Parque Central is Antigua’s main plaza and the best place for a spot of people watching. Surrounded by a cathedral, fountains, arch-adorned buildings and plenty of trees, the plaza itself is beautiful, but it’s what happens here that’s the main draw. Parque Central is the beating heart of Antigua, and a great way to get a feel for the city is to simply sit on a bench and watch life unfold. You can spend all day here without it becoming boring, so grab a drink and snack from one of the street vendors and find yourself a bench.
Wandering through the busy Mercado is one of the most colorful, and chaotic ways to experience Antigua. You can buy everything here—from fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and fish to clothes, shoes and pirate DVDs—and there are also several adjoining cafés that serve incredibly cheap and delicious authentic food. Unlike the markets that cater to tourists, selling traditional Mayan textiles and handicrafts, the Mercado is authentic and full of locals going about their day-to-day life. You’ll probably get lost, but that’s part of the fun.
Antigua’s exquisitely preserved colonial buildings make it a firm favorite with architecture buffs, but everyone can appreciate the magic of San Francisco Church. Built in 1542, it’s the oldest church in the city still holding ceremonies, and has a grand courtyard housing the tomb of Hermano Pedro, a Spanish missionary considered Antigua’s “eternal mayor,” and Guatemala’s only saint. Here you can also visit the ruined monastery, as well as the fascinating museum dedicated to Hermano Pedro, which displays his clothing and personal possessions from the 1600s.
On a sunny day, hiking up to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) on the edge of town is a must. As far as hikes go, this is very manageable: you can reach the top in half an hour. From the top of the hill you can enjoy unrivalled panoramic views of Antigua and its surrounding volcanoes, and the big stone cross makes for some dramatic photography.
Guatemala produces some of the best coffee in the world, and touring one of the many coffee farms around Antigua will give you a new appreciation for just how much work goes into your cappuccino. You can tour rambling coffee estates or small locally-owned farms, but the smaller farms give more of an insight into the real coffee making process. Plus, after visiting the plantation and learning about the process, you’re often invited in for a cup with the farmer’s family. Buying a few packs to take home is a great way to support the local community, as well as being an ideal souvenir.
Antigua has many excellent restaurants and quirky cafés, but if you’re looking for an authentic food experience, head to the streets. Street vendors can be found on most busy roads around the city, but for a proper food market head to the one by La Merced Church. Here you’ll be able to find all manner of mouth-watering treats, including pupusas, tortillas, and traditional soups. You can eat your fill for under a dollar, too, but make sure to leave room for some rellenitos—deliciously indulgent doughnuts stuffed with sweet, rich beans.
If your sweet tooth wasn’t sated by a few rellenitos, no problem. Guatemala is the birthplace of chocolate, and nowhere produces a better quality product than Antigua. You can mix pleasure with learning at the popular Chocolate Museum, where you’ll learn all about the Mayan love affair with the “food of the gods.” You can also get involved in one of the workshops there, where you’ll learn how to turn cacao bean into chocolate bar—and enjoy plenty of tastings along the way.
If you have even a vague sense of adventure, hiking one of Antigua’s three surrounding volcanoes (two of which are active) is a must-do. Pacaya Volcano is the easiest to scale and the most popular; you only need a moderate level of fitness for this one, and will be rewarded with breathtaking views from the top. If you fancy more of a challenge, you can climb the dormant Acatenango, Guatemala’s tallest volcano, or Fuego, which is still spewing lava today.