Your insider’s guide to the best food, accommodation, sightseeing and nightlife in Paraguay’s beguiling capital.
Asunción is one of South America’s oldest cities, its poorest, yet also its safest. Having lost roughly 60% of its population in the Triple Alliance War of 1864-70 and suffered several oppressive dictatorships, landlocked Paraguay was left out of the tourist boom that took hold of neighbouring Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia towards the end of the last century. But the past decade has seen a stirring in the capital; world-class restaurants, contemporary bars and fashionable boutiques are popping up all over the city, alongside a vibrant cultural scene. In turn, this has brought new business and tourism, leading to further rejuvenation and a wealth of exciting things to do in Asunción – the ‘mother of cities’, according to its nickname.
The capital remains a city of crumbling colonial buildings and precarious public transport, and its basic infrastructure is still leagues behind that of Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires. English is spoken by few and traces of globalization are scarce (incidentally, Paraguay is one of the only South American countries to have kept a native tongue in current usage: Guarani). But this makes it the perfect place for those wishing to experience the antiquated charm of a little-known South American city. Give Asunción half a chance and it will reveal itself as a hidden gem of the sort that adventurous travellers yearn for. Although for how much longer remains to be seen…
Sights and attractions in Asunción
The best way to get to grips with Asunción’s historic downtown area, dotted with dilapidated pastel-coloured edifices, is by foot. Start your walk at the aptly named Plaza de la Democracia, a rallying spot for the younger generations in times of celebration and discontent.
It’s also home to the city’s most iconic building, the Panteón Nacional de los Héroes, whichhouses the remains of several former presidents and is dedicated to the war heroes of the country’s chequered past. The neighbouring Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption) attests to the city’s equally resilient Catholic foundation (you’ll notice many religious street and place names – not least the city’s itself).
A short walk away is the Palacio de los López (Presidential Palace), an arrestingly beautiful construction that serves as a reminder of the strong governmental presence in the country, while managing to look like an illustration from the pages of a fairy tale. For those interested in Paraguay’s political history, the nearby Casa de la Independencia Museum charts the country’s journey from colony to freedom and is a monument in its own right.
Around the corner, the rosy-hued El Cabildo (Cultural Center of the Republic) hosts exhibits on the country’s turbulent past; like the palace, it looks spectacular when lit up at night. Another must-visit is the Museo del Barro: founded to showcase Paraguay’s cultural diversity, it displays a huge array of art and artefacts, from indigenous craftware to contemporary paintings and political caricatures.
Asunción boasts jewels beyond conventional sightseeing. At the beating heart of the city is the Mercado 4, a market selling everything from homeware and clothes to animal hearts and medicinal herbs. Recently rejuvenated Loma San Jerónimo is the city’s oldest district, its brightly painted houses and artisan stalls reminiscent of La Boca in Buenos Aires. This quaint barrio comes alive on Sundays when street performers, market stalls and food stands conjure up a festival vibe.
It’s not all buildings and bustling squares. Asunción is well known for its green spaces: those after some respite from the midday heat should head to the Parque de la Salud or the Jardín Botánico y Zoológico, and settle in the shade of the mango trees and pink-blossomed lapachos (the national tree). Elsewhere, the Costanera has undergone huge redevelopment of late. This strip of beach by the Paraguay River was once heavily polluted and pretty seedy, but it’s now the perfect place for an early evening stroll. In the day, catch a short boat ride across the river to picturesque Chaco-í, a traditional Paraguayan village.