Historical Buildings of central Lima

Part One – Introduction and Lima Cathedral

The City of the Kings was founded by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535. It would soon become better known as Lima. The oldest part of the city is known as the Historical Centre of Lima and is now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is in this area that Lima’s most prestigious, architecturally significant and historical important buildings are found. This article examines a number of these buildings.

Relatively few of the remaining buildings in the centre of Lima are actually colonial in origin. The earthquakes of 1746 and 1940 devastated large areas of the capital and left many buildings in ruins. Further damage was caused due to the large urban developments schemes implemented in the 1930s and 40s when many buildings of architectural and historical interest were pulled down in order for the widening of some of Lima’s major roads.

The Plaza Mayor is the historical heart of Lima. For many years the square was known as the Plaza de Armas after it was given this name to commemorate the soldiers who used the square as a parade ground during the Peruvian War of Independence in the early 19th century. In fact it was here that Jose de San Martin proclaimed the birth of the new nation of Peru in 1821. The name was changed to its original name, the Plaza Mayor, in 1990.

The site of a former indigenous settlement on the banks of the river Rimac, it was here that Francisco Pizarro began to create his new capital city and it is here were most of the most important, although not necessarily the oldest, buildings, are to be found. Pizarro’s original plan for the new city was a rectangle made up of 9 by 13 blocks laid out in grid like pattern, often referred to as Pizarro’s draught board. Over the next century the city expanded north and southwards with much of the construction work carried out by slaves imported from Africa.

Lima Cathedral, on the eastern side of the Plaza Mayor, is one of the oldest buildings in Lima and is built upon the site of a palace owned by the Inca prince Sinchi Puma. Francisco Pizarro himself laid the foundation stone of the original, church in 1535 and construction was completed three years later. The original building was very basic being constructed from abode and wood. Despite this church was upgraded to a cathedral when Pope Paul III designated Lima as a diocese of the Catholic Church.

Over the next century or so the church was gradually expanded and rebuilt to a design created by the architect Alonso Beltran which was based on the cathedral in Seville. This design proved to be far too extravagant and the project soon ran out of money. Another architect, Francisco Becerra, was brought in in 1585 to redesign the cathedral. Becerra’s design included 3 naves and two side chapels but when he died in 1605 only half of his cathedral had been completed. It wasn’t until 1649 that the final part of Becerra’s plan for the cathedral, the two bell-towers, was implemented.

Various earthquakes since then caused much damage to the original building, especially the devastating earthquakes of 1687, 1746 and 1940. Due to the various rebuilding efforts due to these earthquakes the current cathedral incorporates various different architectural styles including baroque, gothic and neoclassical. During the latter part of the 19th century the cathedral fell into disrepair and was closed for a number of years whilst improvements were carried out.

Francisco Pizarro’s corpse, separated into head and body, were buried beneath the cathedral floor after his death in 1541. In 1892 a body was discovered during excavations in the cathedral and was put on display as the body of Pizarro. In 1977 a head was found sealed inside a lead box in a niche hidden within the cathedral’s walls. The inscription upon the box identified the head as belonging to Pizarro. Following forensic examination it was subsequently discovered that whilst the head did indeed belong to Lima’s founder the body was that of someone unknown.

The current cathedral contains one main central nave plus two additional side naves, or aisles. There are also 14 small side-chapels running along the walls of the cathedral. Francisco Pizarro’s tomb is the first side chapel on the right as you enter from the Plaza Mayor. A small chest within the tomb contains earth from Pizarro’s home city of Trujillo in Spain. Probably the most beautiful chapel is the Chapel of Immaculate Conception, located about halfway along the southern wall of the cathedral. This chapel contains the only remaining Baroque alter within the cathedral following the restoration which took place in the 1890s which resulted in all the other alters being replace by ones in a Neoclassical style.


The main façade contains statues of the 12 Apostles surrounding the cathedral’s main entrance, the Door of Forgiveness. In total there are eight entrances to the cathedral.

The cathedral also houses the very impressive Museum of Religious Art, containing many examples of religious paintings and artifacts, which is well worth a visit in its own right.



Part Two – Rest of the Plaza Mayor


Most of the other buildings around the Plaza Mayor are fairly modern although the sites upon which they have been built have much longer histories. Next door to the cathedral is the Archbishop’s Palace. The current palace, built in baroque style, was completed in 1924 and its impressive Neo-colonial façade, designed by the Polish-Peruvian architect Ricardo Malachowkski and based upon the nearby Torre Tagle Palace, houses two magnificent cedar wood balconies, ornate doors and grilled windows that replicate the typical architecture found in Lima during the 18th century.

Prior to this another Archbishop’s Palace, dating from 1535, occupied the site. In the 1820s the building was described by the explorer Robert Proctor as being extremely modest and unworthy of being next to the rather more impressive cathedral. The façade of the old palace was destroyed in the late 19th century to allow restoration and rebuilding of the cathedral next door and the rest of the building followed shortly afterwards.


On the northern side of the Plaza Mayor is the Government Palace, home of the President of Peru. Its current façade dates from 1938 but the original building, a two-story adobe construction used as an office by Francisco Pizarro, dates from 1535. The site of the Government Palace was once occupied by the home of an Inca curaca (official) by the name of Taulichusco. In June 1541 Pizarro, aged around 70 at the time, was holding a dinner party for a few of his friends.

In the middle of the meal twenty armed men under the command of the son of Pizarro’s old adversary Diego de Almagro, who he had condemned to death a few years previously, burst into the palace and assassinated him. Shortly after Pizarro’s death Peru became a Viceroyalty and the building became a Viceregal Palace with Blasco Nunez Vega being the first Viceroy resident there. 

Visitors to Lima in the early 19th century were often surprised at the appearance of the Government Palace, describing it as a insignificant looking building totally unbefitting its status and with dilapidated wooden shacks hiding most of its façade from view. Many officials complained that the Palace was one of the worst buildings in Lima and one which gave a very poor image of Peru. As a result a number of improvements were made to the building in the mid 19th century.

During the War of the Pacific the city of Lima was occupied by the Chilean Army between 1881 and 1883 and they took up residence in the Government Palace during this time. When they left following the signing of the Treaty of Ancon, which ended the war, the Chilean troops took many of the Palace’s valuable paintings and furniture with them.

In 1884 a small fire broke out in the Palace but only caused a small amount of damage to building. In 1921 a much larger fire reduced much of the building to ashes and an extensive rebuilding plan was set up by President Augusto Leguia. The first stage of the work, between 1926 and 1932, was designed by the French architect Claude Salut. The second phase, between 1937 and 1938 was overseen by Ricardo Maluchowski, who was also responsible for designing the new Archbishop’s Palace. Following completion of the new building the first President who lived in the Palace was Oscar Benavides during his 2nd term of office.

The Municipal Palace, or City Hall, on the west of the square, serves as the headquarters of the Regional Government of Lima Province. The site of the Municipal Palace was originally a sacred site, the Huaca del Cabildo, and the land later belonged to Hernando Pizarro, brother of Francisco. The construction of the original structure was began in 1549 and completed in time for the arrival of the 4th Viceroy of Peru, Antonio de Mendoza, in September 1551.

Due to the hasty building schedule, which led to many shortcuts being taken with regard to the quality of the work, the building collapsed and had to be rebuilt from scratch. This new edifice suffered damage following the flooding of the river Rimac in 1696 and was then almost completely destroyed in the major earthquake of 1746. Additional earthquakes, as well as alterations made to the Plaza de Armas, brought about further reconstruction of the building over the next century.

In November 1923 a large fire broke out in the neighboring street of Portal de Escribanos and whilst the Municipal Palace suffered a great deal of damage the building’s archives, containing the original Declaration of Independence and the Charter of Foundation signed by Francisco Pizarro, were spared.

In 1939 the Mayor of Lima, Eduardo Dibos Dammert, ordered a new city hall to be built and held a competition in order to find a design for the new building. The winning design was one submitted by the architects Jose Alvarez Calderon and Emilio Harth Terre but it would later be supplemented by additional work carried out by Ricardo Maluchowski. The new Municipal Palace was inaugurated by the current Mayor Luis Gallo Porras in July 1944.

The neocolonial façade houses two large, two-storied wooden balconies that are purely aesthetic and perform no real function as well as numerous arches at ground level. The interior design is French Renaissance in style with a magnificent white marble staircase leading up to the second floor. The Palace also contains the Ignacio Merino Art Museum which contains painting from many 19th and 20th century Peruvian painters, most notably Ignacio Merino himself.

Part Three – Colonial Mansions

There used to be many colonial mansions dotted throughout central Lima but over the past few centuries earthquakes, urban development projects and poor maintenance has resulted in only a fractions of these mansions still standing today. As many of them now house offices or centers of education this means only a few of them are still open to the public. Of those that remain only two originate from the 16th century – the Casa de Aliaga and the Casa de Pilatos. As well as those two this article will examine two other notable examples of these remaining Colonial houses which date from the late 17th century to the early 19th century.

In order to try and re-create their home environment many Spanish settlers in Peru modeled their houses on Andalusian designs, particularly those found in the city of Seville. They would have also have preferred to use stone and brick to construct their houses but due to difficulties and costs in supplying these they had to use more local materials such as abode (bricks made from mud and straw) and quincha, , a traditional earthquake resistant material comprising a wooden frame covered in mud and plaster instead. The facades of the mansions were typically painted in light, warm colors such as blue, yellow and orange.

The Casa de Aliaga, close to the Plaza Mayor and dating from 1535, is possibly the oldest colonial mansion in the whole of South America. It was originally built by Jeronimo de Aliaga, one of Francisco Pizarro’s conquistadors responsible for the capture of the Inca emperor Atahualpa in Cajamarca, on the location of a Pre-Colombian sacred site and has since been occupied by 17 generations of his descendents. Whilst it is not particularly impressive from the outside with its façade worn down by time, weather and pollution it still possesses a very fine wooden balcony.

It is the interior of the 66-room building where the true beauty lies, impressive enough to make the Casa de Aliaga one of the finest examples of colonial houses in the whole of Peru. Among the most impressive aspects of the house are its astonishing inner patio, its marble staircases, and its stylish salons full of Louis XIV fixture and fittings and excellent paintings, many from the Cusco School style. 

The Casa de Pilatos is said to have been constructed in 1590, to a design by the Jesuit priest Ruiz Portillo, which would make it the 2nd oldest colonial mansion in Lima. An alternative name for the house is the Casa de Esquivel y Jarava after its original owner was the Spanish merchant Diego de Esquivel Y Jarava. It is more commonly known as the Casa de Pilatos due to its similarity of a house of that name in Seville.

Although not as impressive looking as some of the other mansions of Lima it is still a fine example of 16th century colonial architecture with an imposing red façade. Its original wooden balconies were lost in the earthquake of 1746 and those that in evidence today, enclosed in design with one covering a corner of the building, are replicas. The interior includes a double hallway and a beautiful patio containing fine carved wooden balustrades and with a magnificent stone staircase rising up from its centre. Nowadays the building houses offices belonging to the Supreme Court

The most famous mansion within Lima is the spectacular Torre Tagle Palace, a couple of blocks east of the Plaza Mayor. There is much debate about the exact date of its construction but most sources seem to agree it was probably around 1730. It was commissioned by the extravagantly named Spanish aristocrat José Bernardo de Tagle-Bracho y Pérez de la Riva, the 1st Marquis of Torre Tagle and treasurer of the Spanish Armada.


The façade, in Andalusian Baroque style but also incorporating Creole and Asian influences, is probably the most beautiful in Lima with an ornate portico, a fine carved stone doorway and two outstanding Moorish style enclosed balconies, carved from cedar and mahogany. Above the doorway is the shield and motto of the Torre Tagle family.


The entrance hallway leads to an inner courtyard surrounding by Moorish-style balustrades, arches and columns and with an opulent stone staircase leading up to the 2nd floor which is decorated with superb wooden balconies and galleries. The main hall contains portraits of the Torre Tagle family and its elegant lounges are covered with tiles in a mixture of Spanish and Moorish styles. Today the house belongs to the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is no longer open to the general public although special permission may be given to certain tour groups.

The Casa de Oquendo, also known as the Casa de Osembala, stands on the site of a building in which novices belonging to the Dominican Order were trained. When this building was destroyed in the 1746 earthquake the land was sold to the Spanish merchant and Marquis, Martin Osembala. Osembala constructed a mansion which was completed around 1807 and is one of the largest, and at the time of its construction the tallest,

dwellings in the centre of Lima. Most houses tended to be only two stories high to make them less susceptible to earthquakes but the Casa de Oquendo is three stories with a small cupola upon its flat roof.

In order to keep an eye on arrival of ships in the port of Callao Osembala would often climb up to the mirador contained within the fourth storey cupola with a telescope. When Osembala died his wife was forced to sell the house to Jose de la Asuncion Oquendo, a well-known figure in Limean society at that time, in order to pay off debts.

The large façade of the mansion is neoclassical with influences of the Rococo movement. The house was initially indigo when it was first built and following restoration work in the 1980s the façade was repainted in this original color. There are five Louis XVI style main enclosed balconies with three smaller open balconies. Inside is a spectacular patio and 40 bedrooms. The Casa de Oquendo currently belongs to the Ministry of Education but it is possible for tours to be arranged by contacting the building’s caretaker.

Part Four – Churches – Part One


Lima is a city famous for its churches. In its historical centre you can find a church on almost every block and many of them are at least 300 years old. The most famous of them is Lima cathedral which has already been covered in an earlier part of this article but there are many of fine examples of religious structure in the city.

Excluding the cathedral the most important and impressive place of worship in Lima is the Church and Convent of San Francisco belonging to the Franciscan Order of the Twelve Apostles. Work on the first building on the site, a small abode church, began in 1546 and was completed eleven years later. However, this structure was destroyed by an earthquake in 1655. Construction of a new church, designed by the Portuguese architect Constantino de Vasconcellos, began shortly afterwards. Consecrated of this new church was carried out in 1672 but building work was not fully completed until 1729.

It survived the great earthquake of 1746 intact but suffered a large amount of damage in an earthquake which took place in 1970. The current complex, with a Spanish Baroque façade built from eye-catching yellow and white quincha, comprises a church, convent, two smaller churches (El Milagro and La Soledad), a library, a museum of religious art and catacombs. The site used to be even larger but part of the property was razed in 1940 to allow widening of the Avenida Abancay.

Inside the central nave and the two side aisles are decorated in Mudejar, a mixture of Moorish and Spanish, style. The corridors within the cloisters are lined with stunning blue azulejos tiles emanating from Seville. The cloister itself contains 39 paintings show scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Above the staircase leading up to the library is a fantastic Moorish style cupola dating from 1625 and carved from Costa Rican cedar. Part of the cupola collapsed after an earthquake in 1940 and was finally restored by 1962.

The library itself is world renowned and contains over 25000 books and texts covering subjects such as art, architecture, literature, theology, philosophy, ecclesiastical law, history and music and written in numerous different languages. Many of these date from before the Spanish Conquest of Peru. Two of the most important books held within the library are the first Spanish dictionary produced by the Royal Spanish Academy and an edition of the Bible printed in Antwerp in the early 1570s.

The catacombs, which date from the original 1546 church, held an estimated 25000 bodies at one point before the main Lima cemetery opened in 1810. The location of the catacombs was then lost for over a century before being rediscovered in 1943. The catacombs are lined with tens of thousands of bones in such a way so that the separated skulls, femurs, ribs, etc create the most aesthetically pleasing patterns. According to some rumors there are corridors hidden within the catacombs which connect to some of the other major churches and other important buildings in the centre of Lima which only add to the sinister atmosphere down there.

The Museum of Religious Art within the former refectory contains numerous paintings that are well worth seeing. There are the “Passion of Christ” series of paintings from the 17th century Flemish painter Peter-Paul Rubens and Belgian born Diego de la Puente’s version of The Last Supper uses local delicacies such as roast cuy (guinea pig), potatoes and papaya washed down by goblets of chicha (corn beer). The Zurbaran room holds 13 paintings of Jacob and his twelve sons, founders of the twelve tribes of Israel, by Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbaran.

Just south of Lima Cathedral is the Basilica and Convert of San Pedro. The original church, built by the Jesuits in 1568, was named San Pablo and was rebuilt twice with the third version, designed by Martin de Aspirate, being consecrated in 1638. It has escaped damage from the numerous earthquakes that have hit Lima over the past five centuries and has thus changed very since 1638 although the building no longer belongs to the Jesuits after their expulsion from Peru by King Charles III of Spain in 1772. It is now considered one of the finest examples of Baroque colonial religious architecture in the city.

San Pedro was modeled on the Church of Gesu in Rome and thus contains three naves. Unusually for a church it also has three entrances although the two smaller side doors are only opened for important religious festivals. Compared to some of the other religious buildings in Lima the yellow and white Baroque façade of San Pedro is quite simple and relatively unadorned but there are still a number of rather attractive neoclassical wooden balconies to be seen upon each of the two bell towers.

The interior of the church is far more impressive. One of the highlights is the main altar, designed by the Spanish priest and architect Matias Maestro. The altar is gold plated and built in the Churrigueresque (Spanish baroque) style and includes sculptures of St. Paul and St. Peter as well as the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There are also some stunning examples of 17th and 18th century retablos (altarpieces) made from carved wood and gold leaf. The side chapels of San Ignacio de Loyola and Santa Lucia are extensively decorated with beautiful glazed tiles and also contain some magnificent altars and fine paintings from the Lima, Quito and Cusco Schools.


The central dome is one of the finest in Lima with Moorish-style carvings and with openings which let in an abundance of natural light that perfectly illuminate the decorations of the aisles below.  San Pedro also contains a small museum of colonial art which is well worth seeing, particularly the painting of the Coronation of the Virgin Mary by the Italian painter Bernardo Bitti.


Part Five – Churches – Part Two

The Basilica Senora de La Merced, 2 blocks SW of the Plaza Mayor, is built upon the site of the first Latin mass to be held in Lima in 1534, one year before the city was even founded. The land occupied by La Merced once belonged to the Mercedaria order but was donated to the church by the Spanish conquistador Captain Francisco de Becerra. The various religious edifices that have occupied the site since then have endured a rather turbulent history.

The initial building was constructed in 1541 from wood but was considered too small and was replaced by a larger abode structure. In 1628 the abode church was demolished to make way for a third version of the church but this was badly damaged in the earthquake of 1687 and once more had to be rebuilt. This fourth attempt was again damaged in the great earthquake of 1746 and then gutted by a fire in 1773. The majority of the current La Merced church thus dates from the late 18th century.

The incredibly ornate central façade, carved by the sculptor Cristóbal Gómez from granite originated from Panama, remains from 1591 and is a stunning example of churrigueresque (Spanish Baroque) architecture. A beautiful carved statue of the Virgin of Mercy can be seen in a niche above the central doorway and this is surrounded by statues of other religious figures. The side columns of the façade are layered with pink and white stone giving the church a unique appearance within Lima.

Inside the central nave contains large columns to protect the building from earthquakes. The nave also contains more of two dozen beautiful carved mahogany alters in a mixture of Baroque and Renaissance styles. Following the reconstruction of the church in the late 18th century following the 1746 earthquake much of the interior architecture, especially the reredos (altarpieces) of the Virgin of Lourdes side chapel,  include French rococo styling reflecting the influence of the new Bourbon dynasty at that time.

The most notable item to be found within La Merced is the large silver cross dedicated to the 17th century Spanish priest Friar Pedro Urraca. During the voyage from Spain to Ecuador the ship in which Urraca was traveling was caught up in a great storm. Urraca then vowed to give his life to the Virgin Mary if the crew would be spared. The storm immediately dissipated and Urraca spent the rest of his life spreading the word of his savior. Today, many Peruvians make a pilgrimage to kiss or place their hands upon Urraca’s cross , to pray, to leave mementos showing their reverence and to ask for a miracle.

In the 17th century the location now occupied by the Iglesia de las Nazarenas was a slum neighborhood known as Pachacamilla which was occupied by former African and Indian slaves. One of these slaves, from Angola but whose identity was unknown, painted a picture of a crucified Christ on the side on a abode hut. In 1655 a huge earthquake destroyed large parts of Lima, including many building within the slave quarter. However, the painting of Christ survived intact and became known as “El Senor de los Milagros” (“Christ of the Miracles”).

Over the years the painting became blackened from the smoke emanating from the candle placed in front of it and this, alongside the dark skin of the Christ, gained it an alternative name of “El Cristo Moreno” (“The Black Christ”).The painting was also untouched by the earthquake of 1687 and soon the canvas became so venerated that local people came from miles around to see the painting. This adoration drew the attention, and displeasure, of the Viceroyalty of Peru and, according to the legend, their attempts to destroy the icon by painting over it were thwarted when those sent to carry over the order were unable to do so

By the early 1700s the crowds became so large that the Catholic Church built a small sanctuary around it. The building. ran by the religious order known as the Nazarenas Carmelitas Descalzas de San Joaquín, was rebuilt and enlarged over the next few years. Despite the myth of El Senor de los Milagros, suffered major damage in the earthquake of 1746. On the initiative of the Viceroy of Peru, Manuel de Amat y Junient, the church was rebuilt once more, in rococo style by 1771.

A replica of the painting is paraded through the streets of Lima upon a silver litter during the El Senor de los Milagros festival which takes place every year over a couple of days in October with a different route followed each day. The procession draws many thousands of worshippers dressed in purple tunics, purple being the traditional color of the robes worn by the Nazarene order, and the city itself is also decorated in purple throughout the festival.

The Basilica and Convent of Santo Domingo is an important place of pilgrimage for many Peruvians as it contains the tombs of three of Peru’s most important saints: San Martin de Porres, Santa Rosa de Lima and San Juan Macias. The building itself is not particularly noteworthy. The pink façade is made up from a mixture of different styles, reflecting the many times the building has had to have been rebuilt since its original construction began in 1540. The site was given to the Dominican friar Vicente de Valverde by Francisco Pizarro. Valderde was part of Pizarro’s party that invaded Peru in 1532 and it was his failed attempt to convert Atahualpa to Christianity that lead to the capture, and eventual death, of the Inca leader.


About Jeff Lawrence

Hi, My name is Jeff Lawrence and I'm a writer, photographer and Boro fan from north-east England who has an interest in football history, in particular that relating to Dutch (thanks to eight years living in the Netherlands) and Peruvian (thanks to a wife from Peru) football. Another interest is how English managers and players played their part in the development of football overseas, particularly in the early part of the 20th century.
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