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Things to Do in Peru

From the lush Amazon rainforest to the high-altitude Andes Mountains, Peru packs a topography as diverse as its offerings, weaving colonial architecture, Inca ruins, multiday hikes, Amazonian wildlife, and culinary diversity into a South American adventure. The iconic Machu Picchu, which must be booked via tour, tops most Peru travel itineraries, as do the surrounding archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the colonial town of Cusco. A tour guide can unlock the mysteries of the Inca Empire as you trek the trail to the lost city of Choquequirao, summit the Andes on the Inca Trail, bike from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, and take in the views of Lake Titicaca in Puno. To make sense of Cessna’s Nazca Lines, take to the skies via helicopter or scenic flight. While in Peru's southern end, don't miss the view from a volcano in Arequipa. A sightseeing tour of the Peruvian capital of Lima will take you to its colonial center for catacombs, pre-Colombian artwork, lively nightlife, and relics of Inca history; while nearby Miraflores is a popular novice surf spot. In Cusco, opt for a food tour to sample lomo saltado (beef), Peruvian corn on the cob, and even cuy (guinea pig); or delve into traditional drinks such as pisco sour cocktails and coca tea. Explorer-types should head to the rainforest: Near Iquitos lies a vast mass of wetlands full of wildlife and plant diversity—or aim for the Tarpaca River Walk, if you’re after a stroll.
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Amazon River
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67 Tours and Activities

The mighty Amazon River and its enormous, thickly forested basin are the heart of South America, the lungs of the world and the guardian of one fifth of the Earth’s fresh water. This river is the reason for Iquitos’ very existence and though it flows past the northern tip of the city, a bit beyond the river walk, the Rio Itaya, its influence is felt by everyone.

While its origins are much contested—any of the big river’s innumerable tributaries has a legitimate claim to the title—the “Birthplace of the Amazon” can be said to lie at the confluence of the Ucayali and Maranon Rivers, accessible from the Port of Nauta, 90km (56mi) from Iquitos on the newish paved highway. It is the quintessential daytrip, allowing travelers to ascend a 30m (100ft) observation tower that offers the region’s iconic photo op. There are several ways to experience the Amazon and its unparalleled biodiversity, all of them beginning with a boat trip.

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Miraflores
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The swanky beachfront suburb of Miraflores is one of Lima’s most sought-after zip codes.

Miraflores is where you’ll find Lima’s best restaurants, shops and hotels, plus the waterfront mansions and high-rise towers of the city’s movers and shakers. It’s also home to lovely parks and gardens, beaches and promenades.

Some ancient history remains in Miraflores, including the Huaca Pucllana, the remains of a pre-Inca mud-brick temple.

Paragliders come to Miraflores to leap off the area’s rocky cliffs over the sea. The beaches are popular, but the coast tends to be rocky rather than sandy and the better beaches lie further south.

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Barranco
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Lima’s most bohemian district, the lively coastal neighborhood of Barranco first became popular towards the end of the 19th Century, drawing an influx of poets, writers and artists to the seaside resorts of Las Sombrillas and Barranquito. Although it was integrated into the capital territory in 1860, Barranco retains its village-like feel, with its striking colonial architecture and brightly painted buildings standing in stark contrast to the modern high-rises of neighboring Miraflores.

Best explored on foot, the elegant Plaza San Francisco is the starting point for a walking tour, home to the 19th century Iglesia San Francisco, and encircled by boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Nearby, the Bajada de los Baños ravine is the most popular hangout during the daytime, where the flower-lined Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs) makes a romantic spot for watching the sunset.

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Kennedy Park (Parque Kennedy)
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Kennedy Park in Miraflores is literally the cat’s meow. Aside from being a well-kept park in Lima’s most popular district, the park is known for the dozens of cats that live in the cushy grass. If you’re a visitor who’s missing your pet back at home—or just want a cuddly experience—sit in the grass and wait for a cat to jump up and sit in your lap. Aside from the friendly Peruvian felines, Kennedy Park is also known for its collection of musicians and artisans—many of whom will gather on weekends to display and sell their work. Impromptu, upbeat music performances will occasionally enliven the park, and it’s a gathering spot where expats and locals mingle in Miraflores. Surrounding the park are the teeming amenities of Peru’s modern capital, including shopping, restaurants, numerous cafés, banks, and city bus lines. To escape the hectic Miraflores buzz, visit the Church of Virgen Milagrosa inside of Kennedy Park.

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ChocoMuseo Miraflores
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There are few places more perfect for chocolate lovers than the ChocoMuseo in Miraflores. Travelers can tour the chocolate factory and watch expert artisans craft dark, milk and white chocolate delights by hand, or participate in one of the museum’s unique workshops that grant visitors an opportunity to create rich chocolate truffles or transform cocoa beans to bars under the direction of master chocolatiers. A world-class café offers up chocolate-themed pastries, desserts and beverages, and a well-stocked chocolate shop is lined with shelves of locally sourced treats. Interested travelers can even tour nearby cocoa plantations and learn how local farmers grow and harvest these prized beans to provide pastry chefs and cooks with one of the world’s most coveted ingredients. A visit to ChocoMuseo Miraflores is the perfect way for chocolate lovers to spend an afternoon experiencing the wonder of this rich and delicious delicacy with all of their senses.

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Callao
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Located just up the coast from Lima, the seafront town of Callao has been Peru’s most important port since the colonial era and remains the capital’s principal cruise port, receiving thousands of annual visitors. With easy transport links to the center of Lima, most cruise travelers find themselves heading straight into the city, but there are still a few worthwhile attractions to visit in Callao itself.

Explore the imposing Real Felipe Fortress, built during colonial times to protect the shores from pirate invasions and named after King Felipe V of Spain; hit the beach at La Punta; or discover Callao’s rich maritime history with a visit to the Abtao Submarine Museum and the Naval Museum. Callao is also the starting point for cruises to the Pacific islands of Palomino, Cabinzas and El Frontón, renowned for their variety of birdlife and sea lion colonies and a popular day trip from Lima.

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Magic Water Circuit
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The Magic Water Circuit, located within the Parque de la Reserva, provides a fun and family-friendly option for those looking for something inexpensive to do in Lima. The municipal project—a series of 12 fountains choreographed to music and lights—was inaugurated in 2007 and has since become a favorite attraction in the capital city among locals and visitors alike.

While the fountains are open Wednesday through Sunday, beginning in the late afternoon, they’re undeniably most impressive at night, when the lights and laser effects are most visible. Each of the fountains has a different theme, and some are interactive (you’ll get wet), making them a huge hit with kids. The Maze of the Dream (Laberinto del Ensueño) is a major highlight of the Magic Water Circuit and challenges visitors to find their way to an inner circle through a maze made from vertical walls of water. After dark, the Fantasia Fountain (Fuente de la Fantasía) entertains with a choreographed show.

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San Isidro
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One of Lima’s most affluent neighborhoods and main financial district, San Isidro is often passed over by visitors on their way to the beaches and shopping malls of Miraflores, but there are still a few surprises to be found between the business headquarters and residential blocks. In recent years, San Isidro has also spruced up its image and many of its elegant 20th-century mansions have been converted into 5-star hotels, luxury shopping boutiques and international restaurants. The Huallamarca is San Isidro’s principal tourist attraction, an elaborately restored adobe pyramid centered around the ruins of a pre-Columbian temple and now home to a museum displaying artifacts excavated from the site. Equally incongruous are the many green spaces that break up the sea of high-rise office blocks, most notably the scenic El Olivar park, an ancient olive grove and National Monument, popular with bird watchers and picnickers.
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Lima Plaza Mayor
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Lima’s Plaza Mayor (main square) is central Plaza de Armas, the city’s historic heart and birthplace.

Landscaped with palm trees, elaborate lampposts, flower beds and greenery, the square’s focus is the 1650 tiered bronze fountain in the center and the statue of Francisco Pizarro on horseback nearby. Visit at 11:45am to watch the changing of the guard, or visit any time to find an empty seat and watch the world wander by. There’s plenty to look at, with the cathedral on one side and the beautiful balconies of the Palacio Arzobispal next door. Several other attractive buildings with balconies and arched porticoes line the square, including the City Hall and Government Palace.

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Church and Convent of Saint Francis (Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco)
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The Iglesia and Museo de San Francisco is a spectacular example of Moorish-inspired Spanish baroque colonial grandeur, but the real highlight is the spooky labyrinth of catacombs underground.

One of the best preserved churches in Lima, the Convent of San Francis of Assisi also has a remarkable library of antique texts and a tranquil cloistered garden. A guided visit to the Museum and Convent takes you through the buildings’ history and architecture, before venturing into the underground passages lined with the bones of 25,000 Lima citizens from over 200 years of burials. Bones were interred here until 1808, when Lima’s cemetery was established, and the catacombs lay undiscovered until 1943. A visit is not for the fainthearted, but those who do make the journey will be surprised to see the various skulls and thigh bones arranged in decorative patterns.

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More Things to Do in Peru

Plaza San Martin

Plaza San Martin

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Inaugurated in 1921 to celebrate a century of Peruvian independence, Plaza San Martin is named after the man who liberated Peru, Argentina and Chile from Spain, José de San Martín whose bronze likeness sits astride a bronze horse in the center of the plaza. Located within the UNESCO-listed Historic Centre of Lima and surrounded on three sides by neocolonial architecture, the plaza is considered one of the city’s most important public spaces.

The plaza becomes especially lively in the late afternoon and evening, when the buildings are lit up beautifully and locals gather to chit chat or, more often, argue politics beneath the trees. On the northwestern side of the plaza sits the Gran Hotel Bolivar, a perfect place to sip a pisco sour within the historic art deco building.

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Jiron de la Union

Jiron de la Union

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Downtown Lima’s most lively and colorful street is pedestrianized Jiron de la Union.

Lined with boutiques and stores for window-shopping, restaurants and cafes for bar-hoppers, and thronged with locals for people-watching, taking a stroll along this atmospheric thoroughfare is the best way to experience Lima in a nutshell. Taking up five blocks of prime city-center real estate, Lima’s most important boulevard was planned by Pizarro back in 1535, when the city was founded. A walk along this thoroughly commercialized car-free route takes you past City Hall, monuments, squares and the La Merced Cathedral, with its pretty square in front.

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Presidential Palace

Presidential Palace

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Dominating the northern quarter of Lima’s UNESCO-listed Plaza de Armas, the grand Presidential Palace, or Casa de Pizarro, is one of the city’s most impressive historic buildings. Built in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro to mark the founding of the city, the Presidential Palace has been the official home of the Peruvian government since the viceroyalty of Peru was first established.

Designed by architect Ricardo de Jaxa Malachowski in a French Baroque style, the original building was erected on the site of Indian chief Taulichusco’s former home, and was later the site where Jose San Martín declared the Independence of Peru in 1821. Along with its historical importance, the building itself has undergone numerous renovations and restorations throughout the years, and today, most of the existing structure dates back to the 20th century.

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Pachacamac Itshma Temple

Pachacamac Itshma Temple

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The closest archaeological site to Lima is Pachacamac, a pre-Inca collection of sand-blasted pyramid temples and palaces spanning 1,500 years. Over the centuries the now-ruined city developed into one of the Inca’s most important religious and administrative centers.

Though all that remains is largely the rubble of walls and stepped foundations rising from the surrounding dusty desert, there are excavations and reconstructions to see, including a rebuilt Inca complex called House of the Chosen Women.

The site was inhabited by the Huari people prior to 800 AD, and later by the Inca, who built their Temple to the sun on the main square. Itshma was the name given to the state surrounding Pachacamac and the religious ceremonial temples built to honor the coastal deity, Pacha Camac.

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Sacsayhuaman (Saqsaywaman)

Sacsayhuaman (Saqsaywaman)

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Sacsayhuaman is the largest and most impressive of four archaeological ruins on the outskirts of Cusco, Peru. Built by the Incas, it served an important military function and was the site of a major battle with the Spanish in 1536. The name itself can be translated as “speckled head” and some say that the city of Cusco was laid out in the shape of a puma, with Sacsayhuaman forming the head.

The complex was constructed out of massive stones, some weighing as much as 300 tons, cut to fit together without the use of mortar. Today, many of the outside walls, built in a tiered, zigzag formation, remain, as do several tunnels and the “Inca’s Throne.” The latter is a series of large rocks with well-worn grooves used by many visitors as slides. A large, open plaza holding several thousand people was once home to ceremonial activities and continues to be used today – most notably for the annual celebration of the Inti Raymi festival in late June.

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Cusco Cathedral (Catedral del Cuzco)

Cusco Cathedral (Catedral del Cuzco)

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Cusco’s Cathedral of Santo Domingo is a colonial gem, boasting an altar of silver and a magnificently carved choir. The building stands on the site of an Inca palace, and was built from stone blocks removed from the nearby Inca city of Sacsayhuaman by the triumphant conquistadors.

The elaborately decorated cathedral was built from 1559 to 1654 on the city’s main square, Plaza de Armas, and is filled with colonial artworks, artifacts and richly decorated chapels. The most famous artwork is a Last Supper painting by Marcos Zapata featuring a meal of local guinea pig served with an Inca corn beverage. The highly ornamental facade features two domes flanking the chapels and nave, built in a Gothic-Renaissance hybrid style.

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Tambomachay

Tambomachay

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Tambomachay might not be one of the biggest ruins in Cusco, but it’s definitely one of the highest, topping out at nearly 13,000 feet.

Located five miles from the city center, Tambomachay is also known as “the Baths of the Inca” due to the multiple baths which are scattered about the site. The Inca held water in a spiritual regard as one of the sources of life, and the spring waters at Tambomachay are masterfully diverted into aqueducts, baths, and stone-carved waterways which would divert the water through the stone. Given the site’s natural beauty and the spiritual significance of its waters, it’s believed by historians that Tambomachay was reserved for Inca royalty. When visiting Tambomachay today, be sure to admire the smooth mosaic of stone which forms the walls of the ruin. The way in which the stones are perfectly stacked on each other is an example of the handicraft for which the Inca were famous.

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Qorikancha (Coricancha)

Qorikancha (Coricancha)

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The Inca site of Qorikancha forms the foundations of the colonial church of Santo Domingo, creating an unusual combination of monolithic Inca and arched colonial architecture.

Qorikancha means ‘Golden Courtyard’, and in Inca times the temple walls were clad with 700 sheets of solid gold, proving a tempting lure for the conquistadors. The gold sheets and gold and silver statues are gone, melted down and recast by the Spanish, but the impressively hewn curved wall of basalt stonework remains. The temple complex is thought to have been built by the first Inca emperor, Manco Capac, 100 years before the coming of the Spaniards. It was built as an observatory and religious temple to the sun, housing the mummified bodies of the Inca rulers. When you enter the courtyard, imagine the octagonal front clad with solid gold, flanked by temples to the moon and the stars draped in solid silver.

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Q'enqo (Qenko)

Q'enqo (Qenko)

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Near Cuzco, on the way to Pisac from Sacsayhuaman, is the amphitheater and temple of Q’engo. This site which is at 3,600 meters above sea level has some of the best examples of undisturbed Incan carving in the world. The name (which has many alternative spellings, sometimes with a k) means zig-zag, and this is in reference to the carved channels in the rock at the site. The site is actually comprised of four different parts, with the most popularly visited being Q’engo Grande, which was used as an astronomical observatory and holy site.

Q’engo Grande is a large limestone outcrop with two small knobs that show a shadow pattern at the summer solstice in June. Also carved into the limestone are a series of caves, altars and hollows that would have been used to move water. The site was used as a stopping point on a pilgrimage of religious importance during the Inca period, and mummification took place onsite as well.

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Historic Centre of Lima (Centro Historico de Lima)

Historic Centre of Lima (Centro Historico de Lima)

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Stretching between the Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Martin, and bisected by the principal boulevard of Jirón de la Unión, the historic center of Lima is still the focal point of the modern-day city. Today, the UNESCO-listed area forms the basis of most tourist itineraries, with the majority of attractions within easy walking distance and a wealth of elegant buildings, churches and monumental statues dating back to the colonial era.

The Plaza de Armas makes a popular starting point for walking tours, home to a cluster of landmarks including the Presidential Palace, the Municipal Palace (City Hall) and the Palace of the Union, as well as a bronze fountain bearing the coats-of-arms of Lima. Famously the site of the foundation of the ‘City of the Kings’ in 1535, the Plaza de Armas became the city’s first public square and was later the site of the declaration of the Republic of Peru in 1821.

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Cusco Historic Center (Centro Historico de Cusco)

Cusco Historic Center (Centro Historico de Cusco)

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When it comes to history, few cities in South America are more historic than Cusco. This sprawling city was once the capital of the entire Inca Empire, and many will tell you that ancient Cusco was the grandest city in Peru. Even the name “Cusco” translates as “Navel of the Earth” since the Inca believed the city to be the center of the known world. It pulses with an energy unlike elsewhere in Peru, and there is a palpable magic which permeates these streets set high in the foothills of the Andes.

During the 16th Century, when Spanish conquistadors came marching into Cusco, they kept the structure of the city intact but destroyed many of the buildings. Colonial cathedrals and Spanish architecture took the place of Inca temples, and the city became an Andean fusion of Spanish and Inca design. Given the cultural combination and the grandiose scale of the city, UNESCO declared Cusco as a World Heritage Site in 1983.

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Plaza de Armas (Huacaypata)

Plaza de Armas (Huacaypata)

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There was once a time when Cusco was the center of the powerful Incan Empire. From the coastal deserts of southern Peru to the frigid peaks of the Andes, every decision within the empire traced back to the city of Cusco. It was the beating heart at the very center of one of the greatest civilizations in history, and at the center of Cusco was the massive square which was known as Huacaypata.

When the Spanish besieged the city, however, many of the buildings around Huacaypata were viciously razed to the ground. Western structures were erected in their place to solidify the imperial dominance, and the name of the square was also changed to reflect the Spanish heritage.

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Uros Floating Islands (Islas Uros)

Uros Floating Islands (Islas Uros)

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The 40-plus floating Uros Islands are perhaps the most photographed attraction on Lake Titicaca, famously constructed with springy totora reeds. The reeds are collected from around the shores of Lake Titicaca, and used to replenish the fragile islands every three months or so, as the bottom of the two-meter (6.5ft) totora mat slowly rots back into the lake. Thus, the islands change shape, size and even number as the centuries pass, anchored to the lake bottom but in many ways a completely separate world.

The Uros people are an ancient race, predating the Incas by millennia and, according to local legend, even the sun and stars. The “People of the Lake,” as they call themselves, once said that they did not feel the cold, thanks to their “black blood.”

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Huaca Pucllana

Huaca Pucllana

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The modern city of Lima is dotted with historic ruins and sacred sites, known as huacas, and the imposing archeological site of Huaca Pucllana is one of the city’s largest and most important ancient monuments, located in the coastal Miraflores district. Built around 500 A.D, the complex was once an administrative and ceremonial center of the indigenous Lima Culture civilization, constructed from hand-made adobe bricks and dominated by a 22-meter tall central pyramid.

The impressive pre-Incan ruins are now a popular tourist attraction, affording unique views from the top of the central mound and dramatically floodlit in the evening hours. There’s also an on-site museum displaying artifacts like tools, ceramics and textiles unearthed during excavations, a workshop area displaying ancient textile and ceramic making techniques, a small park growing key plants used by the Lima Culture people and a spectacularly sited restaurant that looks out over the ruins.

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