Things to Do in Guatemala City
This stoic structure in the heart of Guatemala’s capital city was built in 1939 entirely by local hands and using only local materials. As a result, the National Palace offers up an homage to Guatemalan heritage and is ranks tops among the buildings prized by locals. Its green-tinged exterior is a nod to the favorite color of the former dictator’s wife, and the result of concrete and copper used to cover the exterior to avoid painting. As a result, it’s affectionately known by some locals as 'The Big Guacamole.'
An impressive bronze plate at the entrance to the Palace marks a spot known as 'Kilometer 0.' According to residents, this is the official starting point of all roads in Guatemala. Travelers will find a beautiful courtyard at the center of the five-story building, which is surrounded by five archways on every side. A touching Monument to Peace is located in the center of the palace to commemorate the end to the nation’s most recent civil war. Because the National Palace is also home to a national museum, travelers will find unique and historically significant artifacts like the first switchboard and hand painted murals depicting scenes from the nation’s past. Be sure to check out the stained-glass windows along the presidential balcony and the palace salon, used only for ceremonial events.
Overlooking Plaza de la Constitución in the center of Guatemala City is the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral. Though several devastating earthquakes have rambled through the city, the blue-domed Neoclassical-Baroque structure stands strong as the city’s main house of worship. Pass through the 12-pillar entrance to admire the massive interior, austere though wonderfully embellished with religious paintings, carvings, and sparkling gold altars.
Guatemala City’s huge central plaza is a hive of activity, with people and pigeons milling about. Surrounded by important historical buildings, such as the Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana and the National Palace, the square is the focal point of the city, and is frequently the setting for demonstrations and celebrations.
Once a powerful seat of the Mayan empire, the Tikal ruins are now the most famous archeological site in Guatemala and one of the most-visited sets of Mayan ruins in all of Latin America. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of temples, plazas, and pyramids, was first settled around 700 BC, and modern visitors still get swept away by their beauty and powerful aura.
Constructed in 1904, long before Google Earth, this huge 3-dimensional outdoor map of Guatemala offers a grand-scale viewpoint of the mountainous country from above. A family-friendly attraction, Mapa en Relieve contains all the country’s volcanoes, rivers and lakes (some with running water), as well as its cities, roads, bridges, and railroad tracks.
One of the best-maintained zoos of Central Asia, the La Aurora Zoo is located next to Guatemala City’s International Airport. Established in 1924, the zoo also houses the relics of an ancient viaduct. This zoo has three distinct areas- African, Asian and American where animals from the respective continents can be found.
Set on an elevated ravine-surrounded site, this Maya city was built with defense in mind, with its inhabitants—the Chajoma people—having battled against neighboring Maya groups before finally succumbing to Spanish forces. As well as being of historical interest, Mixco Viejo also offers spectacular views of the surrounding valleys.
Built during the 1540s upon the ancient foundation of a Maya temple site, Santo Tomas Church (Iglesia de Santo Tomás) is a Roman Catholic church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. It remains a venerated holy site for people of both Catholic and Maya faiths and blends of the two. The stone stairs leading to the gleaming white Dominican church are reminiscent of those at ancient temple sites, and the steps have turned black from prayer sessions in which shamans waft copal incense and set purification fires. Inside, the church is adorned with offerings, everything from maize to liquor, and numerous candles, which have colors and patterns that correspond with those they've been lit for.
This 18-century neoclassical church in Guatemala City’s historic center rose to fame after the Virgen del Rosario was dedicated here in 1933. Join the pilgrims who come to visit the venerated image along with celebrated sculptures such as El Senor Sepultado and Jesus de la Buena Muerte. The splendid gold stuccoed altar is one of the best preserved in the country.
The Popol Vuh Museum located within the Francisco Marroquin University campus exhibits one of the largest collections of Mayan art in the world. Extraordinary artifacts are here, including masks, ceramics, pre-Hispanic statuettes, traditional fabrics, and more. One of Guatemala City’s must-visit destinations, some pieces date back to 9000 BC.
More Things to Do in Guatemala City
There are two ways to experience Mayan treasures when traveling across Guatemala: Either traipse through the jungles, down bumpy dirt roads, to ancient village sites and temples, or visit the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, or MUNAE) in Guatemala City. Inside this exceptional museum, visitors will find over 20,000 pieces of ancient Guatemalan treasures, from Mayan pottery, artwork, and crafts to traditional textiles and dress. With thousands of years of human history have taken place in these hills, Guatemala is comprised of a fascinating mosaic of different cultural identities. From the first settlers who built villages to thriving days of the Maya, all the epochs are represented inside Guatemala's national archaeological museum, with relics from archaeological sites having made their way to these halls. Learn how people first settled Guatemala as they migrated through Central America, and formed different languages, farming techniques, and ways to honor their dead. And, with so many discoveries still being made in Guatemala today, a museum that’s been open since 1898 continues to grow and improve.
Named after Guatemala’s colorful national bird, Biotopo del Quetzal is a vast nature reserve in central Guatemala encompassing Lanquin Caves, Rey Marcos Caves, and the rock pools of Semuc Champey. Abundant wildlife populate the expanse, including howler monkeys and elusive birds such as emerald toucanets, highland guans, and the endangered quetzal.
Though it’s much smaller than Tikal or nearby Copán, Quiriguál attracts attention thanks to its collection of large, intricately carved stelae. Standing as tall as 35 feet (10 meters, the towering monoliths are artfully carved with hieroglyphs that reveal clues about the rise and fall of this Maya city.
IRTRA Mundo Petapa is more than just another theme park; aside from it's large size, it also features botanical gardens, Guatemalan history, and a zoo. Exceptionally clean and well maintained, Mundo Petapa even features an Olympic sized swimming pool for beating the midday heat, and a towering, 175 ft. “skyscraper” with a thrilling vertical drop. Parts of the park are devoted toward preserving a slice of Guatemalan history, and quieter parts of the sprawling park are built in an old, 1950s style of small Guatemalan villages. You’ll also find a zoo on site with dozens of species of mammals, as well as 60 species of birds that flit and squawk in the aviary. Before you leave for the day, be sure to ride the ferris wheel that towers above the park, where the view looks out over Guatemala City and the surrounding volcanoes beyond. Even the grandiose rainbow archway is an entertaining sight, and Mundo Petapa is a guaranteed day of family fun.