Depending on who you talk to, Guatemala City (or Guate as it's also known) is either big, dirty, dangerous and utterly forgettable, or big, dirty, dangerous and utterly fascinating. Either way, there's no doubt there's an energy here unlike anywhere else in Guatemala. It's a place where dilapidated buses belch fumes next to BMWs and Hummers, and where skyscrapers drop shadows on shantytowns.
Guate is busy reinventing itself as a people-friendly city. Downtown Zona 1, for years a no-go zone of abandoned buildings and crime hot spots, is leading the way with the pedestrianized 6a Calle attracting bars, cafes and restaurants.
Many travelers skip the city altogether, preferring to make Antigua their base. Still, you may want, or need, to get acquainted with the capital, because this is the hub of the country, home to the best museums and galleries, transport hubs and other traveler services.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Guatemala City.
On the north side of Parque Central is this imposing presidential palace, which was built between 1936 and 1943 during the dictatorial rule of General Jorge Ubico at enormous cost to the lives of the prisoners who were forced to labor here. It's the third palace to stand on the site.
This museum is named for the Maya goddess of the moon, women, reproduction and textiles. Photographs and exhibits of indigenous costumes and other crafts show the incredible richness of traditional arts in Guatemala's highland towns. Guided tours are available in English (with prior reservation) or Spanish.
This excellent modern museum is inauspiciously jammed between two shopping malls a few kilometers out of town. Downstairs focuses on objects found at Kaminaljuyú, with fascinating trade-route maps showing the site's importance. Upstairs there are displays on textiles and indigenous clothing, separated by region, from around the country.
This museum has the country's biggest collection of ancient Maya artifacts, but explanatory information is very sparse. There's a great wealth of monumental stone sculpture, including Classic-period stelae from Tikal, Uaxactún and Piedras Negras; a superb throne from Piedras Negras; and animal representations from Preclassic Kaminaljuyú.
Inside Museo Popol Vuh you'll find well-displayed pre-Hispanic figurines, incense burners and burial urns, plus carved wooden masks and traditional textiles filling several rooms of this museum. Other rooms hold colonial paintings and gilded wood and silver artifacts. A faithful copy of the Dresden Codex, one of the precious 'painted books' of the Maya, is among the most interesting pieces.
A wonderfully presented museum and cultural center set in a house dating from the late 19th century. The owners of the house were collectors with eclectic tastes ranging from French neo-rococo, Chinese and art deco to indigenous artifacts. The place is set up like a functioning house, filled with curios and furniture spanning the centuries, such as top hats, an Underwood typewriter and a vintage Sunbeam blender.
North of Zona 1, Zona 2 is mostly a middle-class residential district, but it's worth venturing along to Parque Minerva to see this huge open-air map of Guatemala showing the country at a scale of 1:10,000. The vertical scale is exaggerated to 1:2000 to make the volcanoes and mountains appear dramatically higher and steeper than they really are.
This is one of the city's more intriguing museums, with lots of photos and interesting memorabilia from the train days of old. Documented here are the glory days of the troubled Guatemalan rail system, along with some quirky artifacts, such as hand-drawn diagrams of derailments and a kitchen set up with items used in dining cars. You can climb around in the passenger carriages, but not the locomotives. There's even a room displaying the administrative office, replete with bored-looking bureaucrat.
The university's small yet packed Museo de Historia Natural is at the same site as the Universidad de San Carlos' botanical garden, which is also included in the admission price. The museum has a well-arranged collection of flora and fauna specimens from around the country – it's packed with gems (one room literally!) and has displays on history, archaeology, fauna, fossils and more.