Lima Historic Center
Lima’s historic center showcases beautiful colonial and baroque architecture. Explore the city’s past at underground catacombs, cathedrals, and great museums. Browse our guide below for essential facts, travel tips, and top attractions on a tour to the historic center.
At A Glance
As the administrative capital of the Spanish empire, Lima was once the wealthiest city in all of South America. The historic center of Lima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protects the remnants of colonial- and republican-era architectural monuments including the San Francisco Monastery and its catacombs.
The Chillon, Lurin, and Rimac river valleys in the present-day department of Lima have provided fertile soils for human settlement going back thousands of years.
100 to 650 AD – The Lima culture builds the Maranga pyramid complex in what are now the districts of Cercado, San Miguel, and Pueblo Libre. Archaeologists have also identified a distinctive ceramic style with white, red, and black colors and marine animals like fish and octopus. Huaca Pucllana in the Miraflores was also a project of the Lima culture.
800 to 900 AD – The Huari culture, based in Ayacucho and the southern highlands, briefly expands its reach to the coast.
900 to 1470 AD – The Ichma (or Yschma) culture was a loose confederation of small curacazgos (chiefdoms) that occupied the Lurin and Rimac river valleys until their incorporation by the Inca Empire in 1470 (during the reign of Pachacutec).
Foundation of Lima
1535 – After the fall of Cusco, conquistador Francisco Pizarro chooses to establish a new capital on the banks of the Rimac River and 13 kilometers east from Callao, the main port for Spanish commerce in the Pacific throughout the colonial period.
Founded on the date of the Feast of the Epiphany, the city was known as Ciudad de los Reyes, or City of Kings. The city was planned with a central plaza, church, and surrounding streets laid out in a rectilinear grid pattern.
1536 Siege of Lima – Coinciding with the siege of Cusco in the one of the last battles in the conquest of Peru, Inca rebel forces surround the Spanish settlement for several months. With the help of native allies, the Spanish soldiers are able to repel the attack. The Inca side, led by Manco Inca, retreats to Vilcabamba, but continues to resist Spanish rule until 1572.
1541 – Francisco Pizarro is assassinated in his house by supporters of Diego de Almagro.
1542 – The Viceroyalty of Peru is created, but not officially recognized until Viceroy Francisco de Toledo arrives in 1572.
1543 – Real Audiencia is created to represent the Spanish king in the administration of the colony.
1551 – The National University of San Marcos is founded; still in operation today, it is the oldest university in the Americas.
1600s – As the center of an extensive trade network linking the Americas to Europe and Asia, Lima becomes the wealthiest city in the Americas.
1684-1687 – Lima city walls are built.
1700s – The Bourbon Reforms, a series of political and economic measures intended to restore the power of the Spanish crown and reduce the influence of native-born elites, lead to the eventual decline of the Viceroyalty of Peru.
1746 – A major earthquake demolishes Lima and the port of Callao. Many of the oldest buildings in today’s Lima date to this period of post-earthquake reconstruction.
1821 – The struggle for independence begins in the early 1800s, but the political and religious elite of Lima, who are beneficiaries and dependents of colonial system, remain loyal to the Spanish Crown until the end. Peru did not produce a “libertador” such as Colombia’s Simon Bolivar or Argentina’s Jose de San Martin. Instead it was General San Martin who sailed into the capital in 1821 and declared the independence of Peru on the 28th of July. The war did not formally end until the final defeat of royalist forces in the Battle of Ayacucho in 1824.
1850s – After independence, Lima experiences an economic lull until guano exports revive the city’s coffers at mid-century and provide funds for the construction of public buildings, markets, hospitals, and prisons. The first stretch of railway in South America, between Lima and Callao, is also built in 1850.
1881-1883 War of the Pacific against Chile – In a dispute over territorial boundaries and natural resources, Chilean forces occupy the capital for 3 years, and loot many of the city’s treasures during that time.
1890s-1920s – Decades of urban renewal and expansion. Some of Lima’s most iconic buildings were constructed during this time, often in an ostentatious, neoclassical style that recalls the wealth and prosperity of the early colonial period. Big avenues are constructed to connect to coastal settlements such as Miraflores and Barranco.
1930s – 1990s – Industrialization and rural migration spark a demographic explosion in Lima. The population increases from 600,000 residents in 1940 to 1.9 million residents in 1960, 4.8 million in 1980, and 6.4 million in 1993. Settlements expand outward from the historic center and from the coastal areas, eventually filling the space in between.
1988 – Historic Center of Lima earns recognition as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
1990 – Alberto Fujimori is elected president, partly in response to the rise of violent guerrilla movements and economic turbulence. Fujimori maintains power for 10 years until he is forced to resign in a bribery scandal in 2000.
Historic Center of Lima today
2015 – Lima’s metropolitan population is estimated at 9.8 million residents, representing about 1/4th of Peru’s total population. The most populous districts are located north and east of the historic center of Lima.
In the 21st century, Lima is enjoying a prolonged period of political and economic stability. The old historical core is one of the most popular areas to visit in the sprawling city, offering a long historical view of Peru’s development and a compelling contrast to the trendier coastal districts.
The historic center of Lima is located on an alluvial plain formed by the Andean-sourced Rimac River. The Pacific coast is 13 kilometers further west. The city is almost like an oasis, surrounded to the north, east, and south by dry Andean foothills and coastal deserts.
The historic center of Lima is located at an average 156 meters (512 feet) above sea level. On the opposite side of the river, Cerro San Cristobal rises slightly more than 400 meters and offers panoramic views over the city. Its peak is adorned with a 20-meter-tall cross.
Like the rest of Lima, the historic center enjoys a year-round temperate climate. Despite proximity to the equator, the cold water Humboldt Current keeps air temperatures cool, while the nearby Andes mountains create a rain shadow effect that prevents rainclouds from forming. As a result, Lima is covered by constant gray fog called garúa during the winter months, and is hot and humid in the summer.
Plaza de Armas/Plaza Mayor
The starting point for a tour of historic Lima, the Plaza Mayor or Plaza the Armas was established in 1535, at the same time as the city. Modified and reconstructed over the centuries, the plaza today is filled with palm trees, neatly landscaped gardens, and a central fountain that dates to 1650. Surrounding the plaza are Lima’s grandest buildings, including the Government Palace and the Cathedral.
Palacio de Gobierno
Peru’s Government Palace has gone through many versions, beginning as the Casa de Pizarro in 1536, then as the Palacio Virreinal (Viceregal Palace), and finally as the Casa or Palacio de Gobierno. Today the palace serves as both the president’s home and the seat of government. Very little of the original 16th century building remains – only a staircase that formerly led to Pizarro’s rooms and a fig tree in the interior courtyard supposedly planted by Pizarro himself. Everyday at noon, there is a changing of the guard ceremony outside the palace gates.
Cathedral of Lima
An impressive structure both inside and out, the Lima Cathedral was most recently renovated after a major earthquake in 1940. Architecturally, the church’s carved stone facade is a blend of baroque and neoclassic styles that adhere closely to the 18th century version. Three large doorways give passage to an interior of vaulted ceilings, with 16 side chapels holding statues of saints and virgins and a gold-plated main altar. Of special interest is a Venetian mosaic-tiled chapel that shelters the tomb of Francisco Pizarro.
- Admission: Entry to church is free of charge; Religious Art Museum S/.10
- Hours: 09:00 to 17:00 hrs Monday-Friday & 10:00 – 13:00 hours Saturday; closed on Sunday
- Travel tip: guides available at the entrance, will add interesting info about Lima religious history
Archbishop’s Palace of Lima
Adjoining the Cathedral, the Palacio Arzobispal stands out for its neocolonial facade and Moorish-style cedar wood balconies. The latter were not part of the original design, but inspired by the 17th century Palacio Torre Tagle. The palace interior boasts a sumptuous collection of French stained-glass ceilings, marble staircases, and Sevillian tiles. Fans of colonial religious art will find an impressive collection of paintings, sculptures, and other objects.
- Location: Plaza Mayor de Lima
- Admission: S/. 20
- Hours: Monday to Friday 09:00 to 17:00 hrs & Saturday 09:00 to 13:00 hrs
Municipal Palace of Lima
The eye-catching yellow paint, dark brown balconies, and arched colonnades of the Palacio Municipal form one of the focal points of the Plaza de Armas. The lavishly decorated entrance hall includes a stunning white marble staircase. The library houses a collection of antique documents including the original charter of Lima signed by Pizarro and the Declaration of Independence, while the attached Municipal Art Gallery Ignacio Merino holds historical photographs of Lima and a collection of painting by famed Limeño artists.
- Location: Jiron de la Union 300, Plaza Mayor de Lima
- Hours: Wednesday to Sunday 09:00 to 16:00
Casa Solariega de Aliaga is unique for being the oldest continuously occupied family home in South America. It’s a short walk away from the Plaza de Armas on a plot of land awarded to one of Pizarro’s captains, Jeronimo de Aliaga y Ramirez, for his role in the conquest of the Inca Empire. The living generations of the family reside in a modern annex. The 50 rooms of the main house are adorned with a melange of furnishings and decor from across 500 years of history. One of the family is a trained chef, and on Thursday, a tasting menu is served in the dining room for a unique experience that evokes the aura of Peru’s past splendor; advance reservations are required.
- Location: Jiron de la Union 224
- Hours: Daily, 9:30 to 17:00 hrs (prior appointment required firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Admission: S/.30
- Website: http://www.casadealiaga.com/en/
Monastery of San Francisco
Visit Lima’s San Francisco Monastery for splendid examples of colonial baroque art and architecture. The monastery consists of three churches, courtyards and annexes. Iglesia San Francisco displays two bell towers on either side of an exquisitely carved stone portal. The church was damaged in the 1970 earthquake, although it had survived Lima’s many earthquakes since its construction in the 1700s. The major attraction within the complex are the underground catacombs that keep the bones of Lima’s oldest residents. Re-discovered in 1942, this was Lima’s cemetery until 1808.
Walls of Lima
Directly behind San Francisco Monastery and on the banks of the Rimac River, the Parque de la Muralla contains the excavated remains of the old city walls that were built to protect Lima from pirate attacks in the 17th century. Most of the walls were town down in the 1870s, when the city began to modernize and expand. A small on-site museum displays artifacts found during the excavation. The park also includes family-friendly attractions including a train ride, walkways, and benches.
- Location: Av. Abancay and Av. Amazonas
Santo Domingo Monastery
Iglesia Santo Domingo is located on land given the Dominican friar, Vicente Valverde, who accompanied Pizarro in the conquest of Peru. First completed in 1599, and rebuilt periodically after earthquake damage (most recently in 1940), the church includes an impressive 46-meter steeple painted light pink and with an octagonal base. The turquoise-and-gold church interior is perhaps more spectacular for its color as well as its altars to Peruvian saints. Silver urns hold the remains Santa Rosa de Lima and San Martin de Porres, both highly venerated among Catholics in Peru.
- Location: Jiron Camana 170
- Admission: convent S/.5
- Hours: Monday to Saturday 9:00 to 19:30 hrs
Torre Tagle Palace
The former mansion of the Marquess of Torre Tagle, treasurer of the Royal Spanish fleet, is one of the few remaining and the best-preserved, colonial-era residences in historic Lima. Its architecture is typical of the viceregal period and combines Andalusian, Moorish, Criollo and Asian elements. The asymmetrical facade features a carved stone portal and enclosed balconies carved from mahogany and cedar wood. The building has been the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Relations since 1918, when the Peruvian government purchased the building. The most recent restoration was in 1950.
- Location: Jiron Ucayali 363
- Hours: by prior appointment only
Las Nazarenas Sanctuary
In October, Lima observes its largest, oldest and most important religious procession in honor of the city’s patron saint, Señor de los Milagros. The story is that an Angolan slave named Pedro Dalcon painted the image of Christ on one of the adobe walls of Santuario de las Nazarenas. In 1746, a huge earthquake reduced the church to rubble — except for the section of wall with the mural, which survived intact. Today, travelers can visit the rebuilt church to see the mural and the beautiful interior.
- Location: Jiron Huancavelica 515
National Museum of Peruvian Culture
Founded in 1946 by Peruvian historian Luis Valcarcel, Museo Nacional de la Cultura Peruana houses an extensive collection of popular art from Peru’s diverse regions and communities as well as artifacts from pre-Columbian cultures. The museum exterior is modeled on a stone ruin. Ceremonial masks, queros (drinking cups), carved gourds, silver jewelry, ceramics, and textiles capture the diversity and longevity of artistic expression in Peru.
- Location: Av. Alfonso Ugarte 650
- Hours: Monday – Saturday 10:00 to 17:00
- Admission: S/. 5
Also known as the Plaza de Congreso or Plaza de la Inquisition, this scenic square is a gathering point for national holiday parades and festivities. The plaza’s name derives from a stone statue, installed in the 1850s, that depicts the General Simon Bolivar riding a stallion.
The Museo del Congreso y la Inquisición occupies a historically significant building on Plaza Bolivar. Serving as the headquarters of the Inquisition from 1584 to 1810 and later as the National Senate until 1939, the museum is now open for free guided tours to anyone who wishes to learn about the functions of this colonial religious institution. A popular highlight for visitors is the “Cámara de Tormento,” the subterranean cells where prisoners were held while under investigation.
Chinatown (Calle Capon)
Barrio Chino, the historic Chinese quarter of Lima has experienced ups and downs since its first settlement by Chinese immigrants in the mid 19th century. Today, the two-block stretch of Calle Capon has been restored with traditional Chinese architectural details, and has also become firmly integrated into the broader social fabric of Lima. Barrio Chino comes alive on dates such as Chinese New Year or the mid-autumn festival. It’s also the place to go to sample chifa, Peru’s famous adaptation of Chinese food.
- Location: 7th and 8th blocks of Jiron Ucayali
Plaza San Martin
Built as an homage to Peru’s liberator Jose de San Martin, this plaza was inaugurated in 1921, on the 100th anniversary of the country’s independence. Notable buildings include the Colon Theater, the Hotel Bolivar, and the Giacoletti building. All were built in the early 20th century, accounting for the uniform appearance of the plaza.
Gran Hotel Bolivar
Built in 1924, the Gran Hotel Bolivar was the first large modern hotel in Lima. Although a bit faded after centuries of wear, the elegant furnishings, lush carpets, marble floors, and a stained glass dome make this one of Lima’s must see landmarks. Stop in for lunch or a drink to experience the charmed setting.
Palace of Justice
The seat of Peru’s Supreme Court, the Palacio de Justicia was constructed in the early 20th century and modeled on the Law Courts in Brussels (although much smaller and without a dome). Though not open to the public, the palace is worth a look for its grandiose architecture. Two marble statues of lions guard the entrance. According to tradition, there were originally more than a dozen at the port of Callao, but they were destroyed by Chilean soldiers during the War of the Pacific. The two lions at the palace were the only ones that survived.
- Location: Paseo de la Republica
Museo de Arte Italiano
The only European-focused art museum in Peru, the Museo de Arte Italiano was founded in collaboration with the Embassy of Italy and the Italian immigrant community in Lima. Designed by Gaetano Moretti, an architect from Milan, the building boasts wrought iron entry doors flanked by two huge mosaics. Created by Venetian mosaic artists, the murals depict notable figures in Italian history. The museum’s collection features 20th century paintings, ceramics, and sculpture in bronze and marble.
- Location: Paseo de la Republica 250
- Hours: Daily 10:00 to 17:00
- Admission: S/.6; free on first Sunday of each month
Palacio de la Exposicion
When the walls of Lima were demolished in the late 1800s, Palacio de la Exposicion was constructed atop the remains of the south gate. The building is an example of late 19th-early 20th century Limeño architecture, with a mix of French neoclassical and neo-Renaissance styles and an underlying steel structure that was the first of its kind in South America. The palace hosted the International Exposition in Lima in 1872. Afterward, it became the home of the Society of Fine Arts until the War of Pacific, when Chilean soldiers looted the building. The building served as the seat of various ministries until 1961, when it became the home of MALI.
- Location: Paseo Colon 125
MALI (Museum of Art of Lima)
Offering the best overview of Peru’s long artistic past, the Museo de Arte de Lima or MALI has permanent and temporary exhibits spanning 3,000 years of history and featuring 12,000 pieces of art. The museum was inaugurated in 1959 by an organization of civilians interested in creating Lima’s first art museum, and opened to public in 1961 by President Manuel Prado, who donated the private collection of his brother Javier Prado. Exhibition rooms are organized by theme: pre-Columbian, textiles, colonial art, silver work, republican, folk art, 20th century, photography, and contemporary art (1940 forward).
- Location: Paseo Colon 125, Parque de la Exposición
- Hours: 10:00 to 17:00 hrs; closed Wednesday
- Admission: S/.12 adult; S/.4 children; entry S/.1 on Sundays
- Website: http://www.mali.pe/
The historic center is one of the places in Lima where the most vibrant and diverse expressions of Peruvian cultural identity can be found. It is here where the city’s many constituencies can each stake a claim in the nation’s past, present and future development.
Symbols of Peruvian Identity
The Plaza de Armas in Lima hosts the architectural symbols of Peruvian national identity, including the Government Palace and the Lima Cathedral. It is also the site of important festivals throughout the year, including:
- July 28 and 29, Fiestas Patrias
- January 18, anniversary of Lima’s foundation
Approximately 87% of Peru’s population identifies as Catholic. With its great concentration of churches, the streets of Lima’s historic center are often the route for important religious processions, including the following:
- Santa Rosa de Lima, August 30 – One of the most important saints not just in Peru but across the Americas, Santa Rosa de Lima is feted with ceremonies throughout the downtown area. Santa Rosa was the first saint from the Americas to be canonized. The day of the procession, August 30, is also a public holiday in Peru.
- Señor de Los Milagros, October 18, 19 and 28 – According to tradition, an image of Christ painted on the wall of a adobe-built church survived a massive earthquake in 1655 and a second one in 1746. Today, an 18th century oil painting replica of the image is carried in procession from Las Nazarenes to Iglesia La Merced — the original image of Señor de Los Milagros is still on a wall inside Las Nazarenes Sanctuary. Thousands of Limeños and pilgrims from across Peru show up for the celebration.
- San Martin de Porres, November 3 – Another Lima-born, canonized Catholic saint and the first of African descent, San Martin de Porres is widely venerated as a protector of the poor and sick. On November 3, mass is celebrated at Santo Domingo Monastery followed by a procession through the historic center.
What To Do
Take a walking tour: Exploring the historic center on foot is the best way to get your fill of the stories, legends, and fantastic architecture of old Lima. You’ll see a mix of past and present, the new city inhabiting the spaces laid out centuries ago, and you’ll get a sense of how modern Limeños interact with each other.
Visit colonial churches: Although Lima’s historical churches have suffered damage by earthquakes over the centuries, they still remain the most well-preserved examples of Lima’s colonial era architecture. The exquisite exteriors and magnificent interior decoration recall the importance of the Catholic church as an institution since Peru became a possession of Spanish Crown and also reflect the adaptation of religious art and architecture to the local context.
Watch the changing of the guard: Every day at noon, the cambio de guardia takes place in front of the Government Palace. Stake out a spot on the Plaza de Armas to watch the ceremony, which occurs with enough pomp to match the elegance of the presidential palace’s facade and the chiming of Cathedral’s church bells in the background.
Celebrate with Limeños: If you visit Lima during fiestas patrias in July, the historic center of Lima is where the largest celebrations unfold. Festivities begin with a music concert and fireworks on the 27th, followed by a 21-gun salute, a flag-raising ceremony, parades on July 28th, and military processions on the 29th. If you can’t make it to historic center, alternative gathering places include Parque de la Exposition, Parque Kennedy, and others.
Relax in a park or plaza: Find a bench or a sidewalk cafe and take a well-deserved descanso (Spanish word for rest or break). You’ll rub elbows with all sorts of locals doing the same. Options include the Plaza de Armas, Plaza San Martin, Parque de la Muralla on the banks of the Rimac River or Parque de la Exposition.
Where To Eat
Restaurants abound in the historic center of Lima. Here’s a list of some of the best:
El 10 Carnes y Vinos, Jiron de la Union 364, Plaza de Armas
Tanta, Pasaje Nicolas de Rivera El Viejo 142
Pardo’s Chicken, Pasaje Santa Rosa 153 (behind Municipal Palace)
- Roasted chicken, Peruvian fast food; budget option
- Additional locations throughout Lima and across Peru
- Open 12:30 to 22:30 hrs
L Eau Vive, Jiron Ucayali 370
- French cuisine in a restaurant run by nuns
- Open 12:30 to 15:00 hrs & 19:30 to 21:30 hrs
Antigua Taberna Queirolo, Av. San Martín 1090
Barra Mar, La Mar 309
Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian food)
After browsing the many curio shops of Barrio Chino, dining in a chifa restaurant is almost obligatory. Chifa is the name for both the style of the cuisine and the restaurants that serve it. You’ll find several options on Calle Capon and surrounding streets, and hundreds more options throughout the city.
Chun Koc Sen, Jiron Paruro 890
San Joy Lao, Jiron Ucayali (Calle Capon) 779
Fung Yen, Jiron Ucayali (Calle Capon) 744
Lima has two clearly marked seasons, summer and winter, with transitional periods in between.
- January to March
- warm, humid days and spectacular sunsets
- Temperatures: 28-29 C during the day, 19-21 C at night
- June to October
- damp, cool days with light drizzle
- Temperatures: 17-18 C during the day, 12-15 C at night
When is the best time to visit the historic center of Lima?
Lima is a year round destination. During the summer months of December to February, many Lima residents take advantage of the holidays to leave the city, visit the beaches or the Andes, or see their families in other parts of Peru. But for the most part, it’s business as usual for visitors to the historic center.
Getting In And Around
To get to the historic center from Miraflores, Barranco or San Isidro districts, hop on the Metropolitano bus line. It’s the easiest and fastest way to travel if you’re exploring on your own.
Lima Centro itself is entirely walkable and easy to navigate if you have a map.
During daylight hours, the historic center of Lima is perfectly safe. Take standard precautions with your belongings, as you would in any major city. In the evening hours, stick to well-lit major streets for extra safety.
Carry local currency (Peruvian sol, or soles for short) in small denominations to pay for taxis, tips for guides, small purchases, and meals at cafes and restaurants. Vendors rarely have change for larger bills, so it’s best to have small change. Larger balances at shops, restaurants, hotels, and some tour agencies can be paid with credit card.
You can find money exchange offices and ATMs throughout the historic center of Lima.
Peak Travel Season
The Lima summer (December to April) sees the highest number of tourists to the historic center. Remember to wear light clothing to stay comfortable in the humid conditions.
When is the best time to visit Lima?
Peak travel season is during the summer (December to April), but festival times are also a popular time to visit. Thousands of worshippers participate in religious processions such as Señor de Los Milagros and Santa Rosa de Lima (see Cultural norms above for more information). Even in the winter, the blanket of garua provides an interesting backdrop for photographs of Lima’s historic churches.
Is the historic center of Lima safe?
During the day, the historic center of Lima is safe. But like any crowded area in a big city, you can take simple precautions to stay safe.
- Don’t carry excessive amounts of money with you during the day. Carry only what you’ll need for the day and leave cash and personal documents in your hotel room’s safety deposit box.
- Don’t wear expensive or flashy jewelry.
- Keep electronic devices tucked away in a purse or backpack or in your hand at all times.
- Don’t hang bags on chair backs. Take your bag with you when you go to the bathroom.
- Use common sense, be aware of your surroundings and trust your instincts.