Lima was founded on the Pacific Ocean by Francisco Pizarro in 1535 as the new capital of Peru (which makes it one of the oldest cities on the American continent) after his conquest of the Inca Empire. Since Cusco(the capital of the Inca Empire) was too high in the mountains and too far from the sea, Pizarro decided to move it up north to the coast to facilitate communication with Panama, the then center of Spain’s empire in the New World.
Situated in the coastal zone, Lima enjoys a mild climate of a perpetual coastal mist and a polluted haze. For most foreign visitors, Lima is their first contact with Peru – Jorge Chávez International Airport is Peru’s main airport. From here, most people head south to Arequipa, Nazca, Cusco and Lake Titicaca.
To properly see Lima, one day should be enough. The city has two parts – the Old Part, the foundation site of the city, with numerous churches and colonial palaces, and the Modern Part, the beachfront upscale districts, with high-rise buildings, international hotels and beach boardwalks; this is where most tourists stay.
The Old Part
The Old Part was constructed in the Spanish (Roman) grid pattern, just like most squares in Latin America. All new colonial cities back then had to be established according to this pattern as defined by the 1573 Laws of the Indies issued by the Spanish Crown (which explains the European look to the square, though the palm trees are a bit distracting).
The Old Part has a convenient layout which makes it very easy to get about – it is formed by 2 large plazas connected by a pedestrian shopping zone.
The larger of the two plazas is the Plaza de Armas, the Square of Arms. Most main squares in South America are named like that because they were the place where military parades would take place and arms would be supplied in case of an attack. The plaza is dominated by several buildings – two of its sides are taken up by the lemon-colored City Hall with graceful colonnades, one by the baroque Cathedral and the adjacent Archbishop’s palace decorated with Moorish balconies, and the last one by the Government palace, the seat of the Peruvian President.
None of these buildings are original – Lima has been repeatedly flattened by earthquakes going as far back as 1655 and as recently as 1940. The worst earthquake happened in 1746 when all the buildings had to be rebuilt. As a result, the current structures have mainly a baroque or neoclassical appearance, and a massive, horizontal built to ensure better stability.
The square was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site (as have been most colonial squares in Latin America).
Things to see and do
The Government Palace was originally built by Francisco Pizarro, the infamous Slayer of the Inca.
It was constructed a year after he founded the city of Lima (the area had been inhabited by indigenous groups long before the Conquest). For 6 years, it served as the head office of his administration until he was assassinated in it – at the age of 63 – by the son of his longtime comrade-in-arms Diego Almagro.
The current building dates largely from 1920‘s, its Neo-Baroque facade from 1930’s.
General José de San Martín, one of the two great Liberators of South America from the Spanish dominance, declared the independence of Peru from here in 1821.
Today, the palace serves as the seat of the Peruvian government, and the official residence of the President of Peru (it is the Peruvian version of White House but nicer). The palace is not open to public.
The City Hall is hard to miss – its prominent lemon–colored facade just sticks out a mile.
Originally built in early 17th century, and completely destroyed by the earthquake of 1746, the current neo-colonial building was inaugurated in 1944.
The catholic Cathedral is another of the architectural jewels of Lima.
Its first stone was laid by Francisco Pizarro himself in 1535, when he – in a gesture of faith and humility – carried on his shoulders the first log used in the construction. The original church was relatively primitive, built from adobe and wood.
The present structure is a reconstruction based on the original designs of the building destroyed in 1746. It is a mix of architectural styles, predominantly Baroque (the interior and altar), Renaissance (the stone-carved façade), and Neoclassical (the bell towers).
Inside is the Museum of Religious Art, featuring religious paintings and sculptures, a 22-carat gold-plated altar, and 14 chapels one of which contains the tomb of Francisco Pizarro.
After his death, his corpse was separated into body and head, and buried apart under the cathedral floor. In 1892, the body was excavated and put on display. In 1977, a head was discovered inside a lead box claiming it belonged to Pizarro. After a series of examinations, it was determined that the head bearing the marks of severe sword blows belonged to Pizarro, while the body was of someone unknown.
Adjacent to the cathedral is the baroque Archbishop’s Palace, formerly the residence of the Archbishop of Lima. Currently, it houses a museum displaying rooms and furniture from the colonial era.
Of special interest are two balconies attached to the stone-carved façade.
These mira-dores, one of Lima’s architectural trademarks, were built in the 17th and 18th centuries for the ladies of the house to look out onto the streets without being seen, to guarantee their privacy.
Projecting from buildings’ upper floors onto the streets, the miradores are closed balconies made of carved wood. The most striking feature about them is the intricate, ornate latticework. This design was borrowed from Islamic art (Spain was occupied by the Islamic Moors for almost 800 years, and when the Spaniards conquered Latin America, they brought their Moorish-influenced architecture with them).
Many of these balconies have been destroyed by earthquakes and fires, or have fallen into disrepair, but you can still see some fine examples when strolling around the Old Part.
Entrance fees to the Cathedral are S/20, the combined ticket for the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s palace is S/30 ($8).
Located one block off the main square in a street lined with colonial palaces is the Church and Monastery of San Francisco.
A wrought iron gate, two huge towers covered with garish, yellow stucco, and a massive number of pigeons occupying the site are the first things that catch everybody’s eye.
The San Francisco monastery is the prototype of Baroque architecture in colonial Peru whose typical features are monumentality, carved portals, rustic masonry and distinct ledge.
The monastery survived intact several earthquakes, including the great one of 1746, only to suffer extensive damage in the earthquake of 1970.
The current complex comprises of a church, a monastery, two smaller churches, a world-renowned library, and catacombs open to public.
Situated right behind the monastery, on the banks of the Rímac river that runs through the city, is Parque La Muralla, the Park of the Wall.
Its main dominant is an equestrian statue of Francisco Pizarro that stood initially on Plaza de Armas, and parts of nicely restored city walls that once protected Lima from invading pirates. The park has walkways, small, terraced restaurants and cafés.
Located two blocks off the Presidential palace is the Santo Domingo Basilica and Convent.
Its construction began during the foundation of Lima 500 years ago, on land that was granted to the Dominican friar who accompanied Pizarro throughout the conquest and persuaded him to execute the captured Inca Emperor Atahualpa.
In the 16th century, the University of San Marcos, the first Peruvian university and the oldest university in Americas, began to function here.
The pink bell tower is 46 meters tall and built in Rococo style.
The entrance to the church of Santo Domingo is free, the Museum costs S/10 ($3) to enter.
Jirón de la Unión, Union Street, is the pedestrian shopping zone connecting the two main plazas in the Old Town.
For many decades, it was the most important boulevard of the city; with the decline of the center of Lima, it lost its old-world character and became completely commercialized. Today, you can find here many cheap clothing and footwear stores, shady slot machines casinos, night clubs, deteriorated commercial galleries, piercing and tattoo parlors, fast-food places and Internet cafés.
Located in a small plazoleta in the middle of the pedestrian zone is the La Merced Church, perhaps the most elaborate church in Lima.
Boasting a very stunning façade, it venerates the Virgin Mary of Mercy.
As old as the city itself, the original single-nave structure was extended into a three-nave church, whose design was copied by other Lima churches and spread as an architectural concept throughout South America.
La Merced was founded by the Mercedarian Order in 1535.
Mercedarians were one of many orders that sprung up in Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. It was a Roman catholic order founded in Barcelona for charitable purposes – one of its principal missions was the ransom of Christian captives taken by the Moors, the Muslim occupants of Southern Spain. The order enjoyed rapid growth, and was along with Franciscans and Dominicans instrumental in the Spanish conquest of the Americas, where it spread out quickly. The greatest concentration of Mercedarians occurred in Central America, followed by Peru and Mexico, where they not only evangelized the conquered indigenous people, but also established schools for the training of local elites. Nowadays, the order exists in 17 countries.
The entrance to La Merced Church is free.
Situated 5 blocks from the Plaza de Armas down the Jirón de la Unión street, the San Martín Square is the second one of the two large plazas forming the Old Part.
It was built in 1921 on the 100th anniversary of Peruvian Independence.
The plaza takes its name after General San Martín, one of the two Liberators of South America, whose bronze equestrian statue decorates the center of it.
Standing at its base is a bronze statue of Madre Patria, the symbolic mother of Peru. She was supposed to have a crown of flames on top of her head but the sculptor ignored the double meaning of the Spanish word llama (flame) and placed a little lama on her head instead.
The square is surrounded by attractive buildings, built mostly in neo-classical styles such as the Colon Theatre, or the National Club. Many good pastelerías and cafés can be found in the arcades around (as well as an endless stream of honking cars and cabs circling the traffic circle).
The most prominent building on the square is the historic Bolívar Hotel built to house visiting dignitaries, politicians and stars.
The now three-star hotel has very reasonable rates. And even though the two top floors must have been closed down due to spectral activity, you can still get here the best pisco sour in the country.
The Modern Part
About 7 miles out of the historical center, along the coastal cliffs of the Pacific Ocean where the city meets the water, is located Lima’s Modern Part.
Miraflores is one of the three upscale districts here, with international hotels, premium shops and sea-side restaurants.
The Kennedy Park at its center holds regular flea markets and art exhibitions, the famous Pizza Street is home to many pubs and music clubs. El Malecón is a nice boardwalk that runs along the bay. It starts at the shopping center Larcomar at the top of the cliffs, popular among tourists, and runs through several parks. One of them, the Parque del Amor offers beautiful views of the ocean, and is ideal for taking wedding photos. Surfing lessons can be taken on the beach below.
A short walk from Miraflores, Barranco was built in the 19th century as a beach destination for Lima’s aristocracy.
Today, it is Lima’s artsy and bohemian district, known as the Soho of Lima. A walkway connects it to Pacific Ocean; originally, it was used by fishermen coming down to the beaches. There are many restaurants and bars, visited by tourists.
San Isidro is the city’s financial center, that holds many bank headquarters, embassies and international businesses. It is also the site of Waka Wallamarca, a pre-Inca burying temple dating back to the 4th century.
Lima has several public and private museums. These are the most recommended to visit while in the city:
Museo Larco is a must-see private museum that ranks among the best in the world for pre-Columbian art. Well-known are its Moche Culture erotic collections. Located in Av. Simon Bolivar 1525, the entrance fee is S/30 ($8).
Set in an old mansion on Plaza Bolivar is the Museum of Archaeology, the largest and oldest museum in Peru. Its extensive collections offer a compre-hensive view of Peru history since 1500 BC. It is government-run (meaning English-speaking guides might not be available, the café might not be open, and English translations of exhibits might be missing).
As of August 2019, the museum is temporarily closed for renovation.
Situated inside a building made of reinforced concrete is Museo de Oro, the Gold museum.
It houses a private collection of gold artifacts from the Inca and pre-Inca periods, as well as exhibits of textiles, pottery, weaponry, etc.
It is located in Jr. Alonso de Molina 1100, and the entrance fee is S/33 ($9).
To experience local cuisine and atmosphere, Mercado Central, the Central Market, is the place to go.
Situated four blocks from the Plaza de Armas inside a two-tier building, it has a couple hundred stalls.