Laid out across a wide, flat, alluvial plain, Lima’s buildings fan out like a concrete phoenix in long, straight avenues and roads from its centre. The old colonial heart, Lima Centro, is of both architectural and cultural interest as well as being the seat of government and religion. South of here, along and just inland from the ocean cliff top, the modern centre of Miraflores, where most tourists stay, buzzes with shoppers by day and partiers by night. East along the coast a few kilometres, what was once a separate seaside suburb and artists’ quarter, Barranco, still boasts both tradition and a vibrant atmosphere. Between Miraflores and Lima Centro, jammed between the Paseo de la República and the Avenida Arequipa main roads that connect them, rise the skyscraping banks of San Isidro, Lima’s heaving commercial centre.

To the west, the city reaches a fine finger of low-lying land pointing into the Pacific; this is Callao, the rather down-at-heel port area, close to the airport. The shantytowns that line the highways, meanwhile, continue to swell with new arrivals from the high Andes, responsible in large part for the dramatic surge in Lima’s population in recent years.

Lima’s climate seems to set the city’s mood: in the height of summer (December to March) it fizzes with energy and excitement, though during the winter months (June to September) a low mist descends over the arid valley in which the city sits, forming a solid grey blanket – what Limeños call garua – from the beaches almost up to Chosica in the foothills of the Andes; it’s a phenomenon made worse by traffic-related air pollution, which dampens the city’s spirit, if only slightly.

Brief history

When the Spanish first arrived here in 1533, the valley was dominated by three important Inca-controlled urban complexes: Carabayllo, to the north near Chillón; Maranga, now partly destroyed, by the Avenida La Marina, between the modern city and the Port of Callao; and Surco, now a suburb within the confines of greater Lima but where, until the mid-seventeenth century, the adobe houses of ancient chiefs lay empty yet painted in a variety of colourful images. Now these structures have faded back into the sandy desert terrain, and only the larger pyramids remain, protruding here and there amid the modern concrete urbanization.

The sixteenth century

Francisco Pizarro founded Spanish Lima, nicknamed the “City of the Kings”, in 1535. The name is thought to derive from a mispronunciation of Río Rimac, while others suggest that the name “Lima” is an ancient word that described the lands of Taulichusco, the chief who ruled this area when the Spanish arrived. Evidently recommended by mountain Indians as a site for a potential capital, it proved a good choice – apart perhaps from the winter coastal fog – offering a natural harbour nearby, a large well-watered river valley and relatively easy access up into the Andes.

Since the very beginning, Lima was different from the more popular image of Peru in which Andean peasants are pictured toiling on Inca-built mountain terraces. By the 1550s, the town had developed around a large plaza with wide streets leading through a fine collection of elegant mansions and well-stocked shops run by wealthy merchants, rapidly developing into the capital of a Spanish viceroyalty which encompassed not only Peru but also Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile. The University of San Marcos, founded in 1551, is the oldest on the continent, and Lima housed the Western Hemisphere’s headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition from 1570 until 1820. It remained the most important, the richest, and – hardly believable today – the most alluring city in South America, until the early nineteenth century.

The seventeenth century

Perhaps the most prosperous era for Lima was the seventeenth century. By 1610 its population had reached a manageable 26,000, made up of forty percent black people (mostly slaves); thirty-eight percent Spanish people; no more than eight percent pure Indian; another eight percent (of unspecified ethnic origin) living under religious orders; and less than six percent mestizo, today probably the largest proportion of inhabitants. The centre of Lima was crowded with shops and stalls selling silks and fancy furniture from as far afield as China. Rimac, a suburb just over the river from the Plaza Mayor, and the port area of Callao, both grew up as satellite settlements – initially catering to the very rich, though they are now fairly run down.

The eighteenth century

The eighteenth century, a period of relative stagnation for Lima, was dramatically punctuated by the tremendous earthquake of 1746, which left only twenty houses standing in the whole city and killed some five thousand residents – nearly ten percent of the population. From 1761 to 1776 Lima and Peru were governed by Viceroy Amat, who, although more renowned for his relationship with the famous Peruvian actress La Perricholi, is also remembered for spearheading Lima’s rebirth. Under his rule, the city lost its cloistered atmosphere, and opened out with broad avenues, striking gardens, Rococo mansions and palatial salons. Influenced by the Bourbons, Amat’s designs for the city’s architecture arrived hand in hand with other transatlantic reverberations of the Enlightenment, such as the new anti-imperialist vision of an independent Peru.

The nineteenth century

In the nineteenth century Lima expanded still further to the east and south. The suburbs of Barrios Altos and La Victoria were poor from the start; above the beaches at Magdalena, Miraflores and Barranco, the wealthy developed new enclaves of their own. These were originally separated from the centre by several kilometres of farmland, at that time still studded with fabulous pre-Inca huacas and other adobe ruins. Lima’s first modern facelift and expansion was effected between 1919 and 1930, revitalizing the central areas. Under orders from President Leguia, the Plaza San Martín’s attractive colonnades and the Gran Hotel Bolívar were erected, the Palacio de Gobierno was rebuilt and the city was supplied with its first drinking-water and sewage systems.

Modern Lima

Lima’s rapid growth has taken it from 300,000 inhabitants in 1930 to over nine million today, mostly accounted for by the massive immigration of peasants from the provinces into the pueblos jovenes (“young towns”, or shantytowns) now pressing in on the city. The ever-increasing traffic is a day-to-day problem, yet environmental awareness is rising almost as fast as Lima’s shantytowns and neon-lit, middle-class suburban neighbourhoods, and air quality has improved over the last ten years for the nine-million-plus people who live here.

Lima continues to grow, perhaps faster than ever, and the country’s economy is booming even in the face of serious slowdowns in some of Peru’s traditional markets, namely Europe and the US. The city is as varied as any in the developing world: while many of the thriving middle class enjoy living standards comparable to, or better than, those of the West, and the elite ride around in chauffeur-driven Cadillacs and fly to Miami for their monthly shopping, the vast majority of Lima’s inhabitants endure a constant struggle to put either food on the table or the flimsiest of roofs over their heads.

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