Nestled in the forested hills of southern Guatemala, the small city of Antigua was once the most prominent seat of Spanish colonial government between Mexico City and Lima, Peru. Founded in the early 16th century, it served as Guatemala’s capital for almost 300 years, until 1773, when it was abandoned by crown officials following a series of devastating volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods. In the mid-1800s, agriculturists took note of Antigua’s rich volcanic soils, and the city thrived once again, as a center of coffee and grain production. It was during this period that its canary-colored Santa Catalina Arch, built in 1694 as a walkway for nuns, received its domed clock tower, becoming Antigua’s most iconic monument. In 1979, Unesco designated Antigua a World Heritage Site, ensuring the protection of its architectural and cultural legacy.
Now, the city’s cobbled streets — arranged in an easy-to-navigate grid, with views of the imposing Volcán de Agua to the south and the twin peaks of Volcán de Fuego and Acatenango to the west — are lined with farm-to-table restaurants, contemporary art galleries and design studios. Beyond the city’s verdant Parque Central, these new additions are taking root near 17th- and 18th- century buildings in the Baroque Antigueño style, with decorative stucco ornamentation and low bell towers designed to withstand earthquakes — such as Las Capuchinas, a former convent that is now a colonial-era art museum. The city’s architectural heritage is only bested by its vibrantly patterned traditional textiles, made using natural dyeing techniques and sold at workshops and bustling open-air markets across the city. With its towering volcanoes (accessible by challenging day hikes), booming coffee scene and bevy of boutique hotels, Antigua is quickly garnering appeal as one of the most enticing cities in Central America.