If you’re a foodie, I probably don’t need to tell you about Peru’s fantastic gastronomic scene. It’s so famous for its rich food culture – two out of the top 10 restaurants in the world are located in Lima – that I know people who have bought round trip tickets just to eat their way through the city before jetting back to NYC, no Machu Picchu visit needed.
If you are usually more interested in sustainable and community-focused experiences than white-tablecloth dining, no judgement here. Everyone has their priorities. And when you get to Lima, you should still prioritize food.
That’s because Peru is a cornucopia of organically-grown heritage breeds of produce and animals, and traditional cooking techniques passed down from indigenous tribes and the Inca, ensuring wholesome food is available to everyone. Yes, even the street and market is healthy and mind-blowing here, what Lokal co-founder and half-Peruvian Marco Bollinger calls, “home cooking on steroids.”
Meanwhile, Lima’s chefs have done an amazing job of elevating the creativity of its cuisine to stratospheric heights that appeal to the globe-trotting elite, while protecting authentic tradition. Sure, the top two restaurants are pricey, but still a third of the price compared to similar NYC restaurants. So it’s good value for your money.
Do I have your attention yet? We spent a week in Lima (though some people say three days is enough) and tried to get a solid survey of its gastronomic delights. Here’s my guide, geared toward readers who want to ensure that the money they spend on food is benefitting the locals and the environment:
1. Plan ahead.
I know that you might be winging it as you travel through South America, but this is one part of your trip you do not want to make last-minute plans for. As soon as you know your schedule, start booking your reservations at some of Lima’s top restaurants, because when I sat down to do this a week out, there was a waiting list even for lunch at Central and El Mar, and we never got in. Bummer.
Here are top restaurants with a sustainable/farm-to-table element that you’ll want to make reservations for:
AmaZ – Gourmet dishes from the Peruvian Amazon using ingredients from small, local producers. Everything is made for sharing, and you can get half portions of the traditional dishes, which are brought out wrapped in leaves or in charred bamboo. It was one of our favorite meals in South America!
Malabar – Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino was the first chef in Peru to really explore the country’s biodiversity. He sources his sustainable ingredients from Peruvian indigenous communities, and your meal supports a nonprofit that helps indigenous women. Our dishes were so fantastic and interesting – quinoa dessert served in a hot stone bowl, for example – I would definitely recommend this place.
La Mar Cebichería: A model of sustainability, this restaurant tracks each fish or shellfish back to not only to the place where it was caught, but the fisherman who caught it.
Central Restaurante – This restaurant is famous for exploring the nooks and crannies of Peru’s rich ingredients, and presenting the results in a menu format that takes diners on a journey from the Pacific ocean to the tip of the Andes.
Maido – Lima has a large Japanese population, which has produced a famous fusion cuisine called Nikkei. This restaurant works native Peruvian ingredients like cuy (guinea pig) and Amazonian tubers into traditional Japanese dishes.
IK – This molecular gastronomy uses Peruvian ingredients sourced from throughout the country.
2. Stay in Barranco or Miraflores.
This advice isn’t just for foodies – these are the two neighborhoods every tourist stays in. Believe me: when we stayed slightly outside of Miraflores and closer to the airport when we had one more night in Lima again after Cusco, we wandered around looking for an open restaurant, and finally gave up and took an Uber to Miraflores.
Stay in Miraflores if you like your accommodations luxurious. Stay in Barranco if you like street art and street food. Both are walkable and next to each other, so you can save your money by skipping Uber, and then spend it on more food!
3. Hit up the markets.
Staying for more than a few days in a place with a kitchen? Then don’t miss the opportunity to shop at a market. If you’re there on a Saturday, go to Parque Reducto in Miraflores early in the morning (it opens at 8:30 am) for Bioferia, where you can stock up on Peruvian-grown and made cheeses, vegetables, breads, and more.
Or try the Mercado Central, which occupies a whole block and serves up fresh fruits and vegetables, free-range meat, local seafood, grocery basics, and little food stands providing nourishing home cooking for a few soles.
4. Take a food tour.
Peruvian people – and their food – vary greatly in characteristics from the Andes to the Amazon. But you can scoop up a whole lotta of knowledge and tastiness during a tour run by a local, indigenous nonprofit, Haku! Tours.*
We did the Lima’s Colors and Flavors tour, which included a visit to the fish market, lunch in a family-owned restaurant, a visit to a market to try some exotic fruits, and some Amazonian fish and plantain balls. It was an incredibly authentic experience, including a ride in one of Lima’s infamous combis. You might know this little vehicle as a tuk tuk if you’ve been to Asia, but unlike Asia, only locals use them in Latin America. After our food tasting tour, our guide took us to Barranco for some fantastic street art.
If you want an even more food-focused experience, they also offer a market tour and cooking class. The best part is that our money went to support Haku! Tours’ social projects.
5. Drink pisco sours exclusively.
Chile and Peru have been fighting over the title of “inventor of pisco” for time eternal. But in terms of elevating this grape-based liquor to its best, most tasty use? That prize might go to Peru. So while you’re in Lima, you can try it with passionfruit (maracuya) or citrus ingredients, or anything else on the cocktail menu, just don’t even think about drinking any imported liquors.
You can get pisco cocktails anywhere, but if you want yours with a great view, go to Cala in Miraflores for an oceanside sunset.
6. Don’t forget the street food.
One night, feeling chastened by the money we had blown at a high-end restaurant, we took the instructions of our host and walked through Barranco in search of street food. Boy, did we find it. We each got huge burritos stuffed with quinoa and other delicious ingredients, and spent $12 total. That’s not Mexico cheap, but then again, Mexico doesn’t include superfoods in its street food.
Top-notch street food is everywhere in Lima, and Peru in general. A hot tip is to go for the places with lines. Peruvians are snobs about their food, and not susceptible to buzzy food trends. So a line means they’ve tried it and deemed it worthy of their hard-earned dollars.
7. Try the ceviche.
Look, you should know that Lima has to ship in its produce from other areas of Peru – it’s a desert city. That doesn’t make it less fresh or delicious. But it does mean that where the city really excels is in seafood from the abundant Pacific Ocean. That’s why it’s famous for ceviche (or cebiche, if you want to pronounce it with a South American accent), raw fish “cooked” in citrus juices and served in a small glass. It’s incredibly fresh, healthy, delicious, and local, with local fisherman pulling it in off of their small boats off shore each morning. It’s a must-try, and try, and try, from the high-end restaurants to the more affordable joints.
8. Take a side of history with dinner.
You might hear from a friend that you should visit the Pucllana Temple (Huaca Pucllana), a large area of ruins built from clay smack in the center of the city. (Seriously, I came around the corner while shopping, and there they were.) You could take a day tour if you are a history nerd, but it is very hot and sunny at the ruins with no shade, and frankly they are a little blah compared to other ruins in Peru.
Instead, make a reservation for dinner at the farm-to-table restaurant on site. The huaca’s lighting at night is impressive and romantic, and the food is excellent, too!
*I and my husband were invited to go on this tour for free.