For many travelers, Lima is a mere stopover—a point of entry to the fabled ruins of Cuzco and Machu Picchu. This is a shame. Peru’s bustling capital is one of the great South American cities, one that amply rewards those who take time to explore its treasures.
Here are some must-see destinations if you’re traveling on a tight schedule. Hopefully they’ll give a taste of one of Latin America’s most intriguing and storied destinations—and prompt you to plan a more extended visit.
Declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO, Lima’s central square is home to several splendid (if reconstructed) instances of colonial architecture. The cathedral houses the remains of Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador who founded the city and later was murdered by a rival Spanish faction, while the surrounding streets are full of fine houses with the carved wooden balconies and latticed grillwork that are a limeño trademark. (One especially fine instance is the Casa Torre Tagle, in Jirón Ucayali.)
If you drop by around noon, you can see the changing of the guard in front of the Palacio del Gobierno, complete with a marching band playing “El Condor Pasa.”
You arrive in Barranco by passing over a bridge from neighboring Miraflores, and immediately it seems as though you’re entering a greener, leafier world. Home to many writers and artists—including Peru’s Nobel Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa—the district has a distinctly bohemian flavor and is full of cafes, bars, and glorious old houses.
The central square has a beautiful old library and adjoins the Puente de los Suspiros, a lovely bridge known as the most romantic spot in the city. The best thing to do is take an afternoon and simply wander around. Be sure to stroll along the Bajada de los Baños, which goes down to a mirador looking out onto the Pacific.
Bolivar 1515 (Pueblo Libre)
Rafael Larco was an eminent Peruvian archaeologist who made important contributions to the study of pre-Incan cultures. When he died, he left his mansion and the thousands of artifacts he’d amassed in his 50-year career to the public, inaugurating what is today Lima’s best museum. The exhibits are incredibly informative and cover pre-Colombian civilizations such as the Mochica, Chimu, and Huari. Be sure to check out the annex full of erotic pottery.
Church of San Francisco
Jirón Ancash 451 (Lima Centro)
Consecrated in 1673, this colonial-era church is at once hauntingly beautiful and macabre. The upper stories feature spectacular baroque architecture, artwork from the school of Cuzco (including a Last Supper where the disciples are eating cuy, or guinea pig), and a magnificent library filled with ancient manuscripts and hand-printed books.
But it’s the catacombs below the convent that are the real draw. Lined with millions of bones from the city’s early centuries, including a well full of skulls, they afford an eerie, unforgettable glimpse into the world of the Spanish Viceroyalty.
Astrid y Gastón
Calle Cantuarias 175 (Miraflores)
Gastón Acurio is Peru’s national culinary hero, and his flagship restaurant was recently named as one of the world’s 15 best. The award is much deserved. The food here is actually a kind of fusion of French and traditional Peruvian cooking, with liberal use of Andean ingredients such as potatoes, rocoto peppers, quinoa, and llama. Many regard it as the best restaurant in South America. Be advised: you must call at least a week—and preferably two—beforehand for reservations.
Malecon de la Reserva (Miraflores)
This high-end shopping center and entertainment complex is an architectural marvel, built into the side of a cliff and overlooking the Pacific. The views are breathtaking, and during the day the area is a popular destination for visitors strolling the Malecon, or seawalk, to take in the sun.
At night, though, the place really comes alive. It’s home to several excellent cafes and restaurants, as well as cinemas, a bowling alley, arcades, and several tony discos for Lima’s smart set. Shopaholics will also love the boutiques full of jewelry and souvenirs. Bring your camera.
Have you traveled to Lima? What was your favorite part?
Mike Gasparovic is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. His great passion is Latin American culture, and he devotes most of his free time to studying the history, art, literature, and people of the Spanish-speaking world. He currently lives in Lima and wrote this article on behalf of Aracari Travel, specialists in organizing personalized travel itineraries in Peru.