Packed with lush rainforests, Mayan ruins and gorgeous beaches, Central America is a little slice of paradise. And its cities add even more to the appeal, ranging from cosmopolitan metropolises to those with colonial old-world charm. So if you’re planning to travel this enticing region, here’s our pick of the top cities in Central America to add to your itinerary.
Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico’s capital and one of the world’s megacities, this thriving metropolis combines centuries of history with a fast-growing urban centre. You’ll find world-class museums and shopping centres, alongside colourful neighbourhoods offering quirky cafes and leafy residential streets.
Head to the main square, known as the Zocalo, to marvel at the Metropolitan Cathedral and the art nouveau Palacio de Bellas Artes. Located over the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the ancient capital of the Aztec empire, the square is also home to Templo Mayor – the great temple of the Aztecs.
Larger than Central Park in New York, Bosque Chapultepec is a fantastic urban park in the heart of the city, where you could easily spend an afternoon exploring. And if you time your visit with the Day of the Dead on November 2nd, you’ll witness the city’s annual street parade of over a thousand skeleton-clad dancers and performers.
Offering a peek into a bygone era, Cuba’s intoxicating capital appears stuck in a 1950’s time warp. Havana’s cobblestone streets are lined with the crumbling facades of colonial buildings, with classic American cars cruising by.
At the city’s core is its UNESCO-listed old town, also known as Habana Vieja. Brimming with museums, restaurants and frescoed churches, you can wander cobbled plazas and discover architectural gems such as the Museum of the Revolution and the Baroque style Havana Cathedral.
A ride in one of Havana’s vintage cars is a great way to explore. Other fun activities include visiting the Havana Club Rum Museum. Here you’ll not only learn everything there is to know about rum but, of course, have the chance to taste it too.
San Jose, Costa Rica
Set in the heart of this Central American gem, San Jose offers so much more than its international airport. Whilst many arriving Costa Rica tend to head straight for the coast or lush national parks, this city is packed with sights making it worthy of some time on your itinerary.
As Costa Rica’s cultural centre, you’ll find museums, plazas and theatres throughout the city including the elegant National Theatre and the National Museum of Costa Rica. The central market offers an authentic experience, selling everything from coffee beans to hammocks. And if you need a spot to unwind, head to the Parque Metropolitano La Sabana for a stroll or picnic.
This city’s fantastic culinary scene also comes as a surprise to many travellers. Although you can find nearly every type of cuisine in the city, traditional dishes to try include Gallo Pinto, a rice and bean dish, and Casado – a Costa Rican staple.
A charming city with a dramatic backdrop, beautiful Antigua is surrounded by three looming volcanoes. But it’s not just the setting that makes this city Guatemala’s most visited destination. UNESCO-listed since 1979, Antigua’s cobblestone streets are filled with colourful colonial buildings and picturesque ruins.
Top sights include pretty La Merced Church and 16th century Santiago Cathedral. Head to the Mercado for stalls aimed at the locals, where you’ll find fresh fruit, cheap clothes and more for sale. Or take the 30-minute walk up to Cerro de la Cruz and enjoy fantastic views over the city.
The Santa Catalina Arch offers the quintessential photo of Antigua, with this iconic landmark overlooked by the mighty Agua Volcano. Take your photos after some rain and you’ll also catch its reflection in the puddles below.
Panama City, Panama
Located along the Pacific Coast in the Gulf of Panama, Panama City was once a small fishing village. Now the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America, it’s home to around 40% of Panama’s population.
Take a stroll through the Paitilla district and see the city’s sultry skyline, dominated by shimmering skyscrapers similar to those of Hong Kong. Standing in stark contrast, the neighbourhood of Casco Viejo, also known as San Felipe, features cobblestone streets, delightful plazas and plenty of boutique hotels.
Heading out of the centre, take a visit to the world-famous Panama Canal. Stretching for 65 kilometres, this waterway connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and was completed in 1914.
Suchitoto, El Salvador
The cultural capital of El Salvador, Suchitoto offers a fantastic setting amongst the Custatlan mountains. Featuring brightly coloured colonial buildings and enchanting cobblestone streets, the city overlooks the beautiful Lake Suchitlan.
A great place to meet the locals, Suchitoto comes alive in the evenings and weekends with street vendors and artisans. Spend some time checking out their works or head to one of the galleries for a browse.
Just a 1.5-kilometre walk from the centre, you’ll find the Los Tercios waterfall. A unique formation of large hexagonal columns of rock, this waterfall is steeped in folklore explaining its creation. Wildlife lovers should also keep their eyes peeled as over 200 species of bird have been recorded around Suchitoto.
Located in the southeast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Campeche is one of Mexico’s most colourful cities. Its UNESCO-listed centre is surrounded by walls and packed with restored buildings painted in a range of pastel hues.
A fantastic place to learn about Mexico’s colonial history, you’ll discover well-preserved mansions and fortified ramparts. Don’t miss the Fort of San Miguel, which was once built to protect the city from pirates and has now reopened as a museum. There are also beautiful, colonial-style hotels where you could spend the night.
Furthermore, Campeche boasts quiet beaches that are often overlooked by tourists. Simply drive the coastal road to Ciudad del Carmen and stop off at whichever stretch of sand takes your fancy.
Set on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America, Granada is both Nicaragua’s oldest and most enchanting city. Laid out in a rectangular grid, Granada is packed with colonial architecture and pastel coloured buildings.
At its heart, you’ll find Calle la Calzada, the main street, which is lined with shops, hotels, restaurants and cafes. Situated next to Central Park, the Granada Cathedral is a must-see and hard to miss due to its canary yellow bell towers.
Located just 10 kilometres from the city is the famous Mombacho Volcano. Covered in mystical cloud forest, this volcano offers plenty of hiking if you’re looking for some adventure outside Granada.
Santa Clara, Cuba
Thriving university city Santa Clara is marked forever as the place where guerrilla leader Che Guevara won the final battle of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. And reminders of the city’s history remain some of its main attractions, such as the Che Guevara Monument and Mausoleum, which contains Che Guevara’s remains as well as several of his possessions in a museum.
However, Santa Clara also has a proud and edgy youth culture, displayed in its bohemian student cafes and with the annual rock festival Ciudad Metal. Furthermore, it was the first city in Cuba to promote the inclusion of the gay community and offers the country’s only official drag show.
Parque Vidal is also a great spot to people watch and relax as the locals do. Every Thursday and Sunday, you’ll catch the municipal orchestra playing in the bandstand at 8pm.
Ranked one of the safest places to visit in Mexico, beautiful Merida is packed with arts, culture and history. Its museum offerings include world-class Gran Museo del Mundo Maya and the Museum of Modern Art. While architectural gems such as the Cathedral and Government Palace also catch the eye.
Wander down the Paseo de Montejo and discover its 19th-century European-style mansions. Or, head to the Plaza Grande to catch music and folk dance performances. You’ll also discover vibrant markets, with the biggest of them all being the bustling Lucas de Galvéz Market.
In addition, many combine their stay in Merida with a visit to the famed Mayan site of Chichen Itza. And you could end your day sampling delicious Yucatecan food in one of Merida’s many restaurants.