With just under 1 million residents, the city of Arequipa is Peru’s second largest, and the moment you set foot in its historic centre you understand why it’s also named the White City.
Thanks to the snowcapped volcanos that dominate the skyline around Arequipa – Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu – the historic centre is almost entirely built in volcanic sillar stone, in a style that’s a combination of European and native techniques.
Almost everywhere you look you see stunning archways, porticos, courtyards and façades adorned with patterned window grills and intricate carvings, and one of the best places to see them is in Claustros de la Iglesia de La Compañía, which you can see below.
The centrepiece of the city is the building that overlooks Plaza de Armas; the same one that spans the entire length of the plaza – the only cathedral in Peru that does so.
The twin bell-towered Basilica de Arequipa dates back to 1544 when its predecessor was built on the plaza, and after being hit with earthquakes and infernos and many rebuilds and restorations, it looks as good as new today.
The plaza itself is a great spot to relax and people watch. The colonnades on the three other sides of the plaza house many restaurants, tour operators and local services, and there’s even a decent supermarket for all your traveller food-shopping needs. Perfect if you’re doing the Colca Canyon trek.
Complimentary breakfast is bound to come with your room rate, but if that boring flat bread, jam, margarine and weak filter coffee is slowly killing you each morning, you needn’t travel too far to give it a rest.
La Despensa can be found a couple of blocks north of the plaza and it’s here that you can go crazy on croissants, cakes, homemade bread and even biscotti. Or simply go for one of their breakfast combos like the La Dispensa – croissant, toast, avocado, juice and coffee. Real coffee, not that weak filter nonsense.
La Despensa, Calle Santa Catalina 302
If you’re after the best coffee in Arequipa, well, we think it is anyway, then prepare to walk about 10 minutes to the tiny corner roaster that’s serious about what it does.
Palacios Coffee has the usual espresso options, which it does with excellence, but you can always go for another filtration method like V60, Aeropress, Chemix or French Press.
The friendly guys are keen on letting you know about the origin of their beans, which are roasted just behind the counter.
There are a couple of cakes and cookies to nibble on, plus some products like coffee exfoliants and coffee lip balms.
Palacios Coffee, Calle Lima 201
Chocolate is big business in Arequipa, and you can find some great little artisan makers about the city. We dropped into oCacao to check out their wares, and whilst it may not have the same grand set-up as its competitors, it still delivers.
There’s a small cabinet filled with handmade chocolates – hello, pisco sour bonbon – plus a couple of cakes and cookies. The hot chocolate is pretty decent, though I’d prefer it stronger, and if you simply can’t do without coffee, they do a mean affogato.
oCacao Chocolatería, Calle Palacio Viejo 205A
Visitors to Arequipa often stick to the historic centre and rarely venture beyond it. It may not be the prettiest part of town, but if you walk across Puente Grau into the Yanahuara district, you can brain-freeze yourself silly on a coffee frappé at Ristretto. You’d probably need it if the outside temperature is in the 30°Cs like it was when we were in town.
Ristretto, Calle Misti 127
Four blocks from Plaza de Armas is Mercado San Camilo, one of the city’s largest markets, which spans an entire city block. Here you’ll discover some of the best produce in the historic centre – things like fresh fruits and vegetables, countless varieties of potato, cheeses, juicy olives, breads, seafood and meats.
Juice and ceviche stands are plentiful, as are empanadas and papas rellenas, plus there are kitchens upstairs where you can dose up on more cheap, local fare. On the fringes of the market you can see many ‘witchcraft’ stands selling powders, tonics, herbal remedies and talismans.
Mercado San Camilo, Calle San Camilo, between Perú and Nicolás de Piérola
Something that’s unique to Arequipa is its queso helado – or cheese ice cream. It’s easy to spot someone selling it from a doorway beneath the arches on the east side of Plaza de Armas, at Mercado San Camilo or some places dotted about town.
We were even lucky to witness the Queso Helado Festival, where many people set up stands for anyone to sample, then have you vote for your favourites.
There’s actually no cheese in this rich and creamy dessert, and it gets its name from its resemblance to sliced cheese when it’s prepared using the traditional Arequipeño method. Three types of milk go into queso helado – fresh, unsweetened evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk, plus a little coconut and an obligatory sprinkle of cinnamon on top. It really is delicious!
If more flavours of ice cream are preferred, then La Capricciosa can take care of that. There’s nothing out of the ordinary here, just your run-of-the-mill flavours, plus a dozen or so cakes to sweeten your teeth with.
There’s a regular menu featuring the likes of breakfast, pancakes, sandwiches and pizza, just in case savoury runs supreme.
La Capricciosa, Calle San Francisco 135
Crêpes rarely get my attention, due to them never being filling enough, but we did drop into La Petite Francaise for a quick lunch and coffee. Eleven sweet fillings like butter, sugar & honey or Nutella, strawberry & banana take care of the dessert side of things.
If savoury is the preference, there are eleven of those, as well. How about hummus and vegetables or American pizza filling?
I can definitely vouch for the blue cheese, spinach, nuts and honey crêpe (14), even if I was still hungry afterwards.
La Petite Francaise, Calle Santa Catalina 413
Arequipa isn’t short on almuerzo (set lunch) restaurants, and they’re a very cost effective way to fill up if you’re on a budget. The problem is that these set lunches tend to be a bit same-same wherever you go.
Some kind of simple meat & veg soup as a starter, then something like milanesa, a thin cut of grilled steak or pork or some stewed chicken as a main. Peruvian food doesn’t seem to get creative when it comes to almuerzo. Well, not what we came across.
If none of this matters, then somewhere like this unnamed restaurant can cover all your lunchtime needs. For 7Bs you get caldo blanco (white broth; chicken, veg, rice & quinoa) and either estofado de pollo (chicken stew) or pollo broaster (fried chicken).
No Name Restaurant, Calle Santa Catalina 109
It may be surrounded by American fast food chains and throngs of shoppers on the pedestrian mall, but a stop-in at La Lucha is definitely worth battling the crowds for.
The sandwiches here are made fresh to order in beautiful crusty rolls, and the filling choices are bang on. How about chicharrón with black olives (13.9) or lechón (13.6; suckling pig) with hand-cut fries?
There are fresh juices, coffee, hot chocolate and beer available, and if there’s more room, you can load up your fries with bacon, cheese and avocado, if you like.
La Lucha Sangucheria Criolla, Calle Mercaderes 116-118
There’s no shortage of bars in the White City, and it’s good to see you don’t have to head to the convenience store to buy your booze, take a seat on a plastic chair outside and crack it open. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Plenty of variety in this town.
Brujas is an English-style pub without being overly thematic, it does happy hour, your usual cocktails and a selection of local craft beers. The crowd is a mix swilling locals, expats and tourists and there’s the occasional football game to get revved up with. A great spot, even if the mojito could do with some improvement.
Brujas, Calle San Francisco 300
Away from the madness of Plaza de Armas and the downtown area is an almost serene pocket of town that’s centred around the tiny Plaza Campo Redondo. You could easily mistake it for an old plaza on Croatia’s Adriatic coast. A few eateries, a few bars and several hotels and hostels. It’s where we stayed, actually.
La Rotonda, which faces the plaza, is a cosy little taproom with some rather nice brews up for grabs. The Uaya Papaya is very nice, if you like a hoppy beer with a hint of tropical fruit flavour. Non-beer drinkers can sample a Chilcano – a simple cocktail made by mixing pisco, lime juice and ginger ale.
La Rotonda, Plaza Campo Redondo #100
It boasts an all-day happy hour, there’s sport up on the flatscreen and a pool table at this Kiwi themed drinking hole at the top of Calle Bolivar. The drinks list is great and even the humble pisco sour gets creative with concoctions like coffee, chicha (corn beer), coca leaf and aguaymanto (ground cherries).
There’s plenty of good food to go with all that booze, too. Andean fries, anticucho (grilled marinated cow heart), quince spring rolls, bbq chicken wings, burritos, Peruvian-style ribs and burgers.
Kiwi Corner, Calle Bolivar 501
They may not stock English beer at this Brit pub, but it’s no reason to avoid this great gringo boozer just a few minutes walk from Plaza Campo Redondo.
Six ice-cold beers on tap plus a good choice of bottled craft beer, the usual spirits and cocktails, a sprawling upstairs floor with live music and a menu loaded with pub favourites like pizza, fish & chips or spaghetti bolognese. The bangers & mash (16) is a very decent take on the classic.
The Red Lion, Calle Jerusalén 528
As Dean endured a dose of gastro from the lukewarm pollo broaster he ate at the no-name almuerzo restaurant, I took myself out to another no name restaurant not too far from it.
For a whopping 5Bs I sat with other solo diners – it seems like that kind of place at night – and tucked into sopa fideo (chicken & macaroni soup) and lomo saltado (beef, potato, tomato & onion). Nothing to rave about, but for $1 per dish, who can complain?
No Name Restaurant, Calle Grau 315A
A bit of a culinary treat was in order on our last night in town; somewhere a little upscale compared to the usual budget joints we see every day as we travel.
Housed in a stunning old house overlooking Plaza San Francisco, Zig Zag has an intimate downstairs dining room, plus more seating one floor up via iron spiral stairs designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel.
Some excellent Peruvian Tabernero cabernet sauvignon and a feast of protein cooked and served on piping hot slabs of volcanic stone. Loved the breast of Oxapampa duck (62; pictured) and the trio of meat – 200g duck, alpaca and pork (57). All volcanic stone specialties come with either ratatouille or salad plus your choice of fried, sautéed, boiled or mashed potatoes or quinoa risotto.
For dessert, the Quillabamba coffee mouse with a shot of pisco (19) and some refreshing passionfruit ice cream with meringue & carob bean syrup (19).
Zig Zag Restaurant, Calle Zela 210
How we got from Cusco to Arequipa.
Cruz Del Sur has an overnight bus to the Arequipa International Terraport from its own terminal just outside Centro Histórico in Cusco. See map below for location. The cost is 120Bs per person.