Positive first impressions are hard to come by in the midst of Lima's coastal fog, belching buses and general air of big city chaos. If you reserve judgment for a day or two, however, you might find yourself falling for the so-called "City of Kings," and there are certainly enough things to do in Lima to warrant an extended stay.
The Plaza de Armas, also known as the Plaza Mayor, sits at the heart of Lima's historic center. This is the spot where Francisco Pizarro founded the city in 1535. A colonial fountain serves as the square's centerpiece, while some of Lima's most important buildings surround the historic plaza.
The Palacio de Gobierno, official home to Peru's President, sits on the northern side of the square. Arrive at midday and you can watch the changing of the palace guard. To the southeast lies the Catedral de Lima, the final resting place of Pizarro himself. Further photo opportunities include the Archbishop's Palace and the Municipal Palace (Lima's City Hall), both of which are adorned with ornately carved wooden balconies.
2. San Francisco Monastery
Lima is home to many fine religious buildings, but the San Francisco Monastery stands out from the crowd. The interior is an oasis of calm in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city, its various rooms a showcase for beautifully preserved Baroque architecture, gilded alters and works of religious art. Don't miss the monastery's library with its massive books and Harry Potter-like ambience.
If all that sounds too much like "just another colonial church," wait until you take a short tour into the catacombs. The light fades into eerie darkness as you descend into the depths of the monastery, where the bones of an estimated 75,000 bodies lie stacked around you. It's a memorable experience for adults, while kids with a fondness for ghosts will mark it down as one of the best things to do in Lima.
3. Lima's Museums
Many of Peru's finest museums are located in the capital, bursting with treasures from the nation's distinct pre-Columbian and post-colonial periods. Before leaving Lima and heading off to Peru's numerous archeological sites, get your historical bearings by visiting a museum or two:
- Museo Larco, with its mummies and ancient erotic artworks
- Museo de la Nacion, a vast museum with thousands of artifacts
- Museo de Historia Natural, the place to go for flora and fauna
- Museo Nacional del Arqueología, Antropología, e Historia del Perú
- Museo Taurino, Lima's bullfighting museum
4. Huaca Pucllana
You don't have to leave Lima to begin your exploration of Peru's historic sites. Built by the Lima Culture sometime between 300 and 700 AD, the Huaca Pucllana is a large adobe-brick pyramid located in Miraflores, one of Lima's trendiest districts. After taking a tour of the ancient ruins, head to the site's restaurant, Restaurant Huaca Pucllana, for some exceptional (but expensive) regional dishes.
5. Lima's Cevicherias
If you are fond of seafood, a visit to one of the capital's top cevicherias should be high on your list of things to do in Lima. Peru is known internationally for its ceviche, a mix of raw fish, onions and chili peppers marinated in lime, and Lima is the place to indulge. If the sound of raw fish doesn't appeal, you will find plenty of cooked seafood alternatives on most menus. You can buy a plate of ceviche almost anywhere, but check out one of the following restaurants for the full experience:
- Cebichería La Mar (Av. La Mar 770, Miraflores)
- Pescados Capitales (Av. La Mar 1337, Miraflores)
- La Red (Av. La Mar 391, Miraflores and Av. La Marina 2355, San Miguel)
- Chez Wong (Jr. Enrique León García 114, La Victoria; book in advance)
6. Miraflores and El Malecón
Miraflores is one of Lima's most upscale districts, chockfull of fancy bars, stylish restaurants and trendy discos. Walk down from the central parks to the district's coastal cliffs and you will find El Malecón, the city's picturesque seafront strip with its pristine parks and modern sculptures. A sedate stroll along El Malecón provides plenty of spectacular sea views. Alternatively, hire a bicycle or a pair of rollerblades and cruise along the coastal cycle paths.
Paragliding is also a hugely popular activity along El Malecón, where highly skilled paragliding instructors can take you for a 10- to 15-minute glide for US$40 to US$50.
Lima's Parque de la Reserva (Park of the Reserve) dates back to the late 1920s, but a much later addition drastically increased the park's popularity. In 2007, the Municipality of Lima completed the construction of El Circuito Mágico del Agua, the "Magic Water Circuit." Thirteen fountains, some of which are interactive, provide plenty of entertainment, especially during the illuminated nighttime shows. Kids will love it (adults too), but be prepared to get wet; take a plastic bag or two to keep your cash and camera dry.
Head south along the coast from Miraflores and you'll end up in the small district of Barranco. This is Lima's bohemian quarter, a place for poets, artists and exceptional nightlife. A daytime stroll will take you past stylish cafes, colorful restaurants and some fine examples of 18th century architecture. Don't miss El Puente de Los Suspiros (The Bridge of Sighs), a quaint wooden bridge located at the top of the stone steps that wind down to the beaches below Barranco.
9. Lima's Historic Mansions
Many of Lima's once-grand colonial mansions have fallen into a sad state of disrepair. Others, however, have been lovingly preserved, complete with the furnishings and personal effects of their original owners. Most are open to the public by appointment only or through tour agencies, but history buffs (and interior designers) will find the extra pre-planning worthwhile. Highlights include:
- Casa Aliaga, former residence of Jerónimo de Aliaga, one of Pizarro’s conquistadors
- Palacio Torre Tagle, now home to the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- Casa de Pilatos, with its grand stairway and wooden balconies
- Casa de Oquendo, a 19th century mansion complete with watchtower
10. Cerro San Cristóbal
One of Lima's most prominent landmarks, the hill of Cerro San Cristóbal rises up to the northeast of downtown Lima. If you want a panoramic view of the city, this is the place to go. Take a taxi or a tour bus from the Plaza de Armas; it is possible to walk up from the foot of the hill, but it's not particularly safe. From the top, you can see right across the city and all the way out to sea -- at least on a clear day. Thick coastal fog can severely obscure the view, so picking the right moment is essential.