Surely one of the loveliest towns in all of Central America has to be Antigua. The former capital under Spanish rule, this enchanting town is filled with remains of its colonial past – colourful homes, cobblestone streets and dozens of churches, monasteries and convents. Some of it is perfectly preserved, others less so but this only adds to the charm.
Today, Antigua is one of Guatemala’s most popular destinations and for good reason; it’s a lively town and there are lots of things to do in Antigua. There are also dozens of Spanish-language schools here that attract visitors.
This guide to Antigua Guatemala is for families visiting Antigua with kids and for solo travellers too.
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Bordering Antigua are a handful of dormant and active volcanoes. The most commanding, located to the south of the city, is the Volcán de Agua or “Volcano of Water”. To the west lies Acatenango Volcano, which last erupted in 1972, and the Volcán de Fuego or “Volcano of Fire” that tragically erupted most recently in June 2018. Volcán Pacaya is also nearby but can’t be seen from the city centre.
Antigua is also the setting for some of Guatemala’s best festivals, in particular Semana Santa (Holy Week) when the town’s streets come to life with colourful and elaborate carpets made from dyed sawdust. For more details on celebrating Semana Santa, take a look at this post on the best festivals in Guatemala.
What to do in Antigua Guatemala
Make chocolate at the ChocoMuseo
Eat, drink and breathe chocolate at the ChocoMuseo, one of the best things to do in Antigua. The shop / museum / cafe offers a number of workshops where you can get your hands gooey including a very kid-friendly Bean to Bar class that lasts 40-minutes (this activity was so child-friendly that even our 21-month-old took part).
Visitors are taught the history of chocolate and taken through the basic production process before being let loose to create their own chocolatey treats. When we visited our lively instructor, Raul, was excellent with the kids.
The ChocoMuseo is located 1.5 blocks from the central park.
Discover Your Maya Birth Sign
One of the most unique things to do in Guatemala is to visit Antigua’s Jade Museum and discover your Maya birth sign. Look up your birth date according to the Maya calendar in the museum shop and then discover your corresponding sign.
My kids quickly found that their signs were that of the “B’atz” (Monkey) and the “Tijax” (Fish), and they walked away with jade pendants engraved with their respective birth symbols. It’s a fun activity and the shop houses some lovely jade jewellery too.
There’s a museum on site as well, home to the only set of jade marimbas in the world (and if you don’t know what marimbas are then you must go and have look!).
Adddress: Casa del Jade, 4a Calle Oriente
Tour the cobbled streets
Elizabeth Bell is an American who moved to Antigua with her family as a teenager and then never left. The author of numerous books, she is widely regarded as one of the preeminent experts on Antigua and was rewarded the Gold Award ‘Diego de Porres’, the Guatemalan government’s highest award, for her preservation efforts.
Elizabeth and her team run almost daily cultural walking tours of the pretty cobblestone streets. The regular tours are perfect for adults (my parents loved their tour) but a little long for children. There are, however, family-friendly tours available with advance notice.
For more information take a look at Elizabeth’s website: AntiguaTours
Roast marshmallows on Pacaya Volcano
Located an hour’s drive from Antigua is Pacaya Volcano, one of the country’s most active volcanoes and one that you can visit. The easiest way to journey through the cornfields, forests and old lava flows towards the top, is on horseback. You can even roast marshmallows over lava vents! You can also tackle an overnight volcano hike to Pacaya – with or without kids – if you’re feeling very adventurous.
Buy a mask at the artisan market
The colourful artisan market (Mercado de Artesanias) is a fun place to visit with kids in Guatemala. It’s located to the west of town and although it’s very much a market aimed at tourists, you can still pick up some great souvenirs. There are stacks of traditional embroidery, walls of wooden masks, religious iconography, paintings and the ubiquitous “guatever” and “guat’s up” t-shirts.
As with all crowded spaces, keep a close eye on your personal belongings. Next door to the artisan market is the local’s market where you can buy knock-off Crocs, fruit and veg, second-hand clothes and even (so locals tell us) the occasional iguana on a stick!
Address: 4a Calle Poniente
See the church where Tarzan was filmed
If your kids are anything like mine, visiting old colonial churches will not be top of their sightseeing list. But it’s well worth stopping by San Francisco Church, one of Antigua’s star attractions.
The Franciscan missionaries were one of the first religious orders to arrive in Guatemala and were responsible for Antigua’s first church, built a couple blocks south of where San Francisco stands. That church was damaged in an earthquake and so they subsequently built another one, the San Francisco Church.
During the 18th century this too was damaged by earthquakes and eventually abandoned. Before restoration work started on it in the 1960s, however, the church was used as the backdrop for the 1935 film, The New Adventures of Tarzan.
Today it’s a popular sight for visitors and for locals an important place of pilgrimage: they come to pray for miracles at the tomb of Saint Hermano Pedro de San José Betancourt, the first canonised saint in Central America.
Snap Volcano Views
If you plan to visit the Artisan Market then it’s worth stopping off at El Convento la Recolección either before or after your shopping spree. The remains of this former church and monastery are surrounded by parkland. There are also some magnificent volcano views from here.
See the sun set from Santo Domingo del Cerro
Santo Domingo del Cerro sits at the top of a hill overlooking Antigua and the volcanoes beyond. It’s part of the Casa Santo Domingo hotel (the most luxury hotel in town) and boasts gorgeous gardens scattered with the creations of some of Guatemala’s most well-known artists. There’s a restaurant on site where you can dine watching the sun set over the spectacular scenery and views of Antigua.
A free shuttle runs between Casa Santo Domingo and Santo Domingo del Cerro regularly.
Make friends in Plaza Mayor
Like most towns in Latin America, Antigua’s heart and soul lies in the main plaza. This shaded central square is busy day and night with locals selling textiles, jewellery and toys such as bubble-making machines. It’s also a popular spot for families to spend time together. A handful of coffee and ice cream shops face the square on 5a Avenida Norte.
Take a toy break
We fell in love with Mico, a colourful toy store that stocks lots of traditional wooden toys. On one wall hangs dozens of miniature wooden animal masks, numerous mobiles hang from the ceiling and the shelves are stacked with a carefully curated selection of toys. It’s a lovely place to browse and a good treat for the kids.
Address: Store 4 Calle Oriente 7
Get creative at Cre8 Antigua!
We’ve recently been told about Cre8 Antigua, a creative space where kids can paint, dance, ride bikes, take classes more. And, if you’re planning on being in town for more than a few days, they run summer classes that sound like a lot of fun. You can find more information on their Facebook page.
Getting to Antigua Guatemala
Antigua is just under 40km from Guatemala City Airport. On a good day this should take around 45 minutes, however traffic can be dreadful and the journey can take two hours or more. Make sure to leave in plenty of time.
We hired a car, which worked for us as we were a party of seven people. Another option is to book a transfer from the airport to Antigua, Get Your Guide has some good options.