Lima: 10 Things to Do

2. Government Palace and Plaza de Armas

Travel Guide Lima Ernesto Benavides / AFP / Getty Images
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Government Palace, the official residence and office of Peru's president, sits on the banks of the Rimac River, Lima's principal waterway, and faces San Cristobal Hill, the city's highest point. Back in the time of the Incas, the site had strategic and spiritual meaning, which is why the last Inca chief in Lima also lived here. Pizarro, the conqueror of the Incas, so liked the site that he kept it for the first Spanish palace, whose construction began in 1535. Since then, Government Palace has been rebuilt numerous times; the current French-inspired mansion was constructed in the 1930s.

Access to the palace is restricted; special tours can be arranged directly through the protocol office at +51-(0)1-311-3908. But you don't need tickets to see the changing of the palace guards, which takes place each day precisely at noon. (Behind the palace is the Peruvian House of Literature — it is Lima's old train station, which was restored by the government in 2009 and turned into a reading room of Peruvian works. It's worth a quick peek.)

Government Palace occupies the north side of the Plaza de Armas (or Plaza Mayor), Lima's central square. On the other three sides of the square are the Cathedral of Lima and the adjoining Archbishop's Palace, which were originally built during the 1600s; the Municipal Palace (City Hall); and private office buildings. All the structures sport the intricately carved wooden balconies that make the downtown cityscape so unique.

The Cathedral is open to the public and houses a museum with an extensive collection of religious art, much of which represents Peru's famed Cuzco School (Escuela Cuzqueña) of painting. The Cathedral is open until 5 p.m. daily; admission is $1.50 for adults (less for children and students).

After you've toured the Plaza de Armas, walk south on Jirón de la Unión, a long pedestrian mall, along which you can admire neoclassical and Art Deco architecture, shop and watch street performers. When you get to Plaza San Martin, which was refurbished in 2009, take a gander at the lovely 19th-century buildings, then duck into the Gran Hotel Bolivar. The hotel, which once welcomed the rich and famous, is on the wane, but the lobby and glass atrium are still worth seeing; the bar, with its polished woods and bronze, offers a surprisingly tranquil atmosphere to savor a delicious pisco sour ($4).

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