Arequipa was a pleasant surprise. We arrived, having organised an apartment to rent for a month, knowing only that it was Peru's second city and that it had a temperate climate due to its elevation.
Leaving after that month was a little sad, as we'd grown rather fond of this little city and its pleasant atmosphere.
Certainly you don't need a whole month to experience Arequipa, and most people just pass through for two or three days, but it's a nice place just to hang out and relax (or work in our case!) and enjoy the food, architecture and amenities of the city. Below we've compiled some of our top recommendations for a visit there.
Arequipa is not full of big name sights; after all it's only a city of 850,000 people. But what it does have to offer is certainly very pleasant, and much of it for free.
Plaza de Armas
Like any Peruvian town or city, the heart is the Plaza de Armas and Arequipa's is spacious, elegant and busy. The square looks on to the Cathedral, Peru's widest, and is surrounded on the three other sides by colonnaded balconies. Pigeons may be the biggest nuisance here, otherwise, it's a nice place to sit (if you can snag a bench for yourself) and people watch.
Claustros de la Compañía
Attached to a church of the same name, this extensive courtyard is a nice place to hide from the sun and go window shopping in the fancy stores that line its interior. It's also where you'll find Café Señor Misti (see Cafés below).
Claustro de San Agustín
A small, free art gallery housed in several rooms surrounding a courtyard that belongs to a private university, they show work by local artists, as well as some oddities like models of naval ships from World War II alongside toy X-Wing starfighters.
A well curated permanent exhibition is found upstairs in this colonial building across the street from Arequipa's train station, and with an entrance fee of just S/3 (£0.70) a trip out here is definitely worth it if you'd like to see work by Arequipeño and other local artists. There's also a garden with an old train carriage that you can walk around in as well as some sculpture. When we visited, we had the whole place to ourselves.
The French cultural centre includes a French language school, an exhibition space and a rather lovely café/restaurant, Crepisimo (see Eating below). While we were there, they had a photography exhibition of winning entries from various French cultural centres around the world, and this changes more or less monthly. They also occasionally have cultural events, like a dance and show celebrating Bastille Day.
Yanahuara is a trendy and modern residential neighbourhood to the north-west of the centre of Arequipa, and the mirador (look out point) set by a pleasant square is a nice place to take a break and get a mostly unobstructed view of the volcano Misti that looms over the town.
For S/5 (£1.15) you can learn here about the city and region's history from Pre-Inca times up to the War of the Pacific. I found it a little dull, but the architecture of the building was interesting, and there is a small selection of contemporary paintings by artists from around the area which were quite lovely. There's also a room with portraits of all of Peru's presidents, who have all, unsurprisingly, been middle aged white men.
Arequipa's most famous sight, and the one many people head to immediately upon arrival and then leave city for elsewhere, is this 16th century monastery that's been remarkably well preserved and is decorated in a vivid palette of blues and reds. Allow at least two hours to get lost in its myriad courtyards and passageways.
See more: Santa Catalina Monastery in Photos
Free Walking Tour
As is becoming increasingly popular in backpacker hotspots, Arequipa now boasts its own free walking tour. It meets at 12pm on Plaza San Francisco (outside the Municipal Museum) and lasts around 3 hours. The guide does a good job of giving an overview of the city's history and connecting it to the places they take you, which include the oldest street in Arequipa, an alpaca wool factory and several restaurants for free samples of their food.
The only problem with the tour is that the guide acknowledges that nothing in life is free, and points out at the beginning that he expects a tip at the end. When we came to the last stop on the tour, he indicated, in a jocular way, that he thought S/50 (£11.50) per person would be a good tip. I thought this was way too high, and found it quite rude and not the point of a free tour that the guide would tell you how much to tip. We tipped S/20 (£4.50) for the two of us.
We spend a lot of time in cafés, and especially so in Arequipa, where we used the excuse of needing a place with good wifi and a change of scenery to do our work to justify our many outings. These were our favourite places.
Our regular hangout, Cusco Coffee is a Starbucks wannabe, but marginally cheaper and the seating options more comfortable and there's more natural light. The wifi wasn't always the most reliable, but the staff were friendly and left you to do your thing, even if you were there for several hours on just a chai latte.
A small, simple place with good wifi, relaxed staff and decent cake. We mostly liked it for the S/8 (£1.80) coffee and cake combo.
We liked this place for being quietly tucked away in a courtyard, meaning we occasionally had the place to ourselves. Wifi, relaxed staff and good brownies.
This place is mostly worth a visit for its setting. Inside the Claustros de la Compañía (see Sights), this is a nice place to sit with a juice on a sunny afternoon. Their tacos are also worth trying.
Despite having our own kitchen in Arequipa, we ate out reasonably often, especially at lunch since it was such good value. These were a few of our favourite places.
A simple and decent place for a good value vegetarian lunch menu for S/7 (£1.60) including a small salad, soup, main and drink. This place also has a regular menu with veggie burgers, curries and fresh juices. The food is not amazing, but it's good enough and we found the portions to be just the right size.
See more: Food Porn Friday: Mandala
Como en Casa
We only came here once, and wish we'd had the chance to come more often, this place does a vegetarian lunch buffet (which in Peru doesn't usually mean ‘all you can eat', rather that you come to the counter and choose a certain amount from the options on display) between 12pm and 3pm for S/9 (£2) including a soup, drink and large plate to fill with chickpea curry, sauteed vegetables, stir-fried rice, causa (savoury, layered potato cake), bean salads and other fresh and colourful goodies. It's crowded (you'll likely have to share a table), but the food is worth it and the art work is pretty cool.
For good, Turkish fast food, El Turko hits the spot. Decent falafel, kebabs of several varieties and some bigger dishes (with and without meat).
Probably better falafel here than in El Turko, but higher prices. This is a cool place to hang out and people watch from the upper level seating while sipping a mint tea.
Tacos y Tequila
As the name suggests, this place specialises in tacos and tequila. While we didn't try the latter, we can certainly attest to the quality of the former; served with warm corn tortillas, there are several meat and vegetarian fillings, all with guacamole and other dressings.
See more: Food Porn Friday: Tacos y Tequila
Inside the same building as the Alianza Francesa (see Sights), this adorable café/restaurant is all about crepes and good coffee. There is wifi, outside and upstairs seating and they serve breakfast and their lunch menu of salad, savoury crepe and drink for S/29 (£6.50) is quite exquisite.
See more: Food Porn Friday: Crepisimo
We only ever visited this place to have coffee and cake (which were excellent!), but it's also a slightly more high end restaurant with lunch and dinner set menus from around S/28 (£6.30).
Below is a map of Arequipa indicating all the places mentioned in this post.
View Arequipa in a larger map
There are many privately run minibuses that traverse the city, but trying to work out where they go seemed impossible. We were told about one particular bus that we often used to get from our apartment in the Miraflores district to the centre, but never took any others. For most things of interest in the city, you'll be able to reach them on foot, but if you find yourself in need of a taxi (for example to get to or from the bus terminal with your luggage), you'll find no shortage of them on the streets.
We were told to be careful of which companies (and there are many) to use. A radio taxi is better than one without, and Zab always preferred newer to older cars. We found the following companies to always be reliable and fair with prices: Taxitel, Taxisur and Imperial. Fancier restaurants and hotels as well as any hostel should be willing to call you a reputable taxi to come pick you up if you prefer that option.
A final note: prices for taxi rides are always negotiable. Tell the driver your destination and he'll (yes, it's always a man) quote you a price. You can then negotiate or dismiss him if it's too high. Get in only when you have agreed on a price. For example, a taxi from the bus terminal to the centre of town should cost no more than S/8 (£1.80). If in doubt, ask a local what is a normal price for your given route.
You can also download this guide in the GPSMyCity app!