Endless — that was my first impression of Lima. Vividly painted minibuses packed with commuters inched their way through the downtown core. On freeways, vendors walked fearlessly between lanes, peddling everything from oranges to Spanish-language biographies of Barack Obama. Peru itself is a magical country — home to bold-faced destinations like the Amazon Basin, the Cordillera Blanca mountain range and, of course,
Machu Picchu. Lima is its coolest and biggest city and home to more than eight million people — almost a third of the country’s population. If I hoped to absorb any of it without wearing my Manolos into the ground, I realized that I’d need to focus. Fortunately, Lima is a city of distinct neighbourhoods, and I gravitated to three that are most popular with visitors: Barranco, Miraflores and San Isidro, all strung like jewels along the dramatic Pacific shore.
Barranco was easily my favourite. A bit artsy, a bit hippie, it radiates from a leafy square bordered by a towering red-and-white church and a library. A short walkway, the Bajada a los Baños, leads from the plaza to the white-sand beach, where the sun sets over the water in bright fuchsia and crimson. To admire it, I headed to Chala, one of the many restaurants along the path. Ensconced in a wicker chair on its wooden veranda, I nibbled on crispy banana chips and shiitake-stuffed ravioli while people carrying gift bags and wine headed to an increasingly lively birthday party at a large table in the back.
A short cab ride from Barranco, Miraflores attracts the majority of Lima’s visitors. One of the city’s safest neighbourhoods — thanks to the police officers and private security guards that patrol almost every corner — it’s also home to countless jewellery shops. I fell in love with a pair of earrings at Herios, where owner Héctor de los Ríos Woolls explained that all his silver and gold items are handmade in Peru and cast in one piece, giving them a chic, sleek look. A few blocks away, a sales associate at Phantom perked up when I asked him to recommend some modern Peruvian music. After he played half a dozen tracks, I walked away with a CD by the Afro-Peruvian band Novalima. The infectious music is almost impossible to classify — it mixes everything from jazz to reggae to electronica — and it’s the perfect soundtrack for exploring the city. Lima itself is a bit of a mash of Spanish, native Quechua and even Asian cultures, as Peru was a major destination for Chinese and Japanese labourers in the late 19th century. Just a bit north of Miraflores, San Isidro is an eerily quiet enclave where embassies and well-tended daycare centres are sequestered behind high gates on jacaranda-shaded side streets. They take serenity seriously here: Big street signs feature a photo of a child with his hands over his ears and the slogan “¡Silencio!” It’s a prime neighbourhood for young, affluent families, and the shops (Tommy Hilfiger, Kenneth Cole) reflect the area’s emerging gentrification. While I was exploring San Isidro, I ended up in a lovely linear park called the Bosque El Olivar. Since many shops and restaurants in Lima are closed on Sundays, I spent a wonderfully relaxing Sunday morning here, straining my eyes to spot Amazilia hummingbirds, Vermilion Flycatchers, Bananaquits and other unfamiliar birds illustrated on signs lining the walkways. I didn’t have much luck, but the opportunity to meander through the park was reward enough. If I lived in this neighbourhood, I thought, I’d come here every day. In the vast landscape of Lima, I’d finally found a patch that felt like home.
Lima’s most stylish spots…
• Cool hotel
The outside of the Casa Andina Private Collection hotel in Miraflores is all sharp angles and glass. Inside, sleek guest rooms with white linens and dark-beam ceilings contrast with public spaces decorated with colourful Peruvian textiles (casa-andina.com).
• Hot shop
Dédalo sells an eclectic selection of locally made accessories and housewares. Check out the handmade paper notebooks ($18) and the eye-catching purses that Recurseo (recurseo.com) makes from recycled balloons ($66).
• Top restaurant
French-born designer Aurelyen Conty — whose sportswear line, Misericordia (misionmisericordia.com), is made in Lima and sold worldwide — loves the tiny seafood restaurant Sankuay. Known as “Chez Wong,” it’s located in chef Javier Wong’s home. Wong chops the fish tableside and sears it over a fire in the back. “It’s a show,” says Conty. There’s no menu — Wong just cooks whatever appeals to him in the market — but you’ll usually find marinated raw fish, which Conty claims is “the best ceviche in Lima.” Reservations are essential (011-51-1-470-6217).
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's bi-weekly newsletter