South America's most underrated city?

It has more restaurants listed in the San Pellegrino World 50 list than any city outside of Tokyo – and that includes Paris, London, and New York.

With most tourists dashing through Lima on their way to see Peru’s famous Machu Picchu ruins, the country’s capital has long flown under the radar as a destination in its own right.

And many aren’t seeing the city at its very best: northern hemisphere travellers typically make the mistake of visiting the city in July or August.

“[In those months], the garúa (sea mist) hangs over the city making everything cold, grey and damp,” said Dan Clarke of Real World Holidays, who lived in Lima for a year and travels back often with his company.

“By contrast if you're there in the southern hemisphere summer [December through February], you find Lima transformed. In fact my then-girlfriend, now-wife, visiting for the first time said she felt like she was in California rather than Peru.”

With its Pacific views, hippy vibe and fresh food, the mix-up is understandable.

Miraflores in Lima offers a great view of the Pacific Ocean (Credit: RosaIreneBetancourt 1/Alamy)

With nearly 10 million residents, Lima is South America’s fourth largest city, trailing just behind São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, and that energy infuses the music and nightlife as well.

“There are always things to do,” said Karen G, a Lima native and guide for Your Local Cousin, a travel startup that matches travellers with locals. “Everyone is super friendly and there is always a ‘hood’ party and good food available.”

Residents won’t stop raving about the quality of the food. “Peruvians are passionate to an Italian degree over their ingredients and their cuisine,” Clarke said. “You simply won't eat better seafood anywhere.”

In fact, Lima has more restaurants listed in the San Pellegrino World 50 list than any city outside of Tokyo – and that includes Paris, London and New York.

Haute cuisine doesn’t necessarily come with outrageous prices either. “You can still pop into any neighbourhood cevicheria[seafood restaurant] or chifa [Chinese restaurant] and you'll find fantastic food for absolute peanuts,” Clarke added.

Residents in Lima are passionate about their cuisine - ceviche is a popular dish here (Credit: Nicholas Gill/Alamy)

Where do you want to live?

Lima is split into 30 districts (43 if you count the outside districts of the Lima province), so living options range from the densely populated, always-on areas to more residential and quiet spots.

Bohemian Barranco, located 13km south of the centralCercado de Lima “downtown” district, is one of the city’s most popular neighbourhoods, famous for its preserved casonas, Spanish-colonial influenced houses. With ocean views, plenty of green space and lots of restaurants and cafes, it’s a favourite of artists, writers and musicians. Barranco also has surfer-friendly beaches and a yacht club for boaters.

Miraflores, 10km south of downtown, is often crowded with tourists but has much of the city’s upscale shopping, restaurants and nightlife, much of it in Larcomar, the 100-store mall and entertainment centre.

The city’s financial centre, San Isidro, 9km south of downtown and popular with the city’s politicians and celebrities, has an upscale residential feel. It’s home to the Lima Golf Club and famous Bosque El Olivar, where Spanish olive trees from the 17th Century still grow.

Similarly, La Molina, 20km east of downtown, has large houses and numerous exclusive country clubs.

Bohemian Barranco is one of Lima's most popular neighbourhoods (Credit: Federico Tovoli/VWPics/Alamy)

Where can you travel?

Tourists may hop the quick one-hour flight to Cusco to get to the famous Incan ruins, but plenty of other interesting destinations can be reached without ever stepping on a plane. Set in a mountain valley, Lunahuana, 184km south of Lima, attracts both locals and tourists alike for its white-water rafting along the Cañete River. The area also recently became the first in the Lima region to offer a pisco trail, which includes five nearby wineries.

Cieneguilla, just 40km east of downtown, and Marcahuasi, 20km south of downtown, are both easy spots for outdoor getaways with plenty of camping and hiking spots.

Other South American cities can be reached via direct flight, including Rio de Janerio in five hours and Buenos Aires in four hours. Central American cities like San Jose can also be reached in less than four hours.

The disctrict of Lunahuaná is opening a pisco route, the first in the region (Credit: Roberto Reyes / Alamy)

Is it affordable?

Though the city is growing more expensive, especially in comparison to other cities in Peru, Lima is still much more affordable than cities in its fellow South American countries.

According to price comparison site, Lima is about 25% less expensive on average than Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires for food, housing and transportation, and about 60% less expensive than New York City in those categories.

Lima is loved for its Pacific views, hippy vibe and fresh food (Credit: Klaus Ulrich Müller/Alamy)

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.