Antigua's beguiling beauty starts to seduce the moment you arrive. Once capital of Guatemala, its streetscapes of pastel facades unfold beneath the gaze of three volcanoes, and meticulously restored colonial buildings sit next to picturesque ruins in park-like surroundings. The city's World Heritage–listed status means that even fast-food chains have to hide themselves behind traditional building facades.
While Antigua's churches, plazas and markets throb with activity, the town is also a global hot spot with a laid-back vibe, thanks to the dozens of Spanish-language schools that operate here. Outside the city, Maya communities, coffee plantations and volcanoes offer ample opportunities for exploration.
Through the course of its history, this city has suffered earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions and virtual abandonment. But in recent decades it has re-emerged with a vengeance, buoyed by the pride of its inhabitants. It's no wonder Antigua remains Guatemala's most visited destination.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Antigua.
Founded by Dominican friars in 1542, Santo Domingo became the biggest and richest monastery in Antigua. Following three 18th-century earthquakes, the buildings were pillaged for construction material. The site was acquired as a private residence in 1970 by a North American archaeologist, who performed extensive excavations before it was taken over by the Casa Santo Domingo Hotel. The archaeological zone has been innovatively restored as a 'cultural route.'
At the northern end of 5a Av is La Merced – a striking yellow building trimmed with white plaster filigree. Its facade is one of the most beautiful in Guatemala The squat, thick-walled structure was built to withstand earthquakes, and three centuries after its construction it remains in good shape. Only the church is still in use; a candlelit procession, accompanied by bell ringing and firecrackers, starts and ends here on the last Thursday evening of each month.
The Arco de Santa Catalina is Antigua's most iconic monument, and an early-morning or late-afternoon photo opportunity framing Volcán Agua through its arch is an essential part of any visit to the town. It was built in 1694 to enable nuns from the Santa Catalina convent to cross the street without being seen; the clock tower is a 19th-century add-on.
Antigua's cathedral was begun in 1545, wrecked by the quake of 1773, and only partially rebuilt over the next century. The present sliver of a church – the parish of San José – occupies only the entrance hall of the original edifice. Behind it are the roofless ruins of the main part of the cathedral, which are entered from 5a Calle Oriente.
Surrounded by superb colonial structures, this broad and beautiful plaza is the gathering place for antigüeños and visitors alike – a fine, verdant place to sit or stroll and observe the goings-on, from hawkers and shoeshiners to school kids and groups of tourists. The buxom mermaids in the central fountain are a reconstruction of the original 1738 version, which was trashed early in the 20th century.
Established in 1626, the Jesuit monastery and college was a vital component of Antigua life until the order was expelled in 1767; just six years later, the great earthquake left it in ruins. Rescued from the rubble by the Spanish government, the complex has been reborn as a cultural center, the Centro de Formación de la Cooperación Española.
A serene air pervades the remains of the monastery of La Recolección, which stands well west of the center. Erected in the early 18th century by the Récollets (a French branch of the Franciscan order), its church was one of the largest in Antigua at the time. The earthquake of 1773 toppled the structure, of which only the great arched doorway remains intact.
Inaugurated in 1736 by nuns from Madrid, the convent of Las Capuchinas was seriously damaged by the 1773 earthquake and thereafter abandoned. Thanks to meticulous renovations in recent decades, it's possible to get a sense of the life experienced by those cloistered nuns, who ran an orphanage and women's hospital.
Completed in 1757, the Colegio de San Jerónimo was used as a school by friars of the Merced order, but because it did not have royal authorization, it was taken over by Spain's Carlos III and, in 1765, designated for use as the Royal Customs House. Today it's a tranquil, mostly open-air, site in an excellent state of preservation.