August 12

Is Guatemala City Worth Visiting? What to See and Do

26  comments

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.

These are the best places to see and things to do in Guatemala City.

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.

is guatemala city worth visiting
Lovely colors at the otherwise empty cathedral. Photo taken with my phone.
Is guatemala city worth visiting
The Cathedral as seen from inside. As you can see it’s not particularly splendid.

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.

is guatemala city worth visiting
The Palace I was not able to get into. Photo taken with my phone.

The Market

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.

is guatemala city worth visiting
The market. The top floor is for handcrafted goods and the bottom floor is for produce.

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.

is guatemala city worth visiting
The Postal Services Building

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.

Other Attractions

  • 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.

is guatemala worth visiting
Traditional Pepian at the Panamerican Hotel restaurant

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!

guatemala worth visiting
Ambrosia Cafe in Guatemala City, one of the very few budget clean restaurants close to the center you’ll find.

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.

us guatemala worth visiting
Guatemala City’s streets are not particularly inviting. Not all of them are like this one…but most are.

My Thoughts

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, though there are some good dishes to enjoy.  Perhaps one of the best things to do is to visit  during one one of the many Guatemala festivals and celebrations.

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!


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  1. Good, fair advice! It actually looks stunning from these photos but I suppose that has to be relative to other places in the country, not places in Europe, for example. I’ll file this away for future reference. Cheers! Abi

  2. I have to disagree with you. Your review is basically about zone 1, where you can find the historic district. But there’s much more to see in Guatemala City. The financial district, Reloj de Flores, Avenida Las Américas and Avenida Reforma, just to mention a few places.

    1. Hi Mercedes! Yes, you are correct as my review is of zone 1 mostly. But the other places you mention are not what make a destination unique, unless it really also has history. The financial district of Singapore and NYC are interesting to visit, but then not those of Madrid or Milan for example. I guess it depends on what interests you?

  3. Federico, muchas gracias por el reportaje. y ante todo por la recomendación para Ambrosía Café, me alegra mucho que le haya gustado la comida y el ambiente, estamos a sus órdenes para cuando vuelva a Guatemala, y como dice otra persona por allí, Guatemala tiene muchos lugares interesantes, pero el centro histórico no tiene comparación en Centro América, muchos éxitos con su revista y felicitaciones, es un sitio de referencia que con mucho gusto promocionaremos,

  4. I live in Guatemala and it’s true most of the things you say, but I think if as a tourist you want to visit the City you must do it with a local, a friend that lives here, because believe me, there are some few gems hidden and I think that because of the contrast with the rest of the city you appreciate them more. Of course depends of what you are interested. I you want to buy fancy stuff and go to malls, there are a lot of fancy ones. If you like art, Guatemala and Costa Rica have some of the best art galleries in Central America, from pure decorative art to contemporary art, some projects are like indi projects, others are very commercial galleries. In the zone 1 theres an underground circuit of bands if you like music. Museums, excepts the ones that depend from the government, are very nice like the Popol Vuh you mention and the Ixchel Museum which is next to Popol Vuh. The zone 4 also has galleries, street art, is full of nice design studios and has a lot of apartment buildings which makes it a residential zone so the atmosphere in there is very calm, there are also some nice restaurants. Zone 10 and 14 have some nice plazas which i recommend to visit on sunday when they close the streets to cars so you can go running or in your bike or with your pet, this is call Pasos y pedales, it has a very nice atmosphere, full of families and people doing exercising surrounded by threes. Spectacles, Lux theatre sometimes offer nice ones, also the National Theatre which by the way is a very interesting example of guatemalan architecture. I definitely recommend to check the billboard of the Modern and Folkloric Ballet to see when the Paab’ank is being played. The Paab’ank is a traditional maya q’eqchi party. It’s a social event that involves religion, dance, music, food and can last several days. This takes place in some cities of the qeqchi area and they do it for specific celebrations. The ballet offers a representation of this celebration in the National Theatre, believe me, it’s very beautiful. If you can go to the q’eqchi area to live it it’s much better of course. As you can see there are things to see, i bet some other locals can add more recommendations.

    1. Hi Light! Thanks for your long opinion! I agree that I did not visit malls, or residential areas and certainly not theaters. But in my opinion pretty much all malls are the same, residential areas usually don’t have much interest, and theaters…well some are specially nice but most of them look the same too (from the inside). It would have been interesting to see the Paab’ank though, I do admit that. Perhaps as a tourist you’re not really looking for the same things you do as when you’re a resident? That certainly makes sense don’t you think? I would have explored more too if it was easier to get around, but then that would be more time consuming and expensive as these other places were scattered around. And frankly, not as famous. I like the idea of visiting with locals, it makes a lot of sense. Do you know a website called withlocals.com ? Check it out, it might interest you.

      1. Well, i feel like you were expecting too much from Guatemala City and I think you are comparing it to European cities or those really big tourist destinations and of course we are not at that level, you should just compare to the rest of Central America capitals. It’s not an impressive city but isn’t fair to say that theres nothing to offer, but like you say, it depends on what you are interested. And believe me, I’ve met people from countries like Sweden and Denmark that get very interested by the same disorder and caos of the city because it’s the natural way that this city has grow, and reflects our conflicts, our history, our problems, so yeah it’s dirty and dangerous but it’s the result of a whole historic process which as you can see isn’t a positive result but it’s authentic, it’s more like an anthropologic view of the city. And this people get interested by this because it’s something they’ve never live. If you ask yourself why this country is poor, dirty and violent you may get interested in our history and you would end up understanding us. Sorry for the long answer again jejej

        1. Hi Light!

          To tell you the truth, not really. I have been to all the countries in Central America and its capital cities, and was certainly not expecting it to be a Madrid, London or Tallin…or even close! 🙂 But I did expect it to be like you describe it, as most of the other capital cities in Central America are (minus perhaps Panama). The good news is that I did walk around and spoke with many local people, and visited the Postal Services museum in which I got a great personal explanation by the curator of not only the postal service but the political situation the country has gone through in the past century. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s bad or uneventful, but most of my readers don’t really have much time for their vacation hence the suggestion I make at the end of the post. I still believe that if a person or group of people only have 7 days to visit the country then spending more than half a day in Guatemala City is too much as there are much nicer places to visit. And don’t you worry about the long answer…I love them!! 🙂 By the way, I see your name is Sergio… ¿Eres de España?

          1. Ah, all right. I asked because of a reference you made and your last name…I´m from that city in Spain 🙂 Thanks a bunch for dropping by!

          2. La verdad no se porque tengo ese apellido porque no conozco mucho de mi árbol genealogico, es solo por el mestizaje, pero no tengo ninguna relación con Valencia España, que curioso que seas de allí, tambien hay mucha gente con apellido Madrid.

  5. As Mercedes I also have to disagree with you. Your review is basically about zone 1, where you can find the historic district. But there’s so much more to see in Guatemala City. The financial district, Reloj de Flores, Avenida Las Américas, Plazuela España, Avenida Reforma, Paseo Cayala, etc. just to mention a few places and in Guatemala you can also find a 5 start hotels and restaurants around Zones 10, 13, 14 and 16.
    Your subject should be: “Is Zona 1 The Historic Distric of Guatemala City Worth Visiting? What to See and Do……

    1. Hi Ivette! I am full aware that there are 5 star hotels in those areas, but then again those areas don’t really have something interesting to offer. I did drive through some on the way to Zone 1 from the airport, but cannot find a reason to go back there for a walk. Like the financial district. It may be modern and with a few tall buildings, but certainly nothing as dramatic as those of NYC or Singapore for example… You are right though: my post covers the historic district mostly. Thanks for dropping by!

  6. Dear Maitravelsite, your comment is very vague, you can not say that you can explore Guatemala City in half of a day, even Zone 1 there is so many places to visit,and please don´t post this kind of comments unless you are aware of all places and whats going on in the entire city, but defenitly you are not.

    1. Hi Gerson! Of course you cannot visit a city a full in just half a day, but I certainly believe that travelers who are visiting Guatemala (country) in a week should not spend more than half a day in its capital city as there are much nicer places elsewhere in the country. If you wake up early and spend the morning visiting from one place to the other (forget 1 hour breaks) I really believe you have enough time to see the most appealing areas of the city by 4 pm, even earlier. And I’m not counting typical museums, zoos and those kinds of attractions that all cities in the world have. 🙂

  7. Wow! I can see you travelled extensively to write this blog! I am a food traveller I travel mainly to taste the local cuisines. This is a good blog I am definitely putting Guatemala in my bucket list.

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