CITY GUIDE: Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua: if you’re not well-versed in Central America, perhaps the name instantly takes you to the Caribbean rather than the Guatemalan highlands town where here crumbling ruins, 360-degree mountain views and new-wave coffee shops meet.

But while Antigua Guatemala — meaning “old Guatemala” — might not be on many bucket lists, the beautifully preserved Spanish Baroque architecture, labyrinth of stunning courtyards and wine bars and bounty of hilltop treasures have a way of making one wonder why it isn’t.

The area, in great part, is famous for its access to the surrounding volcanoes, and overnight hikes are available for reasonable fees. Choose to stay in the city, however, and travelers will be treated to vibrant markets, a diverse food and drinking scene and compelling art in a town adorned by its picturesque signature arch, elaborate churches and knobby cobblestone streets. 

What to see, eat and do when you go:

Falling in love with Lago de Atitlán in Panajachel

A handful of tins held still-fresh flowers against the little makeshift houses. Some of the colorful, stacked mausoleums boasted new, glossy coats of paint. But now, as the sun dipped lower, the graveyard was empty except for swallows passing overhead, called by the approaching evening to the watery grasses beyond.

I walked past the dusty memorials, an above-ground maze set against the backdrop of the Sierra Madre mountain range, and down the sloping path that bordered it. 

Then there she was: the tremendous Lake Atitlán, always there but ever in a different state — often peaceful, often vengeful and sometimes, at sunset, impassioned.

I was on the edges of Panajachel, one of the many towns lucky enough to perch along Lago de Atitlán, a translucent crater lake surrounded by hills and volcanos in Guatemala’s highlands. 

The shores of the town, now a center for tourist trade, offer rows of lakeside restaurants, built predominantly for white faces and heavier wallets, jutting out over the cerulean water. A short boat ride away, magnificent castle-like resorts built into the cliffs are stocked with every luxury.

But the real beauty of Pana, as its called locally, is that the best its star attraction is free to anyone craving it — the wealthy tourist, the poorer local, even the dead, who are graciously permitted to continue in the afterlife atop the dirt, in sight of perhaps one of the world’s most enchanting views.

Early morning explosions, culture, diversity in San Cristobal de Las Casas

The first blast rattled the contents of my bedside table, jolting me from sleep.

I pushed aside the covers and sat straight up. 

Then there was another — BOOM.

The sound reverberated throughout the valley that snuggled San Cristóbal de las Casas, a picturesque Mexican mountain town near the Guatemala border, echoing off the dark hills. 

Fireworks? I looked at my phone. It was 4 a.m. No way. 

The blasts kept coming, doing their best impression of bombs dropped from the sky. Were we under attack? (By… someone? I wasn’t aware we were in threat of war, here.)

CITY GUIDE: Huatulco’s secret beaches, fresh fish

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Enrique came upstairs to where I was drinking coffee, his eyes dancing.

“Venga conmigo,” he said, come with me. “I have something to show you.”

Downstairs, on the back patio of my Airbnb host’s cocina, was a white styrofoam cooler, overflowing with bright pink fish, their sleek tails and scales gleaming in the morning sun.

CITY GUIDE: Oaxaca’s vibrant markets

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Travel around Mexico long enough and you’ll find that big, vibrant markets are one of the country’s calling cards. 

Markets, here, are part of daily life, operating as shopping destinations, social hangouts and community support systems. Walk through a given market and you’re likely to see families eating, watching sports on TV, playing cards, caring for their children, cooking and sewing.

But in Oaxaca de Juárez, especially, this wealth is elevated to another level, thanks to its enormous bounty of wares. 

The city, a quaint, walkable town with just 300,000 residents, is known for its craftsmanship — wood and leather goods, pottery and textiles among them — and its art. It is the Mecca of mezcal. And the food that originates here, from sweet black mole to tlayudas to fried grasshoppers, is unique, varied and flavorful.

As a result, sprawling markets seemingly wait around every corner, particularly in the south end of town. And all of them are just a little bit different. 

Here are 7 markets to know before you go:

Mexico City guide: go forth, eat on the streets

Ciudad de México, or CDMX as its commonly abbreviated, is known for its historical beauty, it’s vibrant, bustling vibe and it’s incomparable style — represented in both high design and fashion, and the colorful street art that graces just about every block.

Mexico’s capital boasts world-class museums, epic public markets and sophistication that comes along with being one of the world’s largest cities.

But in a sprawling metro that seemingly has it all, Mexico City’s greatest treasure might come via lowly rolling carts bedecked with griddles.

Yep, the street tacos are incredible, and a trip isn’t complete without them.

In fact, Mexico City’s street food is so skillfully made and so nuanced in variety that UNESCO recognized the cart grub as “an intangible cultural heritage of mankind” in 2010. Pretty good for stuff made in a kitchen the size of a small closet.

Here’s what you need to know to eat like a pauper and a king, simultaneously:

CITY GUIDE: Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh typically doesn’t get mentioned in the conversation about the country’s top cities— but don’t expect to find a chip on the locals’ shoulders over that perception. Based on the conversations I’ve had while traversing the hilly scape, Pittsburghers seem content to keep their bounty a secret. 

But make no mistake: the Steel City has world-class food, architecture, and views to offer across a slate of highly walkable neighborhoods that rival those of its Northeast compatriots that are often heaped with much more attention. 

Grab a picnic and stroll to the edge of Pointe State Park in the heart of downtown to see, up close, the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converge. Or take a ride up the historic Duquesne  Incline for that same view from above, compete with perspective of the bridges and city skyline. Buy insanely cheap, insanely fresh seafood on the Strip. Sip craft cocktails in East Liberty’s fresh new Ace Hotel. Or test the city’s next wave of restaurants in one of its incubator kitchens.

Best of all: Pittsburgh has authored its impressive turnaround following the collapse of the steel industry without harming the gritty spirit that bleeds through. It’s cool without pretension, full of quality finds without approaching extravagance. Don’t check the rental prices or else you might be enticed to stay.

In the meantime, here’s where you should eat, drink and play: 

CITY GUIDE: Raleigh. N.C.

When I moved to downtown Raleigh in 2005, people quietly warned me to buy a firearm.

Then, abandoned storefronts lined prime street corners, drug deals went down in the open and not much existed in the way of restaurants, save for the sports bar where I worked and a handful of other options.

Life in downtown Raleigh couldn’t feel much different now and yet, it somehow still feels like the same city to me every time I make the jaunt back. The City of Oaks has managed to hold onto its charming architecture, it’s blue collar feel and its beautiful, tree-lined streets— the best of its assets remain, while its dangerous overlay has been greatly diminished.

Still small, the 10-some square blocks boast lush city parks, an impressively diverse array of eating and drinking opportunities and a vibrant, lived-in feel at every time of day. I’ve seen many small city downtowns remade in this era of revitalization, but few as authentically and gracefully as Raleigh. The only proof necessary is how eagerly its residents have embraced the changes.

Here’s where you should eat, drink and play:

Ocracoke Island

CITY GUIDE: Ocracoke Island, N.C.

Ocracoke Village, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, is one of the most unique places in the country.

Despite being surrounded by other islands characterized by corporate chains, sprawling resorts and big-money tourism, Ocracoke has remained quiet and slow-paced, due to its physical distance from the mainland — it’s still accessible only by boat  — and its proud, centurys-long history of isolation. The beaches are nearly untouched. The fishing is exceptional. And 15 miles of undeveloped island surround the quaint, 4-square-mile village.

To get here, you’ll need to fly into a major airport (RDU and JAX are options), then drive several hours to either Swan Quarter, Cedar Island or Cape Hatteras to take an 45-minute to 3-hour ferry (depending on your starting point).

Here’s where you should eat, drink and play when you arrive: