Inca Erotica, Catacombs and Fried Rice: What To Do In Lima In A Day

It’s easy to think of Lima as a gateway to the rest of Peru; a city you just fly into, before getting on a plane to somewhere much more exciting. This isn’t to say, however, that a day spent in Lima is a day wasted, and one of the great things about this city is that in just one day you can see enough to get a pretty accurate feel for this huge metropolis. So if you’ve ended up with a long layover in Lima, or if you’re staying for a night before flying off elsewhere, then despond not: here’s our guide for what to see in Lima if you’ve only got one day in the city. What’s more, we’ve cut out anything that we think isn’t worth seeing and planned an itinerary that is easily achievable in a day and won’t leave you wasting precious time sat in one of the city’s infamous traffic jams.

Getting into the City

Inca Erotica, Catacombs and Fried Rice: What To Do In Lima In A Day

Nose-to-tail traffic: a typical Lima sight, made bearable by a spectacular sunset over the sea. Photo: McKay Savage

Arriving in Lima International is a hectic experience on the best of days. Once you’ve managed to extricate yourself from disconcerting scrum of taxi drivers and hotel reps in Arrivals all clamoring for your tourist dollar, you have the option of leaving your luggage in an airport locker (if you’re coming back to catch a later flight the same day) before you head outside to grab a cab.

The taxis outside the airport terminal are regulated, meaning that the drivers are safe but generally un-willing to negotiate on the fare. Depending on where you want to go and the time of day, the ride from the airport can take anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour. As far as Lima’s public transport system goes, the intricate network of thousands of privately owned minibuses hurtling at break-neck speed around the city is incomprehensible to everyone except the locals, so in the interests of saving time, taking a taxi is by far the easiest way of getting into the center.

Lima’s traffic problem is infamous and you need to plan your day with this in mind, or you’ll end up wasting hours looking at the rear bumper of the car in front. Rush hour lasts from 18:00 pm to 21:00 pm and you’re best to avoid it at all costs. Travelling before 16:00pm tends to be better but if you’re here on a weekday you should budget an hour for getting back to the airport in time for your flight, regardless of the time of day.

Plaza de Armas

Inca Erotica, Catacombs and Fried Rice: What To Do In Lima In A Day

The Changing of the Guards in the Plaza de Armas. Photo: Diego Delso

The historic center is within easy reach of the airport and a good first port-of-call. The Plaza de Armas is grandiose and gives you a good feel for the Peruvian empire’s might. Best of all, it’s free from street vendors, but keep a constant eye on your belongings because it’s a favorite spot for pick-pockets. Outside Government Palace, on the north side of the square, you can watch the changing of the guards every day at noon. On the other side of the square is Jirón de la Unión street, a pedestrian thoroughfare filled with street performers and good ice-cream shops. Look up and you’ll see that some of the buildings have striking Art Deco facades.

Iglesia de San Francisco

Inca Erotica, Catacombs and Fried Rice: What To Do In Lima In A Day

The Iglesia de San Francisco, sittin gon top of some pretty spooky catacombs. Photo: Håkan Svensson

This baroque-style colonial church is within walking distance of the main square; you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see a huge flock of pigeons out front. The one-hour tour will take you around the church and its adjoining monastery, but what most people come for are the catacombs. An estimated 75,000 people were buried under San Francisco when the catacombs functioned as one of the city’s original cemeteries. But be warned: many of their remains can still be seen, piled up in the underground pits, so this tour isn’t for the faint hearted.

Barrio Chino

Inca Erotica, Catacombs and Fried Rice: What To Do In Lima In A Day

Lima’s Chinatown is just a couple of blocks from the Church of San Francisco and is worth a quick look, if nothing else than to get an idea of the sheer scale of Chinese migration to Peru. There are more than 6,000 Chinese restaurants (“chifas”) in the city, and needless to say you’ll find the most authentic here in Chinatown.  If you’re about ready for lunch, ask for Arroz chaufa – a moreish Peruvian take on Chinese fried rice. And if food is your thing, or you´re just keen to try some typical dishes, have a look at this itinerary for a food and culture tour of Lima, which includes an eye-opening trip to the local markets and a ceviche lunch.

Museo Larco

Inca Erotica, Catacombs and Fried Rice: What To Do In Lima In A Day

Kinky Inca ceramics at the Museo Larco. Photos: Pfrishauf

This museum of Peruvian antiquities, housed in a beautiful former mansion, is across town from the historic center but well worth the trip. The private collection includes spectacular artifacts from ancient civilizations like ornate nose clips, huge gold crowns, and giant tapestries woven with the feathers of exotic birds. As a visitor, you’re also allowed to wander through the museum’s storerooms, past tens of thousands of intricately shaped ceramics. But the jewel in the Museo Larco’s crown is its collection of erotic ceramics. Forget your standard jugs in the shape of animals or Inca gods: these 3,000 year old pots are essentially a clay representation of the Joy of Sex, and what they lack in subtlety they make up for in sheer amusement value. Once you’ve had your fill of erotica, head to the museum’s elegant café-restaurant; after a morning spent touring Lima’s sites, there’s nothing quite like a comfy chair and a peaceful courtyard for a rest and refuel stop.

Miraflores

Inca Erotica, Catacombs and Fried Rice: What To Do In Lima In A Day

The Larcomar retail complex in Miraflores is generic and generally missable. Photo: Qwertymith.

Travel guides and locals alike will insist that you visit Miraflores, but aside from being smack-bang on the coast, Lima’s richest neighborhood has little of interest for foreign visitors. Miraflores is cleaner and greener than the rest of Lima, making it a lovely place for wealthy Limeños to live but not a very interesting place for foreigners to visit. For one thing, it’s not going to blow you away in the beauty stakes: instead of colonial buildings you’ll find luxurious new apartment blocks, and even in the narrow coastal parks you still feel penned-in by the nearby highways.  Yes, the high-end cliffside shopping complex Larcomar also has some nice restaurants, but for a more authentic Lima experience you’re better off spending your time somewhere other than Miraflores. 

From the top of Machu Picchu or the rainforest surrounding Iquitos, Lima seems like a far-fetched dream. And so while there’s much more to the city than what you see on this list, even just spending a day in Lima is worth it to be able to realize the sheer scale of the Peru’s diversity. If your next destination is Cusco, we’ve written a post to give you some ideas of which places to visit in Cusco and how to cope with the high altitude. Alternatively, if you’re staying in Lima for longer, check out this great blog post by Tasha Prados, who served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ica, Peru and has accumulated heaps of tips for shopping, restaurants and nightlife in Lima. And if you want any extra advice or help building your itinerary for Peru, feel free to drop us an email at jack@keteka.com.