Overview

Lima, Peru, is a dynamic, vibrant city full of contrasts. Modern skyscrapers stand beside pre-Incan pyramids that cover entire city blocks. The City of Kings was formerly just a stopover en route to the tourist mecca of Cusco and the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, but visitors to Lima are now spending more and more time soaking up the cosmopolitan atmosphere in Peru's capital city, where fine museums and world-class dining combine with thousands of years of history.

Whether you are shopping in designer boutiques and posh malls, partying until dawn in a nightclub facing the Pacific, or sampling seafood in the city's best cevicherias, there is something for almost everyone in Lima.

Geography

Lima sits in the middle of the coast of Peru in the Chillon, Rimac and Lurin river valleys. The area is a desert sprinkled with small mountains that are now the sites of some of Lima's urban sprawl. Parts of the city sit on a several-hundred-foot/meter cliff that overlooks the Pacific. A wide, sandy area follows the shoreline and is home to beaches, roads and restaurants.

Neighborhoods sprawl out in every direction from the colonial center. Most of the important neighborhoods border the coastline or sit not far from it. In the far north is Callao, which is actually a separate city and is home to the airport and cruise ship terminal. Most other tourist-oriented areas sit south of the center, including Pueblo Libre, San Isidro, Miraflores, Barranco and Chorrillos.

History

After the Spanish gained control of the Inca empire, they moved down from the Andes to build a capital on the coast: Lima was founded by Francisco Pizarro on 18 January 1535. At the time, small populations of native people were already living in fishing and farming settlements in the area. They had only been recently conquered by the Incas, however, and so were indifferent to the arrival of the Spanish.

The city became a Spanish capital in South America and one of the wealthiest cities on the continent. The nearby port of Callao became the point of export for Inca gold, Potosi silver and other goods that were being exploited in the Andes. Thus, it became a target for pirates, who sank dozens of Spanish galleons and frequently attacked the port. It's possible to see the remains of the defensive wall that Spaniards built in hopes of protecting their treasure.

Wide-scale trade stretched across the globe in the 18th century, and the city grew significantly. An earthquake in 1746 nearly destroyed the city, but it was soon rebuilt using African slave labor. Growth was slowed after independence was declared in 1821, but increased dramatically several decades later when the influx of capital from the guano boom allowed the city to expand. (Guano is nitrate-rich seabird droppings used for fertilizer.) The boom ended with the War of the Pacific (1879-83), when Peru lost some nitrate-rich areas to Chile.

The population ballooned in the 20th century as laborers moved down from the Andes to find work, setting up shanty towns around Lima, called pueblos jovenes. During the 1980s and '90s, terrorist groups from the Andes made Lima one of their targets, and the city saw numerous small bombings, until the major terrorist leaders were captured in 1992. The eradication of terrorism in the mid-1990s culminated with scandals involving Vladimiro Montesinos, the Peruvian chief of intelligence; President Alberto Fujimori fled the country to Japan before criminal charges could be brought against him.

In 2001, Alejandro Toledo was the first indigenous person to be elected president in Peru (or any Andean nation). His term was economically unpopular, and in 2006 conservative Alan Garcia, whose first term in office in the 1980s was disastrous, followed him. His more recent term was far more successful and the economy expanded rapidly. However, social conflicts resulting in several clashes between indigenous protestors and security forces marred his presidency.

In 2011, Ollanta Moises Humala Tasso, a center-left candidate and a former military officer, replaced Garcia, winning a run-off vote against his opponent, Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the disgraced and now imprisoned former president. Humala promised social reforms to balance the economic development and foreign investment, but faced ongoing criticism over land rights and sustainability, as well as complaints from detractors and protestors who believe he merely followed the path of Alan Garcia.

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was elected president of Peru in 2016. Many are hopeful that he will take Peru into the 21st century with his plans to boost the economy and increase public spending and foreign involvement.

Sightseeing

Lima's downtown, the colonial center, is home to the most interesting sites in the metropolitan area, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991. Much of the center has been renovated to its former glory after years of neglect.

The heart of Lima's historic core is the Plaza Mayor, or Plaza de Armas, the government center since 1535. There you will find the Palacio de Gobierno (Presidential Palace), the Archbishop's Palace (notice the ornate balconies) and a stunning central bronze fountain.

Also bordering the plaza is the city cathedral, which holds the remains of Francisco Pizarro, the city's founder. Several other churches in the neighborhood are also worth a visit, such as the baroque Church of San Francisco, with beautiful hand-carved ceilings and extensive catacombs, and La Merced, the site of the first Mass in Lima. The nearby Barrio Chino, or Chinatown, merits a visit during lunchtime.

History buffs have more than their share of sights to choose from. Pre-Colombian pyramids such as Huaca Pucllana sit a few blocks from hotels in Miraflores and San Isidro. Centuries-old churches and colonial mansions dot the downtown area, and the Spanish fort Real Felipe lines the seafront of Callao. Pre-Colombian artifacts—such as gold, textiles, weapons and the always-crowd-pleasing erotic pottery collection—can be found in Lima's many museums.

Several charming neighborhoods are good places to stroll, people-watch or grab a bite to eat. Head to Barranco and make your way from the plaza past colonial mansions and down an attractive stone promenade to the Pacific, passing under the famous Puente de los Suspiros, or Bridge of Sighs, along the way.

Lima's green spaces are full of activity. Parque El Olivar, an olive grove planted by the Spanish, is a nice place to bird-watch or just relax. The larger and more active Parque de la Exposicion , which is downtown, is home to several good museums, weekly craft and food fairs, a small pond with paddleboats, a lighted fountain circuit, and numerous pavilions and theaters that play host to frequent events.

Lima's other sights include ancient adobe-brick pyramids, dramatic coastal cliffs and world-class museums. Most places can be seen on action-packed day tours, although many visitors to Lima will prefer to take their time and explore just one or two a day. There is more than enough to keep you busy for months on end.

Nightlife

Lima has a vibrant nightlife scene that spreads to almost every area of town. Nonstop partying goes on until the wee hours of the morning, but don't expect anyone else to be there if you show up before midnight.

Most tourists will stick to the large clubs and trendy bars in the tourist district of Miraflores, particularly those in Larcomar Shopping Center and near Parque Kennedy. Miraflores is also home to a smattering of popular expat bars.

The Bohemian quarter of Barranco has some of the most traditional and unique nightlife in the city. Penas (music houses) and one of the densest bar strips in the city can be found on the edges of Barranco's main plaza. Tourists have discovered this essential Limeno experience and, in some places, foreigners outnumber the locals.

Downtown nightlife is limited to a few seedy clubs and gay bars, and the area can be dangerous at night. There are, however, some historic bars in the city center, which are worth a visit for their old-school ambience.

Dining

Peruvian cuisine has been recognized as the last great world cuisine to be discovered, and nowhere is this more evident than in the capital of Lima. Everything from world-class fine-dining restaurants to hole-in-the-wall cevicherias can be found in the city, each adding its own unique touch to the culinary landscape.

Cuisine from every region of the country can be found in Lima. Search around and you can find everything from typical Amazonian recipes in a boutique cafe to cuy, or roasted guinea pig, in a food stall run by Andean people just relocated from the mountains (though any highland city is a better place to find cuy in Peru).

The best restaurants are in Miraflores and San Isidro, the areas where many culinary tours focus. National and international chain restaurants are represented as well, but hidden down quiet residential streets and in hotels you will find trendy cafes, wine and tapas bars, and gourmet restaurants. That is where you will find some of the best chefs in Latin America.

Barranco is home to several good local and regional restaurants that are famous throughout Lima. There are spots that serve criollo, as well as cevicherias, sandwich shops, watering holes and several fine-dining establishments. A bit farther south, in the former fishing village of Chorrillos (now a part of metro Lima), you will find some of the best seafood Lima has to offer. Crowds flood to the district every weekend, especially in summer, to indulge in the beachfront seafood shacks or long-running cevicherias.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 20 soles; $$ = 20 soles-50 soles; $$$ = 51 soles-90 soles; and $$$$ = more than 90 soles.

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