updated 5/29/2007 10:49:17 AM ET 2007-05-29T14:49:17

Many visitors to Lima are merely on their way to other places in Peru; few people 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 anywhere from a day to a week traipsing through Lima's many museum collections, many of which are dispersed in otherwise unremarkable neighborhoods.

Lima Centro: Colonial Lima
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 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. 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 criollo 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 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and admission is S/6 ($1.70). The ring is in full swing during the Fiestas Patrias (national holidays) at the end of July; the regular season runs October through December.

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. The official boundary of Chinatown is the large gate on Jr. Ucayali.

Colonial Church Roundup
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, 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 7 a.m. to noon and 5 to 8 p.m.; 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 8 a.m. to noon and 4 to 8 p.m.

Practically destroyed during an 1895 revolution, San Agustín, located 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 Monday through Sunday from 8 to 11 a.m. and 4:30 to 7 p.m., but, in practice, it's frequently closed. The Convento de Santo Domingo, located at the corner of Conde de Superunda and Camaná, toward the River Rímac (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 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 3 to 6 p.m.; admission costs S/3 (85¢).

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 (many slaves lived in this area on the fringes of the city), survived the massive 1655 earthquake, even though everything around it crumbled. 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, which is one of Lima's largest 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 6:30 a.m. to noon and 5 to 8:30 p.m.

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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 (tel. 01/427-9275), 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 Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 7:30 p.m.; admission costs S/2 (55¢). Casa Aliaga, Jr. de la Unión 224 (tel. 01/427-6624), 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 can be visited only as part of a city tour ($25) conducted exclusively by Lima Tours (tel. 01/424-5110). A worthy alternative if you don't want to spring for a guided tour 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, Lizardo Retes Bustamante, will 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.) Next door is a 1770 house in a lamentable state; squatters inhabit it. 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 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is free, but tips are accepted.

A couple 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 Foreign Ministry and, sadly, can no longer be visited by the public. 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, Jr. 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"), a cut-rate imitation of Antonio Gaudí's Parque Guell 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, grotesque statue of a couple making out -- which is pretty much what everyone does nearby. Benches are inscribed with thickly sentimental murmurs of love, such as vuelve mi palomita. If it's Valentines Day, stand back.

All That Glitters Isn't Necessarily Gold
The privately held Museo de 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, curiously enough, 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; hundreds of tapestries; masks; ancient weapons; clothing; several mummies; and military weaponry and uniforms from medieval Europe to ancient Japan -- certainly caught many a visitor's eye over the years. It's pretty difficult to recommend visiting such a fraudulent collection today, however. The museum is located at Av. Alonso de Molina 1100, Monterrico (tel. 01/345-1292; daily 11:30 a.m. - 7 p.m.; admission S/30 or $8.50 for adults, S/15 or $4.30 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.

Bonito Barranco
Although it's a residential neighborhood and not immediately thought of as a tourist sight, apart from the small Museo de Arte Colonial Pedro de Osma, the charming seaside district of Barranco is one of the highlights of Lima. Its serenity and laid-back artiness is a contrast to the untidy and seedy character of rest of the city. 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 decidedly tropical, but at night the area is transformed into Lima's hot spot, with locals and visitors flocking to discos and watering holes -- much to the dismay of local residents who don't own a bar or restaurant.

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.

In San Isidro is Huaca Huallamarca (also called Pan de Azúcar, or "Sugar Loaf"), located 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 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is S/5 ($1.40) for adults and S/3 (85¢) for students. Also in San Isidro is the Huaca Juliana, a pre-Inca mound dating to A.D. 400. It's at Calle Belén at Pezet and keeps the same hours as Huallamarca; admission is free. 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 (tel. 01/445-8695). It has a small park, a 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 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is S/5 ($1.40) and S/3 (85¢) for students.

Unfortunately, these sites occasionally do not keep consistent hours, so you might find yourself staring through a chain-link fence if there's no one on hand to let you in.

It's A Zoo
Lima's Zoologico (zoo) and Parque de las Leyendas (Legends Park), Av. La Marina s/n, block 24 (tel. 01/464-4282) are worth a visit if you're traveling with kids. The park, in the San Miguel district between Centro and Callao, tries its best to represent Peru's three crucial geographical regions: selva (rainforest), sierra (highlands) and costa (coast). There are some good exotic Peruvian and South American fauna, such as condors, macaws, jaguars, llamas, and alpacas. The park has a playground with go-karts and some amusement park rides, and it's a good place for a picnic lunch. The zoo and park are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is S/6 ($1.75) for adults and S/3.50 ($1) for children 3 to 10.

For a complete listing of what to see and do in Lima, visit the online attractions index at Frommers.com.

Frommer’s is America’s bestselling travel guide series. Visit Frommers.com to find great deals, get information on over 3,500 destinations, and book your trip. © 2006 Wiley Publishing, Inc. Republication or redistribution of Frommer's content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Wiley.

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