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Published: 30/10/2012 - Filed under: Home » City Guides » Home » City Guides » The Americas »

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Ian McCurrach’s whistle-stop tour of the Peruvian capital takes in Inca shrines, spooky catacombs and gourmet cooking.

1) Plaza de Armas

Peru is enjoying a renaissance right now and is arguably the hottest country in South America. A good place to get to grips with its sprawling, dusty capital is Plaza de Armas, at the heart of downtown. Here you cannot miss the monolithic Government Palace, Cathedral of Lima and Archbishop’s Palace, all remnants of the country’s golden age and commissioned in 1535 by the city’s founder, Pizarro, “Conqueror of the Incas”. Access to the Government Palace is restricted to private tours, which can be booked through the protocol office (tel +51 1311 3908), but the impressive changing of the guard takes place outside every day at noon. The cathedral and its museum of religious art are also worth a visit.

2) Gran Bolivar hotel

For a touch of faded old-world glamour, head for a drink at the Bolivar (Jr de la Union 958, El Centro), which dates back to 1924 and has commanding views over Plaza de Armas. Back in its heyday, Orson Welles regularly propped up the bar – downing a reported 40-plus signature pisco sours at any one sitting – and Ava Gardner danced on the bar and sashayed along the corridors in a see-through dressing gown.

Pisco is a grape-based spirit akin to brandy and is the national drink of Peru. As a testament to the past, there is a vintage Ford Model T parked in the lobby, which once met guests and ferried them around town during the 1920s. Ask to have a look at the glittering Golden Lounge ballroom, a replica of the stateroom of the same name in the Government Palace.

3) Church and Monastery of San Francisco

A short walk away, the Church and Monastery of San Francisco was built in the late 1600s and is notable for its impressively proportioned Baroque architecture, gold-leaf decoration and intricate latticework fittings. The complex is also home to a library stacked with religious literature and artefacts. For those not of faint heart, there is a decidedly eerie warren of catacombs containing more than 25,000 skeletons. The catacombs have survived the passage of time and earthquakes relatively intact, but gone are the secret underground tunnels that are said to have once linked the church and monastery directly to the Cathedral of Lima and the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition. Steer clear of the elderly ladies hovering outside hell-bent on selling small packs of birdseed (not quite tuppence a bag) or risk being bombed by an army of descending dirty pigeons. Open daily 9.30am-5.45pm. Organised tours last about an hour and include a ghostly walk through the catacombs.

4) Malabar

Lima is fast becoming a capital of culinary delights, and is home to Japanese celebrity chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, who opened his first restaurant here. Another star on the scene is Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, whose renowned Malabar eatery is in San Isidro – this will be your next stop. Taxis are plentiful and easy to hail so pick up a cab for the 
eight-minute ride (S/6/£1.50). Cuisine is New Peruvian with an emphasis on locally sourced produce – specialities include ceviche of tiger catfish, milk-fed pork with garlic foam and watercress, and giant river snails. The décor stands out with walls the colour of blood orange and a warm shade of brandy. Two courses will cost about £15. Avenida Camino Real 101, San Isidro; tel +51 1440 5200.

5) Miraflores and Huaca Pucllana

Hail a cab and head five minutes south to the coastal district of Miraflores. A series of public parks run through this green neighbourhood, which is dotted with upmarket residences, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and cinemas. The big draw here for history buffs is Huaca Pucllana, a vast pyramid of mud that was once a shrine dating back to the Incas. A wander around the ruins is like stepping back in time. The central adobe temple has been completely restored and excavations still continue on the site, which gives it a Raiders of the Lost Ark meets The Mummy feel. After dark the site is lit quite spectacularly, which enhances the movie feel. Open daily (except Tues), 9am-5pm; entry S/7 (£1.70).

6) El Malecon

El Malecon is the official name of the pathway running the six-mile-stretch along the coast from Malecon de la Marina, through Malecon Cisneros to Malecon de la Reserva. The cliff paths offer wonderful panoramic views over the Pacific, but note that mist, similar to the fog of San Francisco, frequently blows in from the ocean. The coastal trail is littered with statues and sculptures designed by well-known Peruvian artists, such as Victor Delfin’s statue of lovers embracing. It’s a prime paragliding site and ten-minute tandem flights with a guide are on offer from local outfits along the way. If you’d rather stay on terra firma but would like to cover the whole distance, you could pick up a bike from Bike Tours of Lima:

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