Guatemala is famous for its beautiful landscapes, volcanoes, colonial towns, and Mayan ruins. Its capital, on the other hand, is either completely discounted or labeled infamous. But don’t high-tail it before you’ve had a chance to check out these fabulous things to do in Zone 1 Guatemala City.
Is there anything to see in Guatemala City?
Guatemala City often gets a bad rap for being noisy, dirty, chaotic, and an epicenter of crime. Many visitors to Guatemala get out of the capital city as fast as possible, taking a shuttle from the airport to the black sand beaches of the Pacific, Acatenango Volcano, or the scenic highlands surrounding Lake Atitlán.
I understand the urge.
The traffic IS awful. Buses discharge plumes of diesel smoke from their rear ends. Petty theft, “zonas rojas” (red zones for crime), and poverty are real issues. Between the honking horns, blaring music, megaphone announcers, and street vendors hawking their wares, it is definitely loud.
And yet, Guatemala City still has some pretty neat places. My all-time favorite spot to visit in the sprawl of the capital is Guatemala’s historic center: Zone 1.
Why visit Zone 1
This vibrant bustling place feels like the beating heart of Guatemala City. So much of Guatemala’s history has played out along these streets, in the central square, and in the iconic buildings scarred by earthquakes, civil war, and graffiti.
It is beautiful in its way. The wide sidewalks of Sixth Avenue lead you beneath the fragile purple boughs of flowering jacarandas in the central plaza. Here, the ornate green walls of the national palace soar skyward. Flocks of pigeons mutter and bob their heads, pecking for seeds. Fruit vendors push their carts over the stones beside the fountain, selling brightly-colored slices of mango and papaya seasoned with lime. A teenage girl and her brother herd a small flock of goats between the trees, offering fresh goat milk (squeezed on demand) to passersby.
Seven best things to do in Zone 1 Guatemala City
There’s always something new to see and do in Zone 1. It’s a fabulous spot to people watch, delve into history, meander through the scenic park, and learn something new about Guatemala’s past.
Here are my favorite things to do in Zone 1 Guatemala City:
Walk along Paseo la Sexta
Paseo la Sexta, also known as Sexta Avenida, is probably the most famous street in Guatemala. This pedestrian by-way leads from 18th Calle all the way to the Plaza de la Constitución twelve blocks later.
Shops, cafés, and restaurants line the avenue. Musicians busk on the sidewalks, playing everything from marimba to violin. Human statues change poses in exchange for coins. Stilt-walkers, clowns, and groups of breakdancers occasionally perform as well.
It is a lively place where you’ll see many different kinds of people from all different walks of life.
If you’re hungry, stop in for coffee and dessert at a café, buy a fruit cup or licuado, or try some of the ethnic restaurants that line the avenue. Saúl E. Mendez is an upscale restaurant inside the historic Teatro Lux–built by German architects in 1936. Or if you’re looking for vegetarian food, consider eating a mushroom lasagna at Restaurante Rey Sol.
Get a licuado and toasted sandwich at Panadería Berna
One of my all-time favorite things to do in zone 1 Guatemala City is to go to Panadería Berna. I discovered it in 2011 when working for an NGO in Zone 1. At that point, it was a hole-in-the-wall bakery inside of a run-down mall. Over the years Panadería Berna has moved locations, renovated and expanded, then renovated and expanded again.
The bakery’s success comes down to their smoothies and sandwiches. They are delicious, filling, and uber cheap.
My favorite “licuado” is the mixed fruit smoothie with water, but you can also get a single fruit smoothie (pineapple, banana, melon, or papaya). All of the licuados are served up in a bag. This might seem strange, but it used to be the most common way to get a drink to-go here in Guatemala. Since most sodas came in glass bottles back then, it was an easy way for the stores to keep the bottles for recycling. As a kid, I enjoyed getting orange soda in a bag from any of the ubiquitous corner stores.
When you order, you can choose to get the smoothie bags tied (to-go version) or untied. You can opt to get your smoothie made with water, whole milk or skim milk (leche descremada). Either way, it’s sure to be delicious… and cheap! Most of their smoothies are just Q8. Can’t beat that price.
Their toasted sandwiches are also delicious. They have chicken salad, black bean, and ham and cheese. In my pre-celiac days, I thoroughly enjoyed both their chicken and black bean sandwiches. They are served on freshly baked Guatemala “francés” bread and toasted to perfection. Their sandwiches cost Q8 or Q9.
Wander around the Plaza de la Constitución
Another great thing to do in Zone 1 Guatemala City is to visit the Plaza de la Constitución. It is the largest central plaza in the country and dates back to 1776. It’s a beautiful square with a fountain in the center and is ringed by the National Palace of Guatemala, the Cathedral of Santiago, the Portal of Commerce, and the Portal de la Sexta.
When the Earthquake of Saint Martha damaged the capital city of Santiago de Caballeros (present-day Antigua), Guatemala City was relocated to its current location. The central plaza was created to serve as a civic and religious center. It was originally called the “Plaza de Armas.”
The Act of Independence of Central America was signed here on September 15, 1821.
Wander around, visit the buildings (I mention several below), chill by the fountain, and feed (or chase) the pigeons.
Check out the facade of the Biblioteca Nacional
The national library of Guatemala is also located in Zone 1. It is hidden behind other buildings and jacaranda trees on the east side of the Plaza de la Constitución. You’ll have to walk through a small park, Parque del Centenario, to reach it. The inside won’t be of interest to most visitors, but the outside is worth seeing.
First a little history.
The building project was started by Juan José Arévalo, Guatemala’s 24th president and the first to be democratically elected. He took office in 1945 and served a six-year term (during which he survived 25 coup attempts). His successor, Jacobo Arbenz, abandoned the library project, but it was taken up again and finished by Colonel Castillo Armas, who gained power in a coup d’etat backed by the US government and CIA Operation PB Success.
The Biblioteca Nacional was inaugurated two months after Castillo Armas was assassinated. As you can tell, this period in Guatemala’s history was rife with violence, coups, and dictatorships.
Some of this discomfort is evident in the facade of the Biblioteca Nacional. Originally, the building had a steep staircase leading up to the front doors. But in 1967, Guatemalan artist Efraín Recinos built a high-relief mural on the outside, rerouting the staircases to either side.
Recinos, a sculptor, painter, muralist, and architect, was one of the few artists who chose not to flee the country during the political upheaval of the 1950s and 60s. Several of his murals were censored, including one he tried to install inside the library.
Some of the phrases you can see in the facade include: “we have no desire for anything, only to live”, “exile, confinement, burial” and “death has passed”.
One of the caricatures, known as “the president” appears wearing a military costume, but has only one breast and one leg. Architect María Aguilar interviewed Recinos in 2008 and reported that “he thought that if the people had to put up with so many coups d’état and so many military men in power, they should at least put a pretty woman in charge. That is the sarcastic sense of humor of the Guatemalans who make jokes out of misfortune or tragedy.”
The high-relief mural has already been restored twice, once in 2004 under the direction of Recinos himself, and again in 2019. The work included fixing broken and missing pieces, restoring the white color, and filling in bullet holes.
The mural is just under 50 feet long. On the ground in front of it, protected by a layer of plexiglass, is a remnant of the original aqueduct system.
Tour the Palacio Nacional
Another fun and informative thing to do in Zone 1 Guatemala City is to take a tour of the Palacio Nacional. This beautiful building dates back to 1943 and was originally used as the presidential palace. During the guided tour, you’ll get to see the interior of this historic building and learn interesting stories from Guatemala’s past.
I went on a tour of the palace with my sister and we really enjoyed seeing all the artwork, murals, and a sign marked as Km 0. Kilometer markings on all major roads in the country are counted from this point. Our guide was very informative and even played piano for us.
The building houses some government offices and is used for official functions.
Location: In the Plaza de la Constitución
Hours: Tours are available Monday through Friday from 8 am to 5 pm.
Costs: Q40 for foreigners, free for Guatemalans and permanent residents with a DPI
Eat typical food and buy handicrafts in the Mercado Central
Skirt the cathedral in the central plaza to access another iconic Zone 1 destination: Mercado Central. This is one of the largest markets in Guatemala and takes up an entire city block. It has multiple underground levels, each dedicated to different wares.
You can buy handicrafts here from all over Guatemala. Once you’ve picked up your gifts and mementos, head down a level to explore the eateries and fruit and veggie stalls. This is a great place to buy tropical fruit such as paternas, zapotes, guanabanas, mangoes, and more.
If you’ve been wanting to try typical Guatemalan food, you’ll find a wide selection here. There are rellenitos de plátano, tostadas, and an array of traditional soups, sauces, drinks, and candies.
“Atol”, a thick sweet and steamy drink, is one of my favorite things to buy. I usually choose “atol de elote” made from fresh maize and “atol de arroz” which is a drinkable version of rice pudding. “Atol de plátano” or “arroz con chocolate” are also good.
Join the Christmas Festival fun on Paseo la Sexta
If you happen to be in Guatemala in December, you won’t want to miss the Paseo la Sexta Christmas Festival. This is one of my all-time favorite things to do in Zone 1.
Sixth Avenue is strung with thousands of Christmas lights. A free trolley runs up and down the avenue towards the central plaza. Dancers, human statues, and musicians perform on the wide sidewalks. And the Plaza de la Constitución is transformed into a winter wonderland.
There’s an ice-skating rink, a toboggan slide, a “snowfield” where visitors get to throw frozen chunks of ice at each other (yes, it is as painful as it sounds), and a ton of food stalls and pop-up restaurants. Best of all, it’s completely free!
Get your ice-skating and tobogganing tickets at the small booths around the plaza.
Even if you choose not to ice skate yourself, spend some time people-watching. Since few Guatemalans have experienced snow, ice, or skating, watching them get a taste of these winter activities is highly entertaining.
How to get to Zone 1 Guatemala City
You can get to Zone 1 Guatemala City in your own vehicle, or by Uber, Taxi, or the Transmetro.
I’ve always been lucky enough to have my own transportation (car or motorcycle), so I can’t speak to the other methods from experience. If you’re driving to Zone 1 on your own, your best bet is to use a navigation app like Waze.
If you’re catching an Uber or Taxi, you can ask them to take you directly to the Plaza de la Constitución or drop you off at Parque Concordia. From there you can walk most of Sixth Avenue heading towards the plaza.
Check out this informative post on how to use the Transmetro. There are many Transmetro stations all around Zone 1’s historic center. They are marked with a large “M” on google maps. Estación Gomez Carrillo and Estación San Agustín are both good choices that will get you within one block of Paseo la Sexta.
Where to park in Zone 1 Guatemala City
There are tons of paid parking options in Zone 1. That’s what I recommend if you are going in your own vehicle. Some parts of Zone 1 are a bit sketchy, so keeping your vehicle in a secure location is definitely the way to go.
I usually park in this small lot on 11 Calle. The guy who runs it knows me, is super friendly, and lets me store my motorcycle gear in his office while I’m enjoying Zone 1. If that lot is full, I go around the corner and park in the much bigger Gran Parqueo lot on 4th Avenue.
Both lots are only a block or so from 6th Avenue and Paseo la Sexta.
Best time to Visit Zone 1 in Guatemala City
I enjoy visiting Zone 1 at any time of year. I would recommend going during daylight hours unless you go to the Christmas Festival. There is a ton of activity during this time, even after dark, and the Christmas lights are beautiful.
Is Zone 1 safe in Guatemala City?
Zone 1 has a reputation for being unsafe, but I have never had any problems during my multiple visits to Guatemala City’s historic center. Follow these recommendations and you should be good to go:
- Visit Zone 1 during the day, it gets sketchy at night
- Stick to populated areas like Sexta Avenida or nearby sidestreets and the Plaza de la Constitution
- Don’t take a lot of things with you, especially valuables. I limit myself to a small bag or what can fit in my pockets. Don’t wear expensive watches, jewelry, etc.
- Don’t flash your money or valuables
- Stay relaxed, but also pay attention to your surroundings