In colonial times, Lima was the seat of power for the Viceroyalty of Peru, which ruled over territory extending from Panama to Chile. With power came money, as is evident from the grand scale on which everything was built. The finely carved doorways of some Lima mansions stand two stories high. At least half a dozen churches would be classified as cathedrals in any other city. And the Plaza de Armas, the sprawling main square, is spectacular.
History, however, has not always been kind to the neighborhood known as El Centro. Earthquakes struck in 1687 and 1746, leveling many of the buildings surrounding the Plaza de Armas. Other landmarks, such as the Iglesia de San Augustín, were nearly destroyed by artillery fire in skirmishes that have plagued the capital. But many buildings are simply the victims of neglect. It's heartbreaking to see the wall on a colonial mansion crumbling or an intricately carved balcony splintered beyond repair. But the city government has recently made an effort to restore its historic center. After years of decline, things are steadily improving.
An unhurried visit to the historic district's main attractions takes a full day, with at least an hour devoted to the Museo de Arte de Lima. Make sure to take the guided tour of the Convento de San Francisco, and don't miss the Plaza San Martín.