Guatemala is usually on most people’s travel list, one way or another. The country has beautiful views and places to visit, whether you decide to travel on a budget or high-end. Yet, once most people land in Guatemala City, they take the first mode of transportation out. Either coming as volunteers or tourists, few people actually spend time exploring the treasures of Guatemala City. But, why? There is so much to do in Guatemala City.
As a result of being an adopted local of Guatemala City, I have come to adore the mix of quirkiness, high-end and history that the city has to offer. Here are some of my favorite activities:
Spending time in Zone 4 is one of my favorite things to do in Guatemala City. Restaurants are popping up overnight, offering delicious cuisine. Whenever I’m able to treat myself, I head to my favorite, Mercado24. They source local ingredients from the market and have a regularly changing menu. Coffee shops are common place, there are 6 within a block of each other, while also providing a unique vibe at each one. Street artists practice their craft, painting the neighborhood’s walls. You can easily spend the day hopping from coffee shops to cafes to art galleries and back again.
Non-profits work all throughout and around town. A good thing to do in Guatemala City while coming through the country is to give back to the local community. I even moved to Guatemala to volunteer long-term with at-risk, inner city kids. There are several non-profits working in a variety of areas from education reinforcement to gang intervention or providing medical needs. Check out my tips on how to volunteer like a pro and touch base with an organization working in an area you’d like to help.
Sexta Avenida – or 6th avenue – is a pedestrian street located in the center of the city. It is where all socio-economic classes and cultures come together. In the 10 blocks you’ll see street performers, hipsters, skateboarders, vendors, artists and more. The street is lined on both sides by shops, but the real attraction is the people watching and vendors in the street. There is a great bakery, just off 10th street, that sells pastries and smoothies that are to die for. There is a lovely little coffee shop just up from there. And the pedestrian area funnels into the main square of the city where the national palace and main cathedral have stood guard since 1776. I love spending an afternoon walking the street and soaking in the mix of life.
The main market in town is located at the intersections of zone 3, 4 and 9 at the bus terminal. Vendors have popped up near the terminal selling flowers, vegetables, fruits and any other item you may need. When you arrive, your senses are engulfed in the scenes of every day life. You can buy 2-3 avocados for .67 cents. Five limes are .13 cents. A pound of chicken breasts, a cool $3.20. Aside from produce and meats, the market offers beautiful bouquets of flowers, hand carved wood items and a front seat view of the buses in action. While a visit to the market is a must on the list of things to do in Guatemala City, I also recommend going in a group.
Guatemala City also has shopping for all different price points. You can get shoes from the vendors on the street – in the market and around the sexta avenida area – and are much cheaper than the mall. Hint: If you have a large shoe size, you may need to do some shopping around to get your size. The city also has several large malls, similar to what we are used to in the US, with 4+ levels of shops. If you want to get your fancy on, head to Zone 14 (South Beach Miami as my mom affectionately calls it) for designer boutiques that dot the mostly residential streets.
Guatemala City does have vendors selling tipica items. In all honesty, I recommend you purchasing these items/souvenirs in Antigua or, more preferably, at Lake Atitlan for the best prices.
Museums and Site-Seeing
Guatemala City has been the capital of Guatemala since 1776. The central square dates to that time and is lined by the national palace and main cathedral in town, both of which you can tour. Zone 1, the oldest part of the city, is dotted with historical buildings. You can visit the now defunct train station and museum. The majority of museums are located close to the airport. I met someone traveling from Belize just to go to the Mayan museum in Guatemala City. As the former seat of power of the Mayan population, Guatemala City has some of the best preserved artifacts.
I love to eat. And Guatemala City helps continue to feed (pun intended) that habit. One of my favorite things to do in Guatemala City is probably trying different foods that are offered throughout the city. The city is a burgeoning foodie hotspot, with food fitting into different price points. I love to hit up the street vendors for carne asada or a taco snack (3 tacos for $1.33). Food vendors are on every corner throughout most of the city and are where the locals usually congregate. In the markets are excellent diners where you can get soup, rice, vegetables, meat and a drink for under $4. Further up on the price scale are the little cafes popping up. A gourmet personal pizza and drink at lunch will run you about $5. Or, at L’Apero, a full-size pizza at dinner will be $11 or less. One of the glories of dinning in an up and coming city is that even a high-end dinner generally won’t set you back that far (there are some that will however).
Pasos y Pedales
Literally translated to steps and pedals. This event is every Sunday from 10 am -2 pm, where the main thoroughfare through town is shut down for the community to enjoy. Everyone comes out with their bikes, rollerblades or walking shoes to stretch their legs and enjoy a Sunday afternoon with their friends and loved ones. Food trucks and carts are scattered around, offering delicious snacks and lunches. Families picnic in the grassy, park area and dogs run the streets (on leashes of course). While most people come for the fresh air and family time, my dog and I enjoy watching all the other dogs in wacky clothes. There are dogs in muscle Ts, dresses, tutus and some questionable haircuts. Pasos y Pedales is a peaceful and entertaining way to spend a Sunday afternoon and grab some lunch when many places are closed.
Another wonderful thing to do in Guatemala City is a bicycle tour. Biking is an easy way to see the city and work off all the eating you’ve been doing. There is a bike shop in zone 4 that does bike tours in the evenings and partners with a local business to show a movie. The tour is free but you need to bring your own bike. Many of the local hostels also have their own bike and coffee tours as well.
Churches and Processions
As a self-professed history nut, I love seeing old architecture and churches. Guatemala City has several churches that are hundreds of years old with soaring arches and ornate detailing. While I love visiting the churches, seeing one of the Holy Week processions is a most noteworthy experience. As a predominately Catholic country, Holy Week processions are an event that any volunteer or tourist needs to see at least once. The streets are decorated with elaborate and colorful designs that pave the way for the floats of the disciples, Mary and Jesus to pass over. You can hear the procession and smell the incense long before it arrives. The processions of Holy Week are perhaps one of the most revered traditions in the lives of the Guatemala people. Experiencing a Holy Week procession is a wonderful peak into the lives and culture of the local people.
If you ever find yourself in Guatemala by way of volunteering or purely for tourism, I highly encourage you to add on an extra day or two to explore Guatemala City. After all, there is so much to do in Guatemala City despite it often being seen has a highly skippable.