When I arrived in Antigua, Guatemala, the first thought that ran through my head was how much it reminded me of Cusco, Peru. There’s an energy to the city that I’ve experienced only in another place: Cusco. Similar to Cusco being the heart and center of the Inca culture, Antigua feels the same for the Mayan heritage. The aliveness and history were immediately felt when I arrived in the city, and I quickly realized how the small yet busy city is one the beating hearts of the Mayan culture.
Before arriving, friends and travel acquaintances went on and on about how much they loved Antigua so I was anxious and excited to see what was in store. It turned out to be one of my favorite places in all of Latin America, with a mix of the Spanish-colonial architecture influence combined with local Mayan traditions seen in the food, clothing, and markets. Not only did I meet some great people whom I now call friends, some of which I still see on my travels now, but Antigua has something to offer everyone, making it a city all can love.
Why I Love Antigua
Antigua is beautiful. Surrounded by volcanoes with views that don’t disappoint every way you turn, it’s what you expect from a Spanish colonial-style city. Oh, and did I mention there’s a giant market? Because there is. And, if you’re the type of person that likes to eat and drink their way through a place, then Antigua promises not to disappoint.
I was in a rough place when I arrived in Antigua: sick, lonely, lost, and confused. Antigua and the people I met in there helped heal me to continue on with the rest of my journey and travels. For that, I am so, so grateful.
Thanks to all those that made my time there so amazing and for those that gave me the recommendations of things to do, see, eat, and drink. You know who you are.
History & Culture
I spent a week in Antigua but could have easily spent longer walking the streets, exploring neighboring towns, reading my book in various coffee shops, and absorbing the powerful Mayan energy that overflows from the city.
It’s the type of place that draws you in more the longer you stay.
Storytelling colorful buildings make up the city as Guatemalan locals dressed in the traditional garment carry freshly-baked pastries on top of their heads. As you walk by them while crossing the street, they call out to the world what treat they’re offering today.
Mayan ruins and hundred-year-old Spanish churches are dotted throughout the city, adding mystery and charm to an already charming city. It’s a city that’s full of history that can be seen and learned at the various museums or by simply taking the time to notice what’s around you.
Food & Drink
If this is your thing, then Antigua will deliver for you. Everything from local, traditional dishes to expat favorites to fine dining can be found in the Guatemalan gem. I personally stuck more to the budget-friendly local food of beans, rice, chicken, and avocado, but I may or may not have indulged in some expat treats (what can I say? I’m a sucker for a good brownie).
Just a few of my don’t-you-dare-miss-this favorites include:
- The Brownie Hole – Need I say more? It’s a whole in the wall restaurant with about four seats that offers coffee, tea, and, you guessed it, delicious, gooey, chocolatey brownies. My mouth is watering now.
- Por Que No? – A fun place for food, drinks, and cool music, it’s a great place to start out the evening with friends. Food and drinks are little pricey, but it’s worth a splurge one night,
- El Viejo Cafe – Located right next to Plaza Mayor, I stumbled across this place looking for coffee one day and was delightfully surprised by what I’d come across. They offer breakfast, lunch, dinner and have an incredible bakery with great coffee.
- Cafe No Se – This budget-friendly bar is popular among the backpacker crowd for its down-to-earth crowd, live music, and cheap(ish) drinks. The food is good, but the mezcal is the best part.
In addition to its architectural charm, Antigua offers endless natural beauty in its surrounding landscape and parks. On a sunny afternoon, locals and tourists alike, both young and old are found enjoying the day on a park bench or recapping life events with a good friend. It’s clear the locals take pride in these areas, as they’re clean, busy and relatively safe.
Some Places You Can Stay
Three Monkeys Hostel
I love this place. It’s the first hostel I stayed in on my trip that I walked from and was like, “Wow. That place is awesome and I’m so happy I stayed there.” It’s relatively new, so it’s clean, and the staff was friendly and welcoming. The owner, Matt, has all the information you’d need when it comes to Guatemala, and if he can’t answer your questions, he knows somebody that can. There’s a communal kitchen, a bar for socializing, comfortable beds with a reading light and your own plugs (score!!), and a small rooftop terrace with a view.
The two downsides are that it’s a bit far from the center, but it really isn’t because Antigua isn’t that big, and breakfast isn’t included. Hey, nobody’s perfect. If you want to party, somebody’s usually down to join you and if you want to sleep nobody will give you a hard time. I met some of my favorite people at this hostel and can wholeheartedly recommend it to anybody looking for a great place to stay.
I didn’t stay here, so I can’t speak from personal experience, but I know many who did and loved it. It’s the “party hostel” in Antigua, so keep that in mind. From what I understand, those that want a quieter atmosphere stay at Three Monkeys and those that want to get a little crazy stay at Tropicana. Party on, friends!
The Terrace Hostel
I stayed here my first night in Antigua when I arrived from El Tunco, and it served its purpose. The rooftop bar is the real winner of this place with one of the best views of the city, and you get a free shot when you arrive. For me, it was noisy when I was trying to sleep and overall felt a little cramped. They do have free breakfast though, and it’s right next to Plaza Mayor.
Doozy Koala Hostel
This new, still under construction hostel was built by Australians (because the name doesn’t give it away) and tends to be where the Aussies flock. I only walked through this hostel to meet a friend, but many people who stayed there loved it.
Some Things To Do
Shop the Antigua Market
I think I’ve said this a million times: I love a good market, and Antigua has a great one. Spend a morning, afternoon, or an entire day wandering through the rows and rows of produce, handicrafts, and various odds and ends. Be sure to bargain with the merchants because they’re going to try to charge you at least double for whatever you buy.
Hike a Volcano
Volcanoes are part of Antigua’s impressive backdrop, and hiking one of them is my favorite way to experience the surrounding nature while getting some exercise and beautiful view. There are two main hikes that most people choose to do; pick your poison, be prepared, and have fun.
This is the volcano I decided to hike. If you go with a tour, it’s a two-day, one-night hike with the opportunity to see Fuego, the neighboring volcano erupt. It was… an experience, to say the least. Read more about my it here.
This is the easier, shorter hike of the two, done in the morning or afternoon. If you do this hike during the rainy season (May through October), I’d recommend going in the morning as it tends to be rainy and foggy in the afternoon.
Take in the View
Overlooking Antigua is a giant cross that you can walk up to for a great view of the city. Depending on where you’re staying, it should only take about 15-20 minutes to get there. I’d recommend getting coffee and a pastry in the morning and walking up to enjoy your treats. Mornings tend to be less crowded and can offer clearer views.
See the McDonald’s
I know. This is weird. Somebody told me to do it, so I did. I won’t give it away, but you should just go there. Ask a local or your hostel how to get there. You don’t have to eat, but go see it – so faaaaancy!
Drink Delicious Coffee
Antigua, and Guatemala in general, both have great coffee, and I suggest you grab a cup and indulge. A few of my favorite places include:
- El Refugio – This is my favorite place. It’s cute and quiet with delicious pastries, coffee, and strong wifi. I came here often to work.
- Fat Cat Coffee – A friend told me this was his favorite place in Central America for coffee. So there’s that. It’s close to Plaza Mayor and offers more food options than El Refugio.
- Bella Visa Coffee – Big, spacious, beautiful, (expensive), with a great view of Antigua, Bella Vista is another place to enjoy an afternoon treat, read your book or do some work.
One morning, I woke up early, grabbed my camera and coffee, and roamed the city. It was one of my favorite days in Antigua. Walking from street to street, place to place, I fell in love with it that much more and was able to appreciate the beautiful details.
I think the most important key to falling in love with this city is to simply explore and don’t miss what it has to offer. Be open to what’s there and connect with locals and local expats who’ve made Antigua their home – you’ll easily realize why.
Have you visited Antigua, Guatemala? What are your can’t miss things to do and see in the city? I’d love to hear!
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