Lima is an exceedingly diffuse city, so it's complicated to get around. The city center, known as Lima Centro, abuts the Río Rímac and the Rímac district across the river. The city beyond central Lima is a warren of ill-defined neighborhoods; most visitors are likely to set foot in only San Isidro, Miraflores, and Barranco, which hug the coast and the circuit of urban beaches leading to the so-called "Costa Verde." Major thoroughfares leading from the city center to outer neighborhoods are Avenida Benavides (to Callao); Avenida Brasil (to Pueblo Libre); Avenida Arequipa, Avenida Tacna, and Avenida Garcilaso de la Vega (to San Isidro and Miraflores); Paseo de la República (also known as Vía Expresa) and Avenida Panamá (to Miraflores and Barranco); and Avenida Panamericana Sur (to San Borja and south of Lima).
The Neighborhoods in Brief
Lima Centro -- Lima Centro is the historic heart of the city, where the Spaniards built the country's capital in colonial fashion. It has repeatedly suffered from earthquakes, fires, and neglect, so although it was once the continent's most important colonial city, stunning examples of the original town are less prevalent than one might expect. Much of Lima Centro is dirty, unsafe, crowded, and chaotic, although city officials are finally getting to much-needed restoration of the remaining historic buildings and have drastically upgraded police presence in the city center (making it just about as safe as anywhere in the city during the day). The great majority of visitors stay in outer suburbs rather than Lima Centro; most hotels are small hostales (inns) aimed at budget travelers and backpackers. The absolute heart of the Lima Centro is the Plaza de Armas, site of La Catedral (cathedral) and government palaces, and nearly all the colonial mansions and churches of interest are within walking distance of the square. Several of Lima's top museums are in Pueblo Libre, a couple kilometers southwest of Lima Centro, while San Borja, a couple kilometers directly south of Lima Centro, holds two of the finest collections in all of Peru.
Miraflores & San Isidro -- San Isidro and Miraflores, the city's most exclusive residential and commercial neighborhoods, are farther south (5-8km/3-5 miles) toward the coast. These districts are now the commercial heart of the city, having usurped that title from Lima Centro some years ago. San Isidro holds many of the city's top luxury hotels and a slew of offices and shopping malls. Miraflores is the focus of most travelers' visits to Lima; it contains the greatest number and variety of hotels, bars, and restaurants, as well as shopping outlets. A number of the city's finest hotels are along the malecón (boulevard) in Miraflores. Although San Isidro and Miraflores are middle-class neighborhoods, both are congested and not entirely free of crime.
Barranco -- Barranco, several kilometers farther out along the ocean, is a tranquil former seaside village that is the city's coolest and most relaxed district, now known primarily for its nightlife. It is where you'll find many of Lima's best restaurants and especially bars, and live-music spots, frequented by Limeños and visitors alike. Though there are only a few boutique hotels and hostels in Barranco, increasingly it's becoming a cool place to stay, especially for young people. The next district along the beach is Chorrillos, a residential neighborhood known primarily for its Pantanos de Villa, or swamps that are rich with flora and fauna.