When I first came to Guatemala over ten years ago I skipped Guatemala City altogether as I had read that there’s not much to see and it wasn’t safe. I almost did the same thing this time, but decided to give it a chance. The verdict? If you don’t stop here you won’t miss much. But it is the capital city, and you could spend half a day plus one night to see what little there is. This is what I recommend plus a few other attractions I skipped:
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint James
Built between 1782 and 1867 it has withstood numerous earthquakes -not without being damaged- but these were repaired. I found its interior rather dull and unimpressive when compared with many other cathedrals, but there’s a mummy in on of the chapels if this makes it interesting to you.
The National Palace of Guatemala
Known as the Palacio Nacional de Cultura it used to be the most important building in Guatemala as it was home to the president. It is from here that all road distances in Guatemala are measured from too, with the KM 0 (zero kilometer) right in front of it. Today it’s a museum with free guided tours Monday to Friday 11am to 4 pm except if there’s a demonstration or some other event. Mind you they do happen more than you’d think as I dropped by three times in two days and wasn’t able to visit it.
The central market is the place in Guatemala City where to buy handcrafted goods, veggies, eat on the cheap as the locals do and buy fresh produce. It’s not particularly big but well worth stopping by to walk around slowly and buy anything you could not buy during your stay in Guatemala or to get an idea of prices. You might like to know that prices here are just about the same as you’ll find anywhere else in the country, so don’t expect to find them lower after some good bargaining.
The Postal Services Building
The postal service building boasts colonial architecture and is one of the few that is very well maintained. You can’t walk inside but I’m sure that the outside is nicer. While here make sure you walk a few extra steps to my next recommendation.
The Guatemalan Postal Services Museum
It’s small, but I found it entertaining. During the personalized 15 minute guided tour you’ll learn some interesting things ( did you know that Guatemala’s current postal service is owned and executed by the Canadian postal service?) and it’s free.
- The Torre del reformador, a 72 meter steel tower in zone 9 that resembles the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was built u in 1935 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Justo Rufino Barrios, who was President of Guatemala. I drove under it with a taxi upon arrival to Guatemala and didn’t ask the driver to pull over to take a picture.
- And of course there’s no lack of museums, including the Museum of Archeology and Etnology, the National Museum of Modern Art, the Railway Museum and the Popol Vuh Museum.
- The city seems to be proud of its Aurora Zoo, but frankly I can’t see why I’d even consider checking it out- it’s not what you come to see in this country.
Where to stay
I like to stay in places that are close to the attractions I’m going to be visiting and if this is your reasoning too your best bet is the Panamerican Hotel. Originally an Astoria hotel it changed its name to the Panamerican because of its former partnership with Pan Am Airways- it’s crew would stay here (back in the days when flying was fun). The hotel maintains its character but unfortunately needs a bit of an upgrade which is being limited by the local government arguing it wants to keep its historic appearance. Nevertheless it’s in an unbeatable location and a good choice if you’re checking what you spend and just as good if you’re visiting Guatemala with kids.
Where to Eat
I was surprised at the sheer amount of fast food restaurants there are in Guatemala City, even in the historical center, and the lack of traditional restaurants with authentic Guatemalan food. So if this is what you’re after ( and you should be)while visiting the historical quarter in zone 1 you only have one option: the restaurant at the Panamerican Hotel. This said it is a fantastic one, located in the first hotel that was ever built in Guatemala, and serves all the dishes you would want to try. Portions are generous, flavor is fantastic, excellent service and very fair prices averaging 60-95 Quetzales per dish make it a clear winner.
As I wandered around the area I found what I would say is the second best option particularly if you’re traveling on a budget. Ambrosia Café on Calle 8-63 serves a menu of Guatemalan dishes and international food that everybody likes in a very clean location, with some smooth background music a and pleasant service too. Check out their daily menu- at 25 Quetzales it got me the soup of the day, a plate of fajitas with rice and guacamole and unlimited melon juice. Tasty, filling and cheaper than McDonald’s!
Safety in Guatemala City
I did not find the city particularly dangerous, but I admit it’s not a beautiful one, and the fact that most cars have all the windows tinted doesn’t help much. Don’t flash jewelry or stand out like a rich tourist during the day and you’ll be fine. I was recommended not to hang out at night, and I didn’t. In any case there’s really nothing to check out unless you’re a party freak and listening to loud reggaeton or twerking all night is your concept of good fun when traveling.
I’ll be blunt: Guatemala City is no urban beauty and lacks charm and entertainment. Most of the city is completely unappealing and might even seems dangerous, although this doesn’t have to be true during the light hours of the day. What little there is to see can be seen in half a day and foodies will not find this to be a gourmet hotspot either. With this in mind I would recommend you spend half a day and one night (at the historical and clean but plain Panamerican Hotel, just to be within walking distance of the attractions) if your trip to Guatemala is over one week long or skip it altogether and head straight to Antigua if you’re there for less time.
Have you visited Guatemala City? What did you think about it? Did you feel safe? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below and this post too if you think others might find it useful!