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Central America Solo Travel

How to Spend a Day in Antigua, Guatemala

Last updated on November 19th, 2023 at 04:50 pm

Cobbled streets, brightly coloured colonial buildings and the brooding presence of three volcanoes make Antigua a must see on any visit to Guatemala.

If like me however your time is short (I had only one day there before joining a group trip around Central America) you will need to prioritise what to see but fear not, here are my suggestions on how to spend a day in Antigua!

First, A Little History

Antigua was founded in 1543 and was the capital of the Captaincy of Guatemala, also known as the Kingdom of Guatemala, for over 200 years from 1543. The capital was transferred to Guatemala City in 1776 after Antigua was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773.

Antigua is surrounded by 3 volcanoes:

  • The Agua volcano stands some 3760m in height and last erupted 80,0000 to 10,000 years ago. That said, it can still produce debris flows and lahars! The name after all means volcano of water.
  • The Fuego volcano stands 3768m tall and is consistently active with eruptions in 2018, 2021 and 2022. It regularly emits gas and ash. Not surprisingly, its name means volcano of fire!
  • The Acatenango volcano stands 3976m tall and is joined with Fuego. It has 2 peaks and last erupted in 1972.

Antigua was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Seal of Antigua

How to Spend a Day

It goes without saying that in one day you can’t see it all, in many respects you can barely scratch the surface. But if one day is all you have, then you are going to want to make the most of it so, grab your water, sunscreen and comfy shoes and let my following suggestions help you build your itinerary.

1. Immerse Yourself in the Colonial Streets and Architecture

Antigua retains many relics of its colonial past – brightly coloured buildings, terracotta roofs and cobbled streets – so put on a pair of comfortable shoes and set off on foot to see and explore them all.

As you explore, it’s not hard to see how being located along the Pacific Ring of Fire has impacted Antigua, with the presence of partially destroyed and damaged buildings seemingly around every corner.

Don’t forget to look up as you wander – the active Fuego volcano is likely spewing ash and dust into the atmosphere!

Fuego volcano is likely to be emitting ash during your day in Antigua
Fuego volcano

2. Take a Walk up Cerro de la Cruz (The Cross on the Hill)

If you are feeling energetic take a walk up the 300+ steps up Cerro de La Cruz for wonderful views over the city and toward the Agua volcano. The walk is apparently safer now than in the past due to the presence of armed tourist police.

3. Join a Walking Tour

I’m a big fan of joining a walking tour in a new city. Local guides will not only give you some history, but more often than not they’ll share personal stories and anecdotes. You can also benefit from their recommendations for places to eat and drink and general advice on how to get the most from your visit.

I joined a free tour run by Guruwalk and can recommend them. In a couple of hours I gained a lot of information and insight into Antigua. The tour is tips based meaning you pay what you think the tour was worth at the end. Check out Get Your Guide for other walking tour options.

4. Hang Out in Parque Central (Central Park)

Parque Central is a beautiful oasis in the middle of Antigua. It’s surrounded by some significant colonial buildings including the Church of San Jose (formerly a cathedral before it was damaged in the 1773 earthquake). It’s also a great place to grab some shade and people watch.

Shoeshiners, hawkers, families and tourists are all there in numbers as are local police.

5. Visit the Museo Nacional de Arte de Guatemala

Located near Parque Central, this free museum is housed within the former Royal Palace of the Captains General. Inside you will find displays of Guatemalan art categorised into various periods or eras – prehispanic, colonial, contemporary, modern and republican.

Audio guides are available but there is signage in Spanish and English throughout for those who, like me, had no phone battery left to scan the QR code!

There are many other museums in Antigua including the Museo de Arte Colonial (displaying various art works from the colonial period), Museo de Libro Antiguo (featuring collections from the early days of Guatemalan printing) and Museo de Santiago (with its collection of weaponry dating from colonial times).

6. Stop by the Famous Santa Catalina Arch

No visit to Antigua is complete without visiting the Santa Catalina Arch! Probably the most recognisable site in the city, the arch was built in the 17th century to provide a bridge for cloistered nuns to cross from their convent to an adjoining school. The clock tower is a later 19th century addition….look out for the ‘error’ on the clock face!

The arch gets pretty busy during the day with everyone seeking photos, not to mention the locals trying to go about their daily business, so arrive early if you want an empty background.

7. Visit Iglesia La Merced

The Church and convent of La Merced is a Catholic temple whose construction began in 1751. As with many buildings in Antigua, it has suffered earthquake damage which necessitated repairs/rebuilding.

The beautifully decorative stucco on the outside was, for me anyway, reminiscent of royal icing! The interior, which is free to enter, does not disappoint.

A plaza in front of the Church is home to various markets.

8. Visit Hospital de San Pedro

The San Pedro Hospital and adjoining church are located close to Parque Central. The hospital was founded in 1663 and today offers medical care as well as other services to those unable to afford health or social care.

9. Fuel and Refuel at the Local Cafes

Antigua has lots of lovely cafes, restaurants, bakeries, fast food places etc so you won’t go hungry! For breakfast, try Fernando’s Kaffee and for an afternoon cup of coffee….take your pick!

If you have more time to spend in Antigua, then there is so much more to see and do including but not limited to:

  • joining a chocolate workshop – check out Fernando’s Kaffee and Chocomuseo for classes and times
  • taking a hike up one of Antigua’s volcanoes
  • joining an ATV Tour
  • visiting Lake Atitlan
  • attending a Spanish language school

Finally, regardless of how long you intend visiting Antigua, my advice for all visitors is to:

  • wear sunscreen
  • wear bug spray
  • wear comfortable shoes. The cobbled streets are wonderfully quaint but can give your feet and legs a good workout!
  • keep hydrated but don’t drink the tap water. Filtered water is available in most hotels and bottled water is widely available.

I really enjoyed my, albeit limited, time in Antigua and fully intend going back!

Is Antigua on your bucket list? Be sure to check out my Resources page here for when you’re ready to start planning your visit!

Disclaimer – Information correct at the time of writing but do check before visiting.

Disclosure – This post may contain affiliate links. That means that if you book something using them, I will earn a small commission but you will not pay anything extra. Thank you for supporting my blog.

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