Antigua is the oldest colonial city in Central America. Founded by the Spanish in 1524 and twice relocated, Antigua—known as Santiago de Guatemala at the time—was Guatemala’s capital until 1773 when a series of devastating earthquakes prompted authorities to relocate the city to present-day Guatemala City. As a result, “La Antigua Guatemala” was evacuated and many, but not all, of its cultural treasures were hauled away.
Fortunately, not everyone left. Over the centuries, enlightened citizens worked to preserve buildings damaged in that quake—and subsequent ones. (Earthquakes are a fact of life in Antigua.) And yes, as you’d expect for a city that was once a cultural and economic center, Antigua’s architecture is stunning. Monuments, abbeys, churches and cathedrals, inspired by the Italian Renaissance, were built in what’s called “Antiguan Baroque” style. Some survived the 1773 quake (like La Merced, a church built low and with reinforced walls); others, partially rebuilt, are now surrounded by atmospheric ruins (like the Church of San Francisco or San José Cathedral.)
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Antigua appeals to travelers who want to experience a culture that still feels authentic.
On a recent visit, we spent a week exploring Antiqua’s 12-block city grid, which was laid out in the 16th century. Colonial-era buildings with large interior courtyards proved irresistible to alley cats like us. We found charming boutique hotels and restaurants as well as rooftop terraces with panoramic views of the city and surrounding volcanoes.
Other reasons to visit: Over the years, the city has become know for its Spanish language schools. Plus, Antigua is a good base from which to explore Guatemala’s other highlights—the Mayan ruins of Tikal, the resort area of Lake Atitlan, and indigenous market towns such as Chichicastenango.
We recommend the following:
For background, check out the following books: Antigua, The City and its Heritage by historian and preservationist Elizabeth Bell, an American who moved to Antigua at the age of 14, and Lonely Planet’s Guide to Guatemala.
Antigua Tours, owned by Elizabeth Bell, for arranging your stay in Antigua and beyond. (Don’t miss her morning history tour through the heart of Antigua.)
Hotel Santo Domingo (creative Guatemalan and continental), La Fonda de la Calle (Guatemalan), Hector’s Restaurant (French), Bistrot Cinq (French), El Pescador Italiano (Italian), Izakaya (Japanese), Del Arco at Hotel Convento Santa Catalina (Guatemalan), Café Condesa (breakfast, lunch and Sunday brunch), El Viejo Café (breakfast, lunch), and Café Sky (lunch, cocktails and dinner with panoramic views from the rooftop terrace).
Jade Maya ( jade jewelry), Colibrí (handwoven textiles), Casa de Artes (antique and contemporary ceramics, ceremonial masks, textiles and more), La Casa del Algodon (textiles), Uxibal (leather boots and handbags). Also check out the textile and artisan cooperatives in surrounding villages such as San Antonio Aguas Calientes.