Lima is in full throttle. Lunch rolls seamlessly into dinner. Dancing keeps going long after last call. Across the more than a thousand-square-mile sprawl of Peru’s capital, from the working-class Chorrillos barrio to highbrow San Isidro and along the glorious Pacific coastline, pure urban exhilaration reigns, and just about all of the 8.8 million inhabitants are caught up in it.
A decade-strong food boom, centered in the Miraflores neighborhood, fuels the city. Local foodies had barely begun drooling over Central chef Virgilio Martínez’s sea bass with crab and noodles when Pedro Miguel Schiaffino started turning heads with his fried green bananas and other Amazon-inspired dishes at Ámaz. I have watched many a casual restaurant meal turn into Babette’s Feast.
At Pescados Capitales, a couple tucking into lunch morphed gradually into a multigenerational gathering of two dozen, with platters of citrus-marinated sole, tuna, and salmon, and mounds of langoustine-stuffed yellow potatoes, accompanied by glasses of pisco sour, Peru’s liquid nirvana. And even before the cake made with lúcuma—an exotic Andean fruit—arrived, someone was on his cellphone, reserving a table for tomorrow’s lunch at another of the famous sevicherias.
As the evening lengthens, the hunt shifts from food to the newest bar or band. And the stage changes, too, to Barranco. This oceanside hood’s hot spot of the moment: Victoria Bar, with its signature cocktail Frida—camu camu juice and jalapeño-infused tequila, spicy and seductive.
Young Peruvian writer Ezio Neyra and a couple of friends opened Victoria last year in Casona Cillóniz, a handsomely restored 1903 Barranco mansion. It captures Lima’s vibe of the moment: a dynamic forging of traditional spaces and cutting-edge ideas. “It’s as if Lima is in a state of permanent construction,” Neyra tells me.
Nuevo Peruvian cuisine and after-hours clubs aside, this Spanish-founded city’s long and rich history is what gives it character.
The churches and casonas around the Plaza Mayor, gaudy with their baroque facades, evoke the days when Spanish viceroys held sway. I discover some surprising new detail every time I wander through the El Museo del Convento de San Francisco, with its catacombs lined with bones, a library with 25,000 historic tomes, and an elaborate Moorish-style cupola.
The nearby National Afro-Peruvian Museum explores one of colonial Peru’s lesser known chapters. The room I like best displays the cajón and other musical instruments, and explains why Afro-Peruvian musicians have had such a profound impact on Peruvian music.
The Pacific Coast, kissing the city’s edge for miles, gives us all respite. I often stroll along the cliffs. The breezy ocean views are half the appeal. The other half: green spaces along the way, such as Parque Maria Reiche, with its floral depiction of the Nasca lines, the ancient geoglyphs in the southern Peruvian desert.
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Some Limeños surf right off the beach at Barranco or escape to Playa Pulpos or other beaches an hour or two south. But most just find a favorite oceanside perch, like the flower-filled Parque Domodossola, to watch the sun sink into the sea. It’s a moment to savor. When darkness falls, this urban giant will rise with a jolt and start moving fast.
This piece, written by Gary Lee, first appeared in the May 2014 issue of Traveler magazine. Lee, a former Washington Post Moscow bureau chief, splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Arequipa, Peru, where he owns a home and a hotel.