With most visitors to Guatemala immediately making their way to colonial Antigua or magnificent Lake Atitlan, Guatemala City is one of the least-explored destinations in the country, but the capital has its own unique charm and plenty of fascinating attractions, and deserves to be on your to-do list. If you don’t have the luxury of time, fear not. Here’s how to spend 24 hours in Guatemala City.
Morning: Visit the Mercado Central
If you’ve just arrived in Guatemala, heading to this lively market is the best way to get a feel for the country. The Mercado Central is packed with colorful handicrafts and intricately woven garments, and you can easily spend a few hours losing yourself in the seemingly endless maze of underground passages. If you’re hoping to pick up some souvenirs, this is the place to do it, as the handicrafts here are much cheaper than in Antigua or Chichicastenango. Browse leather goods, wooden masks, intricate ponchos, hats, tablecloths, wallets, and unique decorative bowls, and then grab a refreshing juice from one of the fruit stalls.
Lunch: Arbol de la Vida
Head to Guatemala City’s original vegetarian restaurant to enjoy a lunch that’s as nutritious as it is delicious. First opened in 1974 by Anthony Bono, Arbol de la Vida has suffered a couple of closures due to earthquakes, but since reopening in 2003 it has become one of the best spots in town to enjoy an inexpensive, tasty lunch. The extensive menu offers soups, quiches, and burgers packed with veggie-friendly goodness such as tofu and quinoa, and the salads are also great; go for the ensalada de vida if in doubt.
Afternoon: Mapa en Relieve and Museo Popol Vuh
Guatemala has an extraordinarily diverse landscape, and the best way to get a feel for it is by visiting Guatemala City’s famous Mapa en Relieve (‘relief map’). This huge open-air topographical map is at a 1:10,000 scale, and where better to appreciate a landscape that includes tropical jungles, active volcanoes, wild beaches, and dramatic lakes? With volcanic peaks that appear even more exaggerated than in real life, you can’t help but be awed when you remember that the map was constructed more than 100 years ago, without the use of any modern technology.
Get your dose of culture by visiting one of the city’s best museums. Housed within the Fransisco Marroquin University, this stylishly contemporary museum documents the different stages of Mayan culture and history. Named after an ancient Mayan sacred book, Museo Popol Vuh exhibits beautifully detailed pre-Hispanic figurines and statues, carved wooden masks, burial urns, woven textiles, and many other Mayan artifacts. Art enthusiasts will enjoy a visit just as much as history buffs, thanks to the colonial paintings and gilded wood on the walls.
Universidad Francisco Marroquín, 6A Calle, Guatemala, +502 23387896
Dinner: Saul L’Osteria
Located in the centre of the bustling, trendy 4 Grados Norte district, Saul L’Osteria is an excellent spot to kick off your evening. This stylish yet laid-back restaurant is known as much for its gorgeous decor as it is for its cuisine, and on warmer evenings the beautiful patio garden is the perfect place to enjoy dinner (keep an eye out for hummingbirds as you eat!). The menu is a mix of local dishes and international fare, although the Italian-style pizzas are the biggest draw; these thin and crispy wood-fired pizzas are mouthwatering, and there are plenty of veggie options too.
Evening: Drinks at Las Cien Puertas
As one of the oldest bars in the city, Las Cien Puertas (‘the 100 Doors’) is well worth a visit. It’s located in a colonial arcade that’s supposed to have 100 doors; see for yourself whether it does or not, and be sure to sign your name on the walls before you leave – nearly every inch of the walls here is covered in graffiti. With a great range of drinks and cocktails on offer, having a few post-dinner drinks here is a must, and if you find yourself getting late-night munchies, you can order some snacks to keep you going until morning.
Las Cien Puertas, Guatemala City, Guatemala, +502 22328502
Morning: Brunch at San Martin
Follow the smell of baked bread to San Martin, a restaurant/bakery that’s a dream for coffee connoisseurs and pastry enthusiasts alike. The freshly baked pastries, baguettes, and tarts will tempt even the healthiest eater, but there are plenty of delicious savoury options too. The huevos florentinos – a bread bun stuffed with eggs, spinach, and a creamy mushroom sauce – remains a firm customer favourite, and the sandwiches, soups, burgers, and pizzas also hit the spot. Take a seat, settle down, and enjoy some of the finest coffee in the city before you depart.