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Travelers flock to Cusco, Peru in search of stunning architecture, delicious food, and enchanting culture. A favorite stop for tourists on their way to the ruins at Machu Picchu, Cusco has become a favored destination in its own right.
The former capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco is a city packed with charm and history. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, the city showcases examples of traditional Inca architecture as well as influences left from the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Tourists can walk the winding cobbled streets in search of beautiful scenery, window shop through the bustling Historic Center, or pop into any one of the quaint eateries off of the Plaza De Armas.
And while Lima is known as the culinary hub of Peru, Cusco isn’t trailing far behind. Famed chefs Virgilio Martinez and his wife Pia León—owners of Central Restaurante in Lima that was voted the sixth best restaurant in the world by the World’s 50 Best organization in 2018—recently opened MIL, a culinary research center and inventive restaurant, in the heart of the Sacred Valley on the outskirts of Cusco.
While there’s plenty to see and do in Cusco, we’ve put together a list of highlights to explore in just one day.
8 a.m.: It’s best to hit the pavement early to beat the tourist crowds, giving you a chance to have the city to yourself for an hour or two. Meander through the maze of streets and soak up the beautiful architecture that’s around every corner. Cathedrals like the Iglesia De La Compañía De Jesús, Basilica Menor de la Merced, and the Cathedral del Cuzco—all within a block of the Plaza De Armas in the city’s historical center—tower over neighboring one- and two-story structures. Decorated with intricate carvings and elaborate statues, these works of art make for some of the most beautiful streetscapes in all of Peru.
9 a.m.: After enjoying the city streets to yourself, head to Cicciolina for a range of delicious offerings, including poached eggs, pastries, and homemade marmalades. Just a block from the Plaza De Armas, the bakery is best known for their homemade bread baked fresh every morning.
11 a.m.: After you’ve had your fill, head to the San Pedro Market in Cascaparo. Just outside the historic center, the market is the perfect respite from the sweltering heat and an excellent opportunity to shop for local goods. While plenty of travelers visit the market, many locals head there for a cheap lunch or to peruse the stalls. It’s a great spot to pick up local souvenirs, from chocolate to hand-carved trinkets; you can find almost anything here.
1:30 p.m.: After so much exploring you’re going to be hungry. Pachapapa offers a mix of traditional Peruvian dishes but with a modern flare. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the cuy (a fire-roasted guinea pig) or the alpaca antichucho (a skewer of alpaca meat marinated in vinegar and spices.)
3 p.m.: Next stop, the ruins of Sacsayhuamán. Dating back to the mid-1400s, this set of ruins helped garner Cusco its UNESCO designation. Located just a 15-minute drive from the Historic Center, Sacsayhuamán offers travelers an opportunity to explore one of the largest structures built by the Incas. From the fortress, tourists are at a breathtaking vantage point to take in the views of the city. For the avid photographer, it’s a great place to get some shots of the history that makes Cusco so unique.
7 p.m.: There are plenty of celebrated restaurants throughout Cusco but Morena is top of the list. The luxury eatery offers dishes that are a blend of traditional and modern, with classics like ceviche and antichuchos, but with a twist. The restaurant is centrally located, but far enough away from the tourist-focused restaurants to offer an authentic experience.
9 p.m.: You can’t close out your day without indulging in at least one Pisco Sour—I mean, it is the national drink of Peru. Head around the block to Chullpi for a traditional Pisco Sour, or try the Chilcano—a twist on the Pisco Sour, the Chilcano is made with ginger ale. Sitting in the quietest corner of the Plaza De Armas, it’s the perfect spot to sit and watch the world go by as you finish off a perfect day in Cusco.
Where to Stay
Just across the street from Iglesia De Santo Domingo, the Palacio del Inka is a 203-room (62 suites) luxury retreat in the center of Cusco’s historic center. The grand hotel in a traditional Inca-style building offers a quiet retreat from the bustle of the surrounding streets with their airy courtyard. Guests can grab a cocktail at the inventive Rumi Bar, or dine al fresco at the Inti Raymi restaurant, which serves traditional Andean dishes with a modern twist. The hotel offers a range of amenities, including a spa and a concierge to help you with all of your needs. Guests can also book day trips with the hotel, including walking tours, river rafting, biking excursions, or day trips to a number of nearby locales.
The intimate 55-suite hotel is set in a traditional Inca stone building in the heart of the city’s historic center, just steps from the Plaza de Armas. With many amenities available, guests could fill up their entire itinerary without ever leaving the property, from salsa dancing to yoga, and holistic fitness classes to Pisco tastings. The onsite restaurant, Senzo, offers dishes that are a modern take on traditional Peruvian cuisine and the luxurious spa has a number of rejuvenating treatments, including body wraps, massages and flower baths. And while a trip to the spa may feel like a break from exploring the history of Cusco, all of the treatments at Hypnôze Spa are inspired by Inca and Andean culture, so it’s all a part of the experience.