40km (25 miles) SW of Guatemala City; 108km (67 miles) SE of Chichicastenango; 80km (50 miles) SE of Panajachel
Simply put, Antigua is a gem, an enchanting blend of restored colonial-era architecture and rugged cobblestone streets, peppered with ruins and brimming with all the amenities a traveler could want -- beautiful boutique hotels, fine restaurants, and plenty of shopping and activity options. Antigua sits in a small valley surrounded by towering volcanoes, which are clearly visible over the red tile roofs and church bell towers that dominate the small city's skyline. The colonial core of Antigua is extremely compact and well suited to exploring on foot.
Antigua was Guatemala's capital from 1543 until 1776. It was founded after mudslides and flooding destroyed the country's first capital, in what is today Ciudad Vieja, in 1541. Designed by Italian civil architect Juan Francisco Antonielli and originally christened La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala (the Very Noble and Very Loyal City of Santiago of the Knights of Guatemala), it was for centuries perhaps the New World's finest city. In fact, it was declared the Capitancy General, which in effect granted it status as the government seat for all of Mexico and Central America. Antigua flourished throughout the 17th and on into the 18th centuries, with the massive wealth generated by the Spanish conquest being poured into the construction of churches, government buildings, universities, convents and monasteries, private homes, and military garrisons.
Many of those impressive buildings were knocked down in a steady string of earthquakes, and after a massive earthquake in 1773 destroyed most of the city, the government seat was relocated to present-day Guatemala City. There was great resistance to the move, and in 1777, the government actually instituted a law making it illegal to live in Antigua. Eventually, the city was almost entirely abandoned and stayed that way until the 20th century. It wasn't until the capital was moved to Guatemala City that the former city of Santiago de Guatemala was renamed Antigua, or La Antigua, which was a short way of saying "the old capital." In 1944, Antigua was declared a National Monument by the Government of Guatemala, and in 1979, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site.
Antigua has the most elaborate and stunning Holy Week celebrations in all of Guatemala, and perhaps even the Americas. During Holy Week, the streets are decorated with intricate and beautiful alfombras (rugs) made of colored sawdust and flower petals. A steady stream of religious processions parade through the streets and over these alfombras, which are quickly replaced with new ones. While the Holy Week celebrations here are the city's principal civic celebration, Antigua also goes all out each year on and around July 25, the feast day of the city's patron saint Santiago, or Saint James.