With a hodgepodge of cultures, languages, climates, and even architectural styles, Peru is a nation much more diverse than the average outsider would think.

Let’s take architecture as an example. Between Peru’s pre-Columbian sites, colonial churches, modern cities, and brilliantly unique structures, the style varies from place to place — and even from building to building. So, without further ado, we’d like to present just a few of the architectural highlights in Peru’s diverse cityscapes.

Pre-Columbian: Inca buildings

Everyone knows that the Incas built a vast empire, but few people know how they did it — how they constructed their buildings, how they created structures that long outlived their political dominance, how they founded sites that set the modern world’s collective imagination on fire.

True masters of their craft, Inca stonemasons knew how to shape blocks to fit each other like puzzle pieces, entirely negating the need for mortar. This technique was airtight in every meaning of the word — in fact, it’s actually impossible to insert anything (even a knife blade) between the stones of the Incas’ buildings. And even though Peru is prone to earthquakes, the structures have resisted the region’s seismic activity and held up extremely well over the centuries.

Most Inca buildings were rectangular, featuring trapezoidal windows and strong foundations. Although the roofs disintegrated hundreds of years ago, the surviving archaeological evidence suggests they must have been steeply pitched; after all, Peru experiences heavy rainfall, and the Incas wanted to keep their buildings dry and warm.

To be fair, the Incas were not the only accomplished architects in pre-Columbian history. They borrowed engineering techniques from several contemporary groups — but that doesn’t change the fact that the Incas’ sites are easily the most familiar examples of pre-Columbian culture in Peru.

Photo by Sergio Ortiz
Photo by Katie Minahan

Colonial: Lima and Arequipa

When the Spaniards arrived in 1532, they brought their own architectural styles with them. Many buildings in Lima and Arequipa still commemorate that chapter of Peru’s history. 

Three of Lima’s religious buildings — the cathedral, the Church of San Francisco, and the Convent of Santo Domingo — provide an excellent glimpse into the city’s colonial past. After all, the structures are prime examples of Baroque architecture; that said, each building does provide a refreshingly unique take on the extravagant European style. The cathedral’s façade has been destroyed in several earthquakes, necessitating extensive restorations and leading to both stylistic and structural changes; with its sunshine-colored exterior, the Church of San Francisco looks distinctly Latin American; the Convent of Santo Domingo is recognizable for its pastel pink bell tower.  

Lima is also home to several colonial mansions, including the Palacio Torre Tagle, Casa Goyoneche, and Casa de Pilatos.

Several hundred miles away, Arequipa‘s colonial buildings are just as striking as Lima’s. The so-called White City is located near three volcanoes, and many of its buildings are crafted from a white-pink igneous rock called sillar — so Arequipa’s position and primary building material both make the city a must-visit stopover.

A large square lined on three sides by towering colonnades, the Plaza das Armas is an excellent starting point for an architecture tour. The plaza’s fourth side is entirely taken up by the city’s main cathedral: a grandiose basilica that houses a museum and the largest organ in the country. And just a few blocks away, the Monasterio de Santa Catalina is a beautiful, if labyrinthine, convent that’s doused in bright red, orange, and blue paints.

All in all, Lima’s and Arequipa’s religious buildings make for an itinerary that architecture buffs won’t soon forget!

Modern: Lima

Although Lima is a stronghold for colonial architecture, it’s also home to modern buildings and even pre-Incan ruins, and today, many talented architects reside in the city. The presence of these varied styles makes Lima a dynamic, colorful metropolis, to say the least!

All of Peru’s skyscrapers are located in Lima, with the tallest one (Torre Banco de la Nación) reaching 460 feet (140 meters). Looking at these glittering behemoths, it’s hard to believe that they exist in the same city as the Convent of Santo Domingo or the Palacio Torre Taglo; of course, most of Lima’s skyscrapers are located in the San Isidro district, far from the capital city’s historic heart.

Lima also has its fair share of gorgeous modern parks, but the most beautiful one just might be the Parque del Amor: a romantic, Gaudi-esque garden that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.

Photo by Rafal Ostrowski

Other: Islas Uros

While the Islas Uros don’t qualify as an architectural style, per se, we couldn’t pass them up! Adrift on Lake Titicaca, these floating islands are made entirely from reeds (yes, you read that correctly).

The Uros people take the totora reeds that grow in the lake’s shallows and weave them together to create large, buoyant platforms. They then use the same reeds to build homes atop the platforms; in fact, they even weave boats from these versatile plants. When the reeds rot away from the bottom of the islands, the Uros simply add new layers to the top, and although the islands are completely safe, they aren’t quite as firm as solid ground. The ground feels spongy, similar to playground mulch.

A few centuries ago, the Uros wove their floating islands to escape from hostile groups, like the Incas and Collas, but today, they welcome visitors — from nearby towns and from all around the world — onto many of the unique sites.

Hungry for more information about Peru’s most incredible travel spots? Check out our guide to the country’s archaeological sites!

Photo by Rafal Ostrowski