The most modern city in the country, Guatemala City is Central America’s largest metropolis, comprising 21 zones home to more than 2 million people. Founded as the country’s capital in 1776, it was once the site of the Preclassic Maya city “Kaminaljuyú” before the Spanish arrived.
Both the fact that street crime is a problem and so it is not the safest city, as well as boasting none of the architectural beauty and charm of other destinations – instead a polluted city where skyscrapers shadow slums and the extreme poverty is immediately visible – might contribute to the fact that “Guate,” as the locals affectionately call it – is not high on the must-visit list, the little-visited city being more often than not avoided altogether – despite the fact that it is where most flights arrive (travelers opting to make Antigua their base instead).
But despite its ills, the financial, cultural and transportation hub of the country, which is seeing rapid reinvention, still has much to offer. Guatemala’s largest airport and bus station makes Guate the perfect base for exploration, while its principal commercial tourist zones have the country’s best offering of hotels; restaurants; museums; cinemas; art galleries; North American-style shopping malls; and especially found in Zona Viva and Cuatro Grados Norte, nightlife.
Once a long-avoided crime hotspot, Guate’s more chaotic, rising downtown Zona 1 district attracts with the bars, cafés and restaurants found along its 6a Calle. Known as the Historic Center of the city, there are some 18th century colonial structures to admire. Although most have been destroyed by earthquakes. Today, many landmark buildings are being renovated.
At the heart of Zona 1 is the Central Plaza. Here you will find the Catedral Metropolitana and the National Palace. Sundays finds the area a fairgrounds with an assortment of textile vendors, local foods and more. Several worthwhile museums can also be visited in Zona 1 including the Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena, which shows off the impressive textiles of Guatemala’s indigenous community, some dating back to the 19th century. And at the small hill Cerrito del Carmen, the country’s oldest church remains, with a beautiful gold-plated alter.