Peru's sprawling megacapital is actually a mosaic of many smaller cities. Comprising 43 districts with nearly 9 million inhabitants, Lima is a study in contrasts, with ultramodern seaside neighborhoods butting up against gritty shantytowns that cling to barren hillsides. It is one of the world's few megacapitals that can claim a golf course in the middle of the financial district, and where executives can go surfing before high-powered breakfast meetings. Although it's built in a desert — Cairo is the only other metropolis drier than Lima — it's known as the "Garden City" and is home to one of world's largest fountain parks.
While many of Lima's stately manors have given way to glass-enclosed apartment buildings, high-rise business towers and hotels, at least one part of Peruvian culture is returning to its roots here: the cuisine. Lima natives are obsessed with food. Meanwhile, Lima's government has established a Boulevard of Gastronomy in the Surquillo district, turning a traditional farmers' market into a pedestrian mall to showcase the fresh ingredients used in Peruvian cooking. And the city's annual food festival, held each September, is quite possibly the most important event of the year.
The only thing that rivals Limeños' love of food is their passion for pisco, a grape brandy that is the main ingredient in the national drink, the pisco sour. Don't be fooled by its frothy silhouette — it packs a powerful punch.
You can't walk more than a few blocks in downtown Lima without stumbling upon another colonial church. Catholic religious congregations were each allotted a piece of land in the early days of the city, and most of them erected monasteries, convents or churches in honor of patron saints. The Church of San Francisco is one of the best preserved (you'll recognize it by the swarm of pigeons on the patio out front; vendors sell bags of seed to passersby to keep the birds coming).
Built in the baroque-style of the late 1600s, San Francisco has several gilded side altars and an impressive lattice dome. The adjoining monastery has a superb collection of ancient religious texts, some of which were brought over by the first wave of Spanish priests after the conquest of the Incas.
Most people go to San Francisco, however, for its catacombs. The catacombs were actually part of Lima's original cemeteries, which were built under churches. Tour guides say an estimated 75,000 bodies are buried under San Francisco alone, and many of the remains are exposed, stacked in strange patterns in circular stone pits. A catacomb tour is not for the squeamish or the claustrophobic.
The Church of San Francisco is located about 45 minutes by taxi from San Isidro/Miraflores. It's open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily, with tours (including the catacombs) lasting approximately one hour; the entrance fee is about $2.
The official residence and office of Peru's president, sits on the banks of the Rimac River, Lima's principal waterway, and faces San Cristobal Hill, the city's highest point. Back in the time of the Incas, the site had strategic and spiritual meaning, which is why the last Inca chief in Lima also lived here. Pizarro, the conqueror of the Incas, so liked the site that he kept it for the first Spanish palace, whose construction began in 1535. Since then, Government Palace has been rebuilt numerous times; the current French-inspired mansion was constructed in the 1930s.
Access to the palace is restricted; special tours can be arranged directly through the protocol office. But you don't need tickets to see the changing of the palace guards, which takes place each day precisely at noon. Behind the palace is the Peruvian House of Literature — it is Lima's old train station, which was restored by the government in 2009 and turned into a reading room of Peruvian works. It's worth a quick peek.
Government Palace occupies the north side of the Plaza de Armas (or Plaza Mayor), Lima's central square. On the other three sides of the square are the Cathedral of Lima and the adjoining Archbishop's Palace, which were originally built during the 1600s; the Municipal Palace (City Hall); and private office buildings. All the structures sport the intricately carved wooden balconies that make the downtown cityscape so unique.
The Cathedral is open to the public and houses a museum with an extensive collection of religious art, much of which represents Peru's famed Cuzco School of painting. The Cathedral is open until 5 p.m. daily; admission is $1.50 for adults (less for children and students).
After you've toured the Plaza de Armas, walk south on Jirón de la Unión, a long pedestrian mall, along which you can admire neoclassical and Art Deco architecture, shop and watch street performers. When you get to Plaza San Martin, which was refurbished in 2009, take a gander at the lovely 19th-century buildings, then duck into the Gran Hotel Bolivar. The hotel, which once welcomed the rich and famous, is on the wane, but the lobby and glass atrium are still worth seeing; the bar, with its polished woods and bronze, offers a surprisingly tranquil atmosphere to savor a delicious pisco sour ($4).
The Aliaga House is as old as Lima itself. When conquistador Francisco Pizarro founded the capital city on Jan. 18, 1535, he gave the plot adjacent to that of the Government Palace to his trusted ally Jerónimo de Aliaga, so they could be neighbors. Eighteen generations of the Aliaga family have resided in the same mansion ever since — it's been renovated continuously, but it's the oldest house in the Americas. Jerónimo's descendants currently live in a modern annex, but much of the original main house is on display.
The Aliaga House has a wide-ranging collection of Peruvian art and artifacts, including the sword Jerónimo de Aliaga used in the conquest of Peru, and reflects various eras of decor, going back centuries. Walking through the house's heavy wooden doors means stepping into layers of history.
Tours of the house can be organized by calling +51-(0)1-619-6900 with 24-hour notice; tours aren't cheap at $40 per person, and last about an hour. Casa Aliaga is located 40 minutes by taxi from the San Isidro/Miraflores districts, where most visitors prefer to stay.
There are many public and private museums in Lima, but none as unique or pleasing as the Larco Museum. Housed in a former mansion, itself built on the site of a pre-Columbian temple, the museum offers a varied collection of 3,000 years of ceramic, textile and precious metal artifacts. There are also mummies that show off the different ways ancient cultures, including the Incas, preserved their dead.
Two things really set this museum apart. First, visitors are allowed into the museum's store rooms to see what's not on display: a vast array of ceramic objects crafted by ancient Peruvians; there are tens of thousands of pots in the shapes of animals, plants and people. Second, there's a special room devoted to erotic archaeological treasures. These are not your run-of-the-mill phallic symbols, but a collection of ceramic pots portraying a variety of sexual positions and acts — the Kama Sutra in clay, basically. Many such erotic pots were destroyed by Spanish conquerors, who were mortified by the explicit depictions, which makes this collection all the more important.
The Larco Museum is about 25 minutes by taxi from San Isidro/Miraflores. It's open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; admission is $11.50.