Many visitors to Lima are merely on their way to other places in Peru, and few spend more than a couple of days in the capital. But because nearly all transport goes through Lima, most people take advantage of layovers to see what distinguishes the city: its colonial old quarter -- once the finest in the Americas -- and several of the finest museums in Peru, all of which serve as magnificent introductions to Peruvian history and culture.

Much of the historic center has suffered from sad neglect; the municipal government is committed to restoring the aesthetic value, but, with limited funds, it faces a daunting task. Today central Lima has a noticeable police presence and is considerably safer than it was just a few years ago. A full day in Lima Centro should suffice; depending on your interests, you could spend several days traipsing through Lima's many museum collections, many of which are dispersed in otherwise unremarkable neighborhoods. But for those with a couple extra days in the city, when Lima's traffic and grit get to you, head to the artsy coastal neighborhood, Barranco, home to Lima's best nightlife and the site of a handful of excellent small museums. It will likely greatly improve your impressions of the capital.

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What to See & Do in Lima Centro

Lima’s grand Plaza de Armas (also called the Plaza Mayor, or Main Square), the original center of the city and the site where Francisco Pizarro founded the city in 1535, is essentially a modern reconstruction. The disastrous 1746 earthquake that initiated the city’s decline leveled most of the 16th- and 17th-century buildings in the old center. The plaza has witnessed everything from bullfights to Inquisition-related executions. The oldest surviving element of the square is the central bronze fountain, which dates from 1651. Today the square, although perhaps not the most beautiful or languid in South America, is still rather distinguished beneath a surface level of grime and bustle (and it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The major palaces and cathedral are mostly harmonious in architectural style and color. (The facades are a mix of natural stone and a once-bold yellow color now dulled by smog and mist.) On the north side of the square is the early-20th-century Palacio del Gobierno (Presidential Palace), where a changing of the guard takes place daily at noon; free guided visits of the palace are offered Monday through Friday from 10am to 12:30pm. The Municipalidad de Lima (City Hall) is on the west side of the plaza. Across the square is La Catedral (Cathedral), rebuilt after the earthquake, making it by far the oldest building on the square, and, next to the cathedral, the Palacio Episcopal (Archbishop’s Palace), distinguished by an extraordinary wooden balcony.

A block north of the Plaza de Armas, behind the Presidential Palace, is the Río Rímac and a 17th-century Roman-style bridge, the Puente de Piedra (literally, “stone bridge”). It leads to the once-fashionable Rímac district, today considerably less chic—some would say downright dangerous—although it is the location of a few of Lima’s best peñas, or live criolla (Creole/coastal) music clubs. The Plaza de Acho bullring, once the largest in the world, and the decent Museo Taurino (Bullfighting Museum) are near the river at Hualgayoc 332 (tel. 01/482-3360). The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9am to 3pm and Saturday from 9am to 2pm, and admission is S/6. The ring is in full swing during the Fiestas Patrias (national holidays) at the end of July; the regular season runs October through December.

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Five blocks southwest of Plaza de Armas is Lima Centro’s other grand square, Plaza San Martín. Inaugurated in 1921, this stately square with handsome gardens was recently renovated. At its center is a large monument to the South American liberator, José de San Martín.

Lima’s Barrio Chino, the largest Chinese community in South America (200,000 plus), is the best place to get a taste of the Peruvian twist on traditional Chinese cooking in the neighborhood’s chifas. For recommendations, see “Peruvian Chifas”. The official boundary of Chinatown is the large gate on Jirón Ucayali.

COLONIAL CHURCH ROUNDUP

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Lima Centro has a number of fine colonial-era churches worth visiting. Most are open Monday through Saturday for visits, and most have free admission.

Directly south of La Catedral on Azángaro at Ucayali, Iglesia de San Pedro (tel. 01/428-3017), a Jesuit church that dates to 1638, is perhaps the best-preserved example of early colonial religious architecture in the city. The exterior is simple and rather austere, but the interior is rich with gilded altars and balconies. The bold main altar, with columns and balconies and sculpted figures, is particularly impressive. There are also some beautiful 17th- and 18th-century baroque retablos (altars) of carved wood and gold leaf. A small museum of colonial art is to the right of the entrance of the church, which is open Monday through Saturday from 7am to noon and 5 to 8pm; admission is free.

Iglesia de La Merced, Jr. de la Unión at Miró Quesada (tel. 01/427-8199), 2 blocks southwest of the Plaza de Armas, was erected on the site of Lima’s first Mass in 1534. The 18th-century church has a striking carved baroque colonial facade. Inside, the sacristy, embellished with Moorish tiles, and the main altar are excellent examples of the period. The church also possesses a nice collection of colonial art. Yet it is perhaps most notable for the devoted followers of Padre Urraca, a 17th-century priest; they come daily in droves to pay their respects, praying and touching the large silver cross dedicated to him in the nave on the right, and leaving many mementos of their veneration. The church is open Monday through Saturday from 8am to noon and 4 to 8pm.

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Practically destroyed during an 1895 revolution, La Basílica Menor y Convento de San Agustín, at the corner of Jr. Ica and Jr. Camaná (tel. 01/427-7548), is distinguished by a spectacular churrigueresque facade, one of the best of its kind in Peru, dating to the early 18th century. San Agustín’s official hours are daily from 8 to 11am and 4:30 to 7pm, but, in practice, it’s frequently closed. The Convento de Santo Domingo, at the corner of Conde de Superunda and Camaná, toward the River Rímac (www.conventosantodomingo.pe; tel. 01/427-6793), draws many Peruvians to visit the tombs of Santa Rosa de Lima and San Martín de Porras. It is perhaps of less interest to foreign visitors, although it does have a very nice main cloister. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 12:30pm and 3 to 6pm; admission is S/5.

Las Nazarenas, at the corner of Huancavelica and Avenida Tacna on the northwest edge of the colonial center (tel. 01/423-5718), has a remarkable history. It was constructed in the 18th century around a locally famous painting of Christ by an Angolan slave. Known as “El Señor de los Milagros,” the image, painted on the wall of a simple abode in 1651 (many slaves lived in this area on the fringes of the city), survived the massive 1655 earthquake, even though everything around it crumbled. The site was abandoned for 15 years until someone rediscovered it and began to build a shrine around it. People began to flock to the painting, and soon the Catholic Church constructed a house of worship for it. Behind the altar, on the still-standing wall, is an oil replica, which is paraded through the streets on a 1-ton silver litter during the El

Señor de los Milagros festival; this is one of Lima’s largest festivals and is held on October 18, 19, and 28 and November 1. Everyone wears purple during the procession. Las Nazarenas is open Monday through Saturday from 6:30am to noon and 5 to 8:30pm.

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COLONIAL PALACE ROUNDUP

The historic quarter of Lima, the old administrative capital of Spain’s South American colonies, once boasted many of the finest mansions in the hemisphere. Repeated devastation by earthquakes and more recent public and private inability to maintain many of the superb surviving casas coloniales, however, has left Lima with only a handful of houses open to the public.

Casa Riva-Agüero, Camaná 459 (ira.pucp.edu.pe; tel. 01/626-6600), is an impressive 18th-century mansion with a beautiful green-and-red courtyard that now belongs to the Catholic University of Peru. It has a small folk-art museum in the restored and furnished interior. The house is open Monday through Friday from 10am to 5pm; admission is S/2. Casa Aliaga, Jr. de la Unión 224 (www.casadealiaga.com; tel. 01/427-7736), is the oldest surviving house in Lima, dating from 1535. It is also one of Lima’s finest mansions, with an extraordinary inner patio and elegant salons, and it continues to be owned and lived in by descendants of the original family. The house is open Monday through Friday from 10am to 5pm (by advance reservation only); admission is S/30. A worthy alternative is Casa de Osambela Oquendo, Conde de Superunda 298 (tel. 01/428-7919). The tallest house in colonial Lima, today it belongs to the Ministry of Education. Although it’s still not officially open for visits, the caretaker will usually show visitors around, including up four levels to the baby-blue cupola-mirador for views over the city. (The original owner built the house so he could see all the way to the port.) The Osambela house has a spectacular patio, 40 bedrooms, and eight wooden balconies to the street, a sure sign of the owner’s great wealth. It’s open daily from 9am to 5pm; admission is free, but tips are accepted.

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A couple of blocks east of the Plaza de Armas at Ucayali 363 is Palacio Torre Tagle, the most famous palace in Lima and one of the most handsome in Peru. Today the early-18th-century palace, built by a marquis who was treasurer of the Royal Spanish fleet, belongs to the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, sadly, can no longer be visited by the public (though it may be worth inquiring at the Ministry, next door at Ucayali 318). Its exterior, with a gorgeous baroque stone doorway and carved dark-wood balconies, is very much worth a look (and you might get a peek inside the courtyard if a group of dark suits enters or leaves when you’re passing by). Across the street from Torre Tagle, Casa Goyeneche (also called Casa de Rada) is another impressive 18th-century mansion, with distinct French influences; it’s also not open to the public (although you might be able to manage a peek at the patio). Those with a specific interest in colonial architecture might also want to have a look at the facades of Casa Negreiros, Jr. Azángaro 532; Casa de las Trece Monedas, Jr. Ancash 536; Casa Barbieri, Jirón Callao at Rufino Torrico; Casa de Pilatos, Jr. Ancash 390; and Casa la Riva, Jr. Ica 426.

Me Ama, No Me Ama, Me Ama . . . -- A curious park along the ocean at the edge of Miraflores, much beloved by Limeños looking to score, is the Parque del Amor (literally, "Love Park"), designed by the Peruvian artist Victor Delfín with a nod to Antoni Gaudí's Parque Güell in Barcelona, Spain. It features good views of the sea (when it's not shrouded in heavy fog), benches swathed in broken-tile mosaics, and, most amusingly, a giant, rather grotesque statue of a couple making out -- which is pretty much what everyone does nearby. Benches are inscribed with sentimental murmurs of love, such as vuelve mi palomita. If it's Valentines Day, stand back.

All That Glitters Isn't Necessarily Gold

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The privately held Museo Oro del Perú (Gold Museum), for decades the most visited museum in Peru, was part of a must-see museum triumvirate in Lima only a few years ago. But that was before the National Institute of Culture and the Tourism Protection Bureau declared just about everything in the museum -- some 7,000 or more pieces -- to be fake. The massive collection, mainly consisting of supposed pre-Columbian gold, was assembled by one man, Miguel Mujica Gallo -- who, perhaps fortunately, died just days before the investigation into his collection was launched. Although the museum was expensive and poorly organized, all that glittering gold -- augmented by hundreds (if not thousands) of ceremonial objects, tapestries, masks, ancient weapons, clothing, several mummies, and military weaponry from medieval Europe to ancient Japan -- certainly caught many a visitor's eye over the years. Though the museum contends that everything on display is authentic, it's pretty difficult to recommend visiting a collection with such a fraudulent history. The museum is located at Av. Alonso de Molina 1100, Monterrico (tel. 01/3451292; www.museoroperu.com.pe; daily 10:30am-6pm; admission S/33 for adults, S/16 for students. A taxi is the most direct way here; coming by colectivo involves taking at least two buses along Arequipa to Avenida Angamos, changing to one marked UNIVERSIDAD DE LIMA, and asking the driver to let you off at the Museo de Oro.

Cool Breeze in Barranco

Although a residential neighborhood and not immediately thought of as having many tourist sights, apart from the small but excellent Museo Pedro de Osma and Mario Testino’s MATE, the charming seaside district of Barranco is still one of the highlights of Lima. Its serenity and laid-back artiness is a welcome contrast to the untidy and seedy character of the rest of the city, and a stroll around the tranquil side streets of brightly colored bungalows is the best way to restore your sanity. It’s little wonder that artists and writers have long been drawn to Barranco. Beneath the poetically named wooden footbridge Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs) is a gentle passageway, La Bajada de Baños, which leads to a sea lookout and is lined with lovely, squat single-family houses, spindly trees, and stout cacti. During the daytime, the barrio is mellow and tropical-feeling, with sultry breezes coming in from the sea, but at night the area is transformed into one of Lima's most hedonistic hot spots, with locals and visitors flocking to the discos and watering holes here.

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Archaeological Sites in Lima

Lima is hardly the epicenter of pre-Columbian Peru, and few visitors have more than the museums featuring ancient Peruvian cultures on their minds when they hit the capital. Surprisingly, there are a handful of huacas—adobe pyramids—that date to around A.D. 500 and earlier interspersed among the modern constructions of the city. The archaeological sites are junior examples of those found in northern Peru, near Chiclayo and Trujillo. If you’re not headed north, Lima’s huacas, which have small museums attached, are worth a visit.

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In San Isidro is Huaca Huallamarca (also called Pan de Azúcar, or “Sugar Loaf”), at the corner of Avenida Nicolás de Rivera and Avenida El Rosario. The perhaps overzealously restored adobe temple of the Maranga Lima culture has several platforms and is frequently illuminated for special presentations. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday from 9am to 5pm; admission is S/5 for adults and S/3 for students. Huaca Pucllana is a sacred pyramid, built during the 4th century and still undergoing excavation, in Miraflores at the corner of calles General Borgoño (Block 8) and Tarapacá, near Avenida Arequipa (http://huacapucllanamiraflores.pe; tel. 01/445-8695). It has a small park, a terrific restaurant and an artesanía gallery. From the pyramid’s top, you can see the roofs of this busy residential and business district. It’s open Wednesday through Monday from 9am to 5pm; admission is S/12 and S/6 for students. Guides are available in English or Spanish for S/20 per group, tours last 45 to 60 minutes. Additionally, night tours are offered from Wed–Sun from 7–10pm for S/15.
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A “Magic” Water Park

One of Centro’s most colorful attractions, the fountains of the Circuito Mágico del Agua water park is a great place to take the kids and beat the summer heat. The best time to visit the 13 fountains shooting into the sky and a tunnel kids will love to carouse beneath is at night, when the spectacle of colorful effects and dancing waters set to music is delightful (shows at 7:15, 8:15, and 9:30pm). The centerpiece, the Magic Fountain, propels a stream 76m (250 ft.) into the air, a Guinness record. The water park (www.circuitomagicodelagua.com.pe; tel. 01/427-1993) is located at Parque de la Reserva (Av. Petit Thouars at Jr. Madre de Dios), in the Santa Beatriz district. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday, 3–10:30pm; admission is S/4, free for children under 4.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.