Many visitors to Guatemala skip the capital altogether in favor of charmingly colonial Antigua, or visiting the traditional Mayan villages around Lake Atitlan. Perhaps this is understandable, but part of Guatemala City’s appeal is its authenticity. Here you can experience the country’s social and political reality like nowhere else – certainly not in touristy, almost-twee Antigua. The brutal civil war here tore the country apart, poverty is still rampant and the wealth gap remains enormous. Guatemala City allows you to see the bigger picture in Guatemala in way the tourist towns simply can’t.
As the capital, Guatemala City is unsurprisingly the hub of the country’s music scene, and many local bands are fast becoming internationally recognised. From the trailblazing feminist rapper Rebeca Lane to the dreamy pop-rock beats of Fraaek and the dark, atmospheric sound of Adonis Muerto, Guatemala City is home to a varied and thriving music scene.
If you’re interested in architecture, Guatemala City’s colonial buildings will definitely impress. Antigua might be the jewel in the architectural crown, but walking through parts of the capital will take you back to the days of the Spanish Empire. Picturesque and well preserved, Plaza Mayor is the beating heart of Guatemala City, and this square is home to some of the city’s most spectacular buildings, including the National Palace and the Catedral Metropolitana, the interior of the latter being a fine example of Neoclassical architecture.
Thanks to the clear accent and slow speech, Guatemala is one of the best places in the world to learn Spanish. Antigua is considered the real ‘language town’, but Guatemala City also has many excellent language schools and courses. Whether you want to brush up on your speaking skills or are looking for an intensive course, learning Spanish is a great way to get to know the local people and customs.
Guatemala may not be especially known for its food, but anyone who has traveled through Central America will know that the local cuisine packs a serious punch. With Mayan culture merging with Spanish traditions, the food here is far more flavorsome and complex than in most of the neighboring countries, and as the capital, Guatemala City is one of the best places to try it. Whether it’s street food from the markets or fine dining restaurants, the food here will delight even the most discerning of foodies.
Guatemala is one of the creative hubs of Latin America, and thanks to its wild and dramatic landscape, artistic types have long flocked here for inspiration. Guatemala City has several excellent art galleries where you can admire paintings from some of the country’s most celebrated and emerging artists.
Guatemala City’s markets are bursting with colorful handicrafts and pretty woven garments, so buying a few items as souvenirs is a must. At the lively Mercado Central, you can explore a seemingly endless maze of underground passages as you browse leather goods, wooden masks, intricate ponchos, hats, tablecloths, wallets and decorative bowls. While the markets here may not be as picturesque as the ones in Antigua or Chichicastenango, they’re more authentic, and the handicrafts are much cheaper.
The volcanic landscape of Guatemala provides the perfect climate for growing coffee, and the beans produced here are arguably the best in the world. Outside of Guatemala City are several top coffee plantations where you can learn about the coffee-making process, and in the city itself are hundreds of cafes where you can sip a cup of the finest coffee you’ve ever tasted.
The only thing better than a beer tour is a free beer tour. Luckily, Guatemala City delivers on this front. Cervecería Centroamericana has brewed most Guatemalan beer since 1886, the most famous being the ubiquitous Gallo. You can enjoy fun, informative tours of the brewery for no cost at all – although make sure you book a week in advance to avoid disappointment. The tour concludes with some beer tasting – this is also free.
With an absorbing history that combines Mayan traditions with Spanish culture, Guatemala is one of the most interesting and unique countries in the world. Guatemala City has many excellent museums: you can learn about Mayan history at Museo Popol Vuh, traditional textiles at Museo Ixchel de Traje Indigena, or archeology at Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología. Whatever you’re into, there’s something for everyone here.
With approximately 3.3 million residents, Guatemala City is the biggest city in Central America. The city is arranged into different zones in a circular fashion, and its sheer size means you could spend months exploring here and still not scratch the surface.