You may think you know what to expect when you first touch down in Lima, but it’ll only take a few hours for the Peruvian capital to challenge your assumptions. Lima is a surprising city. Most Peru tours start in Lima, where travellers connect onwards to Cusco to explore the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the Amazon Rainforest, or the southern colonial city of Arequipa. Many travellers only spend a few hours in Lima, staying in Jorge Chavez International Airport while waiting for their connecting flight. These people are missing out on exploring one of the most surprising cities in the Western Hemisphere.
If you’ve never been to South America before, you may assume Lima is similar to what you’ve seen of Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro, but it’s very much its own thing. If anything, it’s more similar to Miami or Southern California than other South American cities, but even those comparisons only go so far. And the city itself is split between so many districts (which all have their own mayors and essentially operate as independent cities), that you’ll find something new wherever you venture in Lima.
Colonial Lima District
On Peru tours, it’s unlikely you’ll be staying in Lima District during your time in the city, but you’ll want to visit it to see its colonial attractions. Lima District is the oldest part of the city and central to the nation’s history of Spanish conquest. In the centre of Plaza Mayor (also known as Plaza de Armas), conqueror Francisco Pizarro founded the city of Lima and precipitated the establishment of colonial Peru. As such, the plaza and its surroundings are full of buildings and treasures of Peru’s colonial past.
Around the central square, you’ll find massive churches and gorgeous colonial buildings constructed after Pizarro’s conquest. If you head into Lima Cathedral, you can see the coffin containing Pizarro’s bones. Fascinatingly, there used to be a mummified body on display in the cathedral that was supposedly Pizarro, but historians eventually discovered the real bones of Pizarro in an old box in 1977 and replaced the mysterious fake Pizarro who had been on display for over a century.
In Plaza Mayor, you’ll also find the Archbishop’s Palace and the Government Palace, which houses the President of Peru. A block northwest of the square, you’ll find the Basilica and Convent of Santo Domingo, one of the prettiest attractions in the district. Inside the complex are several courtyards showcasing Spanish designs and chapels containing relics of some of Peru’s most significant saints, including St. Martin de Porres, the first black saint in the Americas. You can also climb the bell tower to enjoy great views of the historical core, although be forewarned – the wooden steps are steep.
There are plenty of gorgeous sites to see around Lima District, but the non-historical buildings are less-than-spectacular. While the colonial buildings of Plaza Mayor are kept up, and the main square is relatively clean and safe, many of the side streets are filled with cramped shops and restaurants preying on unsuspecting tourists (suffice to say I had one mediocre and vastly overpriced lunch in the area that I’d rather forget).
It’s definitely worth spending a day exploring Plaza Mayor and Plaza San Martin, which lies to the south, but you won’t want to linger there all day. The city’s best restaurants lie in Miraflores, San Isidro, and Barranco near the coast, which are also home to the most comfortable hotels. Furthermore, after sundown, the historical attractions close and you’ll find yourself crowded in the narrow streets alongside throngs of Peruvians getting off work. Also, Lima traffic is notoriously bad, so it’s best to plan your ride back to Miraflores or Barranco ahead of time so you can avoid rush hour and save yourself 30 minutes stuck in the back of a cab on the freeway. Lima District is fascinating, but there’s much more to Lima than its colonial corridors, as you’ll find out on Peru tours.
The colonial buildings of Lima District are the most popular attractions in Lima, but trendy Miraflores is the focal point for most tourists. This affluent neighbourhood along the coastline has premium hotels, world-class restaurants, safe streets, and a buzzing, middle-class vibe. Compared to Lima District, Miraflores might seem like it belongs in another city, perhaps even another continent. The Miami or Southern California vibes are strongest when you’re strolling through the parks along the Lima coastline, but that comparison doesn’t do the district justice. There’s truly no other place like it.
The centre of the district is Parque Kennedy, named after American President John F. Kennedy. Here you’ll find the town hall as well as the main parish of the Virgin Milagrosa. The park has also acquired a reputation as a dumping spot for pets that are no longer wanted, so there are plenty of stray cats wandering about its manicured gardens. Luckily, there’s an adoption initiative aimed at finding homes for the cats and reducing the number of strays wandering about. Stroll south along Avenue Jose Larco and you’ll reach the coastline and the Larcomar, a high-end mall built into the side of the coastal cliffs. Beyond the premium retail outlets and restaurants in the mall, what makes it so remarkable is its design. If you view it from the north, the mall is invisible and it looks like merely a cliff overhanging the highway below, but when you view the mall from the coast, you can see the stores and promenades carved into the cliff itself.
Larcomar serves as an unofficial border for Miraflores. Turn northeast and follow the coastal promenade to explore the district’s famous parks and enjoy views of the Atlantic Ocean. This coastal stretch would be breathtaking in sunlight, but Lima is famously overcast. Due to the combination of mountains to the north and ocean to the south, Lima exists in a strange climate zone, where it’s incredibly humid but almost never rains. Thus, it’s often draped in fog and it’s rare that you’ll see sunlight break through the clouds and illuminate the stunning coastal cliffs.
Even without direct sunlight, the coastal parks are striking. Follow the coast and you’ll reach Parque del Amor or the Love Park, which is designed to mimic the style of Antoni Gaudi and features a large statue of a couple kissing. Continue past the park and you’ll reach Faro La Marina, or the Miraflores Lighthouse, which continues to illuminate the coastline almost 50 years after being relocated to the district. You can continue strolling through the parks for many kilometres up the coast. If you’re the adventurous type, you can even go paragliding off the cliffs. It’s a great way to see the district and admire the coastal beauty, but is assuredly not for people with a fear of heights.
Perhaps a more ideal way of seeing the district on Peru tours is on a bike ride with Lima Bike Guide. These friendly and English-speaking guides take you on a three hour ride throughout Miraflores and the neighbouring district of San Isidro. You’ll follow the bike lanes along the coast to see spots like the Lighthouse, the Love Park, and Larcomar. You’ll also head through Lima’s famously congested traffic (don’t worry, the bike guides clear a path for you and make sure you’re safe) northward to archaeological sites like Huaca Pucllana, a massive pre-Incan pyramid within the district, and trendy spots like the Lima Country Club. It’s a great way to see the district’s main sights, learn about its history, and get some exercise.
Central San Isidro and Bohemian Barranco
Aside from Miraflores, the other trendiest districts in Lima are San Isidro and Barranco. San Isidro borders Miraflores to the north and east and is the main financial district. Here, you’ll find the famous Country Club that attracts golfers and dignitaries from around the world, as well as famous restaurants by internationally-celebrated Peruvian chef, Gaston Acurio, such as Astrid y Gaston, which is often listed as one of the best restaurants in the world. (If you want to go, make a reservation months in advance.)
Perhaps the most charming part of San Isidro is Forest El Olivar or the Olive Park, where a series of colonial mansions surround a charming grove of olive trees brought to the country by European settlers. As you wander through the park, you can admire the colonial architecture (you’ll find examples of German, British, and Italian styles in addition to colonial Spanish), and spot some of the many birds that make a home in the olive branches. Aside from the Olive Park, the other most interesting attraction in San Isidro is Huaca Huallamarca, a reconstructed pre-Incan pyramid that sheds light on the ancient peoples of Lima. You can ascend the pyramid to enjoy some nice views of the surrounding neighbourhood and visit the museum to learn about pre-Incan burial practices and observe some displayed artefacts.
If San Isidro is buttoned-down and commercial, Barranco is laidback and bohemian. Located along the coast to the southeast of Miraflores, Barranco is known for its vast number of art galleries and charming old colonial buildings that decorate the district. The main square of Plaza de Armas Barranco has gorgeous tree-lined avenues and an old church alongside the town hall. It’s also nearby the Puente de los Suspiros or Bridge of Sighs, a charming wooden bridge crossing the natural ravine and a popular hangout for lovers.
Beneath the bridge, you can follow the ravine down to the cliff edge and cross over the highway to reach the beach. Spend some time watching the waves crest in the ocean and admire the surfers braving even the chilliest weather (I visited at the end of winter and spotted dozens of surfers in the water each day). However, the best attractions in Barranco aside from the many art galleries and charming buildings are the many restaurants and bars. You can perch yourself above the Bridge of Sighs at a bar like Santos and drink some Cusquena beers while listening to buskers serenade young lovers in the park, or head to a beloved institution like Isolina to feast on large portions of classical Peruvian cuisine.
There is a lot to like about Lima on Peru tours. The city’s multifaceted nature and many attractions will surprise. Not only does it have many historical treasures and modern comforts, but it’s also home to an atmosphere that’s not to be replicated anywhere else in the world. Give yourself a few days in Lima to explore its hidden charms when you head on a Peruvian vacation. You’ll be glad you did.