IT WAS ON THE FLOOR of a Barnes & Noble in American suburbia when I first opened a guidebook to Peru. I was being sent to Lima for an internship program so, with bubbling excitement, I set to work dissecting every travel guide I could find.
You can imagine my discomfort when, upon flipping to page 64, I was greeted by an opening line that read something like, “Lima is the ugliest, darkest, most depressing city on Earth.”
The next book was no better. “You will have to swim through 6-foot piles of soot and dirt to make your way around Lima, all the while avoiding rabid dogs and over-stuffed pigeons.”
I left without a guide, telling myself that six months in a city where the sun doesn’t shine and I could be attacked by a band of savage street children would only make me stronger (if it didn’t kill me).
Two years later, I am still in Lima.
I’m convinced the people who wrote those reviews were tourists who stopped in Lima only as a layover to Cusco and hid in their hotel rooms watching BBC World News.
With Machu Picchu having won the title of one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, there has been an influx of visitors to Peru. Many, though, aren’t inclined to stop in Lima. But stay a while and you will discover how undeserving of those obituary reviews this city really is. This isn’t Paris, but Lima is a developing metropolis with culture and style.
Here are 8 reasons to spend more than a layover in Lima:
1. Parque de la Reserva
Located right next to the Estadio Nacional downtown, Parque de la Reserva puts on a water and lights show called Circuito Magico de Agua (entrance fee: less than $2). The park itself consists of a series of fountains, lit up and synchronized with classical and Peruvian music.
Even if fountains aren’t your thing, watching the hyperactive children dodging their way through the squirts of water is well worth it.
Barranco is one of the trendiest places in Lima, especially at night, because of its edgy, artsy vibe.
One of the best locales in Lima for live music is La Noche. Along with many of the most popular clubs and bars, it’s located on the end of Bolognesi Street.
Though Larcomar is one of the tourist hot-spots in Lima, I still recommend it. The complex is a mini mall — complete with Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and even a KFC — built into the cliffs above the beach in Miraflores.
The best place for breakfast (or a 6pm sunset drink) in Lima is one of the cafes that hangs over the cliffs, which has nearly unobstructed views of miles of shoreline.
4. Lima’s Center
The main Plaza de Armas in the center of town is home to several colonial government buildings. From there, take a stroll down Jiron de la Union, once the center of commercialism and capitalist success stories, and now a slightly decaying reminder of downtown Lima’s former grandeur.
While you’re in the center, I also recommend visiting the catacombs in the San Francisco church/convent and taking a trip up to San Cristobal, a hill with a huge cross and a view of Lima’s sprawling expanse.
5. Polvos Azules
If you’re thinking about buying souvenirs (pirated DVDs, cheap clothes, or stereo systems) do it at Polvos Azules. It’s right near the center of town (a few blocks from Plaza de San Marcos) and is an enormous warehouse filled with privately owned stands.
Peru is famous — in large part because of economist Hernando de Soto — for its “extralegal” economy, a result of the restrictions to entering the legal market. What you will see at Polvos is mostly illegal, but tolerated and accepted as the normal means of doing business.
6. Las Brisas del Titicaca
One of the most professional places to see live Peruvian dancing is Las Brisas del Titicaca (located at the first block of Brasil Avenue).
Their show features music and dancing spanning decades and cultures. As an added bonus, the audience is invited onstage to show off their dance skills between numbers.
7. The Museo de la Nacion
This museum has an extensive exhibit of photographs from the 20 years of violence Peru suffered from 1980-2000 at the hands of the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso and the National Army.
Other displays of interest, such as the history of the potato (now claimed in international politics to be the key to solving world hunger problems!), are also on show.
8. Peaceful parks
Lima has some great hidden parks. If you’re craving a picnic lunch in a peaceful environment, my personal favorite is in San Isidro (another great district rarely trod by tourist boots) called Parque el Olivar for the olive trees. Warning: don’t pick any olives — there’s a fine!
This article was originally published on April 6th, 2009.