Asunción is a vastly underrated city. One of the oldest settlements in South America, this sprawling metropolis is home to some striking architecture, fascinating museums, colonial gems and a recently upgraded coastal boardwalk. For something a little different, stick around in Paraguay’s capital and check out our top things to see and do.
For travellers in search of untrampled pastures, Asunción’s crumbling colonial buildings only add to its charm. Locals speak a mixture of Spanish and the indigenous Guaraní – and little English. Dirt poor and recovering from the dictatorships that gripped South America in the latter part of the 20th century, Paraguay’s capital is still dusting off its knees when it comes to tourism. Yet, for the curious, there’s plenty lurking beneath the surface. Imposing palacios rub shoulders with up-and-coming restaurants, while the renovated Costanera draws hundreds to watch the sunset over the Río Paraguay. Here’s where you should head on your next trip.
Blindingly white and heavily influenced by neoclassical and palladian styles, the presidential palace is perhaps Asunción’s most iconic building. Originally intended to be a grand home, today it serves as the seat of government, with the president’s office on the ground floor. For a totally different view, head back to the Palacio at night when it’s illuminated against the inky sky.
The essential museum for all things Paraguayan, Museo del Barro is a must-visit spot on the outskirts of the city. Packed with historic art – including wood carvings, ceramics, masks and religious sculptures – the exhibitions trace more than 400 years of indigenous culture and colonial invasion. If you want to learn more about this little-known country and its diverse history, join a (Spanish speaking) workshop or a guided tour.
Winding alongside the Río Paraguay, La Costanera is a broad promenade frequented by strolling locals with tereré (cold-brewed yerba mate) in hand. Redeveloped in 2013, it’s now one of the most pleasant spots in the city to while away an afternoon or to catch the setting sun. Feeling active? Rent a bike or rollerblades from one of the many riverside vendors.
Head to this upbeat, colourful neighbourhood for a glimpse of authentic Paraguay. It’s a little tricky to find, though the locals are especially welcoming here, even more so if you can show off some Spanish. When night falls, pick up some chipá (cheese rolls) as you wander around, then grab a cocktail at the delightful rooftop bar, La Casa del Mojito.
Mercado Cuatro is the most bustling market in the capital. It’s about a 30-minute walk away from the centre, so the perfect trip for a quiet weekday morning. Street food stalls mingle with stands selling indigenous crafts, pets and Chinese electronics. Pick up some fresh local produce, a bright scarf to shade you from the midday heat and an icy lager for the road.
This unassuming cottage, built in the late 18th century by a Spanish settler, is an important national monument. It was here that a tightly knit political group declared Paraguay’s independence from Spanish rule in 1811. Now Casa de la Independencia houses relics of that time, including secret documents and beautiful paintings of key members of the movement. History buffs shouldn’t miss the stately portrait of Emperor Charles V, hanging in the saloon.
Right at the heart of Barrio Catedral, this towering church is an integral part of the Asunción skyline. Built in 1845 to replace a 16th century chapel and clad in silver, it’s a powerful sight, with a stripped-back interior and dainty stained glass windows. Today, the cathedral is at the heart of the city’s religious celebrations – the pope even celebrated mass here in November 2015.
Football is one of Paraguay’s most passionate pastimes. The 2010 World Cup saw the national team reach the final, while several of the country’s best players are dotted throughout Europe’s top clubs. Rowdy matches at Asunción’s Estadio Defensores del Chaco aren’t for the faint hearted. If you’re feeling brave, catch a game between Olimpia and Cerro Porteño – the city’s greatest rivals.
Head to Plaza de Independencia for this gem of a museum. El Cabildo is a cultural centre and exhibition space dedicated to Paraguay’s indigenous heritage. It has several halls packed with examples of traditional music, religious artifacts and native crafts. There are often English-speaking guided tours, as well as access to the former Paraguayan senate rooms. Head upstairs for an intriguing view across the city.
Guarded by two solemn sentinels, Panteón Nacional de los Héroes is a shrine paying homage to Paraguay’s fallen and a restful place for quiet reflection. Interred inside the chapel are Don Carlos Antonio López – Paraguay’s first president – and hero of the Chaco War, Mariscal José Félix Estigarribia, as well as the remains of two unknown soldiers. Look out for the ceremonial changing of the guard throughout the day.