I fell in love with Antigua the moment I jumped off the bus. I was only in town for a day as an excursion on a Panama Canal cruise. Guatemala was one of the few ports that had independent travel options and, as much fun as I was having with the cruise experience, I was eager to explore on my own. Antigua ended up being the perfect place for me to spend a day. The colourful buildings, a backdrop of Volcanos, tons of cute shops and cafes and really friendly locals quickly stole my heart. I only had a few hours to explore, but I managed to see and do lots in the short amount of time. After all, it’s a pretty small town. So, if you find yourself in Guatemala, here’s how to spend 1 day in Antigua.
Things to do in Antigua, Guatemala
As I said above, Antigua is quite small and easy to explore on foot. I managed to explore many of the highlights with one 1 day in Antigua. Here are my top suggestions.
Join a Walking Tour with a Local Guide
A walking tour with a local is one of the best ways to see any city, and Antigua is no exception. They will take you to the main sites and attractions and give you the history and stories behind the places so that you really can get a feel for the city. Since I went on a day trip as part of the Panama Canal cruise, there were a bunch of local guides waiting at the bus stop hoping to be hired. The rate was $20 USD for a couple of hours. You can of course arrange them yourself, but make sure you go with an official guide.
Check out the Remains of the Catedral de Santiago
Originally built in 1541, the Catedral de Santiago was later destroyed by an earthquake and has since been only partially rebuilt. However, while this cathedral may not be as big as it used to be, it’s still one of the most beautiful buildings in Antigua.
Visit the Iglesia de La Merced and La Merced Convent
This yellow church is a favourite when it comes to structures and buildings in Antigua and perhaps the prettiest building in the city. It was also built in the 1500s, however unlike the Catedral de Santiago, it was not destroyed by the earthquake-mainly because of construction. It is open and free to visit. Right beside the church are the ruins of a convent. There is a fee to visit these ruins, but it offers some beautiful views and holds that is believed to be the largest fountain in Central America.
Indulge at the Chocolate Museum
The ChocoMuseo is a chain based in South America but they have an adorable shop in Antigua. You can come in for chocolate workshops or just to shop and purchase some chocolate-themed merchandise. From cocoa powder for drinking and baking to chocolate body lotions and soaps, you can find some great products here that taste or smell delicious.
Hang out in Central Park
Central Park is a famous landmark in Antigua and a popular place for locals and tourists alike to meet up and just people watch. You’ll come across plenty of local vendors here as well selling everything from scarves to bags to food including delicious ripe mango for about $1 USD per bag. It’ a good place to take a break from your exploring and take in the views around the square.
Get an Iconic Photo of Santa Catalina Arch
The postcard-perfect photo is an iconic site in Antigua. On a clear day, you can frame the beautiful yellow arch around the volcano in the background. Just remember, the Santa Catalina Arch is in the middle of a street so be mindful of vehicles and other pedestrians. For the best photos, you’ll want to get up really early before the crowds.
Browse the Local Artist Shops and Markets
If you love shopping and local artist products, then you will love Antigua. There are tons of great little shops where you can find everything from hand carved wooden birds and hand stitched pillow cases featuring Guatemala’s wildlife. The work is beautiful but, keep in mind, most things are handmade and the prices reflect that. Its also worth noting that Antigua is known for it’s Jade. If you are looking for a unique souvenir, you can get a jade pendant of your Mayan Calendar horoscope sign for between $20-$35 USD. I picked up one at the Jade Museum (my sign is the woodpecker).
Admire the Views from Cerro De La Cruz
Cerro de la Cruz is a hillside just outside the heart of the city. It’s free to visit and, on clear days, offers great views of Antigua city and the volcanos. Unfortunately, when I visited it was very hazy so I skipped the viewpoint.
Enjoy a Local Meal and a Cold Beer
Trying the local food is one of my favourite parts of visiting any new country or city. Antigua was my only stop in Guatemala so I was happy to find a cute little café with colourful walls that served up local Central American favourites like pupusas. If you are looking for a Guatemalan beer try Gallo (Rooster).
Learn about Local Textiles at Museo Casa del Tejido
Weaving is a famous art form in Guatemala and you can learn more about the traditional methods of weaving from the Museo Casa del Tejido. It’s not just a museum though, you can also take classes and watch demonstrations, and even shop. It is a little outside of Antigua, but if you are staying for a couple of days you can arrange for them to pick you up and bring you to the museum for a tour.
Photograph the Colourful Streets
Antigua is a very colourful city. From the soft yellows of the Santa Catalina Arch and Iglesia de la Merced to the red, purple, and turquoise houses along the street. You’ll definitely want to make sure that you have plenty of room on your camera’s memory card.
Need a Place to Stay in Antigua, Guatemala?
Since I came as a day trip as part of a cruise, I only got to spend the day in Antigua. However, if you are travelling independently and have longer, you may want to stay a night or two. Especially if you want to hike or explore some of the nearby volcanos.
As I mentioned earlier, Antigua is pretty small so it’s not difficult to find central accommodation. Need some recommendations? Take a look at the following top-rated properties:
Day Trips from Antigua, Guatemala
If you have some extra time, or are planning on using Antigua as a base for a while, then you can take advantage of some great day trips from Antigua. Some popular picks include:
Hike Volcan Pacaya
If you’ve ever wanted to hike an active volcano, this is your chance. Volcan Pacaya is a little over an hour away from Antigua, and a popular place for hikers. It’s not easy though, Volcan Pacaya is pretty steep and, thanks to the altitude, even fit travellers have had a rough time, so don’t plan on being able to blast through it. Another fun thing? You can roast marshmallows over the volcanic rock (so bring graham crackers and chocolate to make smores!).
Visit Lake Atitlan
If lakes are more your thing, then head to the stunning Lake Atitlan for scenic views and local culture. You can go as just a day trip, but it is quite large with a few small towns in the area so, if you have the time, you might want to spend a few days exploring the area as well.
Shop at the Chichicastenango Market
If you love to shop, or just enjoy browsing markets, then head to the Chichicastenago Market. It’s located in the Mayan town of Chichicastenago and is the best known market in all of Guatemala, and one of the best in all of Central America. The market runs on Thursdays and Sundays and you can catch a shuttle bus from Antigua.
Final Tips for 1 Day in Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua is a small, but fun city to explore. You don’t necessarily need to spend a ton of time here, but you might love it’s laid back atmosphere and the friendly people in which case it makes a great place to relax for a few days.
Also, if like me you are only in town for a day as a cruise excursion, know that American dollars are widely accepted so you don’t need to worry about finding somewhere to exchange your currency.
Finally, I want to note that Antigua felt very safe to me. I spent the duration of my visit exploring on my own with my DSL-R Camera hanging off my shoulder and my phone in my hand. I never once felt uneasy and the locals were incredibly friendly and welcoming.
I loved my short time in Antigua, and I hope you do too.
A Note on Travel Insurance in Guatemala
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine multiple times. While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance as they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found, plus, they are who I use and I have had great experiences with them. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.