The bustling city of Lima is packed with millions of people, bumper to bumper traffic and a constant chorus of beeping horns. Fortunately, refuge comes easy thanks to the beautiful coastline that is the city’s pride and joy. From historic buildings to celebrity hangouts and fantastic surfing spots, Lima has something for everyone and is a great place to start your South American adventure. Here are some of the city’s top highlights.
Miraflores is the crown jewel of Lima, featuring some of the best views, shopping, parks and restaurants in the entire city. It’s no wonder it’s also home to prime real estate, featuring high-rise modern condos and homes with spectacular ocean views—popular with ex-pats. Despite the fancy zip code, it’s accessible to all tourists regardless of budget, offering everything from hostels to five-star hotels.
What Miraflores really has going for it is that aforementioned coastline, and it makes the most of it.
Surfers flock to Playa Makaja, a long stretch of sand that’s battered by waves, making it perfect for thrill-seekers. There are a number of booths set up where you can rent equipment or get a lesson, for as little as $20. If you don’t like the idea of getting wet, you can enjoy the views from El Malecon, a six mile-long stretch of parks that wind along the coast. It’s a fantastic place to spend at least a few hours—even on a cool day—and boasts a paved running/cycling/rollerblading track, gym equipment, lighthouse, gardens and huge green lawns perfect for lazing around on. You will also be amazed by the number of dogs (this city loves their pets!) and it’s not uncommon to see some sort of dog agility competition taking over part of the park.
The most popular spot in the entire strip is Parque del Amor (the Love Park). Surrounded by mosaic walls decorated with romantic quotes, the theme continues as you walk past the immaculate gardens and stone staircases towards the highlight: El Beso. The statue ‘The Kiss’ is a large brown sculpture depicting two lovers embraced in a passionate makeout sesh. Get a room, already! Joking aside, it’s pretty cool to look at, even for single folks. And if that doesn’t do it for you, well, there’s always a great view of the Pacific Ocean crashing against the shore below.
Not too far away, you’ll find a shopping centre that boasts something that few others can: it’s built into the site of a cliff. Larcomar is a beautiful, modern outdoor mall that is tucked right into the hillside, looking into the ocean. It has dozens of stores, restaurants, cafes, food court, indoor parking, bowling alley and a movie theatre. If you’re trying to kill time before your red-eye flight home, this is the place to be! There is also a taxi service booth, but I found the prices to be double what a regular cab would charge, so keep that in mind. A nice way to spend the afternoon is to find a table with a view, and enjoy the sunshine while watching the daring paragliders fly overhead.
Finally, my absolute favourite spot in all of Miraflores is Huaca Pucllana.
Just steps away from a bustling neighbourhood you’ll find this archeological site which is basically a pyramid in the middle of the city. Take that, Egypt! The ruins are believed to have been built somewhere between 200 and 700 AD and were the site of human sacrifices and important ceremonies. It’s beautiful to visit at night when you will be some of the only people in the entire complex, and it’s lit up with a golden glow. Admission is 12 soles, which includes a tour guide.
Not only are the ruins great, but bonus: there is a FANTASTIC restaurant on site. This gastronomic delight serves traditional Peruvian fare, and dresses it up in ways that actually makes things like eating guinea pig delicious. The ambiance is also incredible, featuring big leather chairs and fireplaces when you first walk in, open fire pits in the middle of the open-air restaurant, and unobstructed views of Huaca Pucllana. The eatery is also a favourite spot for celebrities, and has hosted the likes of former President Bill Clinton, KISS rocker Gene Simmons and actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus among others. Reservations are recommended.
San Isidro is known as the business district, not only because of all the office buildings but also the stores. This is where Lima’s money is, and it shows in the prices. There are dozens of boutique stores—many of them dedicated to interior design—as well as fancy restaurants, clothing stores and ex-pat favourites like Starbucks. By the way, that particular Starbucks features valet parking…something I’d never seen before! Many of Lima’s high-end hotels can also be found here, including the Country Club Lima Hotel which has its own golf course—right in the middle of the city.
Once you’re all shopped out you can take in the beauty of the area, which boasts some beautiful colonial homes overlooking the parks. A favourite is Parque de Olivar (the olive grove park) which is a national monument thanks to its rows and rows of strangely shaped olive trees. It’s also a prime place for bird watching, and signs have been put up throughout the park to help visitors identify them.
A short walk away, you’ll find a pyramid (yes, pyramid!) called Huaca Huallamarca. The archeological complex dates back to somewhere around 200 BC, and was originally used as a temple, then a cemetery, then a human settlement. Well preserved, it now hosts a museum holding artifacts like mummies, vessels and musical instruments. Try to head over in the evening, when it’s all lit up.
Historic city centre
While Miraflores and San Isidro are the touristy areas, a trip into the historic centre will give you a better idea of what Lima is really about.
This is where the locals are. Forget the culinary offerings of the fancy-pants restaurants scattered throughout high-end areas: in the centre, you can find the hole-in-the-wall places that real Peruvians eat at. Oh, and a bonus? They’re dirt cheap! You can easily pick up an empanada, drink and a sweet cinnamon churro for about 3 soles ($1). If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble into a festival where you can sample more traditional dishes like roasted guinea pig or breaded alpaca. There are also some lovely outdoor cafes closer into the tourist area, but keep in mind you’ll pay a premium for the view.
Once you’ve gotten your fill, you can head into the main plaza, which is absolutely beautiful. Surrounded by towering, historic buildings, Plaza de Armas is a great spot to sit and take in the view while enjoying the fountain, palm trees and old lamp posts that add to the ambiance. It’s not uncommon to see a horse drawn carriage trot by, making you feel like you’ve been transported 50 years back in time! Important buildings surround the plaza, like the Palace of Government which is guarded by a large steel gate and guards in full regalia. You can also head into the cathedral, which costs a few soles admission. A final attraction worth noting is the yellow San Francisco Cathedral which is a few blocks away.
This neighbourhood is known as the eclectic, bohemian arts district, and home to the city’s photographers and artists. It sure lived up to the hype when I was there: as soon as we walked into the main plaza, we were surrounded by dozens of students sketching the surrounding fountains and architecture. The district is absolutely beautiful, with neat little shops and grand homes lining the streets as you walk towards the ocean. Barranco is also famous for being a great night spot, thanks to its many restaurants, bars and clubs. It actually used to be a beach resort for Lima’s finest, and remains a popular choice today for surfers as well as those rich enough to need a place to dock their yachts.
A popular spot in Barranco—for reasons unknown to me—is the Bridge of Sighs (Puente de los Suspiros). It’s basically a small wooden bridge that crosses over a ravine, flanked by restaurants on one side and a church on the other. Yes, that’s it. I mean, it’s cute I guess, but really nothing to write home about. Regardless, you should probably head over to take in the view, just to say you did!
Near the bridge you’ll find a path that leads past the church to a fantastic lookout point, which is a great spot for an ocean view. There is a gazebo and a wishing well, and during the day you can expect to find people selling jewelry, shutter-happy tourists and amorous couples. Be sure to go earlier in the day if you want to be some of the only people there. There are also a few restaurants close by, but in my experience you’re paying for the view and not the quality of food.
Currency: Peruvian soles
Getting there and around: A word of warning. Getting around Peru’s capital city isn’t always easy—or safe. Click here for full details on the airports, buses and taxis, including prices and why to avoid buying duty free.
Must try: A meal of ceviche and leche de tigre, capped off with a pisco sour. Hopefully you like citrus!
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