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:
Cerro de la Cruz, the quick upward climb from the center, where a cross-embellished hill overlooks a birds-eye view of the city, is the most famous. But there are other gems a short distance from the middle of town, too, that just might be some of the highlights of your stay. Santo Domingo del Cerro, a moderate steep walk or a free shuttle ride away, boasts the most compelling art in town, a maze of outdoor, hilltop galleries and hidden jungle water features and vistas of the volcanoes and beyond. Cerro San Cristóbal, meanwhile, offers the town’s most stunning dining environment, a towering stone castle with an extensive rooftop, as well as extensive, walkable farms, an homage to Mayan deity Maximón and a quaint village with a storybook church to explore.
El Arco de Santa Catalina:
The most-photographed feature in Antigua is even more beautiful in real life, unlike many such views. With Iglesia La Merced peering through by one direction, and Volcán de Agua by the other, taking in the construction from either side is glorious.
Find the arch here.
One of Antigua’s best bakeries, Canela — owned and run by an American pastry chef who worked in such institutions as San Francisco’s Tartine — creates goods that can’t be found elsewhere: like soft, fluffy bagels, whiskey chocolate chip cookies with imported flaky salt and chocolate babka. Check the Facebook page, and you might benefit from one of the weekly specials, such as doughnuts or fried chicken sandwiches.
Find Canela here.
Convento Santa Clara:
Entrance costs Q 40 (about $5 USD). Pay it without thinking; Santa Clara’s well-preserved ruins are some of the most awe-inspiring you’ll find. From the broad, open-air cloister, a lush garden featuring a stately fountain and ample flora, and the perfect blue-and-green Sierra Madre mountains framed through every aperture, this quiet ruins stroll will capture your soul. If you’re lucky enough to visit on a Monday morning in the offseason, you might have the place entirely to yourself. The beauty of Antigua’s old ruins are that unlike many places in the world, they aren’t overrun.
Read more about Santa Clara in my story, here.
The municipal market in Antigua overflows with fresh produce, meat, handcrafts, sneakers, clearing supplies and just about everything else you could imagine. Prices, here are incredibly cheap, much more so than you’ll find in the surrounding groceries stores (such as La Bogadega, a good stop for food items you can’t find at the market). Usually the market wraps up by 1 or 2 p.m.; visit in the early morning for the freshest goods as refrigeration is not available.
Find the market, here.
Café No Sé:
Arguably the most famous in all of Central America, this bar peddles community as much as it does beer and booze. The main bar in the entrance serves some excellent bar food (wings and the best fries you’ll find in the country, perhaps) and cocktails, but the real gem is the mezcal bar hidden through a hobbit door in the back. There, the offerings are contained to a couple beers and three Ilegal Mezcal varieties — Joven, Reposado and Anejo. The story of how the bar came to be, from a smuggling operation to the institute it is today, is well worn but just as intriguing as ever: ask any bartender and you’ll get the full, dramatic tale. And don’t plan an immediate “next stop.” Chances are, you’ll get stuck on the bar stool awhile, and leave at closing time with seven new friends.
Find Café No Sé here.
Iglesia de La Merced:
The former monastery abets a beautiful park on the Northside of town; it’s a lovely picture in itself, but perhaps its best appreciated in the evenings, when clusters of street vendors converge in the park and sell treats such as dobladas (fried tortillas encasing meat with salsas, sour cheese and radish salad piled on top), chili rellenos and fried puffs of dough smothered in a sweet, cardamom-laden syrup.
Find La Merced here.
Cafe La Parada:
Some of the best coffee in the city, this little cafe sells java, a few pastries and baguette sandwiches and not much else. Worth the while.
Find Cafe la Parada here.
Y tu Piña También:
As quaint as you’ll find a breakfast spot, this plant-laden cafe serves delicious sandwiches and vegetarian dishes. And the CUTENESS.
Find Y tu Piña También here.
Near the arch, you’ll find an artisan market boasting everything from cigars and chocolate to English-language books to traditional pottery, wood and textile goods to tourist information. It’s worth a wander.
Find Nim Pot here.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful city parks you’ll find, this central square is ideal for sitting with a coffee and simply admiring the angelic fountain, the lush bounty of trees and the noble surrounding architecture.
This small bar serves of some of the best comfort food, Middle Eastern and Asian inspired, with low prices that won’t break the bank. Don’t miss the pita sandwiches — the tandoori chicken and falafel are both excellent. Plenty of signs inform visitors that there is no WiFi, so “read a newspaper” or “have a conversation” instead.
Find Toku Baru here.
One of the first micro-breweries in the country, this newish operation makes intense IPAs, blonde ales and smoky, dark beers. The complex, complete with the steel fermentation vessels visible, is huge, but the best spot to enjoy the offerings is on the roof, with plenty of sun and shade and a great view of the surrounding streets.
Find Antigua Brewing here.
Ulew cocktail bar:
Hidden inside Antigua Brewing, behind a bright red phone booth, lies a stone cave of a bar that is well ahead of its time, locally. Here, you’ll find the most advanced cocktailing in the country — Marco Alarcon, the Guatemalan owner, makes his own ice and infuses his delectable libations with smoke, fire, housemate tinctures and fresh, local produce. There is no menu; simply tell the bartender what flavors, characteristics and spirits you like, and they’ll arrive at something spontaneous and marvelous.
Find Ulew here.
Named for the epic Venezuelan falls, this laidback restaurant serves to-die-for arepas and other Venezuelan dishes. The service is excellent and friendly.
Find Salto Ángel here.
Just beyond the center, Coaba Farms grows an abundance of fresh produce along with beautiful flowers, succulents and some livestock such as chicken, goats and cows. On Saturdays, it hosts a terrific farmer’s market with vendors pitching local honey, rum, pestos, jewelry, pastries and much more. Don’t fail to check out the idyllic garden restaurant, bar and pizza oven, as well as the farm store selling much of the fresh veggies, eggs and meat harvested steps away. On the weekends, there are often live singer-songwriter types as well.
Find Coaba Farms here.
Look for the woman the the front doorway, hand-pressing tortillas and enter into a large courtyard overlooking a commanding rotisserie wheeling crisping chickens over open flame. A plate of the charred, crackling meat, along with garlicky potatoes, salad, tortillas and horchata, will run you Q 30, or just under $4 USD.
Find Rincon Topic here.
Para la Gente:
This establishment opens in the morning, serving coffee and veggie-laden dishes, but the real time to visit is at night, when it morphs into more of a sultry artistic club with live jazz, blues and other performances.
Find Para La Gente here.
Tucked away on the edges of town, this coffee shop will brighten your morning instantly, not just with its radiant decor, plants and colors but with its silky espresso and sunny open-faced egg sandwiches. You’ll want to linger a while. If you plan to hike up Santo Domingo del Cerro, this is a great starting point as it is near the base of the hill.
Find Café Sol here.
The big local market is great for shopping and achieving the best prices, but it doesn’t have everything, and sometimes the meat can be unattractive due to sitting out, unrefrigerated. For everything you can’t or don’t want to buy at the big market, go to Epicure, which also boasts a restaurant in the back. Items like imported specialty oils, fresh fennel, and chilled pork chops and steaks can be acquired, along with delightful pre-made salads, pastries and much more.
Find Epicure here.
Casa Santo Domingo:
This former convent is now weaved within the grounds of a gorgeous, 5-star-hotel, its crumbling facades effacing an extravagant spa, a gourmet truffle shop and a fabulous pool. Still, it’s well worth the stroll, for Q 48 (about $6.25 USD), a winding walk through well-incorporated 16th century structures and modern luxuries.
Find Casa Santo Domingo here.
Por Qué No?:
The food is fine but the atmosphere and tiny bar is charming. Great spot for a quesadilla and a couple draft Mozas.
Find Por Qué No? here.
Trisha X Tattoo:
Mark my words: this relatively new artist will be a star someday. Catch her while she’s still highly affordable, working out of her in-house studio in Antigua’s center. Her specialty is custom designs, when she’ll create with you for just Q 100.
Find Trisha X Tattoo here.
La Antigua Gallería de Arte:
This small, two-story gallery is a quick gander but worthwhile with many different styles of paintings, sculptures and pottery on view.
Find La Galleria de Arte here.
Tabacos y Vinos:
Sitting just underneath the arch, this tiny, charming wine cafe and cigar bar sells some wonderful vinos, and they get cheaper with every glass, as long as you stick with the same varietal. A handful of meat and cheese tapas are offered as well.
Find Tabacos y Vinos here.
Need breakfast? Feeling a little hungover? Look no farther than El Local, a new spot with strong coffee, refreshing beverages such as basil limeade and breakfast bagel concoctions (using Canela bagels) loaded with bacon, feta, cartelized onions, tomato jam and a fried egg. Wow.
Find El Local here.
Iglesia de San Franscisco:
Arrive on a weekend and you might catch a lovely service; otherwise, though the church is certainly worth a walk-through, the gardens are some of the most glorious and peaceful in the area. Bring your camera.
Find Iglesia de San Francisco here.
Bella Vista Coffee:
While the service here might be somewhat lacking, the view can’t be beaten. From the street level, there is only a small, hardly identified sign; walk through the store and internet cafe and up the stairs to relax on a magnificent terrace, overlooking the town.
Find Bella Vista Coffee here.
Casa de Stela:
Part Airbnb, part exquisite clothing shop and part cafe, the courtyard of this gem is a welcomed stop for a beautiful smoothie or a light meal. The scenery couldn’t be better.
Find Casa de Stela here.