Lima skyline and coast.

Lima: The South American Capital Where the City Meets the Sea

Melanie Canales

Melanie Canales

October 30, 2023

7 min read

Where an opalescent sky meets the Pacific, surrounded by an otherworldly desert reminiscent of Mars, the capital city of Peru is a cultural hub of 43 distinct neighborhoods, home to over 11 million inhabitants, and the bedrock of a culinary scene that has captivated the world.

Some travelers may pass through the capital on their way to trek the Andes or en route to the Amazon, but those in the know linger in Lima, a city that merges the vestiges of the Incan Empire with the dramatic baroque of Spanish colonialism alongside influences from Africa, China, and Japan.

Sample local produce grown by farmers with generations of experience cultivating one of the most biodiverse lands on Earth, then indulge in that same produce at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Even a casual jaunt around the block reveals Lima’s artistic pulse, with colorful murals celebrating Lima’s diverse heritage, or the music of cart vendors crooning verses to sell their wares.

Biodiversity on display

Lima market.

Peru is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. It’s home to tens of thousands of species of flora and fauna adapted to survive in one of its 90 unique microclimates. It even ranks second in the world for species of birds and it competes with Colombia to be first in the world for species of butterflies (both countries have claimed the title).

Lima itself has become a haven to showcase all the diversity that Peru has to offer. The city has taken a special interest in uplifting the work of native ecologists and agricultural scientists through ferias ecológicas stationed throughout the city.

Much like a farmer’s market, these fairs allow land stewards from all over the country to showcase and sell the hundreds and even thousands of varieties of fruits, vegetables, and livestock that are endemic to Peru—there are more than 4,000 types of native potatoes alone! Explore the luscious tastes of tropical fruits like chirimoya and tuna fruit (prickly pear), test your spice tolerance with a variety of ajís like rocoto, limo, and amarillo, and chat with the vendors about how best to use kiwicha, pallares, and huacatay—vegetables and herbs unique to Peruvian cuisine.  

For a more cerebral experience, visit the Archaeological Sanctuary of Pachacamac. Pachacamac translates to “soul of the earth, the one who animates the world,” and the village was the heart of coastal culture dating back to 5,000 BC. It still serves as a conservation space for native flora and fauna like your favorite local camelid, the llama; guinea pigs; many species of coastal bird; and the charismatic Pachacamac dogs, the only species raised in the pre-Hispanic era.

Remnants of an empire

Lima museum of gold.

The Incan Empire was founded in the 12th century and its might was known far and wide during the pre-colonial era. To this day its legacy persists, most famously by the empire’s gold. According to local legend, gold was the blood of the sun god Viracocha, and as such, it was treated with reverence. Incan goldsmiths refined their techniques to form some of the most intricate art and technology forged from the purest gold in the world.

When the Spanish invaded in 1532, they spent 40 brutal years dividing and pillaging the empire. Though much of the empire’s gold was melted down and sent to Spain as gold bars, remnants of these ancient artifacts can be found in the Museo Oro (Museum of Gold).

The two-story museum bears witness to the violence of that conquest, as well as the spoils of the lost empire. Peruse the hundreds of war relics, weapons, propaganda, uniforms, and military history of the nation before descending into the bowels of the museum, where what is left of the Inca Empire’s most precious metal is heavily protected by Peruvians to this day.

Peru on the page

Of course, the descendants of the Incan empire had more to offer than resources extracted from the land. Some of the most influential literary minds in the world hail from Peru, their works rooted in a uniquely Peruvian experience.

César Vallejo, considered one of the greatest 20th-century poets in any language, traveled the world writing about Latin America, democracy, and the nature of human existence. Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of a Nobel Prize in literature, wrote extensively about Peru, setting one of his most famous works, The Time of the Hero, in Lima itself.

At the Casa de la Literatura in the very heart of Lima, you can explore the literary life of the historic city. Set in Lima’s former 1912 train station, this palatial museum houses the extraordinary history of Peruvian storytelling since before the written word to the modern era.

Beyond the pisco sour

pisco drink in Lima.

Peru boasts some excellent wines, beers, and spirits, but is perhaps most famous for the national cocktail—pisco sour, made from distilled grape brandy known as pisco. A rivalry between Chile and Peru exists over the true origins of pisco, and though Chile exports more pisco than any other country in the world, Peru’s small port town of Pisco is home to the original, coveted spirit.

Explore the wide variety of pisco cocktails beyond pisco sours. Any restaurant with a cocktail list will gladly prepare a chilcano or algarrobina, pisco drinks that highlight native botanicals like lime and carob. The chefs at Central also take pride in the ecology of Peru’s alcohol, illuminating the intoxicating tastes of the country at their cocktail lounge, Mayo Bar. If you like your aperitifs with an environmental lean, Lady Bee Lima is an award-winning cocktail bar that specializes in drinks that highlight the work of native honey bees of the Amazon.

The second-best restaurant in the world

Traditional Peruvian dishes contain centuries of history that fuse colonial influences with Indigenous ingredients. Lima is home to four of the 50 best restaurants in the world, and the culinary scene lives up to the hype by incorporating modern cooking styles with sustainably cultivated native produce.

A creative, contemporary take on traditional Peruvian cuisine comes from the kitchen of Central, which ranks #2 on the world’s top 50 list and is run by world-renowned chefs Virglio Martinez and Píia León. Boasting a menu that explores the altitude and ecology of this diverse country, Central takes you on a 16-course journey ranging from the peaks of the Andes to the depths of the Pacific.

That said, there’s no dearth of options to explore Peruvian culinary heritage in a more casual setting. Pollo a la brasa, the city’s most beloved and widely-accessible chicken dish can be found with ease at any Pardos or Norky’s. Marinated chicken cooked rotisserie-style and paired with steak-cut fries, fresh salads, and signature ají dipping sauces make pollo a la brasa the go-to for every traveler on a tight budget.

Lima from the sea and sky

Miraflores, Lima.

There’s no shortage of options for thrill-seekers in Lima. Be it by ocean, air, or land, there are activities for every kind of adventurer and opportunities to see Lima from another angle, literally.

The second-largest desert city in the world after Cairo, Lima is surrounded by miles of dunes bordered by the Pacific, which gives it a unique cloudy tropical climate. This distinct coastal heat makes Lima a perfect place for aquatic daredevils. Avid surfers will find themselves drawn to Playa Agua Dulce (Sweet Water Beach), though there are plenty of surf sites along the entire coastline of Lima. There’s also room for novice surfers to test their mettle through the guidance of surf schools in the bohemian Barranco district.

For those who are more partial to air than sea, the Miraflores neighborhood is the perfect place to take in the ocean breeze over cocktails at Larcomar, a sprawling park and open-air shopping center. Adrenaline junkies can strap on a parachute and leap off the Miraflores cliffs to catch a whirlwind, birds-eye tour of the city.

Art in all its forms

As steeped as it is in culture and ancient legend, Lima is still a modern city energized by the passions of young, emerging artists and communities. To see this for yourself, the best place to start is the Callao Monumental Contemporary Art Museum, an open-air museum in the port district of Lima showcasing the works of urban artists of all disciplines. Find rappers spitting cyphers in the native Quechua languages of their ancestors, muralists depicting the lives of ordinary citizens inspired by the regal styles of the ancient Inca, and fashion designers innovating the textile industry using sustainable, native fibers.

If you’re more interested in film, catch screenings at Cine Diez, a rotating film exhibition, and explore the highlands, Amazon, and Andes through the eyes of local directors. For dynamic live performances, Teatro Julieta has comedy, tragedy, drama, dance, and everything in between for traveling thespians and aficionados. If all else fails, a simple jaunt around la Plaza de Armas in the heart of Lima will offer a concert of city sounds, buskers, vendors, and commuters eager to return home to their families.

Cart culture

street cart selling meat in Lima.

One of the best ways to get to know Lima is to try out the carretillas, the ambulatory carts of food and drink that tell the story of the city. Many of the offerings you’ll find like anticuchos (cow heart kabobs), picarones (fried dough), and emoliente (herbal infusions) are classic Limeñan delicacies with as much history as flavor.

After generations of colonialism, immigration, and modernization in Peru, resourcefulness became the name of the culinary game. In the late-19th century, for example, a large influx of Chinese immigrants arrived in Lima, a movement that led to the birth of Chifa, a unique style of Chinese/Peruvian food. A fusion of Peruvian ingredients and Cantonese techniques, Peruvian Chifa opened up the culinary landscape in Lima to include more global influences, such as the later Peruvian/Nikkei cuisine founded by Japanese immigrants.

Afro-Indigenous Peruvians have also left their culinary legacy along the streets of Lima, inspiring songs about the delicacy of picarones, and the women selling them from carretillas. Rings of fried sweet potato dough bathed in a syrup made of native chancaca (sugar cane) and Spanish anise, picarones tell a story of colonialism, slavery, and the perseverance of the Afro-Indigenous Peruvian spirit.

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Melanie Canales

Melanie Canales

Freelance Writer

Melanie Canales is a Peruvian-American writer and land steward who focuses on the intersection of ecology and culture. She performs marketing and translation work for clients around the world, and her passion for travel accessibility manifests through her workshop series Viajera Soltera, a community symposium about cultural exploration for solo, femme-presenting, Latine travelers.

Published October 30, 2023

Last updated January 12, 2024

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