Until the late 1700’s, Antigua, Guatemala was the country’s capital. Built in a precarious landscape surrounded by active volcanoes, it was only a matter of time before one of the frequent eruptions caused enough destruction to render the city irreparable.
That eruption came in 1773, when the destructive and fatal eruption caused so much damage that it forced most of its remaining inhabitants to up and leave, migrating over 40 km east to where, today, you will find the capital Guatemala City.
Now, the capital is home to around one million people and is Guatemala’s largest city, not to mention the most populous urban area in Central America.
As the capital and home to the country’s major international airport, Guatemala City is a natural start or end point for many visitors to Guatemala, some choosing to spend some time here and others moving straight on to their ultimate Guatemalan destination.
This rough-and-ready city isn’t as pristine and beautiful as some of its neighbours, but it is rich in culture and history and, in our opinion, shouldn’t be missed during your Central American adventure.
Keep reading for our top picks on what to do in Guatemala City. But first, the question you’re all asking…
Is Guatemala City safe?
It is no secret that Guatemala City has had a reputation for crime in the past, but in line with the growing rates of tourism the city strives to be a safe and welcoming place for visitors. It is true that there have been safety issues in the past, but over the last few years the city and police departments have worked hard to reduce crime and Guatemala City is generally considered a much safer place to visit now.
During the day there is very little to worry about – just the usual, keep your belongings close and try not to venture out of your hotel with valuables if you can avoid it.
On an evening, you’ll notice more police on the streets, but don’t let that put you off – remember, they’re there for your safety and their presence is effective in making Guatemala City a safe place for tourists! After all, your safety is in their interest.
We recommend taking only pre-arranged taxis and sticking to the beaten path should you choose to walk to your destinations during the night hours.
As with any major city, there are good and bad districts so we recommend doing some research before you arrive and making sure to book your accommodation in a reputable district.
If you want to know more, check our guide on: Is it safe in Guatemala?
Is Guatemala City worth visiting?
All in all, Guatemala City is a great place with a thriving (and growing!) tourism industry, so we recommend visiting during your Guatemalan adventure!
What to see in Guatemala City
Here are our top picks!
Start your day in the Parque Central
Parque Central is Guatemala City’s beautiful central square containing a stunning fountain as its central point. The square is a common meeting place for locals and tourists, and it’s no surprise when you see the place. It is surrounded by historically and culturally significant buildings, including the National Palace and the city’s main Cathedral.
Given its proximity to the heart of the city, it is a great starting point for your sightseeing activities.
Step back in time in one of the city’s historical museums
You’d expect any capital city to be home to numerous historical and cultural museums where you can learn about the days of the past, and Guatemala City is no different. There are plenty of options depending on your preference, so we have outlined some of the most popular museums for you.
When you’re wondering ‘what is there to do in Guatemala City?’ you should be sure to include at least one museum on your itinerary.
Museo Ixchel is a museum of Indigenous Textiles and Clothing, which explores the history of the Guatemalan peoples traditional dress over the years, as well as displaying collections of ancient pottery, textiles and artifacts.
Museo Popol Vuh houses one of the major Maya art collections of the world. It is located on the University Campus and displays numerous archeological objects, and an impressive collection of Mayan ceramics, pottery and figures.
The National Museum of Ethnology and Archeology focuses on preserving the archaeological and ethnological artifacts of Guatemala’s past, alongside research into the country’s rich cultural heritage. More than 20,000 pieces of ancient artifacts including Mayan artwork, textiles and pottery, as well as findings from the very first settlers, housed in this impressive National Museum, taking visitors on a journey through time.
Museo Miraflores is an archaeological museum specifically dedicated to displaying artifacts from the ancient Mayan city of Kaminaljuyu. It even sits in the part of town where the city once was! It houses permanent and temporary exhibition halls and collections include artifacts excavated from Kaminaljuyu, mostly during the 1990’s, and ancient textiles and artworks.
Gaze in awe at the magnificent Cathedral of Guatemala City
Located in Parque Central, the city’s main square, Catedral Metropolitana has a striking exterior that you won’t want to miss. While the interior is simplistic, decorated with colonial art, the building is impressive in size and, certainly from the outside at least, is quite spectacular to look at.
The architecture is a blend of Baroque and Classical and the structure has been built to last; it has withstood numerous earthquakes since its construction was completed in the late 1800’s. It was damaged somewhat in the earthquakes of 1917 and 1976, but nothing too devastating and certainly not beyond repair. Any signs of damage have been beautifully restored and the cathedral remains one of the most iconic and dominant buildings in Guatemala City today.
Visit the National Palace of Culture
Also located in the Parque Central is the National Palace, a grand building that owns the square. It was once the home of the President but today, houses a museum that attracts thousands of visitors a day.
Inside the palace are 350 rooms (most of which are off limits to visitors) including the vast reception room with its spectacular, massive chandelier, that hosts important galas and ceremonies. Tours of the palace can be booked in advance and take around 45 minutes.
See something different at the unique Mapa en Relieve
When researching where to go in Guatemala City, you may have heard of the Mapa en Relieve.
Constructed more than 100 years ago, long before we had Google Satellite at our fingertips, this massive open air map of Guatemala is seriously impressive. It accurately displays all the country’s major roads and highways, rivers and lakes, mountains and volcanoes at a scale of 1:10,000 horizontally, and 1:2,000 vertically.
We’re pretty sure you won’t have seen anything like this before. It’s a strange tourist attraction but so unusual that it simply cannot be missed. The on-site observation tower gives a great view of the whole map, where you can appreciate the impressive design.
Finish the day with something tasty and a tipple or two
Guatemala City is known for its vibrant, buzzing nightlife and there are plenty of amazing bars and restaurants in town so you won’t go hungry (or thirsty).
Downtown is filled with popular drinking and dining spots and the city is filled with wonderful food markets. Local vendors set up their stalls and cook delicious street food for bargain prices, and while you might be craving dining in a restaurant setting we would highly recommend eating with the locals at one of the many markets in town.
For avid hikers go further afield with a volcanic day trip
Guatemala is known for its rugged landscape, tropical rainforests and mountainous terrain. For this reason it attracts hundreds and thousands of visitors each year who come specifically for the top notch hiking trails the country has to offer.
If this sounds like a bit of you, there are plenty of excellent hiking spots within an hour or two drive from Guatemala City that are well worth your research and time. There’s Lake Atitlan Pacaya Volcano to name just a couple, and we’d recommend checking them out for some of the best hikes in Guatemala. Expect stunning landscapes, breathtaking views and plenty of photo opportunities. And, of course, challenging trails that will push you to your limits!