Are you planning a trip to Guatemala and wondering about the best things to do in Guatemala City? Look no further! I grew up in Guatemala City and I’m excited to share my insider tips with you.
Guatemala City is often overlooked by tourists in favor of other popular destinations like Lake Atitlán, Antigua Guatemala or the mayan ruins of Tikal. However, in my opinion, the largest city in Central America is a hidden gem that deserves much more attention. It’s a vibrant, bustling city that’s full of life and culture. From exploring its rich history and architecture to sampling delicious local cuisine, there’s something for everyone here.
Is Guatemala City Worth Visiting?
Guatemala City, the economic and cultural hub of Guatemala, boasts a rich history and culture that is definitely worth exploring. The city blends old and new with a mix of ancient Mayan ruins, colonial-era buildings, modern shopping malls, and trendy neighborhoods. The cultural attractions in Guatemala City are endless, ranging from the captivating National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to the dynamic street art in the Cuatro Grados Norte neighborhood.
Compared to other tourist hotspots in Guatemala like Antigua and Lake Atitlan, visiting Guatemala City provides a more authentic and immersive travel experience. While these popular destinations are undoubtedly breathtaking, they tend to be inundated with tourists, making it difficult to fully immerse yourself in the local culture. On the other hand, Guatemala City provides a genuine glimpse into the daily lives of Guatemalans, from the bustling Central Market to the vibrant Zona Viva nightlife district. If you’re concerned about safety in Guatemala City, you’ll be relieved to know that, with basic travel safety precautions, Guatemala City is a relatively safe destination, despite its reputation.
The Rich History of Guatemala City
Guatemala City, or Ciudad de Guatemala, is the biggest and capital city of Guatemala, situated in the southern part of the country within a valley encompassed by volcanoes. The history of the city goes back to the pre-Columbian period when the Maya civilization inhabited the region. Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado founded the city in 1524 on the ruins of the ancient Maya city of Kaminaljuyu, which had been left abandoned for centuries after the defeat of the Maya city of K’iche’.
During the colonial period, Guatemala City became a significant trade and commerce center. It was also the capital of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, which was a part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The Captaincy General included present-day Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and the Mexican State of Chiapas. The 18th century witnessed several earthquakes that struck the city, including a severe one in 1773 that wrecked much of the city.
After Guatemala gained independence from Spain in 1821, Guatemala City became the capital of the newly established country. The city experienced considerable growth throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with many of its historical landmarks and buildings being erected during this period.
Currently, Guatemala City is a bustling metropolis with a population of more than two million people. It boasts of several museums, cultural attractions, and historical sites, including the National Palace, the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and the Cathedral of Guatemala City. Despite its troubled past, Guatemala City is an energetic and lively city that persists to develop and progress.
Best Things to do in Guatemala City
Guatemala City, also known as “Guate” by the locals, is a vibrant and dynamic city with a rich cultural heritage. Located in the heart of Central America, this beautiful city is a treasure trove of history, art, and culture. Whether you are a history buff, a nature lover, or an adventure seeker, there is something for everyone in Guatemala City. In this article, I will share with you some of the best things to do in Guatemala City.
Exploring the Iconic Landmarks of Guatemala City’s Historic Center
The Historical Center or downtown Guatemala City is a must-visit destination for history buffs. It is home to many historical landmarks, museums, and colonial-era buildings. Here are some of the most important historical buildings worth visiting:
- Plaza de la Constitución: Take a walk around the beautiful Parque Central or Plaza de la Constitución, which is the main square of the city. One of the most popular activities in the plaza is feeding the pigeons. It is a tradition for locals and visitors alike to buy corn kernels from street vendors and feed the hundreds of pigeons that gather in the plaza. Another attraction is the fountain in the center of the plaza, which was built in 1940 and is surrounded by benches where you can sit and relax while admiring the water display. The plaza is a bustling hub of activity with street vendors selling souvenirs and snacks, as well as musicians and performers providing entertainment.
- Address: 6 calle between 6 avenida and 7 avenida zona 1.
- Hours: outdoor plaza open 24hrs every day.
- La Catedral Metropolitana. An iconic landmark in the Historical Center is the Metropolitan Cathedral, which is one of the oldest and largest cathedrals in Central America. The construction of the Cathedral of Santiago de Guatemala began on the day of Saint James the Apostle, July 25, 1782, and it inaugurated the neoclassical architectural style in the Ermita Valley. It was finally completed and founded on March 16, 1815. The cathedral is one of the most valuable historical and artistic buildings in modern Guatemala because it houses much of the religious art history of the country, some of it dating back to 1524.
- Address: 7 Avenida between 6 calle and 7 calle, zona 1
- Hours of operation: Monday to Sunday: 7am to 6pm.
- El Palacio Nacional de la Cultura. The Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, which was once the Presidential Palace and now serves as a cultural center and museum. The Palace is a beautiful colonial-era building that was built in the 1930s. The neoclassical-style building houses the offices of the President of Guatemala and other important government officials. The impressive architecture and grandeur of the building make it a popular tourist attraction, with guided tours available to the public. Visitors can explore the ornate interiors adorned with murals and artwork depicting Guatemala’s history and culture. The Palace also boasts beautiful gardens and courtyards, which offer a peaceful escape from the bustling city streets.
- Address: 6ta calle between 6 Avenida and 7 Avenida zona 1.
- Hours of operation for the museum: Monday to Friday: 8am to 2pm. Temporarily out of service on Saturdays and Sundays Tours are subject to ceremonial activities.
- Entrance: Nationals: free, foreigners: Q. 40.00 (approx. $5.5 USD)
- The Central Market. The Central Market is a vibrant and bustling market located in the heart of Guatemala City. The market is known for its fresh produce, meat, and seafood, as well as its handmade textiles and artisanal goods. The Mercado de Aresanias (Craft Market) is located in the first floor with over 200 craft stalls. It is a great place to immerse yourself in the local culture and experience the sights, sounds, and smells of Guatemala City.
- Address: 9 avenida and 8 calle zona 1.
- Hours of operation: Every day from 8am to 6pm
- Entrance to the market is free.
- El Pasaje Aycinena. This is one of the oldest buildings in Guatemala city. Designed in a neoclassical style, it was built for commercial purposes in the late 19th century. El Pasaje Aycinena housed prestigious shops and was an extension of the Portal del Comercio. It was designed by Luis Monzón and it is one of the oldest buildings in the historic center of Guatemala City.
- Address: the entrance is on 9a calle between 5 avenida and 7 avenida zone 1.
Learn All About the Mayan Civilization at the Popol Vuh Museum
The Popol Vuh Museum is a must-see attraction if you are interested in the ancient Mayan civilization. The museum houses one of the largest collections of Mayan artifacts in the world, with over 7,000 objects on display. The exhibits are organized thematically, providing a comprehensive overview of the Mayan culture, including their religious beliefs, political structures, and daily life. Visitors can explore the impressive collection of pottery, textiles, and jewelry, and see a replica of a Mayan temple, which gives a glimpse into the architectural marvels of this ancient civilization.
If you’re interested in delving deeper into the history and culture of Guatemala, the Popol Vuh Museum is definitely a must. The museum is located on the beautiful campus of the Universidad Francisco Marroquin, and admission is very affordable. The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions and events, such as lectures and workshops, which offer visitors an opportunity to engage with the culture more deeply.
- Address: Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Calle Manuel F. Ayau (6 Calle final), zona 10
- Hours of operation: Monday to Friday, from 9am. to 5pm. Saturdays, from 9am. to 1pm. Sundays, closed.
- Entrance price: Adults Q45 ($6 US), Students with ID Q25 (approx. $3.5 US), Children aged 2 to 12 Q 5 (approx. $2 US), combo Museo Ixchel-Popol Vuh Q70.00 (approx. $9 USD)
Explore the Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Textiles and Clothing
Located right next to the Popol Vuh museum in the campus of the Universidad Francisco Marroquín the Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Textiles and Clothing is a real hidden gem. I studied at this University and have gone to this museum countless times and I still love taking friends whenever they visit Guatemala City. The museum celebrates the art and traditions of the Mayan culture through a stunning collection of textiles and clothing made using various techniques. Guatemalan textiles are considered some of the most beautiful in the world and are handcrafted by skilled artisans using traditional techniques that have been passed down for generations.
A guided tour is highly recommended so you can learn about the history, symbolism and cultural significance of the textiles. The vibrant colors and intricate designs are often symbolic, representing different aspects of Mayan cosmology, mythology, and the natural world.
The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions and events, such as traditional Mayan textile workshops, offering visitors an opportunity to engage more deeply with the culture. It is a true gem of the city and a must-visit for locals and tourists alike.
- Address: Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Calle Manuel F. Ayau (6 Calle final), zona 10
- Hours of operation: Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. Saturday 9am to 1pm. Closed on Sundays.
- Entrance price: Adults Q45.00 (approx. $6 USD), children under 12 Q15.00 (approx. $2 USD), combo Museo Ixchel-Popol Vuh Q70.00 (approx. $9 USD)
- Guided tour: in English is Q125 (approx. $16 USD) per person (*minimum of 4 people). Schedule your guided visit here > [email protected]
Uncover the Ancient Treasures of Guatemala’s National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
The National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is an incredible place to explore the history and culture of Guatemala. As soon as you step inside the museum, you are transported back in time, and the exhibits offer a glimpse into the lives of the ancient Mayan people. The collection of artifacts is extensive and includes everything from intricate pottery and beautiful textiles to stunning sculptures and intricate jewelry.
The Mayan civilization was known for its impressive architectural achievements, complex writing system, and advanced understanding of mathematics and astronomy. At the museum, you will be able to see some of the evidence of these achievements firsthand. The exhibits are informative and well-curated, making it easy to understand the significance of each artifact. Visiting the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is an unforgettable experience, and you will leave with a newfound appreciation for the rich history and culture of Guatemala.
- Address: 7 Avenida and 6 Calle Salón No. 5 Finca La Aurora, zona 13
- Hours of operation: Tuesday to Frida from 9am to 4pm, Saturday and Sunday from 9am to12pm and from 1:30pm to 4pm.
- Entrance price: Nationals Q5, foreigners: Q60 (approx. $8 USD)
Step Back in Time: Visiting the Kaminaljuyu Archaeological Site
If you’re interested in history and ancient cultures, you won’t want to miss the Kaminaljuyu Archaeological Site in Guatemala City. This site was home to a thriving Mayan city for over 2,000 years. If you’re visiting any other archeological sites like Tikal, or Iximché or Quirigua this site will not seem anywhere as impressive. Yet these Mayan ruins are the only ones in Guatemala City. Kaminaljuyu is an interesting destination if you have the time, although I would not make it a top priority.
The site is located in the Zona 7 neighborhood of Guatemala City, near Museo Miraflores. The Kaminaljuyu Archaeological Site is an interesting destination that can give you a glimpse into the Mayan culture and Guatemala City’s ancient history.
- Address: Calzada San Juan 30 avenida zona 7
- Hours of operation: Monday through Sunday from 8am to 4pm.
- Entrance price: nationals Q5, foreigners Q50 (approx. $6.50 USD)
Discover the Secrets of the Maya Civilization at the Miraflores Museum
The Miraflores Museum is the first site museum in Guatemala City and is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Kaminaljuyu, the most successful and prosperous Mayan metropolis in the Guatemala Valley. Its collection includes original archaeological pieces that are over 3,000 years old, showcasing the history of the first inhabitants of what is now Guatemala City. The museum has undergone a renovation that has allowed for the display of more artifacts and the incorporation of interactive experiences for visitors of all ages. It’s a unique and exciting way to learn about the ancient Mayan civilization and about the history of Guatemala city and the Kaminaljuyú archeological site.
- Address: 7 calle 21-55 zona 11, Paseo Miraflores
- Hours of operation: Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 7pm. Closed on Mondays.
- Entrance price: adults $5 USD, children and studies $3 USD, seniors and people with special needs $2.
- Guided tours: Tuesday to Sunday at 3pm, price Q30 or $5 USD
A Bird’s Eye View of Guatemala: Visiting the Relief Map
If you’re looking for a unique way to explore Guatemala, the Relief Map is a must-visit attraction. Located in the heart of Guatemala City, this scale model of the country is incredibly detailed and accurate. It’s a great way to get a sense of the country’s geography, and you can see everything from the highest peaks to the lowest valleys.
The Relief Map of Guatemala, located in Hipodromo del Norte, is a unique modern engineering design in the world. It highlights the varied topography, geographical features, and political division of the country’s 22 departments, which cover 108,889 square kilometers of land. It was built at ascale within a 52-meter square by engineer Francisco Vela in 1905. It also shows the main infrastructure of the time, such as roads, bridges, seaports on the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and the railway that interconnected them.
The Parque Minerva around it is a nice park to spend some time in. It’s a popular spot for locals to relax and enjoy some fresh air, and there are plenty of benches and shaded areas to sit and take in the scenery. So if you want to see Guatemala from a different perspective, be sure to check out the Relief Map.
- Address: Hipódromo del Norte, final Avenida Simeón Cañas zona 2
- Hours of operation: Tuesday to Sunday from 8am to 4pm. Closed on Mondays.
- Entrance price: Nationals Q5, foreigners Q25 (approx. $3.50 USD)
Nightlife and Entertainment in Zona Viva
Zona Viva is a vibrant and bustling area in Guatemala City that is popular among locals and tourists alike. It is the perfect place to spend a night out with friends or to celebrate a special occasion. The area is packed with bars, nightclubs, and restaurants that cater to all tastes and budgets as well as some of my favorite shopping malls like Plaza Fontabella and Oakland Mall. Whether you are in the mood for a casual night out or a more upscale experience, you are sure to find something that suits your preferences.
The atmosphere in Zona Viva is electric, and the energy of the crowds is contagious. From live music to DJ sets, the entertainment options are endless. You can dance the night away, enjoy a delicious meal, or simply people-watch from one of the many outdoor terraces. It is a great place to unwind and have fun, and the memories you make here will last a lifetime.
- Address: located in zona 10 of Guatemala City
- Hours of operation: different restaurants and shopping malls have different hours of operation.
Luxury Shopping and Dining in Guatemala City’s Paseo Cayalá
Paseo Cayala is an exciting addition to Guatemala City. If you’re looking for a modern shopping and entertainment district, this is the perfect place for you. The open-air mall is a great place to shop, dine, and catch a movie. The district’s stunning architecture is also worth admiring, with a mix of modern and colonial styles that make it a beautiful place to walk around.
Whether you want to go on a shopping spree or relax with a cup of coffee, Paseo Cayala has something for everyone. The district has quickly become a popular destination in Guatemala City and is definitely worth checking out during your visit.
- Address: Boulevard Rafael Landívar 10-05 zona 16
- Hours of operation: Monday to Sunday 8am to 8pm. Restaurants and bars and stores have their schedule with some bars closing.
- Parking: 0 to 4 hours Q15 (approx. $2)
A Hidden Gem in Guatemala City: Discover the Plaza España (Plazuela España)
The Plaza España is located at the intersection of Montúfar Street and 7th Avenue in Guatemala City. This square contains elements that revolve around the central theme of the discovery of America and historic moments of Guatemala. That’s why you’ll find monuments dedicated to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, King Carlos V, and Bernal Díaz del Castillo in the landscaped areas. This is also why the square was named Plaza España. The famous Carlos III Fountain was placed in this square, which originally stood in the Plaza de la Constitución in the Historic Center.
To celebrate the opening of the square in 1933, the Spanish government donated four benches. These benches have intricate details depicting the discovery of America and are covered with talavera tiles from the Reina de Toledo in Spain. They are placed in the intermediate gardens of the fountain. It’s one of my favorite spots in Guatemala city filled with flowers and around the beautiful fountain surrounded by the intricately detailed tiled benches. Strolling through the small plaza and taking a few pictures takes just a few minutes so be sure to include it in your plans when visiting Guatemala City.
- Address: Calle Montúfar y 7 Avenida zona 9
- Hours: Open 24 hrs
A Journey Through Guatemala’s Railroad History: Exploring the Railway Museum
The Railway Museum is a must-visit attraction in Guatemala City for anyone interested in the history of trains and railways. You can see antique trains and locomotives and learn about the important role they played in the development of Guatemala’s transportation system. The museum is housed in a former railway station, adding to the historical ambiance of the exhibits. A tour of the museum is an excellent opportunity to learn about the fascinating history of the railway system in Guatemala and the impact it had on the country’s economy and infrastructure.
- Address: 9 Avenida 18-03 zona 1
- Hours of operation: Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm. Saturday and Sunday 10am to 4pm.
- Entrance price: Children up to 12 years old: Q1 (approx. $0.15 USD), adults: Q2(approx. $0.30 USD) , seniors (65 years old) and persons with disabilities: free of charge.
Hip and Happening: Explore the Cuatro Grados Norte Neighborhood
Cuatro Grados Norte is a hip and lively neighborhood in Guatemala City that is worth a visit. The area is known for its artistic vibes, trendy cafes, and boutique shops. Taking a stroll around the neighborhood is a fun activity, as you can enjoy the colorful murals and unique architecture. It is a great place to spend a lazy afternoon, sipping coffee in a charming cafe, or browsing through the trendy shops.
You can also enjoy the street art and have lunch or dinner in one of the many restaurants. If you do happen to visit stop by Gourmelt, a small trendy restaurant with the best grilled cheese sandwiches in Guatemala. While you’re there say hi to my brother, who happens to be the owner. Yeah, maybe I’m a little biased. But if grilled cheese is not your thing there are lots of other fantastic restaurants there. Get the best artisanal pizza in the city at L’Apero or try some traditional Guatemala dishes at Mercado 24, where ingredients are fresh and sourced from the local market.
- Address: Zone 4, Guatemala City
- Hours: always open but each restaurant their own schedule.
A Cultural Landmark in Guatemala City: Visiting the Miguel Angel Asturias National Theater
The Miguel Angel Asturias National Theater is a cultural gem in Guatemala City. Also known as the Miguel Ángel Asturias Cultural Center, was designed by the famous Guatemalan architect and artist Efraín Recinos. When it opened in 1978, the theater stood out as a symbol of Guatemalan architecture at a time when most architects in the country were following European or American models. Recinos, who was born in Guatemala, believed in creating a distinct architectural identity for his country by drawing inspiration from its rich history as a center of Maya civilization.
The theater’s main building is an intricate geometric structure with a unique sloping facade adorned with mosaic tiles in multicolored bands. The concrete surfaces are designed to resemble walkways, mezzanine spaces, and portals inspired by Maya architecture and naval designs. The building’s shape is meant to look like an abstract jaguar sitting regally with its paws stretched out in front.
- Address: 24 calle 3-81 zona 1, Ciudad de Guatemala
- Hours of operation: Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. Closed on Saturday and Sunday.
- Entrance to the parking lot gardens, outdoor amphitheater and lobby is free. Entrance to the theater only possible when attending events there.
Traditional Crafts and Souvenirs: Shop at the Mercado de Artesanias
If you’re looking for an authentic shopping experience in Guatemala City, the Mercado de Artesanias is the perfect destination. This vibrant market is a feast for the senses, with a wide range of local handicrafts and artisanal goods. From intricately woven textiles to handmade pottery, the market has something for everyone. You can wander through the maze of stalls and browse the colorful displays of goods, soaking up the lively atmosphere and admiring the skill and artistry of the local artisans.
I have found that the prices here are even better than at the Mercado Central located in the Historic Center. And the Mercado de Artesanias, located near the airport, is cleaner, safer, and nicer to walk around in. You will also find more high quality crafts here, so if you are only visiting one market I would recommend this one!
- Address: 6ta calle 10-95 z.13, Guatemala City, Guatemala
- Hours of operation: Monday to Sunday 9am to 6pm
- Entrance price: free to enter the market.
A Wild Adventure in the Heart of the City: Visiting Zoo La Aurora
The Zoo La Aurora is a must-visit attraction for animal lovers in Guatemala City. You will get the chance to see a wide range of exotic animals from around the world, including some of the most iconic species of Central America. The zoo is located in the Parque Aurora, which is a beautiful park where you can also enjoy a picnic or take a walk.
Visiting the Zoo La Aurora is a great activity to do with family or friends. You can spend hours exploring the different exhibits and learning about the animals’ habitats and behaviors. It’s also a great way to support conservation efforts and to educate yourself and others about the importance of protecting wildlife.
- Address: 5ta calle Interior Finca La Aurora Z 13 Ciudad de Guatemala,
- Hours of operation: Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 4pm. Closed on Mondays.
- Entrance price: entrance fee for adults is Q 45(around $6 USD) and Q25 (around $3.5 USD) for children under 12 and Q23 (around $3 US) for seniors 60 and over . Get your tickets online here.
- Guided VIP tour with animal interactions: Q125 to Q200 ($16-26 USD) per person depending on the type of animal interaction.
Try delicious Guatemalan food at a gourmet restaurant
Whether you are in the mood to try traditional Guatemalan food or a classic Italian diner, Guatemala City has hundreds of incredible places to eat. Of course, most restaurants are in the more popular tourist areas, like Zona Viva, Cayala, or malls like Plaza Fontabella. But everywhere you go, I guarantee you will feel the warm hospitality of the Guatemalan people.
I recommend that when in Rome… indulge in local cuisine. But finding the best restaurants in town can be a bit of a hunt. So let me help you out with some of my favorite Guatemalan restaurants! From traditional Guatemalan food to a delicious fusion of Mayan cuisine and modern gastronomy, here is the best foodie guide to where to eat in Guatemala City.
Note of Advice for First-Time Travelers:
While there’s no way you’ll cover all the must-see tourist attractions in a day (or two), sticking to one neighborhood keeps things simple and manageable. If it is your first time visiting Guatemala City, the most convenient (and safest) way to see it is by hiring a private car or booking a tour. The city also has Uber available, so you can always call up a driver to take you to a specific area. It’s also a great place to visit with kids. If you’re visiting with family be sure to check out my article on the best things to do in Guatemala City with kids for our favorite kid friendly activities.
Guatemala City is a fascinating destination that offers something for everyone. From its rich history and culture to its vibrant nightlife and modern shopping districts, this beautiful city has it all. Whether you are a history buff, a nature lover, or an adventure seeker, you will find plenty of things to do and see in Guatemala City. So pack your bags and get ready to explore this vibrant and dynamic city! If you’re planning to visit Guatemala make sure to check out our guide for the best time of the year to visit Guatemala.