In their quest to reach the old Inca strongholds of Cusco and Machu Picchu, travellers often make the mistake of skipping Lima.
Founded in 1535, this Peruvian giant was, for three centuries, the linchpin of Spain's New World empire, a thriving international port known as the "City of Kings".
Its glory days are gone but Lima remains a pulsating city, with 9 million people - from the have-it-alls to the have-nots - living in this sprawling metropolis made up of dozens of diverse neighbourhoods.
8.30am Bulging with hostels, hotels, bars, cafes, restaurants, malls, boutiques, embassies and leafy residential streets, affluent Miraflores is a fine base for tourists - not least because you can start your day with an invigorating stroll along El Malecon.
Edged by grassy lawns, fragrant floral displays and glossy apartments, this cliff-top promenade lures joggers, cyclists and walkers, and lines the lofty western limits of Miraflores, affording wonderful views over the Pacific Ocean.
10am Perched on the Pacific's "Ring of Fire", Lima has been periodically razed by earthquakes, but its bustling historic core (El Centro) boasts World Heritage status. Spanish colonial-era buildings and churches (some original, some reconstructed) decorate the gritty streets around Plaza Mayor, a palm tree-peppered square framed by banana-yellow-shaded mansions adorned with arcades and prominent wooden balconies.
Great for people-watching, the plaza is lorded over by a handsome Renaissance-baroque cathedral, which contains the tomb of Lima's founder, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro.
Two blocks east, the 17th-century San Francisco church and monastery is blessed with pretty cloisters, artwork from Flemish masters Rubens and Van Dyck, and eerie crypts and catacombs, said to store the skulls and bones of about 70,000 people.
For a snippet of Peruvian pomp and ceremony, join the crowds outside the government palace on Plaza Mayor at 11.45am (Monday-Saturday) when the guards change shift to a brass band performance.
12.30pm Blending ingredients from the country's Pacific, Andean and Amazonian regions, with influences from African, Asian and European immigrants, Peru's melting-pot cuisine is enjoying international acclaim, in part thanks to globe-trotting celebrity chefs such as Gaston Acurio, whose inventive culinary concoctions flaunt this tantalising cosmopolitan stew.
Cevicheis Peru's iconic dish - chunks of raw fish (and/or shellfish) with sliced red onion marinated in a chilli-fuelled lime juice and served with sweet potatoes. There are 2000-plus cevicherias in Lima, and a small portion of ceviche is normally included on the five- to 10-nuevos soles ($1.90-$3.80) lunch menus at restaurants across the city.
2.30pm With more than 100,000 artefacts, the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History traces Peru's pre-Hispanic civilisations (including the Moche, Nazca and Inca cultures) alongside Spanish colonial treasures. Also in the tranquil Pueblo Libre district, the superb Rafael Larco Museum stocks the private collection of Peruvian archaeologist Rafael Larco. See museolarco.org.
Hunt for Peruvian souvenirs, including hand-made pottery, jewellery and colourful alpaca goods (blankets, sweaters, scarves and rugs) in the emporiums on Pueblo Libre's Avenida La Marina (between blocks nine and 10).
5pm Time for a pisco sour. Peru's national tipple is a tangy marriage of pisco (grape brandy), lime, ice and sugar.
It's served everywhere, but aficionados claim Lima's best are at El Bolivarcito, an old-school watering hole adjacent to El Centro's Gran Hotel Bolivar (see granhotelbolivar.com.pe). Past guests include Clark Gable, Mick Jagger and Bobby Kennedy.
At nearby Plaza San Martin, buskers, mime artists and political protesters often create a lively scene.
If you'd prefer a non-alcoholic jolt, Lima's cafes serve coffee grown in the Andean foothills, and Inca Kola, a golden, bubble-gum flavoured soda that out-sells Coca Cola in Peru.
6.30pm At sunset, make a beeline for El Circuito Magico del Agua. Just south of El Centro, it's in a park studded with spectacular spurting water fountains tinged with colourful illuminations. One fountain shoots more than 80 metres into the night sky and another has water arches that you can walk through.
Limeno families and love-struck young couples adore this place. Entrance costs PEN4. Open Wednesday to Sunday; see circuitomagicodelagua.com.pe.
8pm If you fancy the full gamut of Peruvian fusion cuisine, consider the mouth-watering multicourse tasting menus at swanky eateries such as Malabar, in the well-to-do suburb of San Isidro, and Astrid y Gaston, in Miraflores. Both do an upmarket take on the Andean classic, cuy (guinea pig).
Another highly-rated fine-dining spot, Central Restaurante, serves dishes such as octopus with purple corn and white quinoa, suckling pig and braised baby goat. Helmed by pioneering chef and ex-Acurio protege Virgilio Martinez, it's a few blocks from El Malecon. Constructed in 500AD, the giant mud-brick pyramid of Huaca Pucllana is incongruously set amid Miraflores' middle-class modernity, and faces an ambient restaurant of the same name that excels in Peruvian delicacies.
9.30pm Lima's night owls are well catered for with theatres, casinos, jazz halls, lounge bars, elite clubs and pumping penas (funky live dance-and-music shows that toast Peru's diverse heritage).
Some of the best penas - La Candelaria, La Noche and De Rompe y Raja - do a roaring weekend trade in Barranco.
South of Miraflores, Barranco is a bohemian hot spot dubbed Lima's "Left Bank" for its part-grungy, part-gentrified vibe (one of its latest sleek arty additions is the Museum of Contemporary Art).
Many of the neighbourhood's colourful 19th-century mansions have been converted into lovely spots in which to sleep, shop, eat and drink. Enjoy a nightcap at Ayahuasca, whose eclectic decor melds Andean and Amazonian flavours (see ayahuasca restobar.com). It's close to Barranco's icon - the wooden Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs). Legend has it that those who hold their breath while crossing will be granted a wish.
MORE INFORMATION peru.travel/en
STAYING THERE The five-star JW Marriott hotel in Miraflores offers ocean views from its 300 rooms and suites. Weekend specials from US$157 ($203) a night; see marriott.com. Another Malecon gem, the chic Miraflores Park Hotel has rooms priced from US$290; see miraflorespark.com.
GETTING AROUND Taxis are cheap and plentiful, but public transport has improved with the expansion of the Metropolitano system. Buy a rechargeable Metropolitano card for 5 nuevos soles ($2.32), then add credit (2 nuevos soles a ride); see metropolitano.com.pe.
- Sydney Morning Herald