Lima’s historic centre stretches from the Plaza de Armas to Plaza San Martín and should definitely be on your itinerary if you are interested in Peru’s history and colonial past.
Once known as the ‘City of Kings’ Lima’s historic centre was founded by Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro in 1535 and was until the mid-18th century an important political, economic and cultural hub for the Spanish colonization of South America.The Spaniards brought amongst other things the catholic religion to Peru and the historic centre today serves as an important reminder fot he influence of the catholic church on Peru’s culture.
The historic centre of Lima is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and despite being damaged by a series of earthquakes this century, is a great place to get a feel for Peru’s intricate, complex history. Here’s our list of the top things to do in Lima’s historic centre.
Church & Convent of San Francisco
This is one of Lima’s main tourist attractions and besides Lima’s Cathedral is one of the most important examples of colonial architecture in Peru. Visits are by guided tour only and are well worth it to gain an insight into religious life and culture during the Spanish colonial rule. Highlights include the library with over 25,000 volumes, intricate wooden carvings and the austere colonial paintings found throughout.
The main draw for most tourists however is the catacombs where over 30,000 people were buried until 1808. The catacombs were only discovered in 1943 and it’s eerie to wander through the silent, claustrophobic crypts filled with human skulls and remains.
Opening hours: 09.30 – 17.30 Seven days a week.
Entrance fee: S/.10 (Approx. US$3.20) for adults and S/.5 (Approx. US$1.60) for children and includes the guided tour of 60 – 90 minutes
Address: Plazuela San Francisco (Corner of Jirones, Ancash and Lampa Streets), Lima Historic Centre.
Plaza Bolivar is known as Congress square as it houses the Peruvian Parliament. This square was also the home of the Tribunal of the Inquisition which operated from 1570 until 1820. Plaza Bolivar is named after Simon Bolivar, the revered statesman who liberated Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia from Spanish colonial rule.
The intricately carved wooden balconies in Lima’s historic centre are part of Lima’s cultural heritage and were built during the Spanish colonial rule in the late 17th and 18th centuries. There are approximately 1600 of these balconies found throughout Lima and a good place to spot some nice examples is on Calle Betyia and Ucayali.
Our favourites were the balconies at the Osambela Palace on Jiron Conde de Superunda street, just opposite the entrance to the Santo Domingo Church and the Torre Tagle palace on Jiron Ucayali street.
San Pedro Church
The San Pedro church was built by the Jesuits in 1638 and is a fine example of the baroque style with typical Spanish glazed tiles and Moorish-style carvings. This is slightly off the main tourist trail so tends to be less crowded and is worth a visit for the opulent gold altars and decorations found throughout.
Opening Hours: 08.30 – 13.00 and 14.00 – 16.00 Mondays to Saturdays.
Address: Corner of Jr. Azángaro and Jr. Ucayali, Lima.
Plaza de Armas
Nearly every city and town in Peru has a central square known as the ‘Plaza de Armas’ and Lima is no different. This colourful main square was the foundation of the ‘City of the kings’ in 1535 and was Lima’s first public square. It was where Peru was declared a Republic in 1821.
Take in the beautiful colonial buildings. Grab a bench in the central part of the square and watch locals relaxing and taking a stroll for an insight into how the locals live.
The Presidential Palace is home to Peru’s president Ollanta Humala. Built by Francisco Pizarro in 1535 it has been the residence of all the Peruvian Presidents to date. Get there at 11.45am to see the changing of the guard every day.
Tours: For tours of the presidential palace visit the public relations office around the corner.
Cathedral of Lima
This stunning baroque cathedral is dedicated to St. John the Apostle and is well worth a visit to understand the grandeur and vision of the colonial period in Peru. There are 14 side chapels dedicated to different saints and apostles and the cathedral also houses the tomb of Francisco Pizarro who laid the first log used in its construction.
Signs are all in Spanish so if you want a more detailed visit hire an official guide at the entrance.
Opening Hours: Open from 09.00 – 17.00 Monday – Friday and 10.00 – 13.00 Saturdays. Closed on Sundays.
Entrance fee: S/.10 (Approx. US$3.20) and includes entry to the Religious Art Museum inside.
Church & Convent of Santo Domingo
This interesting religious site was granted to Dominican Friar Vicente de Valverde, who accompanied Pizarro throughout his conquest of the Americas.
Originally built in the 16th century, this pink church has been rebuilt several times and boasts the only church steeple in Lima. It is famous for housing the remains of Santa Rosa, Lima’s patron saint and San Martín de Porres, South America’s first black saint.
The convent is a sprawling complex of colourful courtyards decorated with baroque paintings, typical Spanish tiles from the 16th century and lots of greenery and is well worth a visit. It’s an oasis of calm in the midst of Lima’s madness and is a nice place to take a wander. Take a guided tour if you want to climb up to the top of the steeple for great city views of Lima.
Opening Hours: 08.30 – 17.30 Seven days a week.
Entrance fee: S/.7 (Approx. US$2)
Address: Jiron Camana 170, Lima’s historic centre.
Head down Jiron de la Unión for a glimpse of modern Lima nestled amongst the old. This pedestrian street with shops, cafes and restaurants will take you down to Plaza San Martín and will show you scenes from contemporary Lima life.
Church of La Merced
The original church was a small wooden structure that was built before Lima was founded. The first holy mass of Lima was held here in 1534. Today, it is dedicated to the saint Fray Urraca who is said to have performed many miracles in the 15th century.
Opening Hours: Open from 08.00 – 12.00 and 17.00 – 20.00 Seven days a week.
Plaza San Martín
This square was inaugurated in 1921 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Peru’s independence and is named after Peru’s liberator José de San Martín. It is one of the most beautiful squares in Lima and is surrounded by grand buildings influenced by the French beaux-arts architectural style typical in Lima in the 1920’s.
This is a great spot for people watching. Check out the statue of San Martín in the middle of the square and the bronze statue of ‘Madre Patria’, the symbolic mother of Peru. She was supposedly meant to have a crown of flames but unfortunately the double meaning of the word ‘llama’ in Spanish was confused by the craftsman so she ended up with a llama on her head!
Gran Hotel Bolívar
Once Lima’s most opulent and famous hotel frequented by movie stars like Ava Gardner, John Wayne and writers like Ernest Hemingway along with JFK and a few others… This is the perfect place to finish off your exploration of Lima’s historic centre with one of Lima’s best pisco sours. (Peru’s flagship cocktail.)
This was the first modern hotel built in Lima back in 1924 and in its prime was an opulent, glittering affair. Today, it is a decrepit, old-fashioned place with often unfriendly wait staff but their pisco sour is undeniably one of Lima’s greats. Order it ‘catedral’ style for the house special of a double pisco sour.
Magic Water Circuit
This is one of our favorite activities in Lima and if you still have energy after your day in Lima’s old town head to the Parque de la Reserva for this delightful water and light show which takes place every evening after sunset.
A series of 13 interactive fountains are spread throughout the park where water, music, light and laser images combine to take you on a magical journey. This park is packed every night with just as many locals as tourists and is a favourite spot for brides to get some unique wedding photos. A great activity for the kid in all of us!
Opening Hours: The park is open from 15.00 – 22.30 and the light show takes place at 19.15, 20.15 and 21.30 from Tuesdays to Sundays.
Entrance Fee: S/.4 (Approx. US$1.25)
Address: Parque de la Reserva, Block 5 Avenida Petit Thouars, Lima.