Once the centre of the continent-spanning Spanish viceroyalty, Lima hasn’t let post-imperial history get in the way of its colonial sensibilities. Peru’s “Garden City” shows off rich layers of emerging-economy flair, multi-national heritage and decadent colonial antiquity stack up to create one of Latin America’s most multifaceted cities. A slice through Lima’s historic centre affords the best cross-section of Peru’s all-round capital.
Jump-start your senses with a morning visit to the Mercado Central, a two-tiered market selling everything from leather jackets to miracle herbs. Order a juice from one of the kiosks at the northern end, guayaba(guava) and guanabana (soursop) are two delicious options. Exit via the south side and you’ll find Lima’s Chinatown, where chifa restaurants are ubiquitous, serving up the Chinese-Peruvian fusion that has become a symbol of Limeño pride.
Two blocks north of the market is Plaza Bolívar, where you’ll see the monolithic National Congress building. On the south side of the plaza is the Museo de la Inquisición (00 51 1311 7777; congreso.gob.pe/museo), which looks at Lima’s past as the continental headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, and features life-sized mannequins undergoing torture techniques used by the zealous Spaniards. Entry and tours are free, although if you want to be shown around by an English-speaker you should give them 24 hours’ notice.
Two blocks north and one west is the Convento de San Francisco (00 51 1719 7188; museocatacumbas.com), a 350-year-old monastery where a small community of Franciscan monks still resides. Tours take in the intricate Moorish-style lattice dome and the catacombs below the church itself. About 75,000 people are estimated to be buried down here and their femurs (the longest-lasting of human bones) sit stacked in open graves. The 40-minute tour costs 7 Peruvian sol (S7/£1.70).
Make your way west to Plaza Mayor for 11.45pm, when the changing of the guard ceremony outside the Palacio del Gobierno (Presidential Palace) features a military band playing jazzy tunes. Intricately carved wooden balconies protrude from the buildings around the plaza, contributing to its Unesco World Heritage status. On the eastern side, Lima’s fortress-like cathedral, whose elaborate façades are prime examples of Spanish Baroque architecture, showcases its art collection in the Religious Art Museum(00 51 1427 9647) as well as the grave of Francisco Pizarro, the city’s founder.
Head south along pedestrianised Jirón de la Unión, the city’s main commercial artery, where you can admire Neo-Classical and Art Deco architecture while satisfying all shopping needs.
The street leads to Plaza San Martín, but before you reach it, head two blocks west along Jirón Moquegua to Los Manglares de Tumbes (00 51 1426 5056), a fun and colourful cantina that’s the best place to sample ceviche (seafood cured by the acidity of lime juice) of which the sabor a manglar option for S30 (£7) is a good introduction.
Head south to the flower-filled Plaza San Martín, a pleasant square, lined on all sides with Baroque architecture, where locals lounge on the benches. On the north-western corner stands the Hotel Bolívar (00 51 1427 2114; granhotelbolivar.com.pe), where you can sample the definitive pisco sour (pisco, lime juice, sugar syrup, egg white) in the decadent surroundings of El Bolivarcito bar, “the cathedral of the pisco sour”. There’s also a fantastic view from the Planeta rooftop bar on the same corner at Jirón de la Unión 892 for a drink later in the evening.
Two blocks east of the plaza, the Parque Universitario is the founding spot of San Marcos University, the oldest university in the Americas. The park contains a small amphitheatre where street performers regularly put on shows, offering an interesting insight into the Peruvian sense of humour. On the south side of the park, the Centro Cultural San Marcos(00 51 1619 7000; ccsm-unmsm.edu.pe) is an oasis of calm with pretty colonial courtyards and seasonal student exhibitions; entry is free.
Head south until you hit Avenida Roosevelt, which you should follow west to the top of Plaza Grau (below the Sheraton hotel). Walk south along here, admiring Lima at its expansive best before reaching Mali, the Museo de Arte de Lima (00 51 1204 0000; mali.pe), where entry costs S6 (£1.50). This art gallery features contemporary exhibitions from Peruvian and international artists. The stunning colonial building has had a modern revamp inside, including a white-tented roof above the open courtyard.
The museum stands at the northern extremity of the relaxing Parque de la Exposición, a charming area of greenery, open-air art exhibits, a large amphitheatre (ask at the ticket kiosk outside for what’s on), and plenty of benches where you can get off your feet, take in the surroundings and plan your next pisco sour.
The Circuito Magico del Agua (00 51 1424 0827; parquedelareserva.com; closed Mondays and Tuesdays) was once neglected industrial lland, but now holds the Guinness World Record for the largest collection of fountains in a public park. Come after dark for the light show; entry costs S4 (£1).
Larcomar (larcomar.com) is a new mall perched on a cliff-top in Lima’s Miraflores district. It’s worth spending an afternoon on one of the stunning terraces, kicking back above the rolling Pacific with a coffee or cocktail. Come at night to see the new Christ the Redeemer statue lit up.
With no direct flights between the UK and Peru, the quickest journey involves a stop in a European airport. The widest range of UK departure points are via Amsterdam on KLM (0871 231 0000; klm.com) or Paris on Air France (0871 663 3777; airfrance.co.uk). British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Iberia (0870 609 0500; iberia.com) fly from Heathrow via Madrid. BA and its partner American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) fly from Heathrow via Miami.Air Europa (0871 423 0717; aireuropa.com) and LAN (0800 977 6100; lan.com) both fly from Madrid, with UK connections.
Hotel España (00 51 1428 5546; hotelespanaperu.com) is a converted colonial mansion, with high ceilings, classical artwork and friendly staff. Doubles from S60 (£14), room only.
Peru Fantasy (00 51 652 6995; perufantasy.com) runs three-hour walking tours of Lima for S25 (£6) per person.