22 Best Sights in El Centro, Lima

Casa de Aliaga

El Centro Fodor's choice

From the outside, you'd never guess this was one of Lima's most opulent addresses. Commonly known as Casa de Aliaga, this stunning example of Spanish-colonial architecture a block from the Plaza de Armas was built in 1535 by Jerónimo de Aliaga, one of Pizarro's officers, and has been continuously inhabited by his descendants ever since. Each room boasts a different period décor, from colonial to republican, and Jerónimo's German-made sword is still on display in one of the salons. To visit, you must hire an officially approved guide or go as part of a city tour.

Casa Torre Tagle

El Centro Fodor's choice

This mansion sums up the graceful style of the early 18th century. Flanked by a pair of elegant balconies, the stone entrance is as expertly carved as that of any of the city's churches. The patio is a jewel of the Andalusian baroque, with slender columns supporting delicate Moorish arabesques. The Casa Torre Tagle currently holds offices of the Foreign Ministry and is open to the public only on weekends, when you can check out the tiled ceilings of the ground floor and see the house's 18th-century carriage. Across the street is Casa Goyeneche, which was built some 40 years later in 1771, and was clearly influenced by the rococo movement.

Convento de San Francisco

El Centro Fodor's choice
San Francisco Church, Lima, Peru
Christian Vinces / Shutterstock

With its ornate facade and bell towers, ancient library, and catacombs full of human skulls, the Convento de San Francisco is one of Lima's most impressive sites. The catacombs hold the remains of some 75,000 people, some of whose bones have been arranged in eerie geometric patterns (warning: the narrow, dusty tunnels aren't for the claustrophobic). Meanwhile, the convent's massive church, the Iglesia de San Francisco, is the quintessential example of Lima baroque. Its handsome, carved portal is like an oversized retablo, projecting the church's sacred space out onto the busy street, while the central nave is known for its beautiful ceilings carved in a style called Mudejar (a blend of Moorish and Spanish designs). The 50-minute tour includes the church, the library, ample colonial art, and the catacombs.

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Convento de Santo Domingo

El Centro Fodor's choice

If the Iglesia de San Francisco is Lima Gothic—all skulls and penitential gloom—Santo Domingo represents the city's sunny side. From pink facade to rococo tower, every detail here glows with charm. The main cloister is especially enticing: long arcades with Sevillian tiles, gardens redolent of jasmine, coffered ceilings carved from Panamanian oak. But don't overlook the chapter room, which housed Peru's University of San Marcos when it was founded in 1551, or the tombs of Santa Rosa de Lima and San Martín Porres, the first two saints in the New World. In a city given over to the here and now, this temple offers a glimpse into another world.

Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI)

El Centro Fodor's choice

Built in 1871 as the Palacio de la Exposición, this mammoth neoclassical structure was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Leonardi, with metal columns from the workshop of Gustav Eiffel (who later built the famous Parisian tower). The ground floor holds temporary exhibitions by both national and international artists, and the second floor houses a permanent exhibition that spans Peru's past, with everything from pre-Columbian artifacts to colonial-era art to republican-era paintings and drawings that provide a glimpse into Peruvian life in the 19th and early-20th centuries. One of the museum's treasures is the collection of quipus, or "talking knots": collars of strings tied with an array of knots, each with a distinct meaning (the closest thing the Incas had to writing). Leave time to sip an espresso in the café near the entrance.

Plaza de Armas

El Centro Fodor's choice

This massive square has been the center of the city since 1535. Over the years it has served many functions, from open-air theater for melodramas to impromptu ring for bullfights. Huge fires once burned in the center for people sentenced to death by the Spanish Inquisition. Much has changed over the years, but one thing remaining is the bronze fountain unveiled in 1651. It was here that José de San Martín declared the country's independence from Spain in 1821.

Barrio Chino

El Centro

A ceremonial arch at the corner of Jirones Ucayali and Andahuaylas marks the entrance to Lima's compact Chinatown, which consists of ten square blocks of markets and chifas (Peruvian-Chinese restaurants). Of the latter, the best are Chifa San Joy Lao, which dates from 1927, and Salón Capón and Wa Lok on Jirón Paruro.

Casa de Correos y Telégrafos

El Centro

Inaugurated in 1897, this regal structure looks more like a palace than a post office. You can buy a postcard or send a package, but most people come to admire the exuberance of an era when no one thought twice about placing bronze angels atop a civic building. At one time, locals deposited letters in the mouth of the bronze lion by the front doors. About half of the building is given over to the Casa de la Gastronomía Peruana, dedicated to the country's culinary traditions, which charges admission. The museum entrance is on Jirón Conde Superunda, whereas the post office entrance is on Jirón Camaná.

Casa Riva-Agüero

El Centro

A pair of balconies with celosías—intricate wood screens through which ladies could watch passersby unobserved—grace the facade of this rambling mansion from 1760. Step inside, and the downtown traffic fades away as you stroll across the stone courtyard and admire the ancient galleries and woodwork. Peru's Catholic University, which administers the landmark, uses it for changing folk-art exhibitions, but the real reason to come is for a glimpse into a colonial-era home.

The house still retains many of its original neoclassical and Second Empire furnishings.

Catedral

El Centro

In its nearly 500-year history, Lima's cathedral has been torn down, built back up, razed by earthquakes, shot at, hollowed out, and remodeled too many times to count. Miraculously, however, it's still here, and today shines more resplendently than ever, despite its hodgepodge of artistic styles and endless, meddling restorations. The church visitors see today is actually the basilica's fourth incarnation, reconstructed after the earthquakes of 1687 and 1746. The facade impresses with its stately Renaissance portal and neoclassical bell towers, but the interior is where the real action's at. Here, under arched ceiling vaults traced with fretwork and delicately carved choir stalls, you'll find crypts for Lima luminaries and recently excavated mass tombs for commoners. Crowning it all is the mausoleum of Francisco Pizarro himself, complete with the lead box that once held his skull. Recorded tours in English are available.

Jr. Carabaya s/n, Lima, 01, Peru
01-427–9647
Sight Details
Rate Includes: S/10, Closed Sat. after 1 and Sun. before 1, Mon.-Fri 9–5, Sat. 10–1, Sun. 1–5

Cerro San Cristóbal

El Centro

Rising over the northeastern edge of the city is this massive hill, recognizable from the cross at its peak—a replica of the one once placed there by Pizarro. On a clear day, more common during the southern summer, the views of the city below are lovely. The neighborhood at the base of the hill is sketchy, so hire a taxi or take a tour to the summit and back. Tour buses leave continuously from the Plaza de Armas until 5 or 6 pm.

Convento de los Descalzos

El Centro
Founded in 1592 as a retreat for Franciscans who wanted to escape the bustle of worldly Lima, this functioning monastery offers an intriguing glimpse into a colonial convent. Walled up in its self-sufficient cloisters, the good friars did more than just pray: they also ran an infirmary, a pharmacy with Amazonian plants, even a distillery for making pisco. The temple's ornamentation can be stunning—the chapel is inlaid with Nicaraguan cedar and mother-of-pearl—but what truly captivates here are the silences. The tolling bells still summon the faithful to prayer.

Estación de Desamparados

El Centro

Inaugurated in 1912, Desamparados Station was the centerpiece for the continent's first railway, which stretched from the port of Callao to the Andean city of Huancayo. The station was named for a Jesuit church and monastery that stood next door at the time of its construction but that have since been demolished. It now holds the Casa de la Literatura Peruana (House of Peruvian Literature), with exhibits on national writers and a reading library. It's well worth stepping inside to admire the building's elegant art nouveau interior, especially the stained-glass skylight.

Iglesia de Jesús, María y José

El Centro

The 1713 Church of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph may be smaller than some of El Centro's other sanctuaries, but inside is a feast for the eyes. Retablos representing various saints rise from the main altar and line both walls. This is the only church in Lima to retain its original baroque ornamentation, untouched by earthquakes or changing artistic fads.

Iglesia de la Merced

El Centro

Nothing about this colonial-era church could be called restrained. Take the pink-and-gray stone facade, for instance: done in an over-the-top style known as churrigueresco, it piles on twisty Solomonic columns, geometric cornices, a scalloped entryway, and an arms-outstretched statue of the Virgin that gestures down at worshippers below. The interior is no different. The main altar has a stunning monstrance and a silverwork medallion from the 16th century, while the intricately carved choir stalls, dating from the 1700s, have images of cherubic singers. You could lose yourself for hours contemplating the layer upon layer of detail in this stunning temple. Don't miss the grave of Fr. Urraca, a Lima saint said to have been tempted by the devil within these very walls.

Iglesia de San Agustín

El Centro
Disfigured by the violence of Peru’s history—earthquakes and war—this church, or more specifically, its magnificent facade, remains one of the summits of religious art in the New World. Carved in stone in 1710 in the churrigueresco style (a Spanish variant of the baroque), it’s crowded with images alluding to the life of St. Augustine, who is depicted stamping out heresy on the cornice above the main door. Inside, look for the macabre masterpiece La Muerte (Death), by the great 18th-century indigenous sculptor Baltasar Gavilán.
Jr. Ica 251, Lima, Peru
No phone
Sight Details
Rate Includes: Free

Iglesia de San Pedro

El Centro

The Jesuits built three churches in rapid succession on this corner, inaugurating the current temple in 1638. It remains one of the finest examples of early-colonial religious architecture in Peru. The facade is remarkably restrained, but the interior shows all the extravagance of the era, including a series of baroque retablos thought to be the best in the city. The one dedicated to St. Francis Xavier soars to an apocalyptic culmination, with carved saints and angels towering over the viewer. Also notable are the canvases by Bernardo Bitti, who arrived on these shores from Italy in 1575 and influenced an entire generation of painters with his style. In the sacristy is The Coronation of the Virgin, one of his most famous works. Don't miss the side aisle, where gilded arches lead to chapels decorated with beautiful hand-painted tiles.

Municipalidad de Lima

El Centro

Although it resembles the colonial-era buildings that abound in the area, City Hall was constructed in 1944. Step into the foyer to see the stained-glass windows above the marble staircase. To the south of the building is a popular pedestrian walkway called the Portal de los Escribanos, or Passage of the Scribes, lined with restaurants. On the right, you'll find the entrance to a small gallery run by City Hall that hosts exhibitions by Peruvian artists.

Museo de Arte Italiano

El Centro

Italian art in Peru? This small museum is one of the city's most delightful. Most of the art is about a century old, so it captures the exact moment when impressionism was melting into modernism, and the building itself is a work of art. Don't overlook the magnificent iron door by Alessandro Mazzucotelli.

Paseo de la República 250, Lima, 01, Peru
01-423–9932
Sight Details
Rate Includes: S/6, Closed Mon.

Palacio de Gobierno

El Centro

This neobaroque palace north of the Plaza de Armas is the official residence of Peru's president. It was built on the site where Francisco Pizarro was murdered in 1541 and has undergone several reconstructions, the most recent of which was completed in 1938. The best time to visit is at noon, when you can watch soldiers in red-and-blue uniforms conduct an elaborate changing of the guard, all to the tune of "El Condor Pasa." It's not quite Buckingham Palace, but it is impressive. Tours are offered on Saturday from 9 to 10:30 am, but reservations must be made at least a few days ahead of time.

Parque de la Exposición

El Centro

Eager to prove it was a world-class capital, Lima hosted an international exposition in 1872. Several of the buildings constructed for the event still stand, including the neoclassical Palacio de la Exposición, which now serves as the Museo de Arte de Lima. Meanwhile, the park itself has become a busy meetup spot. Stroll through the grounds, and you'll find the eye-popping Pabellón Morisco, or Moorish Pavillion. Painstakingly restored, this Gothic-style structure has spiral staircases leading to a stained-glass salon on the second floor. The nearby Pabellón Bizantino, or Byzantine Pavilion, most closely resembles a turret from a Victorian-era mansion.

Plaza San Martín

El Centro

This spectacular plaza is unlike any other in the city. It's surrounded on three sides by neocolonial buildings dating from the 1920s, the pale facades of which are lit at night, when the plaza is most impressive. Presiding over the western edge is the Gran Hotel Bolívar, a pleasant spot for a pisco sour. Even if you're not thirsty, you should step inside for a look at its elegant lobby. At the plaza's center is a massive statue of José de San Martín, the Argentine general who brought about the independence of Argentina, Chile, and Peru from Spain.