Guatemala City’s Historic Center is located in the blocks between 1a and 17 Calles and 1a and 12 Avenidas. While it’s not so historic anymore – most of its original architecture has been replaced – efforts are underway to restore its colonial estates, baroque churches, and charming theaters. The Parque Central, also known as the Plaza de la Constitución, occupies the area between 6a and 7a Avenida and 6a and 8a Calle. It marks the center of the city, around which you’ll find budget hotels, bus terminals, and plenty of commerce.
Just like any Spanish city, beside the park you’ll find a large Catholic church. This one is called the Catedral Metropolitana, and its construction was completed in 1815. While not the most magnificent church, its pillars and bell towers were solid enough to survive the earthquake of 1976. Inside (open 6am-noon and 2-7pm), you can observe relics brought over after the destruction of Antigua in 1773. Notable is the Virgen del Perpetuo Socorro, originally brought from Spain with the conquistadors. Outside the church gates, marble pillars covered in engraved names stand in reverence to the thousands of civilians murdered during the Guatemalan armed conflict. Besides the Cathedral, Zone 1 is home to an array of beautiful churches that are worth a visit if you have time. The travel guide has more information on which ones are worth your while and how to find them.
On the northern end of the park is the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, one of Guatemala City’s most interesting buildings. The green stone structure was finished in 1943 by the crazed tyrant Jorge Ubico, and a walk through the building provides unique insight into his egocentric dictatorship. For one, the number five is a common motif in the palace, because both Jorge and Ubico have five letters. Stoplights with five lights (one red, two yellow, two green) line the walls and were used to signal employees to retreat to their offices when important political figures roamed the halls. Also of interest is that the pretty green stone was chosen for being Ubico’s wife’s favorite color, and the center of the Palace’s grand ballroom marks KM 0 of the Inter-American Highway. Filled with ornate architecture, stained-glass windows, and fascinating murals, the palace is more fitting of Guatemala City’s colonial past then of the era in which it was built. After the Peace Accords were signed here in 1996, the building was transformed into a museum and is open daily. Entrance is Q40, and guided tours of the grounds are offered in English. Be sure to check out the Patio de la Paz, where a statue of two intertwined hands holding a white rose serves as a memorial to the end of the armed conflict.
Central Park’s western edge bumps up against Sexta Avenida, a pedestrian thoroughfare that extends ten blocks south past cafés, sculptures, and diverse shops. Once a frenetic mess, Sexta was an important part of urban renewal efforts and has improved significantly in recent years. Cars were kicked out in 2010, and Sexta was renamed the Paseo de la Sexta. While a stroll down the avenue is enjoyable, the revamping process is on-going, and the avenue has yet to live up to its hyped reputation. However, while it may lack the splendor of fancier parts of the city, Sexta Avenida makes up for it in character. Guatemalans from all walks of life fill the street with a tangible, Guate-unique energy.
To the west of Sexta Avenida is the Parque Centenario, an extension of central park where you’ll find the National Library and National Archives. To the east, behind the Cathedral, is the Mercado Central. The Central Market, open from 6am-6pm from Mon.-Sat. and 9am-noon on Sunday, is packed to the brim and can be intimidating. Produce is located in the basement and assorted handicrafts are on the upper levels. Heading south are a few noteworthy buildings, including the Portal del Comercio, a refurbished commercial center opposite central park. Continuing along 7a Avenida is the attractive Palacio de Correos (Post Office) and the bizarre Tipografía Nacional (National Printing Press).
Heading south on Sexta Avenida, the charm and character of the centro histórico is lost in a flash, replaced by chaos and crime near 18 Calle, an area you should definitely avoid at night. Lined with food stalls and temporary stands selling knock-offs of just about everything is the Plaza Amate, a fascinating place if you like claustrophobic city markets. It was built by the Guatemalan government to gather all the pirateers somewhere outside of the heart of Zona 1 and immediately took off as a haven for street life.
For the history buffs, Zone 1 has a few decent, cheap museums, although Guatemala City’s best are found in Zone 10. The Museo Nacional de la Historia (National History Museum) holds interesting exhibits of photography, old documents, and art related to Guatemalan history. For the locomotive-lovers out there, the Museo del Ferrocarril (Railroad Museum) is housed in the capital’s former train station. The development and demise of Guatemala’s public railway system is actually quite interesting. The Casa de Cervantes is a fair-trade semi-museum that showcases and sells coffee and artisan goods. It also puts on cultural events and occasional special exhibits. To find out more about any of these spots, be sure to check out the travel guide as well.