With its ancient adobe pyramids, oceanfront parks, and colonial architecture, Peru's sprawling capital of nine million can keep thrifty travelers busy for days.
Kick things off with a visit to the stately Plaza Mayor, also known as Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square, which dates from its founding by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in the 16th century. During the colonial era, it hosted a market, bullfighting ring, and gallows. Today, visitors come to snap photos of the circa-1650 bronze fountain and watch the ceremonial changing of the guard around noon every day at the Palacio de Gobierno (Presidential Palace)—built in 1937 as the official residence of the president on the site of Pizarro’s palace. The baroque palace is open to the public, but reservations for free English-speaking tours must be made in advance by calling or visiting the office (ask the guard to direct you).
Rebuilt several times since Pizarro established the city’s first church on the site in 1535, the Cathedral of Lima—flanking the east side of Plaza Mayor—features architectural elements from baroque, neoclassical, and Gothic styles. Duck inside to gape at the gold-plated main altar and visit the chapel that holds Pizarro’s remains. Admission is free, with the exception of the cathedral’s religious art museum, which charges an entrance fee of about three dollars. Note the ornately carved wooden balconies on the adjoining Archbishop’s Palace.
Consecrated in 1673, the Church of San Francisco is one of the best preserved colonial churches in the city. The gilded side altars, Moorish-style dome over the main staircase, and carved wooden choir stalls distinguish the building as a stellar example of the Spanish baroque style. Nonetheless, most visitors beeline to the catacombs, which, as the city’s main burial place until 1808, holds tens of thousands of skulls and bones. Entry isn’t free, but a look is well worth the two-dollar admission price. English-speaking tours are included.
The collection at the Museo de Arte de Lima (or MALI) spans some 3,000 years, with works ranging from pre-Columbian ceramics to contemporary pieces. Among its highlights are watercolors by 19th-century Peruvian artist Pancho Fierro. Visit on a Sunday, when admission is reduced to just 30 cents.
The National Museum Afroperuano traces the history of slavery in Peru with documents and artifacts—including shackles and boughs—and features the contributions of Afro-Americans in areas like music, dance, and cuisine. Admission is free.
Learn about the long reach of the Spanish Inquisition at the free Museo del Congreso y de la Inquisicíon, which commemorates the building’s use as Peruvian Inquisition headquarters and, later, the home of the Peruvian Congress. See exhibitions on the auto-da-fé—the sentencing and public penance of alleged heretics—plus various torture methods used when the accused refused to confess (featuring life-size wax figures) and actual prison cells.
There are hundreds of ancient adobe pyramids, or huacas in and around Lima, but only a few are preserved as archaeological sites. You’ll pay a small fee (about $1.75 for adults and 30 cents for children) for admission to Huaca Huallamarca, a restored temple complex in the San Isidro district that dates to 200 B.C. The site was occupied by three different civilizations: the Hualla until A.D. 700, the Ishma around the 11th century, and the Incas in the 15th and 16th centuries. A small on-site museum displays artifacts excavated from the ruins, such as decorated vessels, musical instruments, and a mummy.
Admire the neoclassical and art deco architecture along Jirón de la Unión, a pedestrian thoroughfare that links Plaza Mayor and Plaza San Martin. Planned as the city’s main boulevard by Pizarro in 1535, the promenade is now lined with boutiques, cafes, and street performers. Notable buildings include the neoclassical Municipal Palace (City Hall), home to the Pinacoteca Municipal Ignacio Merino. The museum showcases some 600 works by 19th- and 20th-century Peruvian artists, including muralist Jose Sabogal. Also on the boulevard is the Iglesia de la Merced, a church famous for its stucco facade, carved in the extremely ornate churrigueresque style characteristic of the late Spanish baroque period.
In the practically free department, the zoo at Parque de las Leyendas (Park of Legends Zoo) charges $1.50 admission for kids and around $3 for adults. All the big draws are here—tigers, chimps, and giraffes—and there’s even a petting zoo for small tots, but don’t miss the Peruvian animals. Indigenous species are divided into areas meant to mimic the country’s three main ecosystems: penguins and sea lions in the coastal region; llamas, vicuñas, and pumas in the highlands; and jaguars, toucans, and crocodiles in the jungle.
The park fee includes entry to one of the country’s largest botanical gardens—highlights include orchid and cactus gardens—and the Maranga Archaeological Complex, ruins that were once part of Lima’s largest ancient city. Evidence of pyramids and temples are found at several huacas throughout the complex. The park’s Ernst W. Middendorf museum tells the story of the civilizations that lived there and displays artifacts and mummies.
Another good value at about four dollars, the interactive science museum Parque de la Imaginacion captures kids’ imagination with exhibitions on time travel, evolution, and the human body.
In the spirit of reuse, recycle, repurpose, the Madrid-based artist collective Basurama transformed an abandoned elevated train project in the middle of the city into the Ghost Train Park, where kids can swing from tires and zip-line between the color-splashed concrete columns originally intended to support the train.
With 13 fountains, the Magic Water Circuit in Parque de la Reserva holds the Guinness World Record for the largest public fountains complex in the world. Visit for free during the day or pay $1.30 to see the illuminated water extravaganza set to classical and Peruvian music starting at 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.
Food and Drink
The dizzying array of indigenous bounty available in Peru is the backbone of Lima’s culinary renaissance. See camote (a sweet potato), rocoto (a kind of chile), maca (ginseng), and more on display at the Mercado de Surquillo near Miraflores.
At Museo de la Gastronomia, life-size dioramas tell the story of Peruvian cuisine, such as the preparation of pachamanca—a traditional Andean dish of marinated meat (lamb, chicken, beef, alpaca, or guinea pig) layered with potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, chilies, beans, herbs, and spices cooked in an earthen oven. Don’t miss the pisco room, which details the production process of the brandy celebrated as Peru’s national beverage. All for less than a buck.
You have to wake up before dawn to catch the action at the Terminal Pesquero de Villa Maria del Triunfo, the city’s largest fish market. Gawk at the 200-odd varieties of seafood while rubbing shoulders with some of Lima’s top chefs as they make their ceviche selections for the day. Choose your own, and vendors will filet it for you for less than a dollar.
Stretching six miles along the coastal bluffs above the Pacific, the Malecón is a series of parks and paths spanning four districts, including the upscale Miraflores neighborhood. Join the locals for an early morning jog or bike ride, or meander at your leisure, stopping to soak up the sweeping ocean views flecked with paragliders and surfers. Don’t miss Parque del Amor, with its murals and Gaudí-like mosaics. The centerpiece is "The Kiss," a sculpture of a man and woman in a sensuous embrace.
Wander romantic Barranco, just south of Miraflores. A onetime resort for Lima’s wealthy, the seaside district became popular with writers and artists in the early 20th century. Today, young Limeños have rediscovered its bohemian vibe and bright art deco buildings. Go at night for the lively bar and restaurant scene or during the day for a stroll down the Bajada de los Baños, a cobblestone walkway that leads from the city to the sea. Take a breather at the iconic Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs) for an unparalleled view of the Bajada below and colorful ranchos that have been built into the cliffs. Legend has it that a wish will be granted if you cross the hundred-foot bridge while holding your breath.
Essentially an urban olive grove, the 57-acre Parque el Olivar in the San Isidro district is Lima’s green lung. As many as 3,000 trees once thrived in the park, originally planted by the Spanish in the 16th century with saplings from Seville. Today, the park is still full of centuries-old trees, attracting a steady stream of Limeños and more than 30 species of birds. Come harvest time, the olives are distributed throughout the surrounding neighborhood.