Many travelers consider Arequipa the most beautiful city in Peru. Though you’ll have to be the judge of that yourself, we thought we’d give you an idea of what you can expect from the second largest Peruvian city. Just be sure to bring your camera, appetite, and sense of adventure!

Photo by Katie Minahan

Sightseeing in Arequipa

When it comes to scenic views and impressive architecture, it’s hard to beat Arequipa. This colonial city lies in the shadow of three towering volcanoes, including picturesque El Misti, and its historic center is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Much of Old Arequipa was built from sillar, a white volcanic rock that makes each building appear even more striking. As you stroll through its streets, you’ll notice Baroque architecture — but keep an eye out for indigenous influences, too.

There’s no better place to begin your sightseeing tour of Arequipa than at the Plaza das Armas. This massive square is the heart of the “White City” and offers a beautiful vantage point of nearby buildings and surrounding volcanoes. It’s a great place to relax, and while the plaza is beautiful all day long, it looks most magical during Blue Hour and Golden Hour.

Next, be sure to stop by the Catedral de Arequipa, which bounds the plaza’s northern side. Recognizable for its two iconic towers, it’s the largest cathedral in Peru and home to the biggest organ in South America.

The Monasterio de Santa Catalina is another picture-perfect stop for your sightseeing itinerary.  The huge complex dates all the way back to 1579, but frequent earthquakes have necessitated equally frequent reconstruction. Wander through the monastery’s many narrow paths, and pause to take photos of the bright-red and deep-blue walls.

When you’ve had your fill of colonial architecture, make your way to the mirador (viewpoint) of Yanahuara. Located a short distance outside the city center, Yanahuara offers jaw-dropping views of nearby volcanoes through sillar arches. Just remember to take your sunglasses — the sun can be blinding as it reflects off the white stone, especially at midday and during the early afternoon.

Photo by Gastronomicus Maximus

Eating in Arequipa

Arequipa has gained a reputation as a gastronomic destination, so get ready to order a few new dishes during your visit!

Rocoto relleno (stuffed peppers) is a regional specialty that you won’t want to miss out on, as is ocopa (a heavy peanut sauce that’s usually served over potatoes). And Arequipa isn’t far from the coast, so this city boasts plenty of fresh seafood on its menus and in its markets! But if you order a dish like chupe de camarones (shrimp chowder), be prepared to find whole shrimp in your bowl.

Other fairly common specialties include estofado de res (beef served with sauce and rice) and pastel de papa (sliced potatoes with melted cheese). And, on Sundays, most families in Arequipa chow down on adobo (pork chop soup). Although some restaurants in touristy areas serve the dish throughout the week, you’re guaranteed to find a more authentic version near the Plaza de Armas on a Sunday afternoon.

Adventurous foodies might also want to try cuy chactado (pan-fried guinea pig served with gravy), a popular Peruvian dish that originated in Arequipa. If you’re interested in trying cuy chactado, be sure to stop in a cuyeria, or restaurant that specializes in the dish.

No matter what you choose to eat during your stay, remember that food is generally spicy in Arequipa. Portions are also generally large, and you’ll often have the option to order the Americano (either a double- or triple-dish sampler) — which is handy if you’d like to try several dishes in one sitting.

Dig in!

Photo by Annie Hagemeier

Exploring near Arequipa

Finally, Arequipa is just a stone’s throw from some of Peru’s prime adventure destinations. Whether you choose to scale El Misti or explore the world’s deepest canyons, you’re in for a treat!

El Misti is scenic, but consider yourself warned — it’s extremely tall! The volcano’s elevation reaches 19,101 feet (5,822 meters), and hikers should give themselves plenty of time to acclimate in Arequipa before attempting the ascent. It takes roughly two days to make it to the top of El Misti, so plan accordingly.

As the closest major city to Colca Canyon, Arequipa is the ideal launchpad for anyone hoping to explore the iconic natural feature, which is often referred to as Peru’s Grand Canyon. But it might be more fair to nickname the Grand Canyon after its Peruvian counterpart — after all, Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep!

For many visitors, the main motivation to visit Colca Canyon is to catch a glimpse of Andean condors at Cruz del Condór lookout. But you’ll also find hot springs, hikes, small villages, and even an astronomical observatory in the canyon, so you might want to allocate a few days to exploring the area!

Many Arequipa-based tour operators take clients into Colca Canyon, so you can easily find a guide — or at least transportation — that will help you make the most of your visit.

While Colca Canyon is the second-deepest canyon in the world, the world’s deepest — Cotahuasi Canyon — is only a few miles miles farther from Arequipa. Even so, Cotahuasi Canyon is much less accessible, so if you do go, you’ll want to stay for several days to justify the long trip. Luckily, there’s plenty to do! From whitewater rafting to bird-watching, hiking, camping, and spotting petroglyphs, Cotahuasi Canyon is an off-the-beaten-path destination that you won’t soon forget.

Although you won’t want to leave Arequipa, once you venture out of the city and into the nearby wilderness, you won’t want to leave that area either. The city and its surroundings are excellent additions to your Peruvian itinerary — enjoy!

Cover photo by Mary Salas

Whitney Brown
Whitney Brown is a recent journalism graduate and travel writer based in Utah. She has lived in France and Ireland, and she's always planning her next big adventure. In addition to her passion for travel, Whitney loves archaeology, photography and floral design.