Top things to do in Lima, Peru, for first-time visitors

I’m so fascinated by the sight of human skulls that I stupidly didn’t watch where I was walking at the Iglesia de San Francisco, a church that dates to 1674. I slammed my head IGNORE INTO a low passageway, hard enough to draw blood — and for a moment I felt like I might be permanently joining the long-deceased residents of the catacombs. Most visitors, fortunately, emerge wound-free from these mysterious tunnels. The subterranean complex served as the city’s first cemetery, and the bones of some 75,000 people are probably the biggest reason why this is Lima’s most-visited church (even more than the nearby cathedral). Just watch your head.

Of course, human civilization in Peru goes back much further than the colonial era — some 11,000 years, in fact, when pre-Incan groups flourished throughout the region. Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro founded present-day Lima in 1535, as Ciudad de los Reyes (City of Kings). Lima was a port from which the Spanish shipped gold they’d plundered from the Inca. The city also served as the capital of Spain’s South American empire, which extended from Panama to Chile, so it’s no surprise that a great deal of wealth and power hovered over the growing metropolis.

Peru’s historic grandeur is still visible in the city center (called El Centro or simply Lima, by locals), where the massive colonial buildings have warranted a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. What stands today has survived the earthquakes of 1687 and 1746, or was rebuild in the years following those disasters.

Plaza de Armas, a beautiful city square centered around a large fountain, is a logical place to start any tour of Lima. Flanking the square is the stately Palacio de Gobierno (the Government Palace), completed in 1938 on the site where Pizarro was murdered by supporters of his political rival in 1541. The soaring cathedral and the Palacio Episcopal are to the east, and the San Francisco church is just a few steps away.

Nearby, the elegant Plaza San Martin is an attractive square partly surrounded by ornate, French-inspired architecture that dates to the 1920s. Also in the center of town is the lovely Parque de la Exposición, a park built to host an international exposition in 1872. You can still see some of the finely detailed buildings constructed for the event, including the recently reopened Lima Art Museum (see photos from the park and read my review of the museum here). Also worth a visit is the Circuito Mágico del Agua, a large group of fountains in the Parque de la Reserva, where visitors enjoy shows of water and lights.

Lima is made of many neighborhoods, but most visitors stick to just a few: the historic Centro, the upscale Miraflores and San Isidro districts and the lively Barranco neighborhood. (Be sure to check out my travel tips about 15 things to do in Barranco.)

Machu Picchu — the remains of the so-called lost city of the Incas, which is tucked dramatically IGNORE INTO the nation’s interior — may be the most stunning visual example of Peru’s rich cultural history, but but Lima wins hands down when it comes to museums. Among the most-visited cultural sites are the Museo de la Nación (National Museum), which showcases the many cultures that have played a role in Peru’s history, and the Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera (Rafael Larco Archeological Museum) , which is billed as having the largest collection of pre-Columbian art in the world. Its exhibit of  ancient erotic art always draws plenty of giggles and comments. Both museums are in the Pueblo Libre district.

It’s even possible to visit pre-Hispanic ruins without leaving the city. Huaca Hallamarca, a flat-topped temple that has been party restored, is in the San Isidro district, while Huaca Pucllana, a mud-brick pyramid that dates to at least the fourth century, sits right in the heart of the chic Miraflores district.

Nineteen miles south of Lima is Pachacamac, an archeological site that dates to the first century. The home of the Huari people until the Inca captured it in the 15th century, this site has partly restored plazas, palaces and pyramids, as well as a small museum.

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