There are so many things to do in Antigua that you won’t know what to do first!
I’d only heard incredible stories about Antigua’s colonial buildings all painted in a light shade of yellow. The misty blue-grey backdrop of volcanoes surrounding the city. The women dressed in gorgeous patterned Guatemalteca clothing. I couldn’t wait to see it for myself.
I’m lucky enough to have travelled and house sat in Antigua twice now! And to be honest, I can’t get enough of this beautiful city. I thought I’d exhausted all the things to do in Antigua on my first visit. When I came back for a second visit, I realise how wrong I was. I discovered even more exciting things to do in Antigua.
Things to Do in Antigua: Start By Walking Around
Just walking around this designated UNESCO World heritage site is a pleasure. Explore the cobbled streets and adjacent stone walls. Admire the Spanish style Baroque architecture. You’ll discover plenty of beautiful parks, courtyards to drink coffee in and interesting sights. There’s much more to Antigua than meets the eye though.
Here are my favourite 17 things to do in Antigua and the surrounding neighbourhoods:
1. Sit in Parque Central
Parque Central is the hub of Antigua. Locals and tourists alike sit on the benches around the fountain to enjoy the warm afternoons. Grab a coffee from one of the cafes around the square and take some time to enjoy the atmosphere. To one side of the park is the Cathedral and on two other sides are arch-lined government buildings. It’s a majestic and beautiful place. Guatemalan women also try to sell their wares to tourists in the square. Just give them a smile and a polite shake off your head if you’re not interested in buying and they’ll move on.
2. Discover the Churches and Convents
Antigua is full of beautiful religious buildings. You could do your own DIY walking tour around the city to see them all on a sunny afternoon. Convento de Las Capuchinas, Convento Santa Clara, Iglesia La Merced, Iglesia de San Francisco and the Arco de Santa Catalina are all worth walking by. Each structure is in a different state. Some have been restored whilst others are closer to ruins. Don’t miss the beautiful yellow arches of the public laundry area at Tanque La Unión, my favourite park in Antigua.
3. Enjoy the View from Cerro de la Cruz
Walk up to Cerro de la Cruz, the cross on the hillside that overlooks Antigua. On a clear day, the views are stunning. Years ago there were reports of bandits on the path up and the old Lonely Planet says you should have a police escort. This is not the case any more. The area is so popular with locals on sunny afternoons that it’s unlikely you’ll be unsafe on this route. We encountered no problems and had a very enjoyable walk up. The path is about a 30-minute walk up from central Antigua.
4. Shop in Antigua’s Artisan Markets
If browsing at local handicrafts is something that would be up your street, you’re in luck.
El Mercado is the biggest local market where you can buy food and staples. We did our food shopping here while house sitting in Antigua. We particularly loved the fresh spinach and sweet cantaloupe melons. There are all sorts of different fruits and veggies, including rambutans, papayas and pears.
The Mercado de Artisanias is adjacent to El Mercado, tucked behind a curved wall. The market is a series of courtyards. Vendors sell vibrant fabrics, leather sandals, oil paintings and more bags. Some vendors are more pushy about bargaining than others. I found this market to be much more expensive and far harder to haggle in than Panajachel.
Nim Po’t is the artisan market in Antigua that everyone talks about. Liked perhaps because of the no bartering and fixed prices.
There’s also a smaller street market just off of Parque Central along from Cafe Condesa. This marketing sells similar wares to Mercado de Artisanias and Nim Po’t, and you can barter here. You can of course buy handicrafts from local women along the streets and in the parks as well.
5. Appreciate the Art Galleries in Antigua
For art lovers, the La Antigua Galeria de Arte is a must visit. It was the most exquisite and eclectic collection of art that Luke and I saw out in Central America (though Leon’s art gallery was awesome too). This art gallery houses lots of different styles from artists across the region. For art lovers, there are a couple of other art galleries in Antigua as well.
6. Take a Local Cooking Class in Antigua
A cooking class is one of my top-rated things to do in Antigua. If you want to learn how to make typical Guatemalan dishes then my advice is to learn with a local family. We arranged our cooking class in Antigua through De La Gente, a community tourism organisation. They support local families by providing opportunities for work and education. We learned to cook with a local family. We made tortillas and learned to cook vegetarian pepian, a traditional Guatemalan stew.
Ever heard that clapping noise in the streets of Guatemala? That’s local ladies shaping tortillas by hand. Making tortillas is harder than the Guatemalan ladies make it look! Ours stuck to our hands and fell apart in seconds. But we had a lot of fun learning to make tortillas. And you can bet that the food was delicious. De La Gente were happy to make the cooking class all-vegetarian (it was actually vegan even) for us. The class costs 100Q per person.
7. Indulge in a Peanut Butter Workshop
Self-confessed peanut butter addicts like me will love De La Gente’s peanut butter workshop. In this workshop, you learn to make organic peanut butter from scratch. This involves shelling, roasting and hand-grinding the peanuts. It’s a lot of work but it’s so worth it for the delicious nutty butter you get at the end. Plus you get a whole jar to take home! The class costs 100Q per person.
8. Tour a Macadamia Nut Farm
If you got excited about the peanut butter making workshop, then you’re going to love this. You can take a tour of the Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm, an organic and independent macadamia nut farm. See the trees where the nuts are growing and learn about the harvesting process. Save enough room for an al-fresco breakfast. They make macadamia nut flour pancakes served with blueberry jam and macadamia nut butter. The farm is committed to sustainable practices. They have planted 350,000 macadamia trees in Guatemala over the last 15 years to help support the indigenous communities.
9. Visit an Independent Coffee Finca
Finca los Nietos is an independent, family-run coffee finca. Visiting this coffee farm was a completely different experience to our coffee tour in Panama. When we visited in 2015, the whole area had been hit with a fungus that killed the coffee plants. The finca had to chop down their plants. The disease has disastrous effects on all plantations, but particularly on organic ones like this that don’t use pesticides or chemicals on their plants. I heard from the owner about a year later that all of their coffee plants were back in full bloom and growing well.
10. Don’t Miss the Farmer’s Market at Caoba Organic Farms
Caoba Farms is an organic farm just 15-minutes walk from Antigua. We heard about the farm from the two expats we were house sitting for. They were adamant that we would love it – and they were right. On Saturday mornings, there’s a farmer’s market where local vendors come to sell their produce. This includes everything from organic veggies to natural soaps. You can eat breakfast or lunch at Caoba Farms everyday and we stopped by for breakfast during the farmer’s market. There was live music and a delicious menu of local Guatemalan fare including green tortillas and vegetarian chuchitos.
11. Taste Chocolate at Chocola La La
When you’re in town, stop by Chocola La La. I can guarantee you that this will be some of the best chocolate you’ve ever tasted. The shop is located just after the Santa Catalina Arch, very close to Nim Po’t market. It’s a small place run by a passionate Frenchman. All of the chocolate is organic and made from cacao. There’s no milk in the mix, so I assume that means many of the chocolates are vegan (worth checking).
There’s also a chocolate workshop at the nearby Choco Museo, which gets a lot of good reviews. We already made our own chocolate in Belize, so didn’t join the workshop, but I’m sure it’s also very informative.
12. Hike a Volcano near Antigua
Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes. Unfortunately, Volcán de Fuego is too dangerous to hike because it’s still active. We could see the smoke coming out of it from time to time for our house sit. Volcán de Agua is another option but many tour companies warn against it because it’s supposedly populated by bandits looking for tourists. We heard one story about tourists being held up at gunpoint on Volcán de Agua during our first trip to Antigua. Pacaya is the shortest and easiest hike. We liked Pacaya but felt it was quite touristy and not very challenging. The most challenging hike is Acatenango, which Luke and his mum did. A 1-day guided hike up Acatenango costs around $80 per person and leaves at 5am. You can choose to camp overnight at Acatenango if you want to do a longer trip and break the hike up over 2 days.
13. Experience Local Culture with Small Change 4 Big Change
Want to get off-the-beaten path and have an authentic Guatemalan experience? Spend the day with Small Change 4 Big Change. This amazing non-profit in Santa Catarina Barahona is just 20 minutes outside of Antigua. Small Change 4 Big Change supports local people through a sustainable health and education programme.
During the day tour, you will meet Lisa, the inspiring founder of the project. You’ll learn about Guatemalan culture and traditions. Experience life in a local Guatemalan home, eat a home-cooked lunch and try on typical Guatemalan clothing. Hike up to the natural springs and viewpoint, and see the community gardening project. This was by far one of our favourite things to do in Antigua!
14. Tour Ecofiltro and Learn About Water Filtration
Ecofiltro are a social enterprise dedicated to providing clean drinking water in Guatemala. You’ll see their clay pot water filters all over Antigua. During a tour of the Ecofiltro factory, you will learn about the environmentally-friendly production of the water filters. It’s fascinating stuff. The proceeds from the tour contribute to providing water filters to rural Guatemalan schools. Tours of Ecofiltro can be booked through Visit.org.
15. Take a Tour with Safe Passage
Safe Passage is a non-profit that support children and families who live around Guatemala City’s garbage dump. They run educational programs. Visitors to Antigua can join a socially-focused donation tours to the Guatemala City garbage dump. You can visit the Educational Reinforcement Center, Adult Literacy classroom and Creamos recycled jewellery initiative.
16. Take a Tour with Niños de Guatemala
Niños de Guatemala is a non-profit who run tours to local towns near Antigua. The tour helps to raise money for the education of local children from low-income backgrounds. During the tours you can visit a local school, see a local carpenter at work and even visit a chicken bus factory to see how they renovate the old American school buses. Unfortunately we missed out on this one, but it sure sounds like an exciting way to learn about local industries in Antigua. Tours cost 270Q per person.
17. Learn Spanish in Antigua
If you’ve got a couple of weeks in Antigua then you’re definitely going to want to take some Spanish classes. The city is crammed with Spanish schools and knowing which one to choose is hard work. Fortunately, I’ve made it easy for you by writing about how to choose a Spanish school in Antigua. I had lessons at Cambio Spanish school, a non-profit which donates the proceeds to Niños de Guatemala. Classes cost between Q46 – Q78 ($6 – $10) per hour for one-to-one lessons.
18. Ride a Chicken Bus
Just getting around Antigua is a cultural experience in itself. When you’re in Antigua, you’re probably going to end up being bumped along the cobbled streets on board an overcrowded and lively camioneta (chicken bus). The camionetas are always chok full of locals making their way to different areas of town. I actually love chicken buses because they’re so lively! A ride will only set you back 3Q ($0.40). Tuk-tuks are a more convenient but pricier option with a 15-minute ride costing around 30-40Q ($4-5) for tourists.
19. Celebrate at Festival Time
If you’re travelling to Antigua during festival time, then prepare yourself for a crowded but awesome time. At Semana Santa (Easter Week) and on Independence Day (September 15th), Antigua is alive with festivities. Parades, drumming and loud honking of chicken bus horns happens at both festivals.
Semana Santa in Antigua
Semana Santa, also known as Easter week and Holy week, is an incredibly large celebration in Guatemala. The whole of Antigua is buzzing during Semana Santa. When it comes to the main celebration, the locals work through the night making intricate, ornate carpets from colourful sawdust. These are made across the streets of Antigua and in towns across the country. In the Easter processions, these beautiful carpets are trampled across. Men in their purple robes carry a huge float with Jesus on a cross, followed by a separate float adorned with the Virgin Mary. Antigua also has an interesting, though small, Semana Santa museum located near the Cambio Spanish School.
Independence Day in Antigua
Independence Day is 15th September. During the month leading up to it, the local school kids practise their drumming everyday. By the time Independence Day rolls around, they’re really quite good. In Antigua, there are parades down the main street and around Parque Central. When we were here, Independence Day fell on a Thursday and the Guatemalans sensibly celebrated the night before, on the 14th, so they weren’t tired/hung-over for work on the Friday. It’s always worth checking with a local or at your hostel to see when and where the celebrations will be.
Tell us if we’ve missed off any awesome places in Antigua? We’d love to hear about more things to do in Antigua!