Once a compact city surrounded by small towns, Lima is now a vast metropolitan area that is home to nearly 9 million people. Most of it has little to offer travelers, so you’ll want to limit your exploration to the distritos, or neighborhoods, listed in this chapter. Most of the city’s best hotels and restaurants are located in three adjacent neighborhoods—Barranco, Miraflores, and San Isidro—to the south of the historic center, El Centro, but the bulk of its attractions are clustered in El Centro and nearby Pueblo Libre. You’ll consequently need to take taxis between neighborhoods, though an express bus called the Metropolitano provides a quick connection between El Centro and the neighborhoods of Miraflores and Barranco. The airport is in a separate city called El Callao, about half an hour to the west of El Centro and an hour from most hotels. Trips between Barranco and Miraflores or San Isidro should take 10 to 20 minutes, whereas the travel times between any of them and El Centro are 20 to 30 minutes. During the rush hour, travel times double.
POINTS OF INTEREST
In the colonial-era, Lima was the seat of power for the viceroyalty of Peru. It held sway over a swath of land that extended from Panama to Chile. With power came money, as is evident by the grand scale on which everything was built. The finely carved doorways of some mansions stand two stories high. At least half a dozen churches would be called cathedrals in any other city. And the Plaza de Armas, the sprawling main square, is spectacular.
But history has not always been kind to the neighborhood known as El Centro. Earthquakes struck in 1687 and 1746, leveling many of the buildings surrounding the Plaza de Armas. Landmarks, such as the Iglesia de San Augustín, were nearly destroyed by artillery fire in skirmishes that have plagued the capital. But more buildings are simply the victims of neglect. It’s heartbreaking to see the wall on a colonial-era building buckling or an intricately carved balcony beyond repair. But the city government has made an effort to restore its historic center. After years of decline, things are steadily improving. An unhurried visit to the historic district’s main attractions takes a full day, with at least an hour devoted to the Museo de Arte Nacional, though you can see a good bit of it all in half a day if you’re rushed.
Inaugurated in 1924, this regal structure looks more like a palace than a post office. You can buy a postcard or send a package, but most people come to admire the exuberance of an era when no one thought twice about placing bronze angels atop a civic building. At one time locals deposited letters in the mouth of the bronze lion by the front doors. About half of the building is given over to two museums: the Casa de la Gastronomía Peruana, dedicated to the country’s culinary traditions, and the Museo Postal y Filatélico, which displays its stamps.
IGLESIA DE LA MERCED
Nothing about this colonial-era church could be called restrained. Take the unusual baroque facade. Instead of stately columns, the powers-that-be decided they should be wrapped with carefully carved grapevines. Inside are a series of retablos that gradually change from baroque to neoclassical styles. The intricately carved choir stalls, dating from the 18th century, have images of cherubic singers. The first house of worship to be built in Lima, Our Lady of Mercy was commissioned by Hernando Pizarro, brother of the city’s founder. He chose the site because it was here that services were first held in the city.
IGLESIA DE SAN FRANCISCO
Bones—including thousands and thousands of human skulls—are piled in eerie geometric patterns in the crypt of this church. This was the city’s first cemetery, and the underground tunnels contain the earthly remains of some 75,000 people, which you visit on a tour (available in English). The Church of Saint Francis is the most visited in Lima, mostly because of these catacombs. But it’s also the best example of what is known as “Lima Baroque” style of architecture. The handsomely carved portal would later influence those on other churches, including the Iglesia de la Merced. The central nave is known for its beautiful ceilings painted in a style called mudejar (a blend of Moorish and Spanish designs). On the tour you’ll see the adjoining monastery’s immense collection of antique texts, some dating back to the 17th century.
IGLESIA DE SAN PEDRO
The Jesuits built three churches in rapid succession on this corner, the current one dating from 1638. It remains one of the finest examples of early-colonial religious architecture in Peru. The facade is remarkably restrained, but the interior shows all the extravagance of the era, including a series of baroque retablos thought to be the best in the city. Many have works by Italians like Bernardo Bitti, who arrived on these shores in 1575. His style influenced an entire generation of painters. In the sacristy is The Coronation of the Virgin, one of his most famous works.
MUSEO DE ARTE DE LIMA
Built in 1871 as the Palacio de la Expedición, this mammoth neoclassical structure was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Leonardo, with metal columns from the workshop of Gustav Eiffel (who later built the famous Parisian tower). The ground floor holds temporary exhibitions, usually by international artists, whereas the second floor houses a permanent exhibition that contains a bit of everything, from pre-Columbian artifacts to colonial-era furniture. One of the highlights is the collection of 2,000-year-old weavings from Paracas.
MUSEO DEL CONGRESO Y DE LA INQUISICIÓN.
Visit the torture chambers of the Spanish Inquisition, where life-size exhibits illustrate methods of extracting “confessions” from prisoners accused of crimes against the Catholic Church. You can only visit the museum on hourly tours, and they offer just a few tours in English per day, so you’ll want to reserve ahead of time. In contrast to the grisly displays, the 18th-century building is quite lovely, especially the coffered ceilings.
PALACIO DE GOBIERNO
The neo-baroque palace north of the Plaza de Armas is the official residence of the president. It was built on the site where Francisco Pizarro was murdered in 1541 and has undergone several reconstructions, the most recent of which was completed in 1938. The best time to visit is at noon when you can watch soldiers in red-and-blue uniforms conduct an elaborate changing of the guard. It’s not Buckingham Palace, but it’s impressive. Tours are offered on Saturday at 10 and 11, but you should reserve at least a few days ahead of time.
PLAZA DE ARMAS
This massive square has been the center of the city since 1535. Over the years it has served many functions, from an open-air theater for melodramas to an impromptu ring for bullfights. Huge fires once burned in the center for people sentenced to death by the Spanish Inquisition. Much has changed over the years, but one thing remaining is the bronze fountain unveiled in 1651. It was here that José de San Martín declared the country’s independence from Spain in 1821.
PLAZA SAN MARTÍN
This spectacular plaza is unlike any other in the city. It is surrounded on three sides by neocolonial buildings dating from the 1920s. Presiding over the western edge is the Gran Hotel Bolívar, a pleasant spot for a pisco sour. Even if you aren’t thirsty, you should step inside for a look at its elegant lobby. At the plaza’s center is a massive statue of José de San Martín, the Argentine general who led the independence of Argentina, Chile, and Peru from Spain.
A ceremonial arch at the corner of Ucayali and Andahuaylas marks the entrance to Lima’s tiny Chinatown. It consists of little more than a block-long pedestrian mall where the benches and kiosks are topped with traditional Chinese roofs and the street is decorated with tile representations of the Chinese zodiac. The best restaurants are around the corner on Paruro.
CASA SOLARIEGA DE ALIAGA
Lima’s oldest house, commonly known as Casa Aliaga, is a beautiful example of Spanish Colonial architecture a block from the Plaza de Armas. It was built by Jeronimo de Aliaga, one of Pizarro’s officers, in 1536. His descendants lived in it for centuries, restoring it following an earthquake in 1746. Its rooms are furnished with antiques, and its walls decorated with historic paintings and colonial religious art. You must make a reservation to visit the house, so most travelers see it as part of a city tour.
CASA TORRE TAGLE
This mansion sums up the graceful style of the early 18th century. Flanked by a pair of elegant balconies, the stone entrance is as expertly carved as that of any of the city’s churches. It currently holds offices of the Foreign Ministry and is not open to the public, but you can often get a peek inside through an open door, and if you’re lucky, the guards may let you step into the courtyard. If so, you might see the tiled ceilings, carved columns, and a 16th-century carriage. Across the street is Casa Goyeneche, which was built some 40 years later in 1771, and was clearly influenced by the rococo movement.
CERRO SAN CRISTÓBAL
Rising over the northeastern edge of the city is this massive hill, recognizable from the cross at its peak—a replica of the one once placed there by Pizarro. On a clear day—more common during the southern summer—you can see most of the city below. The neighborhood at the base of the hill is sketchy, so hire a taxi to take you to the summit and back. At this writing, a new aerial tram is being built.
CONVENTO DE SANTO DOMINGO
The 16th-century Convent of Saint Dominic offers a glimpse of life in a cloister. This sprawling structure shows the different styles popular during the colonial era in Lima. The bell tower, for instance, has a baroque base built in 1632, but the upper parts rebuilt after an earthquake in 1746 are more rococo in style. The convent’s two cloisters are decorated with hand-painted tiles imported from Spain in the early 17th century. The stately library holds 25,000 antiquarian books. If you visit between 1 and 3, you can ascend the bell tower for a view of the old city. The church is quite popular, as it holds the tombs of the first two Peruvian saints, Santa Rosa de Lima and San Martín de Porres. Independent guides who wait by the entrance offer short tours for a negotiable fee.
ESTACIÓN DE DESAMPARADOS
Inaugurated in 1912, Desamparados Station was the centerpiece for the continent’s first railway, which stretches from the port of Callao to the Andean city of Huancayo. The station was named for a Jesuit church and monastery that stood next door at the time of its construction but has since been demolished. It now holds the Casa de la Literature Peruana (House of Peruvian Literature), which hosts literary exhibitions. It’s well worth stepping inside to admire the building’s elegant art nouveau interior, especially the stained-glass skylight.
IGLESIA DE JESÚS, MARÍA Y JOSÉ
The 1659 Church of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph may be smaller than some of El Centro’s other churches, but inside is a feast for the eyes. Baroque retablos representing various saints rise from the main altar and line both walls.
MUNICIPALIDAD DE LIMA
Although it resembles the colonial-era buildings that abound in the area, City Hall was constructed in 1944. Step inside to see the stained-glass windows above the marble staircase. To the south of the building is a popular pedestrian walkway called the Paseo Los Escribanos, or Passage of the Scribes, lined with inexpensive restaurants. Here you’ll find the entrance to a small gallery run by City Hall that hosts exhibitions by Peruvian artists. In the back of the building is a tourist information office.
MUSEO DE ARTE ITALIANO
Italian art in Peru? This small museum is one of the city’s most delightful. Most of the art is about a century old, so it captures the exact moment when impressionism was melting into modernism, and the building itself is a work of art. Don’t overlook the magnificent iron door, by Alessandro Mazzucotelli.
PARQUE DE LA EXPOSICIÓN
Eager to prove that it was a world-class capital, Lima hosted an international exposition in 1872. Several of the buildings constructed for the event still stand, including the neoclassical Palacio de la Exposición, which now serves as the Museo de Arte. Stroll through the grounds and you’ll find the eye-popping Pabellón Morisco (Moorish Pavillion). Painstakingly restored, this Gothic-style structure has spiral staircases leading to a stained-glass salon on the second floor. The nearby Pabellón Bizantino, or Byzantine Pavilion, is being slowly refurbished. Despite its name, it most closely resembles a turret from a Victorian-era mansion.
While strolling through the ancient olive trees of Parque El Olívar, you might be surprised by the light traffic and pastoral ambiance. But just a few blocks away you’ll find the busy boulevards of Camino Real, or Avenida Arequipa, which serve as reminders that San Isidro also holds the offices of the country’s largest companies and banks, as well as most foreign embassies. It also has some of the city’s best hotels and restaurants, so you are bound to spend some time. However, San Isidro’s only real tourist attraction is the Huaca Huallamarca, where you can clamor atop the ruins of a pre-Columbian temple.
Like nearby Miraflores, San Isidro is big on shopping, though more of its boutiques sell designer goods. Its bars serve up the latest cocktails, and its restaurants dish out cuisine from around the world, but it has a more subdued atmosphere than you’ll find in the other neighborhoods.
The sight of this mud-brick pyramid catches many people off guard. The structure, painstakingly restored on the front side, seems out of place among the neighborhood’s towering hotels and apartment buildings. The upper platform affords some nice views of the San Isidro. There’s a small museum with displays of objects found at the site, including several mummies. This temple, thought to be a place of worship, predates the Incas.
With flower-filled parks and wide swaths of green overlooking the ocean, it’s no wonder travelers flock to this seaside suburb. Miraflores has Lima’s best selection of hotels and restaurants, which is why most people stay here, but it is also the city’s cultural hub. There are plenty of boutiques and galleries, as well as bars, cafés, and dance clubs. Some people who find themselves in Lima for a short time never leave this little haven.
At its center is Parque Miraflores, sitting like a slice of pie between Avenida José Larco and Avenida Diagonal. On the eastern side is the Iglesia de la Virgen Milagrosa, the neighborhood’s largest church. The colonial-style building next door is the Palacio Municipal de Miraflores, where most governmental business takes place.
Where you go next depends on your areas of interest. If you’re interested in ancient cultures, head to the massive temple of Pucllana. From the top you have a great view of the neighborhood. A tiny Museo Amano, six blocks to the west contains a small but impressive collection of ancient artifacts. If you want to shop, head for Avenida Petit Thouars just a few blocks north of the park, where a series of markets hold dozens of shops that offer some of the best deals in town. For some fresh air and an ocean view, head to Parque del Amor, a wonderful park with a splendid view of the coast and sea below. It attracts young lovers, joggers, paragliding enthusiasts, and just about everyone else on a sunny afternoon.
Rising out of a nondescript residential neighborhood is this mud-brick pyramid. You’ll be amazed at the scale—this pre-Inca Huaca, or temple, covers several city blocks. The site, which dates back to at least the fourth century, has ongoing excavations, and new discoveries are often announced. A tiny museum highlights some of the finds. Knowledgeable guides, some of whom speak English, will lead you around and over the pyramid to the area that is being excavated.
PARQUE DEL AMOR
You could imagine you’re in Barcelona when you stroll through this lovely park designed by Peruvian artist Victor Delfin. Like Antonio Gaudí’s Parque Güell, the park that provided the inspiration for this one, the benches are decorated with broken pieces of tile. In keeping with the romantic theme—the name translates as “Park of Love”—the mosaic includes such romantic sayings as Amor es como luz (“Love is like light”). The centerpiece is a massive statue of two lovers locked in a rather lewd embrace.
What locals call Parque Miraflores is actually two parks. The smaller section, near the roundabout, is Parque 7 de Junio, whereas the rest of it is Parque Kennedy. To the east of Parque Kennedy stands Miraflores’s stately Iglesia de la Virgen Milagrosa (Church of the Miraculous Virgin), built in the 1930s on the site of a colonial church. The equally young colonial-style building behind it is the Palacio Municipal de Miraflores (Town Hall). A tourist-information kiosk sits near the entrance to the church. Several open-air cafés along Parque Kennedy’s eastern edge serve decent food. At night, a round cement structure in front of those cafés called La Rotonda fills up with handicraft vendors, and the park becomes especially lively. Street vendors sell popcorn and traditional Peruvian desserts such as mazamora (a pudding made with blue corn and prunes) and arroz con leche (rice pudding).
EL FARO DE LA MARINA
Constructed in 1900, this little lighthouse a short walk north from the Parque del Amor has guided ships for more than a century. The classically designed tower is still in use today. On sunny afternoons the large park that surrounds it is one of the most popular spots in Miraflores, with paragliders floating overhead and bicyclists and skateboarders rolling along the ocean-view Malecón (promenade). Children of all ages play on the lawns.
Barranco is a mix of bohemian, historic, and run down, but the area along the coast is the most charming of Lima’s neighborhoods. On weekend nights it’s a magnet for young people who come to carouse in its bars and dance clubs. Sleepy during the day, the neighborhood comes to life around sunset, when artisans start hawking their wares on its central square and the bars begin filling up.
Founded toward the end of the 19th century, Barranco was where wealthy Limeños built their summer residences. The streetcar line that once connected it to El Centro brought crowds of beachgoers on weekends and holidays. The view proved so irresistible that some built huge mansions on the cliffs above the sea. Many of these have fallen into disrepair, but little by little they are being renovated.
BAJADA DE BAÑOS
The cobbled road that leads down to the “Baths”—the beaches—is shaded by massive trees and lined with historic architecture. Once the route that local fishermen used to reach their boats, it is now a popular promenade at night, since many of the former homes that line it hold restaurants and bars. At the bottom of the hill a covered wooden bridge spans a busy road, called Cirquito de Playas, to a coastal sidewalk that leads to several beaches and restaurants. A short walk to the north is Playa Barranquito, and Playa Agua Dulce is half a mile south.
MUSEO PEDRO DE OSMA
Even if there were no art inside this museum, it would still be worth the trip to see the century-old mansion that houses it. The mansard-roofed structure—with inlaid wood floors, delicately painted ceilings, and breathtaking stained-glass windows in every room—was the home of a wealthy collector of religious art. The best of his collection is permanently on display. The finest of the paintings, the 18th-century Virgen de Pomato, represents the Earth, with her mountain-shaped cloak covered with garlands of corn. A more modern wing contains some fine pieces of silver, including a lamb-shaped incense holder with shining ruby eyes. Make sure to explore the manicured grounds.
Elegant royal palms, swirls of colorful bougainvillea, and the surrounding colonial architecture make this park stand out from others in Lima. The southern end is lined with historic buildings, the most prominent of which is the library, with its yellow clock tower. To the north of the park stands Barranco’s bright red Iglesia de la Santísima Cruz (Church of the Holy Cross), which opens for mass every evening, as well as Sunday morning. To the west of the park is a staircase that leads down to the Puente de los Suspiros and the Bajada a los Baños.
PUENTE DE LOS SUSPIROS
The romantically named Bridge of Sighs is a wooden walkway over the tree-shaded Bajada de los Baños. Though the bridge itself is nothing special, the view of the surrounding historic buildings is priceless. the bridge is the most direct route from the Parque Municipal to La Ermita, a lovely little chapel dating from 1882 that is painted a dazzling shade of red. To the left of the church is a path that leads to a scenic overlook.
MUSEO DE LA ELECTRICIDAD
In front of this tiny museum is a cherry-red urbanito, or streetcar, named Breda. From Tuesday to Sunday, for about 80 cents, you can climb aboard and take a three-block trip down tree-lined Avenida Pedro de Osma. The museum’s small collection of exhibits on electricity is geared toward school children.
Instead of hurrying past, residents of Pueblo Libre often pause to chat with friends. There’s a sense of calm here not found elsewhere in the capital. Plaza Bolívar, the park at the heart of Pueblo Libre, is surrounded by colonial-era buildings, many of which are home to shops and restaurants. On the south side, in the Municipalidad de Pueblo Libre, are governmental offices. A small gallery on the ground floor sometimes hosts painting and photography exhibitions.
Despite the pleasant surroundings, there would be little reason to venture this far if it weren’t for the presence of two fine museums, the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Arqueología, e Historia del Perú, and the Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera.
Fuchsia bougainvillea tumbles over the white walls surrounding the home of the world’s largest private collection of pre-Columbian art. The oldest pieces are crude vessels dating back several thousand years. Most intriguing are the thousands of ceramic “portrait heads” crafted more than a millennium ago. Some owners commissioned more than one, allowing you to see how they changed over the course of their lives. The sala erótica reveals that these ancient artists were surprisingly uninhibited, creating everyday objects adorned with sexual images. This gallery is across the garden from the rest of the museum. Guides are a good idea. The café overlooking the museum’s garden is an excellent option for lunch or dinner.
MUSEO NACIONAL DE ANTROPOLOGÍA, ARQUEOLOGÍA E HISTORIA DEL PERÚ
The country’s most extensive collection of pre-Columbian artifacts can be found at this sprawling museum. Beginning with 8,000-year-old stone tools, Peru’s history is revealed through the sleek granite obelisks of the Chavín culture, the intricate weavings of Paraca peoples, and the colorful ceramics of the Moche, Chimú, and Inca civilizations. A fascinating pair of mummies from the Nazca region is thought to be more than 2,500 years old. They are so well preserved that you can still see the grim expressions on their faces.