Arequipa, nicknamed the White City because so much of it is constructed with a very pale volcanic stone called sillar, is rattled by earthquakes and menaced by volcanic eruptions. The city is also full of architecture and distinct cuisine and culture which makes it one of the most popular places to visit in Peru. Use our Arequipa travel guide to make the most of this historic city in Peru.
Established in 1540 by Spanish conquistadors, Arequipa is now the second-largest city in Peru. It sits under the 19,100 foot (5,822 meter) Misti Volcano which makes her presence known with semi-regular eruptions. Nobel prize in literature winner Mario Vargas Llosa was born here and travelers are drawn to the city for all of that, plus the famously sunny weather.
What to do in Arequipa
Hint: a lot of Arequipa travel is related to architecture or religion. Or both.
Architecture in the colonial center
The colonial center of Arequipa was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 and walking through the wide, clean streets past the city’s unique mix of architectural styles including European and Indigenous stonework is a chance to see and feel the history of Peru.
Given the number of catastrophic earthquakes, fires, and eruptions in the city, it’s a wonder any of these buildings, some dating back to the 1500s, still exist.
There are many churches in Arequipa but the Basilica Cathedral is the grandaddy. Built in 1656–and subsequently rebuilt many times after damaging fires, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes–this important Catholic church is on the Plaza de Armas and is said to be the only cathedral in Peru that stretches the entire length of a main plaza.
Inside, note the 12 columns for the 12 apostles and the Vatican flag near the Carrera marble altar. An enormous Belgian-made 1,000 pipe organ was added in 1870 and it’s said to be the largest in South America (it’s played each Saturday between 5 pm and 6 pm).
Other highlights of the Basilica Cathedral include a large collection of virtually priceless gold and silver items and a carved wooden pulpit from France that seems to be crushing a winged devil. It costs 10 soles (about US$2.75) to enter and the mandatory (and very good) 45-minute guided tour (available in many languages) is worth the extra 10 soles (US$2.75) per group. Don’t miss the chance to visit the belltowers on the roof and enjoy the view over the Plaza de Armas.
Museo Arte Virrenial de Santa Teresa
The Museo Arte Virrenial de Santa Teresa (20 soles or about US$5.50) was founded as a Carmelite nunnery in 1750. In 2005, large portions of the well-kept and well-restored structure were repurposed as a museum with 13 exhibition rooms showing hundreds of objects including murals, paintings, furniture, sculptures, decorative art, and more from the 16th to the 19th centuries exhibiting Baroque, Rococo, and Cusqueño styles.
Highlights include the Goldsmith Room and its gold monstrance which is covered in pearls and precious stones. In the cloister garden, established in 1750, don’t miss the central fountain which is made of stone so thin that you can see your hand through it.
Be there at noon for a chance to hear the daily singing of the nuns from the lower choir. Many Carmelite nuns still live in the private areas of the structure and they generate income by making items like candy and soap which are for sale in the gift shop.
Monesterio de Santa Catalina
Arequipa travel is not complete without a visit to the Monesterio Santa Catalina which is like visiting a separate city within Arequipa (40 soles or about US$11 not including an optional guide which is an additional 20 soles or about $US5.50).
This walled complex covers 215,000 square feet (20,000 square meters) full of original structures that are beautifully restored and tended. It’s all connected by a maze of streets which give the place an almost romantic atmosphere.
The monastery was built in 1580 by doña María de Guzmán and it became home to many young women who entered for four years of training before choosing to stay or to go out into the wider world. Most stayed. Today, nuns live in a private area but most of the original sprawling monastery is open to visitors. Highlights include beautiful cloisters, religious art in the Cusqueño style, and the chance to see more mundane aspects of monastery life like a communal washing area and the communal kitchen.
Don’t miss the room where Sister Ana de los Ángeles de Monteagudo lived. This nun, who died in 1686, was known for her pious behavior (including self-flagellation) and is credited with dozens of predictions and some miracles (including posthumously curing the illness afflicting the artist who came to paint her death portrait). Pope John Paul II beatified Sister Ana in 1985.
Allow at least an hour. There’s a charming cafe within the grounds and chocolates, soaps, and sculptures made by the nuns are for sale at the gift shop which is in the former infirmary. The monastery remains open past dark two nights a week so that visitors can enjoy the place by candlelight.
Iglesia de la Compañía
Iglesia de la Compañía (free entry) is an ornate Jesuit church built in the Andean Baroque or mestizo architectural style which is a blend of European styles and techniques and Indigenous styles and techniques.
Completed in 1699, after more than a century of construction, the church has a carved stone portico and an impressive carved wood and gold leaf altar with Bernardo Bitti’s The Virgin with the Child painting.
The highlight of a visit to this church is its Capilla de San Ignacio (5 soles or about US$1.50). Every surface of this chapel has been ornately painted with depictions of birds, flowers, fruit, and more. Carved niches in the dome create a 3-D effect. It’s all extremely over the top in a good way.
El Museo Casa del Moral
It may take just ten minutes to tour El Museo Casa del Moral (5 soles or about US$1.50), but in that time you get an intimate look at Andean Baroque architecture.
Built as a private mansion in 1730, this museum is now home to art in the Cusqueña style, a large library, and plenty of antiques.
Casona Tristán del Pozo
The Casona Tristán del Pozo (free entry) was built in 1738 as a private home for General Domingo Carlos Tristán del Pozo.
It’s now a museum of history, art, and architecture–itself a prime example with stone walls, tile floors, and ornate carving.
Museo Santuarios Andinos
The Museo Santuarios Andinos (20 soles or about US$5.50 including guide) is located in a lovely historic building. Visitors watch a 20-minute film before beginning a guided tour of the museum’s collection of Incan items (textiles, goldwork, ceramics, and more) dating back about 600 years.
The highlight is a frozen young woman who is referred to as “the girl who came down from the skies” because she was found preserved in ice at 20,630 feet (6,288 meters) on the top of Mount Ampato. She’s also referred to as Juanita and as The Lady of Ampato and she’s displayed in a frozen state in a special display box.
For conservation reasons, a second frozen teenaged girl, dubbed Sarita, swaps places with Juanita between January and May so that Juanita can spend those months in a special deep freeze behind the scenes. Experts believe both girls were sacrificed in a ritual to appease Incan gods. Allow an hour for the film and the guided tour. Photography is not allowed inside the museum.
Where to eat and drink in Arequipa
Arequipa may not be as famous for food as Lima is, but the city, which is the birthplace of one of the most iconic Peruvian dishes, does offer its own great chefs and restaurants. Add in craft beer bars and you’ve got a great eating and drinking scene. Here are some of our favorite places to eat and drink in Arequipa.
Family-owned Zingaro Restaurant has been in Arequipa since the early 2000s and has earned a reputation for regional dishes and great service (family members worked in restaurants and hotels in the US) in a polished two-level setting with domed ceilings (it used to be the family house). The patriarch of the family is a wine lover and his daughter is a sommelier to expect a good wine selection in addition to gourmet takes on Peruvian classics like rocoto relleno (a stuffed mild pepper dish that originated in Arequipa), lomo saltado, and much more. When we were there, the restaurant was also offering cooking classes and that’s how we learned to prepare Arequipa’s classic rocoto relleno which is beloved around Peru.
Gaston Acurio, Peru’s most famous chef, operates many restaurants including a small chain called Chicha. Head there for creative yet casual takes on Peruvian classics in tasting menu options or ala carte.
When Casey Workman arrived in Peru from Portland, Oregon he missed the brewpubs showcasing the craft brewery scene in his hometown. So he opened Chelawasi Public House which stocks local craft brews on tap, serves up a respectable burger and fries (along with other dishes), offers a happy hour, and does it all in a casual setting with great music. We went more than once.
A mash-up of Swiss and Peruvian cuisine may sound odd, but it works at Swiss-owned Zig Zag Restaurant. Reserve a table upstairs to admire the vaulted boveda style ceiling and views of a plaza next to the San Francisco church across the street, then choose from four tasting menu options or order ala carte. Examples of their “Alps to Andes Alpandina” cuisine include local trout cooked on a volcanic stone and alpaca on a Swiss rosti made with Andean potatoes. There’s even fondue.
La Lucha Sangucheria Criolla is a Peruvian chain that turns out excellent sliced pork sandwiches. The meat is succulent, the rolls are soft, and the vegetable toppings are fresh. Add in an order of good fries and you’ve got lunch. The outlet in Arequipa is near the Plaza de Armas and it makes a great refueling stop as you’re exploring the city.
Where to sleep in Arequipa
There is a wide range of hotels on offer in Arequipa from Peruvian luxury chains to locally owned boutique hotels and hostels.
The most luxurious option is Cirqa which opened in 2019 in an artfully renovated historic monastery. The hotel, created by the same people behind Titilaka boutique hotel on Lake Titikaka and Atemporal boutique hotel in Lima, was almost immediately admitted into the exclusive Relais & Chateaux group. Cirqa has 11 chic rooms plus a spa, heated plunge pool, and a welcoming inner courtyard terrace.
Get a condors’ eye view of the city of Arequipa in our drone travel video below.
Many people, including us, visit Arequipa on their way to the Colca Canyon. Don’t miss our post about getting to the Colca Canyon, our post about exploring the history, culture, and natural beauty of the Colca Canyon, and our day-by-day guide to hiking in the Colca Canyon.
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