Beyond the promise of a good meal, I wasn’t initially thrilled to step into its concrete embrace. But Lima is a city that came to surprise me – more and more with each passing visit.
At first glance, it looks like just another sprawling and overcrowded metropolis: high rises, bumper-to-bumper traffic and all, but peel back the layers, as I was able to do on repeat visits, and what you’ll find is a place that balances old with new, tradition with innovation, and natural beauty spectacularly situated amidst and alongside concrete jungle.
As the former political and administrative center of the Spanish viceroyalty in South America, Lima has long captured the world’s attention. Although Peru‘s capital is now better known for its unparalleled cuisine, there is a world of adventure, history, tradition, and culture to be discovered. Find centuries-old archaeological ruins alongside luxe hotels and high-rises, unassuming mom-and-pop eateries that rival even the five-star restaurants in flavor, and uniquely Lima experiences that will stay with you forever.
Be prepared for Lima to lure you in as it did me…
What to do in Lima: the main attractions
Of course, in a city that stretches 2,672 km² you’ll need more than a day or two to see and do it all. Nevertheless, here are several attractions to get you off, running, and falling in love with the “Pearl of the Pacific.”
The Plaza Mayor
For a 360-degree view of Lima’s colonial history and architecture, there’s no better place than the Plaza Mayor of Lima. Located at the heart of the historic center, the Plaza Mayor is flanked by some of the city’s most historic and important buildings, including the Government Palace, Archbishop’s Palace, Cathedral of Lima, and City Hall. The Plaza itself is spacious and stunning with a fountain, statues, green spaces, and plenty of palm trees. Come at noon and you’ll have a front row seat to the changing of the guard in front of the Government Palace.
The San Francisco Monastery
Located just a block away from the Plaza Mayor is the San Francisco Monastery and Church – a bright yellow Baroque-style construction that dates back to the 1600s. Although decked out in gilded altars and latticework and home to ancient religious texts, it’s the deep and dark catacombs that truly draw people through its oversized doors.
For 10 soles (roughly $3), you can take a guided tour of the catacombs to see the largest of Lima’s original burial grounds. The bones of more than 70,000 bodies are stacked and arranged in circular patterns, making for both a spine-tingling and spectacular experience. The San Francisco Monastery and Catacombs are open from 9:30am to 5:45pm daily.
The Larco Museum
If you visit just one museum in Lima, make it the Larco Museum. Home to the world’s largest collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and located in a gorgeous 18th century mansion, the museum takes you through centuries upon centuries of history. Wander its open-to-the-public storerooms and gawk at the museum’s collection of erotic ceramics and artifacts (yes, you read that right). The Larco Museum is open daily from 9am to 10pm. Admission is 30 soles (about $9).
READ MORE: WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT NORTHERN PERU, HOME TO ‘THE NEW MACHU PICCHU’
El Malecón is essentially a boardwalk that runs atop the dramatic sea cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Miraflores (an affluent district home to tons of hotels and shops). The boardwalk itself is six miles of bike lanes, walking trails, parks, and eateries, including Larcomar, a popular open-air food and shopping center. Be sure to visit the famous Parque del Amor where artist Victor Delfin’s statue “The Kiss” stands loudly amidst the gardens and mosaic seating.
Head to Parque Raimondi if paragliding over the Pacific sounds appealing and try to catch at least one sunset here before leaving Lima.
Huaca Pucllana, a 22-meter-high adobe pyramid built by the pre-Inca Lima culture, is the most notable of Lima’s archaeological sites. It’s situated amidst the glamorous high rises of Miraflores, painting an eye-opening contrast between Lima’s ancient past and very modern present. The site is believed to date back to 500 A.D.
Come for a late afternoon tour and then follow it up with a meal at the on-site restaurant for a front row seat to the spectacular illuminated ruins after sunset. The ruins are open from Wednesday to Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is 12 soles (a little less than $4).
VISIT LIMA (AND MORE) ON ONE OF INTREPID’S SMALL GROUP ADVENTURES IN PERU
El Circuito Mágico del Agua
Located in downtown Lima at the Parque de la Reserva, El Circuito Mágico del Agua features 13 illuminated fountains plus a spectacular fountain show set to music and light. Three times a night (7:15, 8:15, and 9:30), the 130-yard Fuente de la Fantasia erupts into a choreographed show of water, lasers, and music.
After the show, meander through the park to enjoy the other fountains including, the Túnel de las Sorpresas, a 28-yard tunnel of water that you can walk through, and the Laberinto del Ensueño, a tricky maze of water that requires both good timing and a slight risk of getting absolutely soaked. The fountains are open Wednesday to Sunday from 3pm to 10:30pm. Admission is 4 soles (a little more than $1).
What to eat in Lima
From gourmet cuisine to the freshest seafood, unique fusion dishes, and craft beverages, there is truly no better destination to indulge and imbibe. You’ll want to try it all so come hungry and thirsty.
World’s best restaurants
Lima is home to three restaurants on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list: Central (No. 5), Maido (No. 8), and Astrid y Gastón (No. 33). Each packs quite the culinary experience, including 17-course meals and food that more resembles art than an edible dish! If you’re into fine dining and experiencing cuisine from some of the world’s best chefs, definitely don’t miss the chance to dine at one of these restaurants. Just remember to make a reservation.
Seafood and ceviche
With the teeming Pacific waters practically out its back door and a centuries-old culinary heritage to pull from, it’s no wonder that some of the best seafood cuisine can be found in Lima. It’s both fresh and creative. Find dishes like arroz con mariscos, jalea, tiradito, and of course ceviche on menus throughout the city. For a list of restaurant recommendations both on- and off-the-beaten-path, check out my recent Lima seafood guide.
Lima food recommendations from Gary Cohen, Intrepid’s General Manager for South America tours:
Some of my favorite restaurants include Maido (Miraflores) for Peruvian-Japanese fusion, Isolina (Barranco) for old school Peruvian recipes or La Mar (Miraflores) for sensational ceviche and seafood. For some incredible, more hidden spots go to Canta Rana (Barranco) for traditional seafood and Bao (Miraflores) for laid-back Peruvian-Asian snacks.
Finally, I strongly recommend trying any of the local-led Urban Adventures day tours, especially this one with a local Peruvian family. You visit a local Lima market, learn how to make Pisco sours, and enjoy homemade cuisine with the locals!
What sets Peru apart from the rest of the world’s culinary traditions is its unique blend of multicultural influence. Every flavor in Peru’s most typical dishes is based on this and Lima is reigning king. You’ll find everything from Japanese-Peruvian Nikkei to Chinese-Peruvian Chifa and Afro-Peruvian Creole cuisines.
The fusion dishes you must try while in Lima are anticuchos, papa a la huancaína, lomo saltado, ceviche, and tacu tacu.
Bars and clubs in Lima
Whether you want a cold craft beer or Peru’s national drink, the pisco sour, you have plenty of options at hand. I recommend you target the Barranco neighborhood for a variety of top-notch bars and breweries all close to each other. Unsurprisingly, the area is also home to some of Lima’s most popular nightlife.
For brews, head to Barranco Beer Company. For pisco sours and cocktails, don’t miss Barra 55 and Ayahuasca. For nightlife, Sargento Pimienta always comes through.
Ready to visit this vibrant city for yourself? Check out Intrepid’s wide range of small group tours in Peru.