Before the Spanish counquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in what in what is now Peru, and before even the Incan empire had spread its control of the continent from Ecuador to Chile, the valleys of the Rimac and Lurin rivers near Lima were populated by the indigenous Yschmas. They were prominent until around 600ad and responsible for building over 400 ancient pyramids (some of which can still be seen today, the most impressive being Huaca Pucllana.)
But Lima as we know it came into being in 1535, when Pizarro, searching for a suitable site to establish a capital, founded the city and christened it Ciudad de los Reyes, or the City of Kings. Though the name would not stick, over the following centuries Lima would become the virtual centre of Spanish activity in South America, a lynchpin of continental trade-routes and the cultural and – perhaps even more importantly – religious capital of the Spanish Empire.
The Incan civilisation would never recover from Pizarro’s invasions, the defeat of an empire accomplished with a mere 180 men whose use of horses and modern warfare techniques unknown to their enemy were simply too much for the primitive natives.
And having subdued another uprising shortly after the foundation of Lima, the city quickly became a focal point of the Spanish empire.
The evangelisation of not just Peru but the entire continent was epitomised by an abundance, from the outset, of religious-based construction in Lima – churches and cathedrals, such as the Basilica Cathedral of Lima, located on the splendorous Plaza Mayor or Main Square – the birthplace of the historic centre of Lima.
Lima gained a reputation by the end of the 16th century as a wondrous city of architecture, religious and otherwise, and for a time was known as an almost monastic enclave. In tandem with this came the building of schools, hospitals and universities, the first of these constructed as early as 1551.
It would also become a centre of extensive trade, part of a network which joined Peru not simply with the rest of the South-American continent, but – through its nearby port of Callao – with Europe and the Far East as well, and the resulting economic growth led to the population increasing from mere thousands to more than 80,000 by the late 1600s.
The city would enjoy prominence after its foundation as one of the most important cities in the Spanish empire – becoming its political, religious and administrative capital, and the Viceroyalty of Peru. It was the seat of the audiencia, the high court, and the headquarters for the Inquisition, and was under the firm control of both the Spanish monarchs and the Catholic Church.
Despite its near-destruction and subsequent re-building after major earthquakes in 1586 and 1687, it remained as important a city as ever. Another devastating earthquake in 1746 led to more rebuilding, and resulted in the rich architectural heritage that can still be seen in the old city today, the colonial immigrants forced to amalgamate typical Arabic and Moorish building with their own unique architectural styles due to the differing building materials available and continuing geologic concerns.
Lima would remain the hub of Spanish South America – politically, religiously, and economically (all trade had to pass through Callao by order of the Spanish) – until the mid-18th Century. By then it had lost much of its influence as other regions grew in importance, and as Spanish influence in the region dimmed.
It was in Lima, finally, that the legendary Argentine liberator General José de San Martín announced Peru’s independence, and Peru would be the last of the outlying colonies to achieve their sovereignty. Afterwards, Lima became the capital of the Republic of Peru, and the city has continued to grow ever since.
Its population now stands at over 8 million.
See our guide to the best things to see and do in the historic centre of Lima
Check out our Lima Travel Frequently Asked Questions