For many travellers arriving to Peru, the capital city of Lima may be mistaken for little more than a necessary entry point – a chaotic, sprawling metropolis best quickly departed in favour of the country’s more exotic and better-known locations. But to leave Lima without savouring its many flavours would be to miss out on one of the most interesting, culturally rich cities in South America.
Granted, Lima is not the lavish, pristine city of colonial times, and it might be unrecognisable from its 20th Century heyday, but with its 43 districts and 8 million residents, Lima offers so much more. From immensely varied and contrasting architecture to sacred archaeological sites, from a fascinating history to a thriving gastronomical scene, it would be a shame to reduce the city to a mere stepping stone on your travels elsewhere.
One area where Lima rivals any city, anywhere in the world, is its cuisine (there’s a reason it’s known as The Gastronomic Capital of the Americas.) In the Surquillo neighbourhood, Lima has turned a traditional farmers’ market into a pedestrian mall to showcase Peru’s epicurean eclecticism. The result is the Boulevard of Cuisine, not to be missed for those who enjoy learning about the food they’re eating, as well as enjoying it.
Each year in September, Lima’s annual Mistura Food Fair gathers star eateries from around the country to celebrate the best of Peruvian cuisine. ‘Mistura’ translates as mixture, and for any travellers finding themselves in Lima around this time, the Peruvian obsession with food will become apparent – it’s truly one of the most anticipated events of the year, and should be experienced if at all possible. Ceviche, of course, is the dish of choice in Lima – a mixture of raw fish, hot chili peppers and onions marinated in lime juice; once you’ve tried it, you’ll find it difficult to order anything else during your stay: it’s that good!
For an after-dinner treat, it’s impossible to avoid the Pisco Sour, Peru’s national drink. Made from pisco (grape brandy,) lime, egg whites, angostura bitters and ice, this is a concoction your palate won’t have had the pleasure of encountering before – it even has its own public holiday every February.
Aside from its amazing culinary delights though, Lima offers much more. The distinctive architecture of the city is simply stunning, spanning from 500-year-old buildings to modern skyscrapers. A good starting point is the Plaza de Armas, Lima’s main square, home to the Cathedral of Lima and the adjoining Archbishop’s Palace, built in the 1600s and sporting intricately carved wooden balconies, just one of the fascinating features imported by the conquistadores and seen throughout the city. Also on the plaza is the Government Palace, official residence of the president, where the changing of the palace guards can be seen every day at noon. The nearby Aliaga House is one of Lima’s oldest buildings, and home to a wide range of Peruvian art and artefacts.
Though Peru is perhaps best known for the archaeological and architectural marvels of Macchu Picchu and Cusco, what many don’t realise is that the vestiges of Peru’s ancient civilisations can be seen without even leaving Lima. There is an abundance of huacas, or historical ruins, in the city, the best example being Huaca Pucllana, an adobe ceremonial centre built around 500 a.d. and found in the Miraflores district. And if that doesn’t float your boat, the Miraflores district itself is well worth a visit.
Miraflores is without doubt the jewel of The Garden City, edging up against high cliffs looking out onto the Pacific, and home to El Malecon, a six-mile stretch of glorious parks. Here, while you take in the view, you can watch joggers and cyclists (or even join them if you’re feeling energetic!) and – for the more adventurous – you can even try parasailing or surfing.
For night owls the place to be is Barranco, the bohemian district, full of bars and restaurants and worth a visit if only to see the Puente de los Suspiros (The Bridge of Sighs), an amazing wooden footbridge, and a more recent addition, The Magic Water Circuit, a spectacular series of dancing fountains choreographed to music and lights.
For the more macabre, the catacombs under the Church of San Francisco (which is one of the city’s best-preserved churches and an impressive sight in its own rite) are a thrilling, if eerie, experience. These are the remnants of Lima’s original graveyeards, and the San Francisco church sits atop an estimated 75,000 skeletons, the remains stacked in strange patterns and often exposed – perhaps best to visit here on an empty stomach.
There are really too many attractions in Lima to list in one place, and besides, one of the city’s most appealing aspects is something less quantifiable, something you can’t see on a map: the people.
Lima has seen some hard times in recent history, but Limeños are a proud and conscientious bunch, determined to continue restoring the city to its rightful place as a mecca of South American culture and history, and they are some of the friendliest people you’re likely to find on the continent – so come, stay a few days, and get to know a city with much more to offer than it might seem on the surface.