Lima was once considered just a jumping off point for Peru’s major attractions: Machu Picchu and the Amazon. Now it’s seducing the world’s cognoscenti with an effervescent restaurant scene buoyed by its unique blend of Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and indigenous cultures not to mention an abundance of raw materials from the ocean, jungle and mountains. Here’s how to spend 48 hours in Lima.
Potatoes and pigs
Peru gave the potato to the world…thousands of different tubers, in fact. Indeed, a kaleidoscope of corns, exotic fruits, chillies, seafood, even guinea pigs, underpins the country’s eclectic cuisine.
Founded with plundered Inca gold by Spanish viceroy Francisco Pizarro in 1535, today Lima is a megalopolis that sprawls from the Pacific Ocean’s Costa Verde out across a dusty plain…like a cat on a hot afternoon. You can still see 5th century pyramids of the area’s earliest inhabitants and the Spanish colonial centre is UNESCO heritage-listed.
Art and design
Turns out, then, there is a wealth of fascinating buildings and parks, art and design, not to mention cool neighbourhoods, to explore. Just as well because you’ll need to work off the culinary delights tempting you at every turn.
On my first day, I wander Lima’s atmospheric historic quarter. Its centrepiece is the palm-tree-dotted Plaza de Mayor surrounded by butter-yellow Spanish colonial buildings adorned with carved wooden Moorish balconies. It is remarkable to admire 400 year-old edifices in a New World city that was once the most powerful in South America, such was the reach of Spanish colonialism.
I find Pizarro’s tomb inside the Renaissance Baroque cathedral, which also houses some magnificent Cuzco school paintings that infuse Catholic religious icons with Indian traditions. Also impressive is the convent of Santa Domingo, its cloister adorned with colourful 1606 tiles from Seville.
The San Marco University, the oldest in the Americas, was founded here in 1551 and its library is still intact. It is just a short walk to the San Francisco church with its rather eerily laid-out underground mass catacombs.
Peru’s diverse food culture is also on display at La Casa de la Gastromia Peruana, in the former post office.
I stop by the old-style corner Bar Cordano, across from the presidential palace, where many of Peru’s presidents were known to drop by for a pisco sour, Peru’s national drink.
Lunch is at one of Gaston Acurio’s inexpensive Tanta restaurants, where I enjoy my first chicharron sanguche, or Peruvian sandwich (Tanta means bread in Quechua, the Incan language) with pork belly, salsa criolla (onions and tomatoes) and fried sweet potato, washed down with a fresh mango drink.
Acurio enjoys rock-star status in Peru and is the country’s most famous chef having opened restaurants in Madrid, San Francisco and New York, as well as Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Panama.
Astrid y Gaston is his flagship restaurant in Lima, but he has many more here, each focusing on a different Peruvian cuisine.
Next stop is the Larco Museum, housed in a mansion built on the site of a pre-Incan temple. Here I learn about Peru’s remarkable artisanal history through exhibitions of gold and jewellery, metals, textiles and ceramics.
It has Peru’s largest private pottery collection with thousands of pots in the shapes of animals, plants and people, including erotic pieces that the Spanish tried to destroy. There’s a delightful garden café under the ancient pyramid as well as terrific shops with reproductions of traditional jewellery, ceramics, and textiles.
A week later I return to Lima after a Delfin Amazon cruise where I met several Limenos (as Lima natives are called) who kindly show me around. We head first to the embassy quarter of San Isidro whose shiny new office blocks are elbowing out gracious flower-draped estates.
They are keen to show me El Olivar Park, its 400 year-old olive grove once the Viceroy’s private garden and now a popular public park, before we cruise Avenida Conquistadores, whose trendy boutiques have replaced the tool shops, and visit the Indian Markets on Avenida Petit Thouars, where crafts from every region of the country are offered at reasonable prices.
Lunchtime already and of course we have to sample ceviche. Avenue La Mar in Miraflores hosts a string of cevicherias each with a mind-boggling array of variations on Peru’s famous raw fish dish cured with chillies, onions, and lime juice.
We settle on Acurio’s sleek La Mar, which oozes a seaside ambiance with bright blue chairs and sunlight slaking through bamboo roofing. Tasting platters of five mouth-watering versions ranging from classic to Japanese and Chinese have me drooling for more.
We stroll along Miraflores’ famous El Malecon cliff-top park to admire sculptures like Victor Delphin’s monumental The Kiss and watch surfers below tackling the rolling waves of the Pacific.
At Larcomar shopping centre, ingeniously tucked under the Malecon’s parkland and offering great views of the ocean from its many cafes, I buy an alpaca jacket at Kuna, which specialises in crafting contemporary clothes from Peru’s finest bred camelids.
We drive south along the beach to the bohemian neighbourhood of Barranco (Spanish for ravine), which was a popular 19th century summer beach community now been swallowed up by the city.
Today its colonial mansions (or casonas) dotted around the ravine and cliffs are homes to many of Peru’s leading artists, writers and musicians as well as housing hip bars, restaurants and penas, that showcase Peruvian music.
At its heart is the Bajada de los Banos walkway down to the beach, across which spans the wooden Bridge of Sighs, which, this being Latin America, is linked to unrequited love.
A must visit in Baranco is Dedalo, a Peruvian art and design store in a charming Art Deco house showcasing folk art and quirky contemporary designs of furniture, jewellery, clothing, home wares and much more.
After appetizers on the terrace of Huaca Pucllana restaurant, in the shadow of Lima’s most impressive pre-Incan adobe pyramids, we enjoy a revelatory dinner at Malabar, where another Peruvian star chef, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, is combining little known Amazonian fruits and vegetables into modern dishes like crunchy milk-fed pork with lucuma, garlic foam, and watercress.
We end the night, and my stay in Lima, at the atmospheric Ayahuasca Bar, in an art-filled casona in Barranco. It is here that I finally enjoy a degustation of Peru’s famous pisco sour, a mixture of grape brandy, syrup, lime juice, egg white and bitters. We move on to coco sours then experiment with maracuya, camu camu, aguaymanto, and tumbo. And I realise, all too late, that I’ve barely scratched the skin of this food-lover city, much less savoured all its exotic fruits.
The Orient Express Miraflores Park Hotel is a delightful Orient Express property beside the Malecon Park and overlooking Lima’s spectacular Costa Verde coastline. The rooms are supremely comfortable, the rooftop pool is perfect on a hot day and Mesa 18’s Japanese fusion restaurant is terrific. Ave Malecon De La Reserva 1035, Miraflores.
The Westin Lima, located in Lima’s business district, is the tallest building in Peru and the first Westin in South America. The rooms are sleek and modern, the spa is the largest in the country and its Maras restaurant is Lima’s molecular gastronomy trailblazer. Calle Las Begonias 450, San Isidro, 511/201-5000;www.westinlima.com.pe
Where to eat and drink
Astrid y Gaston is the flagship restaurant of Gaston Arcurio, one of San Pellegrino’s top 50 restaurants in the world, Gaston has many other restaurants including the delightful La Mar Cevicheria (Av. La Mar 770, Miraflores; 511/421-3365; lamarcebicheria.com), Madam Tusan, his excellent version of a Chiffa or Chinese restaurant, (Santa Cruz 858, Miraflores; 511/505-5090) and a line of simple eateries called Tanta.
Malabar, the signature restaurant of Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, is in San Pellegrino’s top 100 restaurants in the world. Calle Camino Real 101, San Isidro; 511/440-5200; malabar.com.pe. Schiaffino also owns La Pescaderia cevicheria, specialising in sustainable seafood, in a Barranco Mansion, Av. Grau 689, Barranco; 511/586-8423.
Restaurante Central is a hip new spot run by an Arcurio protégé Virgilis Martinez with a rooftop garden and a chocolate cellar. Calle Santa Isabel 376, Miraflores; 511/242-8515; centralrestaurante.com.pe
El Mercado, one of Rafael Osterling’s three restaurants, is one of the newest cevicherias drawing huge crowds. (Calle Hipólito Unanue 203, Miraflores; 511/221-1322; www.rafaelosterling.com)
La Gloria has long been one of the leading restaurants in Lima. Exuding a buzzy atmosphere, it is filled nightly with Lima’s establishment who come for its well-crafted Peruvian and Mediterranean dishes. Calle Atahualpa 201, Miraflores, 511.445.5705 www.lagloriarestaurant.com
Huaca Pucllana, next to a sacred 5th century adobe pyramid, is best visited for its classic Peruvian specialities when the shrine is lit at night. General Borgono cdra. 8, Miraflores, 511.445.4042. www.resthuacapucllana.com
Nanka, run by Aussie Jason Nanka and his Peruvian wife, is pioneering kitchen gardens, biodynamic foods and artisanal products. Jr. Bambúes 198, La Molina; 511/369-7297.
Ayahuasca Bar (named for the medicinal hallucinogenic tea prepared from a jungle vine) is an atmospheric art-filled Barranco bar. (Ave San Martin 130, Barranco, www.ayahuascarestobar.com
Mistura is Lima’s annual culinary festival held every September (www.mistura.com.pe)