My adult children could not understand my choice of Guatemala as a summer destination. Though few have heard of it, those who have visited glow with praise.

UNESCO designated Antigua a World Heritage Site in 1979 of cultural and historical significance. It is easy to understand why. About 45 minutes by car from Guatemala’s fantastically ugly capital, this Spanish Baroque-influenced and well-preserved city is located in the country’s central highlands. The local government dictates the architectural standards and allows only facades of white, red, yellow and sky blue. Some say this is to parallel the Vatican’s color scheme; others maintain that these are to honor the colors of nature.

Antigua, Guatemala, means “Old Guatemala.” It has retained its Spanish colonial architecture and is easy to navigate on foot. Its cobblestone streets make walking, tuk-tuks and motorcycles the primary modes of transportation. Because tourists and travelers fuel its economy, the government has posted safety cameras and police officers at intersections throughout the city.

Antigua was laid out in a square pattern around a large, park-like central square adorned with a lovely, reconstructed fountain, plentiful benches and well-tended trees. On Fridays, vendors come from small villages to sell their wares. The hawkers are less sales aggressive than those I have found in other developing nations.

And their wares are inexpensive. One can buy hand-woven textiles, pottery, books, snacks, small sculptures, handmade bags, silver jewelry and more at a fraction of the cost of the same items that are imported to the United States.

Earthquakes ravaged the city at various times in its history. What has survived is glorious, and much of it is restored or in the process of being restored. Some convents and monasteries have been converted into hotels and museums. One Carmelite convent served as the city jail until 2006. The most well-known converted convent is Casa Santo Domingo, a large former 17th-century convent that now houses a museum and luxury spa. Uphill from the property are a modernist art installation and an extensive zip line course.

Three large volcanoes surround the city. Climbing Acatenango is a popular endeavor to get close to its almost constantly active neighbor, Volcan de Fuego. Volcan de Agua is a silent sentinel looming over the southern border.

In central Antigua, one cannot miss the iconic Santa Catalina arch, built in the 1600s, through which many stage Instagram-worthy photos with Volcan de Agua in the background. The arch provided cover for the cloistered nuns who inhabited the repurposed convent and school so that they could cross the street unseen. Local artists and artisans line the street on which the arch stands guard, providing a constantly lively scene.

Other noteworthy sites include the 16th/17th-century Cathedral of Saint James, lining one side of the main town square, the dramatic open ceilings of the Cathedral of San Jose, and the bright yellow La Merced Church, outside which are a constant array of artisans and food carts. Other architecturally noteworthy churches, convents and colonial buildings are spread around the downtown area. The coffee farms also provide redolent experiences.

The Antiguans host elaborate festivals and religious celebrations. While perplexing at first, loud cannon-like sounds pepper the city just prior to masses at the churches. And fireworks first thing in the mornings are popular ways to mark family members’ birthdays.

I was fortunate to experience Antigua’s patron saint festival in July. Marching bands and processions blanketed the streets, cultural activities and contests occupied the talk of the townspeople, and concerts lit up the nights. Most exciting was the Quema de Toritos, a fireworks tradition dating back to colonial times, in which men get inside shells made of wood, wires and fireworks and then run up and down the street. Often the men charge the crowds, taunted by young people. Though they sprayed the crowd with sparks, no one apparently got burned.

The food scene in Antigua is varied and the choices are plentiful. Guatemalan cuisine is influenced by Spanish and Mayan culture, heavy on beans and rice, though not generally as spicy as that of its Mexican neighbor. Handmade tortillas are found in small shops for pennies. High-end restaurants dress tortillas up in impressive ways. Café Condesa, a farm-to-table mainstay along the central plaza, is a popular and pleasant stop for a hearty traditional Guatemalan breakfast. For lunch or dinner, I recommend the casual and friendly Café Sky for superb terrace views of the volcanoes and Once Once for visual and vegan delights. Frida’s wins my vote for the best tacos and Fat Cat Coffee House for delicious Guatemalan coffee. Don’t miss the 360-degree views from the terrace at the elegant Aqua Antigua, where one can use the tranquil pool and cabanas for a fee and spend the day being waited on in a beautiful enclave away from the bustling city center.

Antigua also is known as a destination for language schools specializing in immersion Spanish programs. The American government sends planeloads of employees to Antigua each season to learn Spanish.

Perhaps the best part of Antigua is its walkability. The grid-like plan makes it easy to navigate. And the sights are arresting around almost every corner.

The houses fronting the streets belonged to the local elite and generally extended much deeper than their narrow facades might indicate. I rented an Airbnb that had two interior courtyards, a modern kitchen, three bedrooms, a grand dining room that seated ten guests, a brick grill, skylights, a fountain and a hot tub. The rental fee for a month was less than an average week’s comparable rental in a major U.S. city.

The doorknockers adorning the front doors of the original dwellings often signify who lived there. A brass lion doorknocker signified royalty. A doorknocker of a woman’s hand with a ring indicates that a widow lived at the house. A shell knocker meant that the inhabitants were deeply religious, as the scallop shell is the emblem of the city’s patron saint, San Santiago (otherwise known as St. James). The doors are large and heavy, and usually wide enough to accommodate a horse and carriage.

If time allows, I recommend a trip to the lovely Lake Atitlan, about two hours by car or bus from Antigua. This picturesque lake, many liken to Italy’s Lake Cuomo, is ringed by volcanoes and is one of Guatemala’s most important tourist attractions. It was formed by a volcanic eruption more than 80,000 years ago. The towns edging the lake are highly influenced by the Mayans' rich culture. A hippie-like vibe predominates some of the lakeside towns.

Antigua exceeded my expectations in terms of cuisine, architecture and visual delights I discovered on foot. On some days, it seemed like I heard more English and German than Spanish being spoken in this magnet for tourists from Europe and North America. I enjoyed practicing my Spanish with the locals, all of whom were willing to spend time chatting in this unhurried, aesthetically pleasing Central American gem. I recommend you put it on your itinerary before the rest of the U.S. discovers its joyful offerings.