When the entire city you’re visiting has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status, chances are you won’t have to look far to find places of cultural significance. Such is the case with Antigua, Guatemala, which was originally founded by the Spanish in the mid-16th century. Of course, at that time its name was slightly more of a mouthful (Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalan), but other than a change in appellation things here aren’t nearly as different as you might expect after five centuries and a healthy smattering of natural disasters. There are cobblestone streets, parks and markets, centuries-old ruins, magnificently rebuilt Baroque churches, colorful colonial buildings, and all this in a condensed central area that doesn’t measure longer than one kilometer in any direction. If you’re planning on doing some urban exploration between romps in the Guatemalan countryside (and we definitely recommend that you do), it’s worth getting your bearings straight in order to get the most out of this small but jam-packed cultural epicenter.
Like many European-influenced cities, the former Guatemalan capital is laid out around a central plaza (El Parque Central), which just so happens to be at the heart of both its historical and contemporary culture. Never mind the fact that this beautifully-designed park is pretty much unavoidable as you navigate your way around the city; it’s worth spending at least an hour or two here doing nothing more than soaking up the atmosphere and admiring neighboring landmarks like the arched facade of the Old Palace Hall and the unmistakable Catedral de San Jose. Speaking of houses of worship, you’ll find plenty of them here as well (just about all being of the Catholic variety). The most notable of these is undoubtedly San Francisco el Grande, whose grounds include an architectural ruin site and the revered tomb of Saint Pedro de Betancur. You’d also do well to at least poke your head inside a couple of Antigua’s convents, including the beautiful ruins of Santa Clara and the brightly colored La Merced just north of Central Park.
Should things like religion and history not be your proverbial cup of tea, don’t fret; there’s plenty of the 21st century to appreciate in Antigua as well. Sure a picture beneath the trademark Arco de Santa Catalina is quaint, and the view from Cerro de la Cruz’s lookout point is pretty spectacular, but we’re talking about something more existentially cultural. Whether you’ve thrown yourself into the clamor and chaos of the central market, taken up a few Spanish lessons at any of the city’s language schools, or opted for a relaxing coffee and conversation along 1a Avenida Sur, the atmosphere here can be as immersive and colorful as you want it to be. Then there’s the tourist-oriented entertainment, with pulsating weekend nightlife and a dining scene that continues to be influenced by international influences. Crimes still do occur, yes, but generally speaking this still is one of the safest areas in the country, with ample opportunities to get to know both the city and its population. So why not experience all of it?