Known as La Ciudad Blanca (the White City, in English), a nickname due to the white volcanic rock used to build the city (though some argue that the nickname came from the fact that in colonial times more than 70% of the local population was white), Arequipa is easily the most beautiful city in Peru, and one of the best cities in South America. Set at 2,335 meters (almost 7,761 feet) above sea level, to many travelers this is the first place in the country where they get to experience the impact of altitude.
While the city is fun to explore, many are attracted there by the surroundings: Arequipa is the getaway to the Colca Canyon, and overlooking the city there are the Misti, Chachani and Pichupichu volcanoes.
Curious to discover more about Arequipa, Peru? This post will highlight all unmissable best things to do in Arequipa, and share plenty of tips to make the most of the country’s prettiest city.
The Best Things To Do In Arequipa, Peru
Get to know the city on a guided tour
One of the best things to do in Arequipa to get acquainted with the city is to go on a guided tour. This will typically go to the Plaza de Armas, which really is the heart of the city, and view a few other important landmarks in town.
Like in many other cities in South America, free walking tours are offered on a daily basis – they depart at 9:00 am and 2:00 pm from Plaza de San Francisco. You can just show up at the scheduled time, but since it is a popular thing to do, you may want to reserve your spot online. Remember that in any case you will be requested to tip the guide at the end of the tour.
If you’d rather join a smaller group, you need to opt for a paid tour – don’t worry though, they are not too expensive. In fact, by the time you pay your tip it may end up being about the same price!
You can book your guided tour of Arequipa here.
Admire the architecture at Arequipa Basilica Cathedral…
Arequipa’s enormous white cathedral stands dominating Plaza de Armas. Constructed out of volcanic rock, this huge landmark building originally dates back to 1656. Sadly, a fire in 1844 totally destroyed the interiors – and after being renovated, it was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1868.
What stands today is an impressive late 19th-century structure, which is no less impressive once you step foot inside. The altars and 12 columns (representing the 12 Apostles) are made from Italian marble; there’s a Belgian organ; Byzantine style brass lamps. The list goes on.
Admission to the Basilica Cathedral includes a short guided tour around the Museo de la Catedral.
… And make sure to delve deeper at Museo de la Catedral
If you want to understand more about this building that has risen from the ashes, then make sure to stop by the cathedral’s museum. Here you can learn a bit more about daily life at the basilica.
A visit will include a 45-minute bilingual tour that will explain everything from the religious paintings to the exquisite church organ. To finish it all off, you’ll be treated to a visit to the rooftop for views out over the city and the surrounding areas.
The museum is open daily from 10:00 am to 4:15 pm. You can get in with the same ticket you use for the Cathedral.
Take a look at the Iglesia de la Compañía
The cathedral isn’t the only religious building in Arequipa, of course; there are many more, one being this 16th-century Jesuit church. Situated in the same square as the cathedral, and although smaller in stature, it is no less impressive.
The exterior of this church boasts beautifully carved masterpieces, while inside you’ll be impressed by the amazingly detailed altar that is stunningly (and completely) covered in gold leaf, complete with carvings and murals of flora and fauna. The Iglesia de la Compania is one of the best examples of the Andean Hybrid Baroque style, also known as Mestizo architecture.
The church can be visited every day from 9:00 to 11:00 am and from 3:00 to 6:00 pm.
Do some shopping at Claustros de la Compañía
The 18th-century cloisters of the above church have been elegantly converted into a shopping center. Inside each stylishly curated space you can find an array of boutique-level offerings, from an ice cream parlor and wine bar to a wool emporium.
There’s often traditional music being played by local musicians, too. And if you need to get your bearings, there’s even Wi-Fi.
Get clued up on ancient history at Museo Santuarios Andinos
Founded in 1996, this archaeological museum was intended to protect and display artefacts uncovered in the mountains of the south of Peru by Jose Chavez and Johan Reinhard.
The museum is a dramatic destination to explore, and is most famous for its preserved body of a mummy that lay frozen for hundreds of years. Called “Juanita”, the mummy was found on the Ampato Volcano in 1995 by the two archaeologists. Take a tour and learn about the tapestries, shells and ceramics on display.
The museum is open Monday to Saturday from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm and Sunday from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. Tickets can be purchased in advance here.
Check out the colonial era churches in Yanahuara
If you fancy an interesting walk around a beautiful part of town, then you should definitely set aside some time in your itinerary to explore Yanahuara. Easily accessed from the center of the city (just head west on Puente Grau), this suburb of Arequipa is famed for its buildings constructed from sillar – a type of white volcanic rock.
This middle-class neighborhood boasts tranquil avenues, pretty churches, leafy public parks and Spanish colonial era buildings. It’s also here that you can get an amazing view of central Arequipa and El Misti from the Mirador (literally “viewpoint”) – it’s one of the best things to do in Arequipa.
Tour around the hallowed Monasterio de Santa Catalina
It’s not every day you get the opportunity to visit a still-working convent, so a visit to Santa Catalina is a must – it’s one of the most popular things to do in Arequipa for a good reason! Built in 1579, the monastery sits at the historic center of the city of Arequipa, and was originally constructed as a cloister for Dominican monks.
The complex, which hosts a religious community to this day, is a colourful colonial remnant of Arequipa’s. The buildings are constructed of sillar, and painted in bright ochres and blues. Wandering around its passageways and gardens feels like exploring a citadel in its own right.
Santa Catalina Monastery is open daily from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. To get your tickets in advance, click here. Once there, you can pay one of the many local (female) guides to take you around the monastery.
Make sure to read my post A Guide To Visiting Santa Catalina Monastery.
Take photos around San Lazaro
San Lazaro is the first and oldest neighbourhood in Arequipa. You’ll find it situated a stone’s throw from Plaza de Armas, away from the hustle and bustle of the city’s busier streets. The neighborhood dates back to 1540, and is a charming place to explore.
Here you’ll find winding, narrow streets, white washed houses made of sillar, and local life playing out as you stroll. Take some time to walk around the cobbled lanes, soak up the peace and quiet, and snap a few photos. There are local stores selling ripacha (wheat bread) if you get peckish.
See local artwork at Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Arequipa
The small but no less beautiful Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Arequipa is a short walk south of the city center. The building itself is a sight to see: a restored casona (“large house”) that dates back to the very founding of the city itself in 1540.
As well as admiring contemporary art and sculpture from local and regional artists, the gardens here are a picturesque place to take a moment to reflect.
The museum is open Monday to Saturday from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm.
Admire the collection at Monasterio y Museo de la Recoleta
Inside yet another of Arequipa’s monasteries (this time Franciscan) you can discover a world of books and learning. Situated just a 10-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas, the monastery was constructed by Franciscan friars in 1648.
On arrival, visitors can ask at the entrance for a visit to the library. You’ll be supervised, but that won’t detract from how impressed you’ll be on entering the enormous library here. There are an estimated 20,000 books here, with the oldest of its dusty tomes dating back to 1494. Scholarship was an important part of the Franciscan Order, and so the volumes live on for others to enjoy.
The museum is open Monday to Saturday, from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm and from 3:00 to 5:00 pm.
Learn about local wool at Sol Alpaca
This modest local museum is run by wool export company Michell and doubles up as a place to pick up alpaca wool. It also operates as a tourist information center. But inside the wool museum itself, you can learn all about wool production (from alpacas, of course); there’s a small zoo; a boutique; and a cafe.
It covers a lot of bases, and makes for a good pre- or post-lunch excursion when you don’t feel like delving into archaeology or churches. Plus the bonus is you can pick up alpaca wool and raw thread here, too.
See how nuns live at Museo de Arte Virreinal de Santa Teresa
The 17th-century Carmelite convent of Santa Teresa is another of Arequipa’s religious institutions that provide an interesting space to explore when you’re in the city. This working convent has been meticulously maintained throughout the centuries, and is home to over 300 works of art in the form of icons, murals, priceless votives, and precious metals.
Students offer multilingual tours so you can learn all about this living museum; its gardens are particularly beautiful. And when you’re done, be sure to check out the little shop in the front where you can buy fresh bread and rose-scented soap (made by the nuns themselves).
The museum is open Monday to Saturday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Browse for fresh food and snacks at Mercado San Camilo
A couple of streets to the south of Plaza de Armas is the vibrant Mercado San Camilo – visiting is definitely one of the most interesting things to do in Arequipa. Covering an area of several blocks, this huge covered market is the place to go for all things food. Think fresh fruit, meats, grains, cheese, and more.
Even if you aren’t shopping, it’s a good place to come and soak up a little bit of local life; it feels safe and clean. There’s a cafeteria on the second floor, so you can grab a bite to eat while you’re at it. And if you’re here for souvenirs, don’t worry: you can stumble across handicrafts and items like handmade hats throughout the market.
You should also read my post 16 Best Souvenirs From Peru.
Tuck into food at Chicha
Hungry? By now, you probably will be. Gastón Acurio, head chef at Chicha, will cure your food woes. The menu here consists of an experimental array of dishes that align themselves closely with Peru’s Inca-Spanish gastronomic heritage.
The menu is also wonderfully seasonal. For example, from April to December, river prawns are the go-to dish at Chicha. Throughout the year, however, you can expect mouthwateringly tasty alpaca burgers and fresh ceviche. Wash it all down with Peruvian cocktails and regional wines.
Can’t find a seat? The next door Tanta shares the same kitchen with Chicha and I can confirm food if delicious and portions are massive.
Enjoy local dishes at Victoria Picantería
Picanterías are a Peruvian institution. Particularly famed in Arequipa and Cusco, these informal lunch-time restaurants are local hotspots for home-spun cuisine. There are many choices around the city, but one recommended option is the Victoria Picantería.
Traditionally, these are communal spaces, and Victoria is no different: don’t be surprised if you are sat down at a long table alongside an array of different locals. Dishes on offer here include the hearty alpaca steak and other Arequipa dishes such as camarón al rescoldo (prawns served on quinoa).
Dine on European fare at the fabulous Zig Zag
When you’re looking for something a little bit fancy for dinner, make sure to grab a table at Zig Zag. This stylish Peruvian restaurant – with a European twist – takes up space inside an elegant colonial era house, replete with an iron stairway designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel (yes, of Eiffel Tower fame).
The menu here consists mainly of meat that is uniquely cooked on a volcano-stone grill. For something a little bit more affordable, swing by at lunch for a set menu that includes vegetarian options if you need them.
Stop by for a beer at Chelawasi Public House
It’s not all about history and churches at Arequipa: there’s beer to be enjoyed as well. The Chelawasi Public House is where it’s at for craft beer in the city. Tucked away inside an old building, the pub is the first of its kind in the city, and provides a modern but friendly spot to sip beer in the San Lazaro district.
Its Canadian-Peruvian owners have provided a selection of beers from Peru’s best microbreweries. There’s also some hearty burgers and fries on offer here if you’re looking for something homely to chow down on.
Be totally amazed by the Colca Canyon
One of the best things to do in Arequipa if you would like to explore some of the surrounding nature is to head for Colca Canyon. This is one of the world’s deepest canyons, plunging to depths of up to 3,270 meters, and is a prime location not just for gaping in awe, but also for trekking.
The lush green landscape where the canyon is located is also the habitat of the giant Andean condor – it’s amazing to see them flying overhead. Also located along the way are remote, traditional villages where you can find terraced agriculture that dates to a time before the Incas.
You can book your guided tour of the Colca Canyon here.
Do you have 3 days? Check out this tour.
Make sure to read my post A Guide To Visiting The Colca Canyon.
Hike up the breathtaking El Misti
For those of you who really want to have an adventure, one of the top things to do in Arequipa is hiking El Misti. Aways overlooking Arequipa, like an Andean Fuji, this one volcano juts out from otherwise flat scenery and towering 1,785 meters above the city (that’s not to mention its whopping 5,822 meter – that’s 19,100 feet – elevation).
Misti’s last major eruption was around 2,000-2,300 years ago, and there is often snow capping its peak. Hiking up this mammoth of a mountain takes around two days from Arequipa, though it’s only an hour outside the city. Climb to the base camp, rest for the night and then ascend to the summit for a morning to remember.
Needless to say, it’s best to tackle this hike with a guide. To book your hiking trip to Misti Volcano, click here.
Make sure to read my post The Best Day Trips From Arequipa.
Go rafting on the Chili River
If you are looking for more adrenaline filled things to do in Arequipa, a short drive out of town you will find the Chili River, where you can go whitewater rafting. The best way to do it is on a guided tour that includes transportation from the city and back, and all necessary equipment. Most expeditions last about 3 hours. The guide will take you along the rafts safely and you will be ensured to have a lot of fun!
Gaze in awe at the Toro Muerto petroglyphs
Believed to date back more than 1,000 years, these ancient petroglyphs can be found in the barren boulders of the Peruvian Coastal desert. Little is known about the origins of the Toro Muerto (literally “Dead Bull”) petroglyphs, but what is known is that there are around 5,000 individual etchings, and they are thought to date to Wari domination.
Exploring this landscape for yourself, you can try to interpret and unpick the meaning of the rocky illustrations. To reach them from Arequipa, you can take a bus; however, as this can be difficult, you may want to take a tour to save time and hassle. You can enquire about them in town.
For help to plan your trip to Peru, make sure to read these posts:
- Where To Stay In Arequipa
- The Best Arequipa Travel Tips
- The Best Things To Know Before Visiting Peru
- The Best Time To Visit Peru
- The Best Things To Do In Peru
- The Best Hikes In Peru
- The Best Things To Do In Lima
- The Best Things To Do In Nazca
- The Best Things To Do In Cusco
- The Ultimate Guide To Hiking The Inca Trail
- How To Get To Machu Picchu
- How To Get Machu Picchu Tickets