If you are heading to Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, you will inevitably pass through Lima, the country’s capital city. If so, there is plenty here to satisfy a wide number of interests, so do allocate time for Lima. Goway’s Robert Glazier looks at the historic and cultural sites of Lima – not to be missed on any Peru vacation.
Lima was founded in 1535 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and is a mix of modern and Colonial architectural styles. It was the seat of Spanish rule for 300 years and this left a legacy of wonderful churches, cloisters and monasteries that are well worth visiting. With so much history and culture there is so much to do and see in Lima.
The city is made up of several districts and neighborhoods. Any sightseeing should start in the Plaza Mayor, also known as the Plaza de Armes which is located in the heart of the city and is a very historical centre. It was in the Plaza Mayor where in 1821, the Act of Independence of Peru was proclaimed. Here are some of the highlights surrounding the plaza.
Also known as the Palacio de Gobierno, it is the official residence and office of Peru’s president. Access to the palace is restricted but special tours can be arranged. You don’t need tickets to see the changing of the palace guards which takes place each day exactly at noon, a ceremonious affair that involves slow-motion goose-stepping and the sounds of a brass band playing ‘El Condor Pasa’, a military march.. It is a stately baroque-style building.
The Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace
The Cathedral was the city’s first church in 1535 but has been built and rebuilt numerous times. It is open to the public and houses a museum with an extensive collection of religious art. Nearby are the adjoining Archbishop’s Palace which was originally built during the 1600s and the Municipal Palace (City Hall). These structures have intricately carved wooden balconies that make the skyline unique.
The San Francisco Church and Monastery
Built in the baroque-style of the late 1600s, this church is one of the best preserved in the city. The adjoining monastery has a superb collection of ancient religious texts, some of which were brought over by the first wave of Spanish priests after the conquest of the Incas. Apart from the church and monastery, there is also a library and catacombs.
The monastery’s library is world-renowned. It possesses around 25,000 antique texts, some of them predating the conquest. Some notable books are the first Spanish dictionary published by the Royal Spanish Academy and a Holy Bible edition from 1571 and printed in Antwerp. Other notable possessions are 13 paintings of the biblical patriarch Jacob and his 12 sons in the refectory done by the Spanish master painter, Francisco de Zurbaran.
Most people go to San Francisco to see its catacombs which are actually part of Lima’s original cemeteries built under churches. It is said an estimated 75,000 bodies are buried under San Francisco alone. A catacomb tour is not for the squeamish or the claustrophobic. It contains thousand of skulls and bones having served as a burial place until 1808 when the city cemetery was opened outside Lima.
Convent of Santo Domingo
This is one of Lima’s most religious sites. Originally completed in the 16th Century, this impressive pink church has been rebuilt and remodeled at various times since. It is mostly renowned as the final resting place for three important Peruvian saints. The convent is a sprawling courtyard-studded complex lined with baroque paintings and displays of vintage Spanish tiles.
Other Places to Visit in the Centre
The Plaza San Martin is one of the main public spaces within the historic centre of Lima and is a must inclusion on your Peru vacation. Its central monument gives homage to Peru’s liberator, Jose de San Martin. The plaza is home to the Colon Theater and the Giacoletti Buildings. Its overall appearance is primarily baroque. It is especially lovely in the evenings when illuminated.
Elsewhere in the old city, do check out the Magic Water Circuit (Circuito Magico Del Agua). In the evening, it is a delightful show of dancing water and lights with more than a dozen fountains sending water shooting up into the air choreographed to music and light. The fountains are open Wednesday through Sunday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. but go after the sun has set to see the light show.
Lima has been known as the Garden City and Miraflores, a suburb of Lima, personifies this when it comes to parks. It is an upscale district situated right on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and where many major hotels are located. The Malecon is a 10 kilometre/6 mile stretch of parks situated along the cliffs high above the ocean. Here you will see joggers, bikers or people simply taking in the wonderful views. Dotted around are statues created by famous Peruvian artists.
One of the most popular spots in the city is a cat park, actually called “Parque Kennedy” but known to locals as the cat park. It is beautifully manicured, nicely laid-out and full of hundreds of cats. It has been described as “their” park, and people have chosen to embrace the cats. You will see people feeding them and sitting with them as they enjoy the park.
The Pucllana Temple or Huaca Pucllana in the Miraflores district is an adobe ceremonial centre built around 500 A.D., during the cultural height of Lima’s history. Much of the site has been restored and excavations continue to uncover artifacts and the occasional mummy.
San Isidro is another upscale district and a major financial quarter together with a number of foreign embassies. It is also known as a Garden District. It is home to many major hotels as well as good restaurants. San Isidro is a good place to shop with its boutiques selling designer merchandise. Nestled among condominium towers and sprawling high end homes is the simple Huaca Huallamarca, a restored adobe pyramid that dates back to somewhere between AD 200 and 500. There is a small on-site museum complete with a mummy and details of the excavations.
This district is the city’s most romantic and bohemian, being the home to and working place of many of Peru’s leading artists, musicians, designers and photographers. In the 19th Century, it was a very fashionable beach resort for the aristocracy. Today, Barranco’s beaches are very popular. It has many houses in the Colonial and Republican styles and also has flower-filled parks and attractive beachfront areas. The district includes numerous restaurants, nightclubs and bars.
Lima is also a City of Exceptional Museums
The Larco Museum is a privately owned museum which features pre-Columbian art and is located in the Pueblo Libre district. It is housed in an 18th Century building built over a 7th Century pre-Columbian pyramid. It showcases chronological galleries that provide a thorough overview of 3000 years of Peruvian pre-Columbian history through ceramic, textile and precious metal artifacts. There are also mummies that show off the different ways ancient cultures, including the Incas, preserved their dead. Two things really set this museum apart. First, visitors are allowed into the museum’s store rooms to see what’s not on display and secondly, there is a special room devoted to erotic archaeological treasures, a collection of ceramic pots portraying a variety of sexual positions and acts. The Kama Sutra in clay?
An interesting story surrounds the Aliaga House. Purported to be the oldest house in the Americas dating back to 1535, it was entrusted to a member of the Aliaga family. 18 generations of the family have resided in the same mansion ever since. The Aliaga House has a wide -ranging collection of Peruvian art and artifacts including the sword Jeronimo de Aliaga used in the conquest of Peru. Walking through the house’s heavy wooden doors means stepping into history.
The Lima Art Museum
Known locally as MALI and located in Barranco, this is Lima’s principal fine-arts museum and is housed in a striking beaux-arts building. The contents span from pre-Columbian to contemporary art.
National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History of Peru
This is Peru’s oldest state museum with a wide-ranging display of perfectly preserved pre-Hispanic ceramics, textiles and metals. The museum is housed in an old Colonial mansion.
The ceramics department displays over 65,000 objects mostly originating from archaeological excavations. The historical collection is composed of around 4500 pieces including canvases, sculptures, decorative art and the cultural heritage of life of the Republican Period. The textile gallery consists of more than 32,000 items from literally every Peruvian cultural period. The collection is considered to be the world’s second most important textile collection.
An Interesting Site outside Lima
Not normally part of a typical Peru vacation, but just to the north of Lima is the city of Caral. It is the oldest civilization in the Americas and is close to the archaeological complex of Pachacamac 31 kilometres/19 miles south east. It is a pre-Columbian citadel made up of adobe and stone palaces and temple pyramids. You can’t compare it to Machu Picchu but this was an important Inca site and a major city when the Spanish arrived.
The Incas built numerous structures upon their arrival to the area in 1450. The name Pachacamac can be translated as “He who Animated the World” or “He who Created Land and Time”. Most of the buildings are now little more than piles of rubble that dot a desert landscape but some of the main temples have been excavated. You can climb the switchback trail to the top of the Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun), which on clear days, offers excellent views of the coast. The most remarkable structure here is the Palacio de las Mamacuna (House of the Chosen Women) which boasts a series of Inca-style trapezoidal doorways.
Eating in Lima
Gastronomy has always been, since the days of the Spanish, an essential aspect of life in Lima. The offerings in Lima are nowadays very varied and cover a wide range of types and cuisines, both regional and international. Despite the wide range of choice in Lima’s many restaurants, ceviche is the one dish you must try, not only because it happens to be the “Peruvian national dish”, but because of its delicious taste. It is composed of chunks of raw fish, marinated in freshly squeezed lime or bitter orange juice together with sliced onions, chili peppers plus salt and pepper. There is at least one cevicheria in every neighbourhood, so it shouldn’t be hard to find one.
Hopefully, this description of Lima will entice you to add the city to your Peru vacation.
Suggested Peru Vacation Inclusion:
Lima Stopover – Ancient Cultures