen in the background.
The hilltop is a popular gathering place for locals and visitors alike and you can count on it getting pretty crowded. After touring the city on foot, this is the perfect place to wrap up the day, grab a drink or a snack from one of the vendors, and enjoy some of the best views of Antigua.
This viewpoint is located on the edge of the northern part of the city. To get there you can take a set of stairs that lead to the viewpoint or take the easy way out and grab a little Tuk Tuk cab for a few Quetzales. These little cabs are a quick and cheap way to get around the city and can be spotted by their bright red color.
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 during the day 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 ease of mind, the city has placed police patrols around this area to prevent any trouble from happening.
- Location: Hill of the Cross
- Cost: Free
8. Pacaya Volcano
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 day trip to hike the Pacaya volcano on your own is not exactly straightforward as there are multiple entrances and just getting there can be a hassle itself.
We had our own vehicle with us, but there are certainly benefits to taking the easy way and signing up for a Pacaya Volcano tour like this one that will pick you up from Antigua, provide transportation, and a guide to take you up to the summit of the volcano and back.
If you have a personal or a rental car and choose to hike the Pacaya Volcano on your own (like us) 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. 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. 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 of your choosing, you will be approached by locals offering you to get a guide. Overall the trail is pretty straightforward and you can certainly do it on your own by using an offline hiking map. We recommend following the Pacaya Volcano Trail or the Pacaya Volcano via Cerro Chino Trail on the AllTrails hiking app.
Personally, we’re not the biggest fans of guided tours since they often feel very rushed. We opted to do the hike on our own and after a bit of bargaining, they let us through the entrance without hiring a local guide.
Starting from the La Corona Community Centre entrance we followed the path that mostly led along the main roads. We had to take a few turns before we started seeing the black volcanic landscape and the Pacaya volcano peak in the distance. Once you get closer to the summit, there is just one trail to follow plus you’ll see many other people hiking the same way.
Pacaya is an active volcano and occasionally you’ll see hot lava exploding from the top and sliding down the volcano. The trails are a safe distance away so we were never concerned about the lava or eruptions.
Occasionally we found areas along the ground where the volcanic rocks are hot enough to give off very strong heat. Most people bring along marshmallows and place them on long sticks to experience cooking a marshmallow on top of an active volcano.
The Pacaya Volcano hike took up most of the day but we were able to complete it before sunset and head back to Antigua to enjoy a nice dinner in the downtown area.
- Location: Centro de visitantes, Volcan Pacaya
- Cost: 50 Quetzales ($6.50 USD) for entrance + 200 Quetzales ($26 USD) for a guide (optional)
Ready to plan your trip to Antigua? With so many incredible things to see & do around this beautiful city, Antigua is one of the best places to visit in Central America!
Where To Stay In Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua has a lot of excellent 5-star hotels, boutique accommodations, and fun hostels to choose from to make your visit comfortable and enjoyable.
If you are planning to visit Antigua and are indecisive about where to stay, here are some of our favorite hotels in town:
- Hotel Casa Santo Domingo. This luxurious 5-star hotel, museum, and spa center around the history of Antigua city and The Convent of Santo Domingo. You can relax and unwind in their indoor and outdoor areas consisting of jacuzzis, pools, and saunas, or book spa treatments specially designed to restore mind, body, and spirit.
- Porta Hotel is one of the most authentic and unique places to stay in Antigua City! The hotel has historic colonial architecture mixed in with a beautiful green garden and is just five minutes from the central city plaza. The rooms and suites have luxurious and historical touches in the form of furniture, wooden floors, and exposed brick & stone walls.
- El Convento Boutique Hotel. El Convento is an excellent luxury hotel to stay in the city center. This contemporary colonial hotel has 27 suites with a modern and sophisticated style. The suites have a private patio, a jacuzzi, and excellent amenities. The helpful staff is very welcoming and can assist you when it comes to making reservations or booking tours!
Is Antigua Guatemala Worth Visiting?
If you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, Antigua is so worth visiting! Antigua is one of the most beautiful and safest cities in all of Guatemala. It is always filled with tourists from all around the world who are excited to explore the Old Town and nearby attractions like the Pacaya Volcano and Lake Atitlán.
Antigua is known for charming cobblestone streets, colorful colonial-style houses, and tall, peaky volcanoes that surround the city. It is also home to many historic churches, the famous Arch of Santa Catalina, and colorful street markets.
How Many Days Do You Need In Antigua Guatemala?
For visiting Antigua, Guatemala we recommend setting aside at least 2-4 days to explore the Old Town and the nearby attractions. We spent two days in this city and were able to see most of the top landmarks, but there are still a few places left on our Antigua bucket list.
If you’re planning a longer Guatemala vacation, you can easily combine a trip to Lake Atitlán that’s located just a 3-hour drive from Antigua.
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