Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Lima

With its elegant private spaces finally opening up to the public, Peru’s massive metropolis abounds with delightful small-scale attractions, not to mention a white-hot culinary scene, says David Kaufman.

March 25 2011
David Kaufman

Lima is a city best experienced behind closed doors. As in Milan or Cartagena or other cities of elegant character, its true life plays out in private spaces: in colonial palacios such as the Casa de Aliaga, a sprawling mansion granted by Lima’s founder Francisco Pizarro to nobleman Jerónimo de Aliaga in 1535 and inhabited by his descendants ever since; and in private museums, such as the Museo Pedro de Osma, where colonial and Republican-era tapestries, paintings and sculpture are displayed in what was once the Osma family home. Lacking the street life of Mexico City or the beach culture of Rio, Lima is nonetheless arguably more compelling, its perennially appealing historic patrimony now, thanks to a roaring economy, complemented by vibrant 21st-century attractions.

And today the city is finally, truly opening up. Call ahead to request a viewing, and those private museums will open their doors – in many cases offering tours led by the (often eccentric) owners themselves. Historical homes receive guests, who meander amid the 16th-century splendour of Lima’s founding families. And maison-styled boutiques continue to crop up, showcasing carefully curated collections of Peru’s underappreciated handicrafts. For those willing to pass a few days here – instead of laying over en route to Macchu Picchu or the Amazon – this massive metropolis of 8m is accessible, attractive and surprisingly safe.

Much of this has to do with topography. Clinging to jagged, fog-enclosed cliffs on the Pacific Ocean, Lima has a beach-town feel (only, alas, usually without the beach-town weather). Founded in 1535 as the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru, Lima’s core was built far from shore and its marauding pirates. As the city grew, it migrated to the coast, where the posher neighbourhoods now stand – so tidily laid out and well kept they could double for Southern California. Colourful stucco bungalows, white-washed apartments and even the odd Tudor-styled mansion line San Isidro and Miraflores, the two neighbourhoods that are home to Lima’s élite and most of its important hotels, shops and restaurants. While their sturdy gates betray Peru’s recent history with separatist terror and – like all of urban Latin America – the threat of crime, the most remarkable thing about Lima is how, well, unremarkable it looks: tranquil and devoid of street hawkers and beggars.

Beyond these clean streets is a rapidly evolving urban edge – still in its infancy and largely tourist free. If Lima’s culinary scene serves as a barometer, though, the rest of the city won’t remain undiscovered for long. Peruvian food has emerged as a bona fide global commodity. Long before Nobu Matsuhisa became a household name, he opened a sushi joint in Lima. By the time he left for California in 1977, he was liberally employing Peruvian influences, from ceviche to chillies, and telling the world whence they came.

Gastón Acurio, one half of the Astrid & Gastón restaurant empire that now stretches from Mexico to Madrid, is another champion of Peruvian cuisine. He’s the best-known proponent of “cocina Novoandina”, which combines traditional Andean ingredients – quinoa, purple potatoes, even llama meat – with Western cooking techniques. These dishes form the canon of Acurio’s Miraflores flagship, opened in 1994 and as much a Lima landmark as the Plaza de Armas (still a must-do). Acurio has expanded his purview to include dishes from Peru’s Pacific coast, such as the tart ceviches served at his more casual Cevicheria La Mar.

Many of Lima’s second generation of culinary wunderkinden matriculated from Acurio’s kitchens – including Virgilio Martinez, a veteran of New York’s Lutèce and chef at Central in Miraflores and newcomer Chimera. A master of flavour and presentation, his signature pulpo al carbón morado is deconstructed on a glass platter, each element – charred octopus, olive purée, lentil salad, ham and avocado mousse – forming a small, perfect still-life.

Such epicurean aesthetics are a Lima-wide standard, from sandwich-makers to celebrated chefs such as Rafael Osterling – known for camera-ready presentation both at his eponymous formal restaurant and El Mercado, his new (and nouvelle) cevicheria – to young upstart Pedro Miguel Schiaffino at Malabar, a stylish showcase for the fruits and fish of the Amazon. Standout dishes here include a ceviche of delicious (but fantastically ugly) tiger catfish served with cashew fruit, and a potato-packed Peruvian causa with freshwater shrimp escabeche.

Dazzling though these conquests may be, they can’t compete with those of the Incas – or Moches, or Nazcas, or Chimú, or any of the peoples who swept through Peru amassing breathtaking gold wealth before the arrival of the Spaniards. And the city’s museums beautifully tell the story of Peru’s past. In Miraflores, the Italian-born Enrico Poli presides over a private collection crammed with exquisite gold and silver artefacts, including a necklace found on the mummified Lord of Sipan, one of the New World’s most valuable relics. Just a few blocks away at the Museo Amano, the focus is on ceramics and tapestries, particularly the delicate woven rugs of the Chancay culture, which flourished in the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, the district of Pueblo Libre is home to the Museo Larco, which has just completed a massive four-year expansion to house the world’s most comprehensive collection of Peruvian ceramics, textiles and metalwork.

As for the city’s cultural present, visitors should look to the newly renovated Museo de Arte de Lima, in the historic Palacio de la Exposición; partially open now, it fully reopens next year. Its clutch of smaller galleries have already been completed, inaugurated in April with an exhibition by photographer and native son Mario Testino – who showed up to the opening with Kate Moss in tow.

While many may have wondered what Kate wore, the real question was: where did she stay? Chief among the small but growing number of stylish places to lay one’s head is the Country Club Lima Hotel in San Isidro, fronting the Lima Golf Course, with grandly proportioned rooms in a Dynasty-esque style that would be out of place in most cities, but somehow works here. Also new is the JW Marriott, housed in twinned black-glass towers facing the Pacific, with a top-notch health club and excellent service. It’s within spying distance of the Miraflores Park Hotel, another beach-front pile managed by Orient-Express.

All are perfectly acceptable luxury redoubts, though they’ll soon be eclipsed by Lima’s first high-end design hotel, the Westin Libertador Lima – which will boast interiors by New York architect Tony Chi (the man behind the Park Hyatt Shanghai and the new Grand Moma in Beijing). When it opens in San Isidro in May, it will be the tallest tower in town.

Back at sea level, Lima’s shops are small-scale and craft-focused, such as Las Pallas in Barranco, also home to Dédalo Arte y Artesania. This emporium of traditional textiles, ceramics and leather, plus cases and cases of jewellery, rambles enchantingly through a 14-room mansion; with a stop in its café, it constitutes a lovely afternoon. For more expedient shopping, try Atelier Titi Guiulfo in the old fishermen’s district of Chorrillos, which stocks elegant woven shawls and clothing along with finely wrought ceramics.

As for the city centre, once the seat of an empire stretching from Bogotá to Buenos Aires, earthquakes and sloppy urban planning have seen to the demise of many 16th-century gems.

What do remain, however, are balconies – nearly 1,000 of them – carved from tropical woods, often replete with the filigree panels used by noblewomen to spy on the gentry below.

Other remnants of Peru’s golden age range from the grand Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace to the monolithic Government Palace, all commissioned by Pizarro in 1535. The latter, in use long before the first US president was elected, is still Peru’s seat of power. Despite such auspicious beginnings, Peru today is in catch-up mode. The capital has a good five years to go before it tips from urban up-and-comer to true World City. For now, its USP is its sheer authenticity: the history is alive, the culture well guarded, and the food a revelation all its own.