Peru was our first stop in a five-month traverse of South America, and naturally we started in its capital and main hub. When planning what to do in Lima, we found the best strategy was to break it down by district.
While Lima has a larger city-limit population than the likes of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, its main backpacker attractions are concentrated into certain areas. The city is spread across 43 sprawling districts; we only visited three of them.
Where to stay in Lima: backpacker hostels
The most popular Lima districts for traveller accommodation are Miraflores and its neighbour Barranco (more on both below). We based ourselves in Miraflores, where we tried out two different hostels: Dragonfly and Hitchhikers.
Both hostels had a good social vibe without being too party, which suited us perfectly. We marginally preferred Dragonfly, which had a rooftop bar with daily offers and was located within quick walking access of nearby sites and transport points. Both offered reasonably priced dorms, and Dragonfly had private rooms available too.
Day one: explore Miraflores and Barranco
Our first day in Lima consisted of a lengthy circular walk, beginning and ending in our base, Miraflores.
Morning: take the Boardwalk along the coast
A ten-minute walk from Dragonfly hostel took us to the coast and Parque del Amor, the ‘park of love’. Lined with colourful mosaic walls, the park overlooks the Pacific Ocean with glorious views up and down the coast. At its centre stands the conspicuous elevated sculpture of an embracing couple that gives the park its name.
The park was a perfect spot to sit and take in the ocean scenery. Just a few feet away, we watched paragliders taking off from the cliff edge. It was tempting to have a go ourselves for 180 soles per person, but we decided to move on.
Parque del Amor stands midway along the Miraflores Boardwalk, a path stretching some six miles through coastal parks and beaches. From here, we made our way south towards Barranco.
About a kilometre down the coast we reached Larcomar, a multi-level mall and entertainment complex carved into the side of the ocean-facing cliffs. While our budget couldn’t really stretch to the premium outlet price tags, it was a good spot for a drink and a comfort break.
We continued down the scenic Boardwalk to its end-point, Malecón de la Reserva. From here it’s possible to walk to Barranco either by the main streets inland or by continuing along the beaches. We chose the latter.
Midday: discover Barranco by foot
To reach the beach side it required a somewhat dicey crossing of the coastal highway – take your time with this one – but once we were over, the ocean walk was highly rewarding. A kilometre or so further down the coast we reached a pedestrian bridge back across the highway to a walkway leading up to Barranco.
Barranco is a colourful neighbourhood set across oceanside hills, filled with murals, quaint churches and quirky buildings. As we ascended the walkway – ‘Bajada de los Baños’ – we stopped to admire a giant mural before reaching Puente de los Suspiros (the ‘bridge of sighs’).
Across the bridge we had a good look around the gardens of Plaza Chabuca Granda and Iglesia La Ermita. At the rear side of the church we found a gorgeous ocean viewing point, serenaded by a local Flamenco guitar-playing duo.
Back across the bridge we made our way into the main square, surrounded by colourful buildings with a clear blue fountain pool in the middle. After a stroll through the square’s tiled walkways and greeneries it was time for some lunch.
Budget food tip: Barranco has a plentiful choice of food joints, from the basic to the classic. If you’re on the tightest of budgets, it’s a great place to try one of Peru’s legendary ‘menú’ eateries. During the daytime, these places offer two- or three-course meals for as little as 4 or 5 soles (typically 12 soles in Barranco). They are undoubtedly hit and miss, but are a must for a truly local experience. Check out my article about our Peruvian menú experiences here.
Afternoon: the highlights of Miraflores
We decided to keep up the exercise and walk from Barranco to Miraflores via the main streets. If you’re not feeling the 3.5km walk, you can take the local bus, ‘Ruta Troncal’, for 2.5 soles a ticket. A cab will cost around 10–12 soles.
Miraflores is a safe and vibrant district, buzzing with bars, shops and markets. We started with Mercado Surquillo, an enormous local food and supplies market frequented daily by locals. Situated a ten-minute walk away from central Miraflores, it’s often overlooked by tourists, but worth a visit if only to experience the hustle and bustle.
For the complete experience of Mercado Surquillo it may be better to visit in the morning when neighbourhood residents arrive early to vie for the best produce. If you’re there in the afternoon, note that it closes at 4pm.
We crossed the main highway and walked a few blocks to Miraflores Indian Market. This place is open until 5pm, and is a great spot for local craft and souvenirs. Walking south from here to central Miraflores we came across many more mazy indoor artisan markets and craft shops.
At the heart of Miraflores lies Parque Kennedy, a triangle-shaped greenery that features the Town Hall and Virgen Milagrosa Church. The park’s gardens, filled with flower arrangements, are often filled with street artists and performers. We stopped at a small amphitheatre-style stepped circle to watch local dancers and musicians.
Peruvian cuisine treat: a few blocks away from Parque Kennedy we stopped for dinner at Punto Azul, one of the best spots in the city to sample ceviche, the Peruvian national dish. This was the best one we had during a month in Peru, and they also did a fantastic causa, another national staple. While this was a bit of a treat on our budget, the prices weren’t unmanageable; ceviches were around 30–35 soles each.
Evening: experience Huaca Pucllana after dusk
After sundown we headed back through central Miraflores to visit Huaca Pucllana, the restored ruins of an adobe pyramid some 1,600 years old. The ancient structure is so durable that it has withstood high-magnitude earthquakes that have devastated buildings all over Lima.
While Huaca Pucllana is open for day visits from 9am–5pm, it’s an extra-special experience to take a night tour. It does cost a little extra – general admission is 12 soles during the day, or 15 soles in the evening. Night tours run from 7–10pm. Check out the museum website for more info.
Our fee included museum entry and a guided tour, which lasted about 45 minutes. The restored adobe ruins looked spectacular when lit up against the Lima night skyline. The site also had a shop and restaurant, albeit a bit out of our price range.
Day two: Centro Histórico
On our second day in Lima, we headed to the city’s historical centre. We took the public bus, a 9km journey that took about an hour. Our return tickets were 2.50 soles.
Morning: a church-filled stroll to the riverfront
The bus dropped us on Avenida Wilson, close to the perimeter of Centro Histórico. From here, armed with a map provided by Dragonfly Hostel, we navigated our way around the main sights.
First we headed towards the Rímac River, stopping at various picturesque churches such as Iglesia San Sebastián and Iglesia de Santa Rosa.
Before emerging onto the riverfront we turned along Jirón Conde de Superunda to Convento Santo Domingo. This magnificent pink church was originally built in the 16th century, and has undergone various restorations since. Some of Peru’s most storied saints are buried within the church grounds.
From here we made the short walk to Park La Muralla on the river. The park features a circular sheltered stage; our visit was timed luckily as a local festival was in full swing, with costumed performers delighting the crowds. We also took some time out to visit the park’s open air museum, which showcases the relics of ancient buildings.
We walked further along the riverfront to find the best viewing spot for Cerro San Cristóbal. The famed hill is one of Lima’s most photographed features, dotted with houses of many colours. We were content with the view from afar, but if you want to see it up close there are tour buses running every 30 minutes from the Plaza Mayor.
Street food tip: Centro Histórico is bustling with street vendors selling sweet snacks such as churros and dulce de leche pastries. For only 1 or 2 soles a pop, it’s well worth indulging. We did!
Midday: the heart of Centro Histórico
Walking back into the old town from the park we soon reached the striking yellow walls of Monasterio de San Francisco. The sight of birds swirling around overhead was a mesmering one! The monastery’s catacombs are one of Lima’s most popular attractions. The 7 soles entry fee grants access to the bony remains within and a library of antique texts, with a guided tour included.
A couple of blocks away we made it to Plaza Mayor, the main square of Centro Histórico.
The grass centre of the plaza provided a great view of Lima’s two most iconic buildings: Palacio de Gobierno and La Catedral de Lima. The cathedral features a museum with an entrance fee of 10 soles; we were happy with the view from outside.
As we headed out of the historic centre we stopped at Palacio Torre Tagle, one of the best-preserved examples of Spanish baroque architecture in the city. Now a government building, access is restricted, but we were able to enter the lower grounds and take some photographs.
The last building-spotting stop of our self-guided tour was Congreso de la República at Plaza Bolivar. The imposing white building is the meeting place of Peru’s legislative-power-wielding congress.
Afternoon/evening: parks, museums and the famous light show
A couple of kilometres south of the historical centre are the parks and gardens of Plaza Grau and Parque de los Museos. The extensive grounds feature several museums and galleries, the centrepiece of which is the Museum of Art of Lima (MALI). The park was the ideal stop-off on our return to Miraflores, situated right next to the main route with regular return buses.
Further south towards Miraflores along Avenida Arequipa is the unmistakable El Circuito Mágico del Agua. Its famous water fountains are clearly visible from the main road. After sunset the fountains are illuminated in a spectacular water show, which is well worth the 4 soles entry fee.
One final foodie tip: if you didn’t make it to Punto Azul or want an alternative to sample Lima’s famous ceviche, another great option is El Rincón de Bigote back in Miraflores. We went for one final treat before moving on from Lima, and we were not disappointed.
Are you travelling in Peru on a budget? Check out my guide to the country’s cheap menú restaurants.
Are you taking on the Inca Trail? Read about our experience of it here.