Gateway to the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu and the Amazon, Peru's "City of Kings" (as it was called by its Spanish founders in 1535) is worth an extended stopover for its Incan and other pre-Colombian ruins, grand Spanish colonial mansions and cathedrals, gourmet food scene and lively nightlife. It's also the world's second-driest city (only Cairo gets less rain) and perched at the top of spectacular coastal cliffs, which means outdoor dining and spectacular views over the grey-green eastern Pacific – sometimes at the same time.
The best museum in Lima is the Larco, a massive private collection of gold, silver and other artifacts in the Larco family's 18th-century Spanish colonial manor. Cat-lovers, make time to linger in Kennedy Park, where you'll find hundreds of felines, fed and cared for by volunteers and vets, lounging in flower beds, climbing trees and curled up on visitors' laps. Nearby is the Choco Museum, which offers workshops and free tours that include tastings of Peru's organic, Fair Trade chocolate.
Food is a national obsession in Peru and Lima Gourmet Company's evening tour (Tripadvisor's #1 tour in Lima for the past four years) is a great way to sample a few of the city's best drinks, dishes and restaurants, with a designated driver. Try the pisco sours (Peru's national drink) at Cala, a hip bar-restaurant right on the beach; ceviche at La Huaca ("the temple" in Quechua) next to illuminated 1500-year-old pre-Incan pyramids; and rainforest produce at Amaz, Peru's first Amazonian restaurant. For lunch, head to Larcomar indoor-outdoor mall in Miraflores for cliff-hugging restaurants such as Mango with outdoor tables.
Miraflores, the main tourist zone, has a scenic cliff-top path with views down to Lima's pebbly beaches and public art en route: El Beso (The Kiss) in Parque del Amor and Paddington Bear, who emerged from "darkest Peru" when he was created by British author Michael Bond in 1958. Or fly with the vultures that soar along the coast by going tandem paragliding. Back on terra firma, stroll around the World Heritage-listed Plaza San Martin, named after Jose de San Martin who liberated Peru in 1821, where its colonial buildings are especially charming when the native jacaranda trees are in bloom.
Take a private tour of Casa de Aliaga; the oldest house in the southern hemisphere, it has been in the same family since 1535 and is a beautifully preserved capsule from another time. Buy some alpaca or vicuna wool souvenirs. Go surfing; there are dozens of surf-school cabanas on the beach below Miraflores, offering lessons and board rentals. And watch the sunset over the Pacific with a freshly made pisco sour in hand.
Hotel Ibis Larco Miraflores (ibis.com) is an inexpensive, comfortable hotel near Larcomar and a short walk from the beach. Down the street and with ocean views from its glass towers, the five-star JW Marriott Hotel Lima (marriott.com.au) is one of the best hotels in South America. For fewer stars and more character, try a Spanish colonial boutique hotel such as the whitewashed Hotel de Autor (Author's Hotel, hoteldeautor.com), which is filled with curios from around the world.
You can sleep late in this city; the morning sea fog often doesn't clear until noon. On a hot Lima day, cool off with a swim at the beach but beware of strong currents and swim near other people or the lifeguards. If Peru's national drink is too strong, try a chilcano made with less pisco, more ginger ale.
Louise Southerden was a guest of Lindblad Expeditions and Accor Hotels.