People flock to Peru in their hundreds of thousands every year to see the wonders of Machu Picchu. However, there are many more layers of intrigue to the country besides its connections with Inca history and culture. From Iquitos, the isolated metropolis of the Peruvian Amazon, to Lima, the bustling capital on the Pacific coast, Peru’s cities are a window into the country’s colourful present and turbulent past.


This is a compilation of Peru’s greatest historical cities. To explore how you can visit them during your trip, you can try this suggested 28-day itinerary for Peru.

1.  Lima

Lima is Peru’s capital and one of the biggest cities in South America. Sprawled across 43 districts, it is home to more than 9 million people. Most tourists visiting Peru begin their journey here.

Lima’s Centro Historico (the historical centre) is filled with beautiful evidence of the city’s important role in history. Standing on each side of Plaza Mayor, the main square, are two icons of Spanish colonial architecture: Palacio de Gobierno and La Catedral de Lima. Within close walking distance are other majestic examples of baroque influence, such as Convento Santo Domingo and Monasterio de San Francisco.

The city also has a proud culinary culture, producing the best of Peru’s cuisine. The outer districts of Miraflores and Barranco are the heartlands for sampling the likes of ceviche, the national dish, washed down with a pisco sour, a distinctly Peruvian cocktail.

2.  Iquitos

Iquitos is one of the world’s most isolated cities. In the depths of the Peruvian Amazon jungle, it is accessible only by plane or boat. For thousands of years the area around modern Iquitos has been populated by indigenous people, but after European colonisation in the 17th century it grew into a river navigation port, and subsequently flourished during the Amazonian rubber boom.

Today, Iquitos is a crossroads of modern civilisation and indigenous cultures. You can witness this at Belén Mercado, a huge, sweeping market situated in a floating shantytown. Every morning at sunrise, people from Amazonian tribes arrive at the marketplace to sell their fresh produce to the city’s inhabitants.

Iquitos is a constant hive of activity, with the whirr of tuk-tuks fillings its streets with noise and charm. For some calm and reflection you can escape the hubbub to the riverfront, where the Ayapua Boat Museum – set on an old steamship – tells the story of the city’s history as a major river port. Moreover, Iquitos is a gateway into the Amazon; from the city you can take multi-day tours to explore the jungle.

3.  Nazca

In stark contrast to the ocean vistas of Lima and the jungle landscapes of Iquitos, Nazca is nestled in the heart of the deserts of southern Peru. The city is most famous for the ancient figurines that are carved into the nearby desert plains: the Nazca Lines.

Since their discovery in the 1930s, the remarkable geoglyphs have been a source of mystery for scientists, archaeologists and more recently, tourists. Every day, hundreds of people take flight in small aircrafts to fly over the lines. In a 30-minute flight you can see many of the legendary carvings such as the spider, the hummingbird, the astronaut and the condor.

Nazca itself is a quiet city, but it isn’t without its own special allure. There is more ancient history to explore at Museo Arqueológico Antonini. You can also take archaeological tours to nearby sites like the Cantalloc Aqueducts, Chauchilla Cemetery and Cahuachi Pyramids.

4.  Cusco

Cusco was once the capital of the Inca Empire, giving it a special place in history. It is also the transition city for visitors to Machu Picchu, the main reason why it attracts over 2 million tourists each year.

Cusco is a launchpad for exploring the most impressive surviving relics of Inca settlements. In the Sacred Valley, or along the classic Inca Trail and Salkantay treks to Machu Picchu, you will find breathtaking examples of the Incas’ masterful architecture.

Although heavily trodden by tourists, Cusco is a delight to explore, from the winding passageways of San Blas that look over the city to the historic Spanish buildings around Plaza de Armas. For a more authentic local experience, you can walk a few blocks south to San Pedro Market and get lost in the maze of fresh produce, craft stalls and eateries.

5.  Arequipa

Arequipa is dubbed ‘the White City’, and any visitor will immediately see why. Many buildings around its central Plaza de Armas – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – are constructed from sillar, a pale white-pink volcanic stone. Set against a backdrop of snow-capped Andean mountains and the towering Misti Volcano, it’s a city profile like no other.

Like Lima, Arequipa has strong connections with its Spanish colonial past. The most striking example is the Monastery of Santa Catalina, a city-within-a-city that occupies some 20,000 square metres near the Plaza de Armas. The complex was only opened to the public in the 1970s. Before that, what went on behind its high walls was a mystery.

Besides its picturesque streetscapes, Arequipa is also popular because of its proximity to the Colca Canyon. The world’s second deepest canyon, it can be reached in a three-hour drive from the city through the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reservation. The route transcends high-altitude scenes of spouting volcanoes, swooping condors and grazing llamas.

6.  Puno

For many, Puno will be the final stop in Peru. It is perched on the shore of Lake Titacaca nearly 4,000 metres above sea level, close to the Bolivian border. The lakefront is lined with market stalls and restaurants where you can tuck into some fresh fish.

Puno has plenty of its own historical intrigue. The city streets are full of examples of classic baroque architecture, such as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Charles Borromeo. One of the city’s other notable landmarks is Yavari, a 19th-century steamship that has been converted into a guest house.

However, the city’s most captivating attraction requires a boat trip out onto the lake. A few kilometres from the shore lies Islas Uros, a set of floating islands constructed by indigenous people using reeds from the lake. The Uros people give demonstrations of how they use the reeds to fashion boats and buildings.

From Puno it’s just a couple of hours’ drive to Copacabana on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, where a whole new adventure awaits.


Author bio

Alex Trembath

Alex is the creator of Career Gappers, a blog that will inspire and equip you to take a career break and travel the world. Check it out here for career break advice, travel tips and destination inspiration. You can also follow Career Gappers on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter.

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