To tell you the truth, Lima was the first place that I step foot in South America. I had to pinch myself when I got out of the plane to make sure it was not a dream that I finally made it to Peru. When the driver picked me up at the airport and headed to the city. My first impression of Lima was a combination of many cities in Southeast Asia – a colorful, chilling tropical vibe with a dash of Spanish character. Soon I discovered that the city has its own distinguishable color combinations; the locals like to paint their houses with colors like red, blue, green and yellow. In areas like Miraflores, many shops and restaurants are decorated with vibrant and lively graffitis. As I sat down in a local cafe after checking in to the hotel, I ordered my first chicha morada – the freshness of the drink perked me up and I was ready to explore the city.
Lima has quite a lot of attractions and it is also a culinary hub of Latin America. I recommend staying in the city a few days before moving on to other regions of countries like Machu Picchu, Cusco, Lake Titicaca, Nazca, or Iquitos. I joined an afternoon local tour which brought us to a few places around the city, and then I had an amazing fine dining experience at the IK Restaurante, and then I walked around and dine at the Astrid y Gastón and Central Restaurante the following days. In this post, I am introducing some highlights in Lima for first-time visitors.
Day 1 – Historic Centre of Lima: from Plaza de Armas to Plaza Grau
An overview of Lima historic center. Soaking in the Spanish-style architecture and colonial vibe at the Plaza de Armas, then make your way to Plaza San Martín and Plaza Grau.
Like many other major cities which were once a Spanish Colony, Lima has a Plaza de Armas, and it is the core of the historic center (and birthplace) of the city. Many key attractions and iconic buildings are located around the plaza, including the Government Palace, the Cathedral of Lima, Archbishop’s Palace of Lima, the Municipal Palace, and the Palace of the Union. Therefore, the plaza is a good place to start. Before (or if you have time, after) heading into the Basilica and Convent of Santo Domingo, and Saint Francis Monastery in the north of the plaza, I suggest a short walking trip from the plaza to the South along the Jiron de la Union. Jiron de la Union is a pedestrian street, and it’s a major tourist shopping area – fashions stores, Mcdonald’s, tattoo places, telecom service providers, cinemas, supermarket, and souvenir stores are all here.
An old church, the Church of La Merced, is also located on this street. The church may not be highlighted in tour books, but it is as old as the city itself. It seems odd to have a historic church blended into a busy commercial street, yet its striking and beautiful facade stood out as I walked along and visitors would have to take a pause and admire the architecture. Down the Jiron Ucayali around the corner of Church of La Merced is the Church of San Pedro – there are shops, street performers and buskers around this area. There is a post office nearby and I send out my postcards there, too.
Further down the street is the Plaza San Martín. The plaza is surrounded by historic buildings, many of them are offices which are not for tourists, but standing in the middle of the plaza I almost forgot that I was in South America and I was actually in Spain.
The strolling ends at the Plaza Grau, a busy traffic intersection surrounded by quite a few remarkable buildings and monuments. One of the most eye-catching buildings was Roosevelt 105. It looks so elegant that I thought the building is the city hall or palace at first. The French-style building stands at the front of the intersection and it is one of the very first apartment buildings, and also, the first building installed with Otis elevator in the city of Lima. In the center of Plaza Grau is the Supreme Court of Peru. If you have time (and energy), explore the Juana Alarco de Dammert Park on the other side of the plaza. The park is named after a very important figure in Peru, a philanthropist and benefactor in the country and a few prestigious national museums are located there. Like the Museum of Art of Lima (MALI), Metropolitan Museum of Lima, and Museum of Italian Art. The latter is the only European art museum in Peru. It was a gift from the Italian community in Peru and the museum showcases some authentic European paintings (though not the most famous or valuable ones) to the Peruvian crowd.
For dinner, I made a reservation at one of the top fine-dining restaurants at IK Restaurante and I had an amazing experience with the servers and chefs. If fine-dining is not your thing, consider to venture in any of the local joints around Miraflores Central Park and order some Peruvian cuisine; there are quite a few Japanese and Chinese restaurants in the area if you would like to have a taste of Asian food in South America, too!
Day 2 – Miraflores: from José Larco Avenue to Seaside
Some highlights in and around the Miraflores district. Enjoy the boundless view of the Pacific Ocean, beautiful mosaic in the love park, and mummies that were made hundreds of years ago.
The next day’s activity was not exactly limited within the Miraflores district, but since I stayed there. Miraflores was my starting point to traveling around some of the highlights. Like José Larco Avenue is the main avenue in the district where many shops, restaurant, and business activities are located.
we kick off our day with yet another great lunch at Astrid & Gaston, we went to the waterfront. As I mentioned earlier the coastline of Lima is very special. The city was built on the cliff and so the coastline is developed into two levels – while the city is on the “upper” level and a highway and a coastal park are built on the “lower” level. The Love Park (Parque del Amor), is located by the Pacific Ocean on the upper level and it’s a great photo-taking spot and viewpoint. The most distinguishing landmark is the “The Kiss” (El Beso) sculpture displayed in the center of the park – the sculpture is actually depicting the creator, Victor Delfín, and his wife kissing. The stone walls in the park are filled with colorful mosaic, and you would see locals just love to sit on the walls and enjoy the view of the Pacific Ocean to the horizon.
A little further away from the park is the location of PeruFly; the paragliding company is popular and I would recommend the tandem flight. It was, to me, the best way to experience the dramatic landscape of the city and the view up there was simply breathtaking. However, the possibility to fly hugely depends on the weather (as the coast get quite windy at times), I recommend visiting their website and contact them via Whatsapp beforehand. The service people are very responsive and polite, and they sent updates to me regarding the weather conditions. I originally planned to fly in the morning, and they messaged me and told me that the weather was not suitable… until late afternoon they sent me another message and told me they are ready to fly.
The exterior of Huaca Huallamarca is nothing special – it is, though, an important archaeological site that gives physical evidence to the life of the cultural group in Peru during the pre-hispanic era. There were different cultural groups living on the Central Coast in Peru but they were not connected. It was after 200AC, some of these groups were united and integrated that formed the Lima culture. Huallamarca was once abandoned and then became a cemetery, hosting burials and mummies of the Lima and Yshmay groups. Until the invasion of Incas, courtyards, kitchen, and storage areas were built in the enclosures of this archaeological site. As we walked up the pyramid we had a glimpse of what these structures were like, including the elaborated mummy display. These mummy bundles (which look quite different from the Egyptian style) were wrapped delicately and quite valuable, the famous mummies had been the target of treasure hunters and researchers in the 1950s.
The guide told us there are more mummies were found in Amazonia and they are in great condition. However, it takes a long time to hike to the site and it would be another story.
I was not aware of the Magic Water Circuit before visiting Lima, I don’t remember how I became aware of it and why I decided to go (must have been the posters or leaflets, and we had no plans for the evening), but the water circuit was quite a show. The fountains are located in the Park of the Reserve and it’s in between Miraflores and the Historic Center. The park was filled with neoclassical-style decor and was built in 1929. The “Magic Water Tour” is a new addition to this historic park.
The renovation project was at first criticized by the public because of its construction costs; since its inauguration in 2007, the attraction welcomed over 2 million visitors in a year and it’s currently the world record holder for the largest fountain complex in the world – many of these fountains are interactive.
The evening laser fountain show is definitely the highlight. The entire show incorporates music, lighting stimulations, laser projections, 3D effect, and water dancing, telling the story of Peru: from history, culture, natural scene, art, to people. I didn’t have a high expectation of the show until I found out that it was actually world-class. What a great show to end the night!
Day 3 – Back to Historic Center: Monastery, Basilica, & Chinatown
Revisiting the beauty of the historic center and going deeper into the two most important heritage of the city: Saint Francis Monastery and convent of Santo Domingo.
We headed back to Historic Center the final day because there are more places to explore!
To kick off our day, we headed to Muralla Park. The park is built with walking trails around the ruins of the Walls of Lima. These old city walls and bastions were built along the Rimac River and used to defend the city from pirates in the 17th century.
Saint Francis Monastery is only a stone throw away from Muralla park. To me, the monastery is the most iconic architecture in Lima. Painted in striking yellow, the main porch is a high example of Spanish Baroque-style architecture and it’s one of a kind. The granite carved portal had an impact on other churches. As I walked in the monastery, the interior was painted in contrasting red and white and there was a choir practicing with their voice echoing the entire hall.
The complex consists of a monastery, a church, a library, and catacombs. I signed up for the guided tour (and you may only enter the monastery this way), and the guide walked us around the second floor of the monastery, as well as the catacombs. It was the first time that I visited a catacomb, and it was heart-pounding to see thousands of skulls and bones in front of my eyes – more than 25,000 bodies were laid to rest in this place and these bodies withstood several earthquakes for the last hundred years. The catacombs served as a burial place until 1808, when the city cemetery was opened outside Lima (quite an experience to see mummies and bones in 3 days).
Around the corner stands the Basilica and Convent of Santo Domingo. Unlike the Saint Francis Monastery, the Basilica is painted in pink; besides, this place was where the oldest university in the Americas, the University of San Marcos, opened and operated in the 16th century. The university remained as the longest continuously running university in the continent.
One of the most important figure (a saint) related to this site is Saint Martin de Porres. His knowledge of medicine led to him being assigned the role priory nurse, and took care of the sick from all social class, particularly from among the poorest and the most in need. His charity, humility and cheerful treatments have earned great respect from the Peruvians. Visitors may now visit his infirmary and learn about his story. One of the most well-known stories about him was how he fed a dog, cat, and mouse, from the same dish – his ability to reconcile these three enemies was inspiring to many. There are many paintings in the museum depicting him in the company of these three animals.
Lastly, we took a tour in Chinatown. Like any Chinatown in the world, this is a place that brings out all the “dark side” of the human race. While the street outside the area was still tranquil, everything became chaotic once I stepped foot in Chinatown. Traffic was horrific, cars honked, people yelled, and they pushed and shoved. Knockoffs, supermarkets, and cheap souvenirs could be found here. If you are looking for a thrift shopping and street food experience, the Chinatown would probably the place for you.