Can you find history, charm and modern sophistication all in one town? We think so. And Antigua, Guatemala is the perfect spot. Antigua is the ancient capital of Central America, from the time of colonial rule from Spain. At first glance, Antigua seems stuck in that era, with traditional architecture, ancient churches and cobblestone streets. But scratch beneath the surface, look behind the walls and into the courtyards and you will find every modern amenity for the tourist, including luxury hotels, fantastic restaurants featuring cuisines from around the world and inviting bars with handmade cocktails that will quench any traveler’s thirst.
And to top it all off, it is extremely picturesque and small enough to walk anywhere! The best way to learn the secrets of Antigua is definitely by walking around. There are any number of walking tours showing you the ancient highlights and historical gems. Then on your own you can discover any of the myriad of museums, art galleries, shops, restaurants and bars.
The History of Antigua
You can’t help but notice the three volcanoes looming over Antigua. The city was abandoned and moved to present day Guatemala City following several major earthquakes.
But when it was abandoned, in 1773, many of the colonial buildings were still intact. Having been the wealthy capital, this includes many mansions, civic buildings and churches in traditional, Spanish Renaissance architecture with Baroque facades. And while you can see the evidence of earthquake damage in many and explore the ruins of these ancient structures, there are a number buildings that have been restored breathing new life and purpose into the town.
And one of my favorite things about Antigua is the locals in their colorful, traditional, Mayan dress.
The Charm of Antigua
Gazing down the cobblestone streets it’s easy to think there is not much happening in this small town. But you would be wrong! As you walk down the streets, if you look more closely you find an amazing array of options.
As a UNESCO world heritage site, there are strict rules governing the outside appearance of building and signage. The historical facades must be maintained, dictating even what colors buildings can be painted. And indeed, this is what gives the city it’s charm.
However, look into the doorways and courtyards and you will find lush tropical gardens, wine bars, restaurants, art galleries and much more.
Here are the pictures of a few of our discoveries.
Make sure you don’t walk by the Central Artisan Market. From the outside, this looks like just another shop, but inside it is a maze of different vendors and stalls selling a wide variety of local handicrafts.
Other highlights include the traditional, Mayan marimbas (an instrument resembling a xylophone) which is the national instrument of Guatemala. Look by the main square, Plaza Mayor, and you will often find them playing there in the evening or on the weekend.
The Modern Sophistication of Antigua
Hidden behind those walls are a number of luxury hotels. Many are in converted convents, monasteries and guest houses that are hundreds of years old.
And while there is a wide range of restaurants offering traditional Guatemalan cuisine, you will also find French, Italian, Indian, Thai, Japanese and some great steakhouses as well.
And don’t forget to go up! Many establishments have rooftops terraces that offer fantastic views of the surrounding volcanoes.
So, as we would say in Australia, Antigua has the lot!
Getting to Antigua
It is easy to base yourself in Antigua. With regular shuttle service from the airport in Guatemala City to Antigua it is easy to reach. You can arrange day tours, including Chichicastenango, Lake Atitlan, and many other places in Guatemala from Antigua. Tour operators are plentiful and your hotel can also help with transportation. We hiked the Pacaya Volcano, took a day trip to Chichicastenango and Lake Atitlan, and visited Finca Filidefia a nearby coffee plantation all from Antigua.
You can also take a taxi from the airport. Uber also now operates in Guatemala.
Once you arrive in Antigua you can safely walk or take a tuk-tuk most places. (Beware: riding in a tuk-tuk on those cobblestones is a bumpy ride!)
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