If you’re visiting Peru, chances are that you will be flying into Lima International Airport. Whether you’re making a pit stop in Lima on your way to Machu Picchu or are spending some time in Lima to explore its Spanish colonial history, beautiful architecture, and excellent restaurant scene, here are the places to visit on your first day there, with some tips on where to stay and how to get around.
You may know Lima as the capital city of Peru (and one of the best places to fly into Peru internationally). What you may not know is that the Municipality of Lima comprises of 30 densely populated districts. The Lima international airport is located in the district of Callao. The “top” sights to see on your first day there is located in “El Centro” or the center of Lima (downtown/Cercado de Lima), and we recommend visiting the Miraflores district in the evening to visit Huaca Pucllana and have dinner at one of the many excellent restaurants this district has to offer. In summary, we recommend staying in Callao, taking a taxi from Callao to El Centro, and then another taxi to Miraflores and finally back to Callao on your first day exploring the city. Clarify which district you are going to every time, along with mentioning which attraction you’d like to be dropped off at.
You can use the one sol per minute rule loosely here to bargain for the correct taxi fare. Taxis charge around 20-25 soles from Callao to Lima, Lima to Miraflores, and Miraflores to Callao, respectively (that’s around US$7 as of 25-10-2017). You can also take public transport such as buses but we opted for taxis as they’re technically cheap and the best way to make use of our day in Lima.
Want to know what it’s like driving in Peru? Christian did: see here for more details! We also have a film coming out on Lima that’ll give you some idea of what it’s like! (Follow us below to stay updated on articles and films!)
Plaza Mayor/Plaza de Armas, Lima
Possibly the most photographed spot in Lima, directing the taxi driver to drop you off at “Plaza de Armas, Lima” or “Plaza Mayor, Lima” is a good way to start off your tour of the city. You can further direct him to drop you off at the Cathedral de Lima, if he needs a more specific spot to stop. This is a picturesque plaza, surrounded by the Lima Cathedral, Archbishop’s Palace of Lima, and Government Palace.
There are some money changers nearby if you need to change your euro/dollars etc. to soles here. Don’t exchange your money at the airport, the rates are terrible compared to the exchange shops you find in Lima. We’d also recommend changing your money in Lima than in Aguas Calientes, for example. The latter doesn’t offer good rates for the exchange (a good rate being almost the same as the current exchange rate, which you can easily Google) since it is a small town specifically built for tourist purposes.
Walk around the plaza, maybe take some pictures by the fountain. You’ll probably hear the incessant whistle of police patrols around the plaza, ensuring that tourists and locals alike don’t litter or loiter around on the grass.
Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, Lima (Cathedral de Lima)
The small entrance fee to this cathedral is worth it: with its several altars and crypts, this is an excellent introduction to the elaborate Catholic churches built by the Spanish since the 16th century. We’re very familiar with churches around Europe which tend to be elaborate in their baroque design, but the Spanish altars still blew us away. The amount of Incan gold used to decorate their statues is astonishing. You can take a self-guided or guided tour of this cathedral.
Archbishop’s Palace of Lima (Palacio Arzobispal de Lima)
You can admire the beautiful balcony design of the Archbishop’s Palace of Lima (best viewed from outside), located right next to the Cathedral of Lima. It serves as the residence of the Archbishop of Lima, and the administrative headquarters of the Roman Catholic Archdioceses of Lima.
Government Palace (Palacio de Gobierno del Peru)
This is usually heavily guarded by police, but easily viewed through the gates. You are free to take pictures and take it in as tourists, despite the heavy police detail. Also known as the House of Pizarro, it also serves as the residence of the President of Peru, hence the police presence.
(Who is Pizarro?)
Francisco Pizarro Gonzalez was a Spanish conqueror who led the Spanish attack and colonization of the Incan empire in Peru. He is known as a skilled fighter who worked with his four brothers Hernando, Juan, and Gonzalo Pizarro, and half-brother Franciso Martin de Alcantara, to lead the expedition in 1532 to colonize Peru. His legacy is evident in many places, especially Catholic Churches (for obvious reasons) around the country.
Basicila y Convento de Santo Domingo
A beautiful basilica built in the 16th century, the Basilica and convent of Santo Domingo warrants a visit during your walking tour of the historical district of Lima.
St. Peter’s Church, Lima (Iglesia de San Pedro)
A short walk from the Plaza Mayor is Iglesia de San Pedrio (St. Peter’s Church). A Jesuit church built in 1638, it’s another excellent example of the ornate baroque altars prevalent at the time of colonialism. The church also houses the oldest bell in Peru.
Monastery of San Francisco, Lima, Basilica de San Francisco
Located one block north-east of Plaza Mayor is the Monastery of San Francisco. You are required to take a guided tour to visit the inside of the monastery.
We recommend entering the Cathedral of Lima, and then choosing which of the other churches mentioned above you’d like to visit at your discretion.
Museum of the Inquision and Congress
The museum of Inquision and Congress is a great stop if you’re looking for a break from the churches around downtown. We recommend visiting Cusco and Ollantaytambo if you’re looking to learn more about the Incan culture. Visit Huaca Pucllana (below) to learn more about the civilizations that predated the Incans in Lima.
Spend some time walking around downtown Lima, taking in the beautiful palaces housing government buildings, malls, and convenience shops. Note the ornate brown balconies, and the colorful exteriors of the buildings in town. There are plenty of restaurants around where you can have a ceviche for lunch (and a host of other dishes!) but we don’t recommend buying souvenirs such as paintings or ponchos in the city, as they tend to be triple or quadruple the price of buying the same thing in areas like Cusco or Arequipa.
Plaza San Martin
There are a myriad green parks and squares around Lima, like Plaza San Martin, where you can relax and people watch if you like.
After exploring downtown, take a taxi to Huaca Pucllana in the Miraflores district. There are plenty of taxis that stop by Cathedral de Lima: it should cost you not more than 25 soles to get from Lima to Miraflores (usually less). Huaca Pucllana is an excellent venue to understand that Lima is essentially built on a desert. It “never rains” as they say, which is evident in the preservation of the clay and sand structures built by pre-Incan civilizations to this day. Did you know that there were more than 25 civilizations before the Incan empire in Peru?
You will receive a guided tour, included with your entrance ticket, around Huaca Pucllana. There are also a few alpacas and llamas “on display.”
You can choose to have a drink at the excellent restaurant and bar on the premises to watch the sun go down over Huaca Pucllana or walk to the greater Miraflores area to find a restaurant for dinner.
Miraflores Central Park
Visit the Miraflores Central Park, if only to scout a few restaurants nearby. It is a great place to see locals in their element, and take in a bit of the spirit of the city.
The Callao district is where you will arrive when you land in Lima. Accommodation in Callao can be cheaper than in downtown Lima. Don’t try to walk in the evenings from Lima to Callao (or even from Real Felipe – see below – to your hotel in Callao) – always take public transport or a taxi. We found the people in Peru extremely friendly and helpful during our stay there. However, there is no reason to “tempt fate.” Some locals even waved us away and told us to avoid certain areas that we wandered into like the silly adventurous travelers we are.
Real Felipe Fortress, Callao
The Real Felipe Fortress is Callao was built to ward off pirates and Spanish fleets trying to “reclaim” its territories between 1640 and 1647. Note that you should visit this fortress before 5pm – it is closed and often booked out for private events in the evenings.
When to visit
In order to avoid the summer crowds at Machu Picchu and climb it during potentially optimal weather conditions, as well as see Cusco, Arequipa, and Paracas in good weather without the crowds, we recommend visiting Peru between September through December. We can safely say that October was an excellent time to visit (as supported by Lonely Planet and online resources) – we had gorgeous weather in Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu, and Paracas.
Lima is a beautiful place to visit for a few days (we recommend at least a full day in Lima) before you head off to explore Trujillo, Cusco, Paracas, Arequipa, or any of the myriad other stunning locations that gives Peru its enviable travel destination status.
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