Best things to do in Peru
Find out more about those top places in Peru
Lima is a city of enthralling contradictions. As the world’s second driest capital after Cairo, Lima is also situated near crumbling cliffs that tumble down towards the Pacific Ocean. The old colonial heart of Peru’s capital is packed with baroque Spanish cathedrals, grand presidential palaces and Conquistador forts that sit side by side with the Huaca Pucllana, one of the best-preserved Incan pyramids. Lima is also a thrillingly vibrant city with the cliff top district of Milaflores buzzing all day round with shoppers, newly arrived city dwellers from the Andes, and clubbers dancing the night away to tropical beats. What is more, beyond the city center the vast pre-Columbian citadel of Pachacamac is one of Peru’s hidden gems and rivals Machu Pichu as the largest preserved Incan settlement.
Located some 30 kilometers south of Lima’s city center on the arid Pacific Coast is Pachacamac, the area’s greatest Inca city. While it may be no Machu Picchu, the ruins, which sit high above the crashing waves of the ocean ensconced in desert sand dunes, are still a remarkable sight. When the Spaniards first arrived the city was one of the most important in the Inca Empire and traces of its former glory can still be seen in the stepped Temple of the Sun and the House of the Chosen Woman.
Housed in the sprawling palace that once belonged to the Spanish viceroy, Lima’s Museo Larco is the city’s show-stopping piece of colonial architecture. Today, it is no longer the site of governance but is instead a dazzling museum that contains upwards of 50 000 artifacts from the pre-Columbian Inca, Nazca and Chancay cultures. To explore this jaw dropping large collection guided tours are recommended.
While not one original building remains (bar a 16th century fountain gilded in plundered Inca gold), the Plaza de Armas is still Lima’s most spectacular public square. Laid out by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, the plaza was once known as the nerve-center of the Spanish Empire. For the best experience, take a guided walking tour of the square to uncover its unrivaled history and take a look around the imposing cathedral.
Lima’s most important religious site and one of Peru’s most historic locations is the city’s Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Well known as the resting place of the country’s most revered saints, the church is also the site where a Dominican friar persuaded Pizarro to execute the captured Inca emperor Atahualpa. Most of what you can see today is from the 17th and 18th centuries and tours are available where expert guides will tell you more above the site’s unique history.
Towering over the heart of Lima is the Huaca Pucllana, the ruins of a pre-Inca pyramid. As a focal point of the Lima Culture, which flourished around the turn of the 1st millennium AD, the pyramid has a storied history and on-site tour guides offer fascinating insights into its mysterious history.
Built to defend Lima against invasion and the threat of pirates, the Real Felipe Fortress is an imposing bastion at the entrance of the city’s harbor. The fortress is currently home to the Peruvian Army Museum but it can also be explored with the help of a tour guide who will reveal its important role in maintaining the independence of Spain’s former Latin American colonies.
Situated right on the Pacific Coast, Lima is one of South America’s food capitals. One of the best experiences the Peruvian capital offers is food tours of the beguiling Barranco district where you can sample anticuchos (cow hearts) and the famous picarones (small doughnuts).
Nestled deep in an Andean mountain valley, Cuzco is one of the world’s most mystical cities. Founded in the 13th century and becoming the Incan capital two hundred years later, Cuzco was planned as a grand imperial capital that would stand the test of time. Today, Incan Cuzco remains intact with great stone palaces and religious complexes lining the city’s cobbled streets. However, Cuzco is no historical relic. It is the vibrant capital of Andean Peru and visitors are left enchanted by the city’s near-constant procession of religious festivals, which bring in colorfully dressed locals from the surrounding countryside.
The best-preserved Inca site within the city limits of Cuzco is the temple of Qorikancha, which forms the base for the monolithic colonial-era church Santa Domingo. While the temple was once the grandest in the Inca Empire (it was gilded in over 1400 kilograms of gold), today little is left bar the awe-inspiring masonry that stands as testament to the craftsmanship of the pre-Columbian era. Guided tours of the site also encompass Santa Domingo, which is a rich repository of colonial art.
One of the most popular day trips from Cuzco is to explore the Sacred Valley, which is filled with a myriad of colonial-era settlements, unspoiled weaving villages that hold onto pre-Columbian traditions and Inca ruins. Highlights include the Inca citadel of Pisac with its sweeping agricultural terracing and the fortress-cum-temple of Ollantaytambo, which was one of the few locations where the Incas won a battle against the conquistadors.
Cuzco’s newly opened Machu Picchu Museum holds an impressive collection of artifacts that were excavated during Hiram Bingham’s expeditions – many of which were until recently held by Yale University. Exploring the museum gives you the opportunity to get up close to Inca handicrafts, weaponry and ornate ceramics. The museum itself is housed in the spectacular colonial villa Casa Concha.
Built from the rubble of an Incan palace, Cuzco’s cathedral is one of the oldest in the Americas with construction beginning in the early 16th century. The most interesting aspect of the cathedral is its artwork, which fuses European ecclesiastic painting with traditional elements of Andean folk art. Guided tours of this spectacular building are regularly available.
To get a better understanding of how the Incas worshiped the constellations head to the Cuzco Planetarium. Set atop a hill overlooking the city, the planetarium explains how the Incas used the heavens to predict the weather and lay out the street pattern of pre-Columbian Cuzco. Guided tours of the complex sell out fast but are well worth advance booking.
If you are looking for an Inca experience without the crowds, the ruins of Tambomachay are the perfect excursion from Cuzco. Set in a narrow Andean valley, the ruins are all that remains of a vast temple complex that was part of an Inca water cult. Highlights of the site are the ceremonial stone baths, whose engineering is still impressive today, alongside its remarkable setting.
The heart of modern Cuzco is the Plaza de Armas, which in Inca times was named Aucaypata. Highlights of the atmospheric square include the cathedral and the 16th century Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús, which contains Peru’s largest alter.
Enigmatically shrouded in mist and surrounding by rainforest-clad escarpments, the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu are South America’s premier tourist attraction. Deep in the jungle, Machu Picchu was one of the few Incan cities never discovered – and destroyed – by the Spanish conquistadors. Indeed, the preserved perfectly and enchanting ruins of the once great city were only discovered by 1911 by American archaeologists. The countess stone palaces, temples and storehouses are connected via a system of terraces and staircases carved into the sheer rock face and provide breathtaking views of the distant glacial peaks. While Macchu Picchu is today one of the world’s most iconic destinations, a new entry system instated by the Peruvian authorities has stemmed overcrowding letting visitors enjoy the otherworldly ruins in tranquility.
Known in English as the Sun Gate, Intipunktu offers the picture-perfect image of Machu Picchu, which is seen across the world in television programs, photographs and movies. The Sun Gate is the precipitous end of the world-famous Inca Trail and has panoramic views of the hilltop citadel that are simply breathtaking – you really have to see it to believe it.
The architectural highlight of a tour of Machu Picchu is undoubtedly the Principal Temple. When it was first built the building’s masonry was equal in standard to that found in Europe and the gigantic geometric block walls still stand today. Within the temple complex is the intricately carved Sacristy, which was once used to store precious objects.
At the top of the rugged hill overlooking Machu Picchu is Intihuatana, an Inca astronomical device that was used to predict solstices. While much of the site’s history remains a mystery, its elegant form and ease of use make it a highlight of any tour of the Inca citadel.
Just a short stroll from Machu Picchu itself is the Inca Drawbridge, which was built to control access to the citadel. While no one is allowed onto the precipitous bridge-cum-cliff walk, the views from nearby are simply astonishing with spectacular vistas of the city itself and the jungle-clad peaks.
The Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock is one of the few buildings that have been restored to their original state at Machu Picchu. Complete with thatched roof and colorful interiors, the building is the starting point for many tours of the Inca citadel and is also a useful place to shelter from the tropical rains.
A half-day trip from the crowds of Machu Picchu is the ruined Inca town of Wiñay Wayna, which sits precipitously on the side of a steep hillside overlooking the Urubamba River. For the more adventurous, the site can also be reached by the thrilling Inca Trail hiking route.
Flanking the Sacred Plaza is the Temple of the Three Windows, one of Machu Picchu’s most iconic locations. The massive windows from which the temple gets its name provide jaw-dropping views of the rugged Andean landscape and offer the perfect photo opportunity.