Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Peru
The closest archaeological site to Lima is Pachacamac, a pre-Inca collection of sand-blasted pyramid temples and palaces spanning 1,500 years. Over the centuries the now-ruined city developed into one of the Inca’s most important religious and administrative centers.
Though all that remains is largely the rubble of walls and stepped foundations rising from the surrounding dusty desert, there are excavations and reconstructions to see, including a rebuilt Inca complex called House of the Chosen Women.
The site was inhabited by the Huari people prior to 800 AD, and later by the Inca, who built their Temple to the sun on the main square. Itshma was the name given to the state surrounding Pachacamac and the religious ceremonial temples built to honor the coastal deity, Pacha Camac.
The swanky beachfront suburb of Miraflores is one of Lima’s most sought-after zip codes.
Miraflores is where you’ll find Lima’s best restaurants, shops and hotels, plus the waterfront mansions and high-rise towers of the city’s movers and shakers. It’s also home to lovely parks and gardens, beaches and promenades.
Some ancient history remains in Miraflores, including the Huaca Pucllana, the remains of a pre-Inca mud-brick temple.
Paragliders come to Miraflores to leap off the area’s rocky cliffs over the sea. The beaches are popular, but the coast tends to be rocky rather than sandy and the better beaches lie further south.
Lima’s most bohemian district, the lively coastal neighborhood of Barranco first became popular towards the end of the 19th Century, drawing an influx of poets, writers and artists to the seaside resorts of Las Sombrillas and Barranquito. Although it was integrated into the capital territory in 1860, Barranco retains its village-like feel, with its striking colonial architecture and brightly painted buildings standing in stark contrast to the modern high-rises of neighboring Miraflores.
Best explored on foot, the elegant Plaza San Francisco is the starting point for a walking tour, home to the 19th century Iglesia San Francisco, and encircled by boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Nearby, the Bajada de los Baños ravine is the most popular hangout during the daytime, where the flower-lined Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs) makes a romantic spot for watching the sunset.
The modern city of Lima is dotted with historic ruins and sacred sites, known as huacas, and the imposing archeological site of Huaca Pucllana is one of the city’s largest and most important ancient monuments, located in the coastal Miraflores district. Built around 500 A.D, the complex was once an administrative and ceremonial center of the indigenous Lima Culture civilization, constructed from hand-made adobe bricks and dominated by a 22-meter tall central pyramid.
The impressive pre-Incan ruins are now a popular tourist attraction, affording unique views from the top of the central mound and dramatically floodlit in the evening hours. There’s also an on-site museum displaying artifacts like tools, ceramics and textiles unearthed during excavations, a workshop area displaying ancient textile and ceramic making techniques, a small park growing key plants used by the Lima Culture people and a spectacularly sited restaurant that looks out over the ruins.
As the oldest known city in the Americas, the archeological site of Caral is among Peru’s most impressive ruins and makes a popular day trip from nearby Lima. The UNESCO World Heritage listed site covers an area of around 60 hectares in the arid Supe Valley and was first inhabited between 2600 BCE and 2000 BCE.
Although initially discovered back in 1948, recent excavations of Caral revealed an elaborate complex of temples, sunken plazas and some of the largest terraced pyramids in the world, leading archeologists to ponder the possibility of Caral being the fabled ‘Mother City’ of ancient civilizations. Now open to the public, the site has garnered acclaim for its beautifully preserved ruins and intriguing collection of artifacts, which include a quipu (a unique knot system used by ancient Andean civilizations) and a number of musical instruments fashioned from animal bones, but significantly, no trace of warfare or weaponry.
When it comes to history, few cities in South America are more historic than Cusco. This sprawling city was once the capital of the entire Inca Empire, and many will tell you that ancient Cusco was the grandest city in Peru. Even the name “Cusco” translates as “Navel of the Earth” since the Inca believed the city to be the center of the known world. It pulses with an energy unlike elsewhere in Peru, and there is a palpable magic which permeates these streets set high in the foothills of the Andes.
During the 16th Century, when Spanish conquistadors came marching into Cusco, they kept the structure of the city intact but destroyed many of the buildings. Colonial cathedrals and Spanish architecture took the place of Inca temples, and the city became an Andean fusion of Spanish and Inca design. Given the cultural combination and the grandiose scale of the city, UNESCO declared Cusco as a World Heritage Site in 1983.
There was once a time when Cusco was the center of the powerful Incan Empire. From the coastal deserts of southern Peru to the frigid peaks of the Andes, every decision within the empire traced back to the city of Cusco. It was the beating heart at the very center of one of the greatest civilizations in history, and at the center of Cusco was the massive square which was known as Huacaypata.
When the Spanish besieged the city, however, many of the buildings around Huacaypata were viciously razed to the ground. Western structures were erected in their place to solidify the imperial dominance, and the name of the square was also changed to reflect the Spanish heritage.
Dedicated to Lima’s lovers, Love Park (Parque del Amor) understandably attracts couples who come to enjoy the Pacific Ocean views, especially around sunset. Located in the Miraflores district, the park bears a resemblance to Park Güell in Barcelona, thanks to the colorful mosaic walls displaying quotes on love spread throughout.
At the center of the park stands a sculpture by Victor Delfín entitled El Beso (The Kiss), unveiled in 1993 and still the best known work by the Peruvian artist. If you’re in Lima for Valentine’s Day, head to Love Park to watch young couples compete in a longest kiss contest staged by the statue.
Lima's baroque twin-towered cathedral dominates the city's central Plaza de Armas. The cathedral's elaborate colonial exterior looks intact, but it has suffered plenty of wear and tear over the years from earthquakes since its construction in the 1530s. Much of what you see dates from the rebuilding program of 1746. Step inside the huge cathedral via one of its grand three doors and you’ll find a lofty white and gold interior with soaring ribbed ceilings, mosaic chapels and pillared aisles.
The cathedral's walls are lined with paintings, and the highlight of the chapels is the elaborate marble tomb of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who laid the cathedral's first stone in 1535. Entry includes a guided tour and a visit to the cathedral's museum. The cathedral is brilliantly illuminated with floodlights at night, and the palm-filled square in front is a popular meeting spot with seating.
Lima’s Plaza Mayor (main square) is central Plaza de Armas, the city’s historic heart and birthplace.
Landscaped with palm trees, elaborate lampposts, flower beds and greenery, the square’s focus is the 1650 tiered bronze fountain in the center and the statue of Francisco Pizarro on horseback nearby. Visit at 11:45am to watch the changing of the guard, or visit any time to find an empty seat and watch the world wander by. There’s plenty to look at, with the cathedral on one side and the beautiful balconies of the Palacio Arzobispal next door. Several other attractive buildings with balconies and arched porticoes line the square, including the City Hall and Government Palace.
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The Iglesia and Museo de San Francisco is a spectacular example of Moorish-inspired Spanish baroque colonial grandeur, but the real highlight is the spooky labyrinth of catacombs underground.
One of the best preserved churches in Lima, the Convent of San Francis of Assisi also has a remarkable library of antique texts and a tranquil cloistered garden. A guided visit to the Museum and Convent takes you through the buildings’ history and architecture, before venturing into the underground passages lined with the bones of 25,000 Lima citizens from over 200 years of burials. Bones were interred here until 1808, when Lima’s cemetery was established, and the catacombs lay undiscovered until 1943. A visit is not for the fainthearted, but those who do make the journey will be surprised to see the various skulls and thigh bones arranged in decorative patterns.
Inaugurated in 1921 to celebrate a century of Peruvian independence, Plaza San Martin is named after the man who liberated Peru, Argentina and Chile from Spain, José de San Martín whose bronze likeness sits astride a bronze horse in the center of the plaza. Located within the UNESCO-listed Historic Centre of Lima and surrounded on three sides by neocolonial architecture, the plaza is considered one of the city’s most important public spaces.
The plaza becomes especially lively in the late afternoon and evening, when the buildings are lit up beautifully and locals gather to chit chat or, more often, argue politics beneath the trees. On the northwestern side of the plaza sits the Gran Hotel Bolivar, a perfect place to sip a pisco sour within the historic art deco building.
Downtown Lima’s most lively and colorful street is pedestrianized Jiron de la Union.
Lined with boutiques and stores for window-shopping, restaurants and cafes for bar-hoppers, and thronged with locals for people-watching, taking a stroll along this atmospheric thoroughfare is the best way to experience Lima in a nutshell. Taking up five blocks of prime city-center real estate, Lima’s most important boulevard was planned by Pizarro back in 1535, when the city was founded. A walk along this thoroughly commercialized car-free route takes you past City Hall, monuments, squares and the La Merced Cathedral, with its pretty square in front.
Dominating the northern quarter of Lima’s UNESCO-listed Plaza de Armas, the grand Presidential Palace, or Casa de Pizarro, is one of the city’s most impressive historic buildings. Built in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro to mark the founding of the city, the Presidential Palace has been the official home of the Peruvian government since the viceroyalty of Peru was first established.
Designed by architect Ricardo de Jaxa Malachowski in a French Baroque style, the original building was erected on the site of Indian chief Taulichusco’s former home, and was later the site where Jose San Martín declared the Independence of Peru in 1821. Along with its historical importance, the building itself has undergone numerous renovations and restorations throughout the years, and today, most of the existing structure dates back to the 20th century.
The pepper-pot belfry of Santo Domingo, one of Lima’s most historic churches, makes a rococo statement on Lima’s skyline. The interior has a neoclassical design in turquoise and sumptuous gold.
The church was completed in 1599, though it’s been rebuilt over the centuries following several earthquakes. The grand church has three naves, several altars, chapels and shrines, and Peru’s oldest choir stalls. Paintings and Seville tiles decorate the main cloisters surrounding the tranquil central gardens. Many visitors make the pilgrimage to the Iglesia de Santo Domingo to pay their respects to the Americas’ first black saint, San Martin de Porres. Santa Rosa de Lima also has a chapel in Santo Domingo.
Sacsayhuaman is the largest and most impressive of four archaeological ruins on the outskirts of Cusco, Peru. Built by the Incas, it served an important military function and was the site of a major battle with the Spanish in 1536. The name itself can be translated as “speckled head” and some say that the city of Cusco was laid out in the shape of a puma, with Sacsayhuaman forming the head.
The complex was constructed out of massive stones, some weighing as much as 300 tons, cut to fit together without the use of mortar. Today, many of the outside walls, built in a tiered, zigzag formation, remain, as do several tunnels and the “Inca’s Throne.” The latter is a series of large rocks with well-worn grooves used by many visitors as slides. A large, open plaza holding several thousand people was once home to ceremonial activities and continues to be used today – most notably for the annual celebration of the Inti Raymi festival in late June.
Cusco’s Cathedral of Santo Domingo is a colonial gem, boasting an altar of silver and a magnificently carved choir. The building stands on the site of an Inca palace, and was built from stone blocks removed from the nearby Inca city of Sacsayhuaman by the triumphant conquistadors.
The elaborately decorated cathedral was built from 1559 to 1654 on the city’s main square, Plaza de Armas, and is filled with colonial artworks, artifacts and richly decorated chapels. The most famous artwork is a Last Supper painting by Marcos Zapata featuring a meal of local guinea pig served with an Inca corn beverage. The highly ornamental facade features two domes flanking the chapels and nave, built in a Gothic-Renaissance hybrid style.
Tambomachay might not be one of the biggest ruins in Cusco, but it’s definitely one of the highest, topping out at nearly 13,000 feet.
Located five miles from the city center, Tambomachay is also known as “the Baths of the Inca” due to the multiple baths which are scattered about the site. The Inca held water in a spiritual regard as one of the sources of life, and the spring waters at Tambomachay are masterfully diverted into aqueducts, baths, and stone-carved waterways which would divert the water through the stone. Given the site’s natural beauty and the spiritual significance of its waters, it’s believed by historians that Tambomachay was reserved for Inca royalty. When visiting Tambomachay today, be sure to admire the smooth mosaic of stone which forms the walls of the ruin. The way in which the stones are perfectly stacked on each other is an example of the handicraft for which the Inca were famous.
The Inca site of Qorikancha forms the foundations of the colonial church of Santo Domingo, creating an unusual combination of monolithic Inca and arched colonial architecture.
Qorikancha means ‘Golden Courtyard’, and in Inca times the temple walls were clad with 700 sheets of solid gold, proving a tempting lure for the conquistadors. The gold sheets and gold and silver statues are gone, melted down and recast by the Spanish, but the impressively hewn curved wall of basalt stonework remains. The temple complex is thought to have been built by the first Inca emperor, Manco Capac, 100 years before the coming of the Spaniards. It was built as an observatory and religious temple to the sun, housing the mummified bodies of the Inca rulers. When you enter the courtyard, imagine the octagonal front clad with solid gold, flanked by temples to the moon and the stars draped in solid silver.
Near Cuzco, on the way to Pisac from Sacsayhuaman, is the amphitheater and temple of Q’engo. This site which is at 3,600 meters above sea level has some of the best examples of undisturbed Incan carving in the world. The name (which has many alternative spellings, sometimes with a k) means zig-zag, and this is in reference to the carved channels in the rock at the site. The site is actually comprised of four different parts, with the most popularly visited being Q’engo Grande, which was used as an astronomical observatory and holy site.
Q’engo Grande is a large limestone outcrop with two small knobs that show a shadow pattern at the summer solstice in June. Also carved into the limestone are a series of caves, altars and hollows that would have been used to move water. The site was used as a stopping point on a pilgrimage of religious importance during the Inca period, and mummification took place onsite as well.
Stretching between the Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Martin, and bisected by the principal boulevard of Jirón de la Unión, the historic center of Lima is still the focal point of the modern-day city. Today, the UNESCO-listed area forms the basis of most tourist itineraries, with the majority of attractions within easy walking distance and a wealth of elegant buildings, churches and monumental statues dating back to the colonial era.
The Plaza de Armas makes a popular starting point for walking tours, home to a cluster of landmarks including the Presidential Palace, the Municipal Palace (City Hall) and the Palace of the Union, as well as a bronze fountain bearing the coats-of-arms of Lima. Famously the site of the foundation of the ‘City of the Kings’ in 1535, the Plaza de Armas became the city’s first public square and was later the site of the declaration of the Republic of Peru in 1821.
The 40-plus floating Uros Islands are perhaps the most photographed attraction on Lake Titicaca, famously constructed with springy totora reeds. The reeds are collected from around the shores of Lake Titicaca, and used to replenish the fragile islands every three months or so, as the bottom of the two-meter (6.5ft) totora mat slowly rots back into the lake. Thus, the islands change shape, size and even number as the centuries pass, anchored to the lake bottom but in many ways a completely separate world.
The Uros people are an ancient race, predating the Incas by millennia and, according to local legend, even the sun and stars. The “People of the Lake,” as they call themselves, once said that they did not feel the cold, thanks to their “black blood.”
To help you get your head around Peru’s centuries of history and culture, visit the well-regarded Museo Larco Herrera in Lima.
The chronological overview of 3,000 years of history takes you through pre-Inca cultures and pre-Colombian art, to present-day interpretations of pre-Hispanic ceramics.
The museum is structured in a series of galleries, and its highlight is the fine collection of Inca gold and silver jewelry and artifacts, studded with prized lapis lazuli, turquoise and amethyst.
Painted pottery vases and tools are also displayed, along with elaborately fashioned metal ware, cotton and feather textiles. A unique feature of the museum is that visitors are granted access to the storage area, where 45,000 objects are arranged and cataloged.
The museum is housed in an 18th-century vice-royal mansion, built over a 7th-century pyramid and surrounded by leafy gardens.
The Magic Water Circuit, located within the Parque de la Reserva, provides a fun and family-friendly option for those looking for something inexpensive to do in Lima. The municipal project—a series of 12 fountains choreographed to music and lights—was inaugurated in 2007 and has since become a favorite attraction in the capital city among locals and visitors alike.
While the fountains are open Wednesday through Sunday, beginning in the late afternoon, they’re undeniably most impressive at night, when the lights and laser effects are most visible. Each of the fountains has a different theme, and some are interactive (you’ll get wet), making them a huge hit with kids. The Maze of the Dream (Laberinto del Ensueño) is a major highlight of the Magic Water Circuit and challenges visitors to find their way to an inner circle through a maze made from vertical walls of water. After dark, the Fantasia Fountain (Fuente de la Fantasía) entertains with a choreographed show.
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