My last girlfriend getaway trip to Lima was about 25 years ago, when it had fallen on hard times and really was considered mostly a stopping point for adjusting to the altitude before heading to other parts of the country. But after a major face lift, the capital city of Lima, now home to over 8 million, is once again proudly living up to its “City of Kings” moniker, when it was founded by Pizarro in1535.
Thanks to a recent influx of investment money and civic pride, the historic center’s churches, palaces, classic colonial mansions, many outstanding museums and miles of waterfront property, have all been painstakingly restored to their former luster. New luxury hotels are springing up everywhere. And the culinary scene is red-hot, with dozens of talented chefs opening restaurants featuring everything from farm-to-table dining, to molecular gastronomy, to all sorts of exciting new Peruvian-fusion cuisines. It’s no wonder that Lima is now considered the gastronomic capital of the continent.
So if you are planning a trip to see Machu Picchu, Cuzco and the Sacred Valley or to explore the Amazon jungle, I suggest you’d better add a few more days in Lima to experience some mind-blowing food and big city culture.
The Best 8 things to see and do:
1. The heart & soul of the city
The most important historical center is the Plaza de Armas (also called Plaza Mayor) which is the exact spot where the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, founded Lima in 1535. You can just sit in the picturesque, park-like square, which once hosted bullfighting events and now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, bordered by important buildings such as Archbishop’s Palace and the Cathedral of Lima or you can join one of the many walking tours that explore the area in greater depth.
However at noon, you’ll want to join the throngs gathered across the street from the Governor’s Palace for a quirky, local version of London’s changing of the guard (complete with armed guards, drum majors, plumed hats and lots of high-kicking).
Walk a few blocks to visit the well preserved, 17th century Church of San Francisco. Take time to go down the tunnels to investigate the spooky network of catacombs, home to over 75,000 skeletons, many of which are artistically arranged in circular stone pits for a rather macabre viewing.
2. Best non-museum museum
A short walk from the square brings you to Casa de Aliaga, one of the oldest houses in South America and has been occupied by the Aliaga family since 1535. The 18 generations of Aliaga’s have each added their own touch to this historic home, which is filled with colonial style furniture and an impressive collection of Peruvian artifacts from past centuries. Ask to see the sword Jerónimo de Aliaga used in the conquest of Peru.
(*Book tour at least 24 hours in advance.)
3. Best views, but watch out for the paragliders
Miraflores, a popular upscale seaside nabe, is loaded with luxury hotels and apartments, trendy restaurants, stylish boutiques, and statue-filled gardens. It is bordered by the newly improved El Malecón, a six mile esplanade which meanders along the cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean.
Day or night (when the pathway is lit up) The Malecón is filled with joggers, power-walkers, paragliders, photographers, families, young couples, etc. One of the most famous works of art by famed Peruvian artist, Víctor Delfín, a huge sculpture of a couple in a loving embrace, can be found in the section of the Malecón known as Parque del Amor (Love Park) which also offers great photo opps.
4. Best meal with 1,500-year-old views
A surprisingly tasty introduction to new Andean cuisine awaits you at a most unlikely venue. Huaca Pucllana, a pre-Incan temple complete with a glamorous, nightclubby/chic restaurant, right in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Miraflores. Millions of handmade bricks (you can even see handprints on some of them) were used to build this monumental ceremonial and administrative center dedicated to the God Pachacamac.
The ruins are dramatically illuminated at night, offering awe-inspiring views as well as awe-inspiring food, either on the outdoor veranda or in the minimalist dining room with a fireside bar.
The chef’s sophisticated renderings of regional fare include Causitas Pucllana, yellow potatoes topped with pacific king crab in a ceviche mayonnaise, Grilled Sea Bass in a red quinoa crust, and roasted kid goat with lima beans and tacu-tacu (a traditional dish of rice and lentils) and Chocolate Creme Caramel with chirimoya foam and orange croquant
5. Best arts & craft shopping priced from pennies to big bucks
Fun souvenirs and bric-brac can be found at The Mercado Indio (Indian Market), located on Petit Thouars, an avenue filled with hundreds of craft stalls, offers a treasure-trove of items ranging from some incredible deals to utter junk. If you’ve been dying for a fossilized shark tooth, this would be the place to find it. Ditto for Inca-style pottery, alpaca shawls, designer knock-off items and (my best find) some huge cuff bracelets made from bulls horn that were almost exactly like one that I’d recently seen on the cover of Vogue.
If you’re not a fan of bargaining at outdoor markets, then these two well-curated, gallery-like boutiques offer a wonderful selection of gift choices (I bought many presents for myself!) ranging from traditional folk art to pricy objects d’arte. Both shops are located in the artsy Barranco area.
Dédalo Arte y Artesanía– you can easily spend an hour or two discovering all the treasures available in this gorgeous converted mansion. Over a dozen rooms (organized by theme and grouped by local artist) are filled with unique hand-made toys, contemporary jewelry, colorful leather handbags, textiles, wood carvings, ceramics, blown glass, and endless etcetera’s. If you start feeling overwhelmed, head out to the patio café for a little coffee break or glass of wine before continuing your quest.
Artesanias Las Pallas offers more traditional handicrafts. Scottish owner, Mari Solari, has been promoting and selling Peruvian folk art out of her home for the past 30 years. If you search through her vast collection you’re guaranteed to find the perfect prezzie for your friend who has everything-up to now. Choices include incredible weavings from all over Peru, jewelry from the highlands, a size-able selection of magic amulets (very Indiana Jones-like) ceremonial gourds, colorful candles from Cuzco, and intricately-carved Andean retablos (altars).
6. Best outdoor food market frequented by Lima’s top chefs
If you’re a foodie, photographer, chef groupie (world-famous Peruvian chef, Gaston Acurio, often shops here) or just want to buy some impeccably fresh produce, head to the city’s largest public market, Mercado de Surquillo for some primo food shopping. Goods are offered from all over the country, with a amazing array of Amazonian fruit, potatoes and corn from the Andes, as well as a wide assortment of coastal seafood. Head upstairs to try some freshly prepared ceviche which costs just a few dollars.
Tip: Absolutely the best way to visit this market (as well as other culinary hot-spots) is to book a tour Capital Culinaria Lima Gourmet Tours, owned by a dynamic foodie couple, Samantha (my new BFF) and her husband, Lucas. CCLGT will take you on a fantastic, behind-the-scenes, gastronomical/cultural tour of Lima. You will taste your way through local markets (sampling endless varieties of exotic produce such as an amazing, buttery little avocado that doesn’t have a pit) off-the-beaten track cafes, restaurants and there’s even time to shop the boutiques scattered throughout Lima’s most exciting nabes. You’ll learn all the secrets for making the world’s best Ceviche and Pisco Sours from a top chef, so you can really impress the folks back home. (The Chef thought my rendition was the best in class-really. Of course, Samantha and I were the only two in the class!)
Lunch was at a hidden (there isn’t even a name on the outside) seafood restaurant in a little beach town that was opened over 30 years ago by a local fisherman, who was the supplier, and his wife, who did the cooking. This lunch has set the bar for all my seafood meals in the future. Their Chicharron de Calamares (fried calamari) served with a simple squirt of lemon, was sheer perfection.
You’d never find it on your own so this alone should entice you to check out CCLGT. Whether you sign up for a day time or evening tour, I can’t imagine a more fun, insightful way to explore the real Lima.
7. Best pre-Columbian x-rated artifacts
The Larco Musuem (formerly an eighteenth-century mansion built on the site of a pre-Columbian temple) offers one of the world’s largest private collections of pre-Columbian Peruvian artifacts. The gold and silver pieces, textiles and ceramics are arranged chronologically for an artistic overview of Peru’s history. Fascinating stuff but without a doubt the most popular gallery is the adults-only, “Sala Erótica” (“Erotic Hall”). To see the Inca version of the Kama Sutra, visit this hall filled with erotic ceramic pots portraying every conceivable sexual act and position, often with great humor.
8. Best bohemian neighborhood
Often referred to as the Peruvian Greenwich Village, the hipster Barranco area is a beguiling mix of art galleries and co-ops, great restaurants and the best nightlife in Lima. Barranco was a popular beach resort in the 19th century and many of the old mansions lining the cobbled alleyways have recently been restored to their past glamour.
Enter the hood by walking over the well-trodden, wooden, Bridge of Sighs, which overlooks a bougainvillea-lined walkway leading to some great surfing beaches. Locals believe that if you make a wish and cross the bridge for the first time without taking a breath, your wish will come true. Then spend an idyllic afternoon strolling around the square, catching the views from the pier, shopping at the artsy boutiques, and perhaps staying on for some live music and dancing at one of the lively bars.
The weather can be classified as good news/ bad news. Lima is halfway down Peru’s coastal desert so it has mild temperatures year round. However, the sun-worshipping Inca’s really blew this one because during the winter months, June- December, this is one grey city. You can go months without seeing a ray of sun…but it almost never rains.
Money: Almost every shop and restaurant will readily accept either Peruvian (soles) or U.S. currency; however, they are VERY particular about the bills they take. If there is even the slightest tear on a worn bill, it will be rejected, so make sure to bring pristine dollars.
How to get there: Continental, LAN and American are among the airlines that fly from the New York area to Lima. Fly direct to Lima from San Francisco on LAN. Peru has no visa or special entry requirements.
Best Sleeps:The JW Marriott Lima Hotel, a dramatic 25-story, sea-green glass tower hotel, was built as an optical illusion to resemble an arch. It has the perfect location, perched high on the oceanside cliffs above the Malecón in Miraflores and a mere three minute walk from Lima’s most popular mall, Larcomar, a huge complex of boutique shops, restaurants, a movie theater, pool hall, and bowling alley.
All 300 rooms were recently updated with LCD TVs, luxe bedding, ergonomic desk chairs, with mesmerizing views of the Pacific Ocean.
Fitness buffs can choose between the gym which offers a good selection of weight and aerobics machines plus complimentary trainer services and classes, and an outdoor swimming pool or you can just step outside for a run on the Malecón.
Planning your trip:
-For help in arranging an unforgettable trip to Peru, I highly recommend Only Latin America Tours, which offers over a dozen specialty group tours. They also design private tours, customized to fit your particular interests, be it a food, culture, history or adventure trip, which are impeccably organized and offer authentic experiences in high style.
-To read more about Samantha and Lucas’ drool-worthy culinary tours visit Capital Culinaria Lima Gourmet Tours.