Positive first impressions are hard to come by in the midst of Lima's coastal fog, honking buses and general air of big city chaos. If you reserve judgment for a day or two, however, you might find yourself falling for the so-called "City of Kings," with its incredibly history and culture and world-class gastronomic traditions.
The Plaza de Armas, also known as the Plaza Mayor, sits at the heart of Lima's historic center, one of the few remaining parts of the city that still gives a sense of the city’s colonial past. Acknowledged for its historical and cultural significance by being awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1988, this is the spot where Francisco Pizarro founded the city in 1535. A colonial fountain serves as the square's centerpiece, while some of Lima's most important buildings surround the historic plaza.
Photograph the City’s Most Significant Colonial Sights
Arm yourself with a camera and take a trip to the Palacio de Gobierno, official home to Peru's President, on the northern side of the square where, at noon, you can watch the changing of the palace guard. To the southeast lies the Catedral de Lima, the final resting place of Pizarro himself and built on the plot of Lima’s first church. Further photo opportunities include the Archbishop's Palace and the Municipal Palace (Lima's City Hall), both of which are adorned with ornately carved, and magnificently preserved, wooden balconies.
Marvel at the San Francisco Monastery
Lima is home to many fine religious buildings, but the San Francisco Monastery is one of the best. Providing an oasis of calm in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city, its rooms showcase beautifully preserved Baroque architecture, gilded altars, and works of religious art. Don't miss the monastery's library with its massive religious texts and Harry Potter-like ambiance.
Giggle at Pre-Colombian X-Rated Ceramics
Easily containing the most comprehensive array of pre-Colombian ceramics, Museo Larco has, however, become known for one particular part of its collection: the Erotic Gallery. This room has left more than a few tourists blushing due to its display of ceramics depicting unabashedly X-rated scenes.
For the more serious historians, the museum has an exceptional range of more family-friendly pottery, spanning cultures as diverse as the Chimú, Nazca, Wari, and Moche, as well as being home to the greatest of museum crowd-pleasers: mummies.
Get to Grips with Ancient Peruvian History
While the grandest and most significant of Peru’s many pre-Colombia monuments are found beyond the limits of the capital, Lima has a host of museums to whet your appetite for learning about the country’s ancient cultures.
The oldest of all Peruvian museums is the mammoth-sized Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Antropología, e Historia del Perú, covering every Peruvian culture you’ve ever heard of (and many you haven’t). You’ll find artifacts here that include the crossed hands stone from Kotosh and the seven-foot-high carved monolith, the Raimondi Stele from Chavín de Huántar.
Have Your Fill of Modern and Historic Peruvian Art
There are plenty of excellent art museums in Lima, with the most famous being the Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI), located on the northern edge of the Parque de la Exposición and hosting objects covering 3,000 years of history, including a superb collection of religious paintings from the Cusqueña School.
Further south in Barranco, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Lima (MAC Lima) is a good place to sink your teeth into modern and contemporary art. Look out for evening events (En Lima has a list of what’s happening in Lima’s museums) where you can sometimes meet the artists. Don’t miss the nearby MATE, Museo Mario Testino, where spacious rooms are filled with the work of the acclaimed photographer, who rose to fame with his portraits of her Royal Highness, Princess Diana.
Tour the Ancient Adobe-Brick Huaca Pucllana
You don't have to leave Lima to begin your exploration of Peru's historic sites. Built by the Lima culture sometime between 300 and 700 AD and constructed from millions of adobe bricks, the Huaca Pucllana is a giant pyramid located in Miraflores. After taking a tour of the ruins (don’t forget your sunscreen—the sun can be fierce), head to the site's restaurant, Restaurant Huaca Pucllana, for some outstanding (but expensive) regional dishes.
Sample the Finest Peruvian Dish
Nothing quite says Peruvian cuisine like a plate of practically straight-from-the-sea ceviche, and a visit to one of the capital's top cevicherias should be high on your list of things to do in Lima. A mix of fish, red onions, chili peppers and sweet potato marinated in lemon, you can indulge in this simple yet delicious dish in practically any of the city’s restaurants, but for guaranteed quality, seek out Punto Azul, which is known for its delicate flavors, freshness of its ingredients and accessible price (expect to pay around 32 soles).
In a league (and price-bracket) of its own, La Mar, owned by acclaimed chef Gastón Acurio, is pricey but lives up to the hype, with the northern Peruvian delicacy ceviche de conchas negras (black shell ceviche) and even vegetarian ceviches on the menu. For a truly authentic experience, eat lunch at Chez Wong, a restaurant that counted Anthony Bourdain as a fan.
Explore Peru’s Trendiest Neighborhood
Miraflores is one of Lima's most upscale districts, chock full of fancy bars, stylish restaurants, and trendy discotecas. Parque Kennedy is the central point of the neighborhood and perfect for a spot of people watching – or cat admiring. It's home to a population of convivial cats, most of which were abandoned and now cared for by a local NGO, so don’t be surprised if you make more than a few new friends here.
Heading towards the coastal cliffs is where you’ll find El Malecón, the city's seafront strip with the picturesque Parque del Amor (Love Park) containing modern sculptures, colorful mosaics and amorous couples relaxing on its grassy lawns. Stroll along El Malecón for spectacular sea views or hire a bicycle or a pair of rollerblades to cruise along the coastal cycle paths.
Soar Through the Skies on a Tandem Paragliding Flight
If you chance to look up on your trip to Lima, it’s more than likely that you’ll spot a paraglider or two catching the thermals in the air. The hotspot for paragliding in Lima is Parque Raimondi, along the Miraflores stretch of El Malecón, where highly skilled paragliding instructors can take you for a 10-minute tandem glide. Whatever way you end up hitting the skies, pick a day that’s not too overcast, and you can expect views of the coast southwards towards Barranco, as well as far out to sea.
Lima's Parque de la Reserva (Park of the Reserve) dates back to the late 1920s, but in 2007, the Municipality of Lima completed the construction of El Circuito Mágico del Agua, the "Magic Water Circuit." Thirteen fountains, some of which are interactive, provide plenty of entertainment, especially at night with the illuminated shows. Kids will love it, but be prepared to get wet; take a plastic bag or two to keep your cash and camera dry.
Shop for Souvenirs and Quench Your Thirst in Bohemian Barranco
Head south along the coast from Miraflores, and you'll end up in the small district of Barranco. This is Lima's bohemian quarter, a place for poets, artists, and the city’s alternative crowd. A daytime stroll will take you past stylish cafes and a wealth of fairs selling handmade, and often fair-trade, food and crafts, most of which are made by local designers or come from around the country. Don't miss El Puente de Los Suspiros (The Bridge of Sighs), a quaint wooden bridge located at the top of the stone steps that wind down to the beaches below Barranco.
But it’s at night that Barranco’s true colors can be seen. Pop into the chic Barranco Beer Company, a craft brewery with a gorgeous rooftop terrace or the slightly dingier, but a genuinely Barranco experience, Bodega Piselli, which dates back to 1915.
Poke Around the City’s Historic Mansions
Many of Lima's once-grand colonial mansions have fallen into a sad state of disrepair. Others, however, have been lovingly preserved, complete with the furnishings and personal effects of their original owners. Most are open to the public by appointment only or through tour agencies, but history buffs (and interior designers) will find the extra pre-planning worthwhile.
Those not to miss include Casa di Aliaga, a block north of the Plaza de Armas, which was the former residence of Jerónimo de Aliaga, one of Pizarro’s conquistadors and now the oldest house in the Americas. One block northwest lies Casa de Oquendo, a 19th-century mansion complete with watchtower, while just south of the plaza, you’ll find Palacio Torre Tagle, an 18th-century mansion with finely carved wooden balconies that’s now home to the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Admire the Cityscape From Cerro San Cristobal
One of Lima's most prominent landmarks, the hill of Cerro San Cristóbal, rises to the northeast of downtown Lima. If you want a panoramic view of the city, this is where to go. Take a taxi or a tour bus from the Plaza de Armas (walking here isn’t particularly safe). From the top, you can see right across the city and all the way out to sea—at least on a clear day. Thick coastal fog can severely obscure the view, so pick your moment wisely, while a tour in the late afternoon allows for views enhanced by the twinkling lights of the city below.
Sample Peru’s Ubiquitous Cocktail: The Pisco Sour
Although more often than not a welcome, refreshing aperitif served before a plate of ceviche, the pisco sour is a staple Limeño cocktail in its own right. Although there’s controversy over the origins of pisco (don’t mention Chile when you order one), there’s no disputing that the Peruvian version of the sour is the tastiest.
Whipped up from a mixture of pisco, lemon juice, bitters, sugar and egg white and whizzed in a blender over crushed ice, it’s impossible to visit Lima without trying a glass or three. The most famous place for a taste is at the Gran Hotel Bolívar, a bar whose former clientele allegedly includes Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles, and whose mammoth-sized drinks are as magnificent as the building itself.
Dance Until Dawn at a Traditional Peña
Every country has its unique way of partying, and Peru is no different. For a truly authentic experience, head to one of Lima’s most famous peñas, a small bar where Creole music played by live bands gives forth to vigorous traditional dancing and plenty of pisco drinking.
Unfortunately, many of these peñas operate behind the closed doors of people’s houses and a vast majority are only to be found if you know where to look. Don Porfirio in Barranco is one of the most famous but is just open on Fridays, while La Candelaria in the same neighborhood is a more up-market option that’s open Saturdays too. Make sure to book a table, as both are hugely popular with the locals.
Wander in the Footsteps of Nobel Prize-Winning Author Mario Vargas Llosa
For a cultured afternoon, nothing beats checking out the old haunts of Peru’s most famous writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, whose novels such as The War of the End of the World, saw him rise to international acclaim.
Having spent most of his childhood in Miraflores, the district is scattered with places that influenced his writing. Contact the Municipality to join the tour starting from Parque Kennedy, which stops via various roads and buildings that have been featured in his work.
Learn To Surf Along Lima’s Costa Verde
While beaches such as Máncora further north in Peru are better known for their waves, Lima’s Costa Verde has some surprisingly good spots for surfing. La Herradura, south of Barranco, is considered one of the best, with its powerful left break and a swell that can reach up to four meters, making it only for those with experience. Waikiki, in Miraflores, is a good option for beginners, particularly as there are some schools where you can learn the ropes. It’s also home to the Waikiki Club, which started up in the 1920s, making it one of the world’s first surf clubs.
Go Back In Time at the Pachacámac Archeological Complex
Only 35 kilometers southeast of the city, the Pachacámac site dates back to 200 AD, making it vastly older than Huaca Pucllana and practically ancient compared with Machu Picchu. Most of the buildings around today were built during Inca occupation in the 15th-century, and you’ll need a bit of imagination to return the adobe-brick temples to their former glory, many of which look like they’ve melted a bit in the sun. That said, if you want to get a glimpse of Peru before the Spanish arrived really, it’s an excellent place to start.
Discover Peruvian Gastronomy at its Most Delicious
Peru has long been recognized as home to South America’s most exciting fine-dining, with its restaurants consistently appearing on the world’s best lists. Among those not to miss include Central, which, led by chef Virgilio Martínez, has a tasting menu exploring every inch and altitude of Peruvian territory and cuisine. Maido, with its Peruvian-Japanese fusion tasting menus, à la carte and sushi dishes, is another one for a food splurge, while perhaps Lima’s most famous restaurant, Astrid y Gastón, which opened over 20 years ago, continues to lead the way when it comes to top-class, contemporary Peruvian cuisine. Book well ahead and expect to pay for an experience—you might leave with an empty wallet, but it’ll be an evening you won’t forget.