As the gateway to the New World Wonder of Machu Picchu, Cuzco is a popular base for many visitors to Peru. But the Inca capital has plenty of its own attractions to warrant at least a few days of your attention. Sitting at an altitude of 3,399 metres above sea level, it’s also the perfect place to acclimatise before tackling the famed Inca Trail. To help you make the most of your time in the city, here’s our guide on how to spend 48 hours in Cuzco.
Day 1 in Cuzco
From wherever you’re staying in Cuzco, stroll to the pleasant Plaza Regocijo where the inviting Pan Am Bakery is located. Here you can enjoy delicious baked goods including sweet-filled croissants and savoury empanadas. Or choose one of the set breakfasts with eggs, tomatoes, bread, jam, a hot drink and juice for minimal prices.
Once fed, walk down Garcilaso to Plaza San Francisco where you can see the church of the same name. Continue along Santa Clara and past the La Merced church to the bustling San Pedro market. The market is home to dozens of stalls selling all manner of popular souvenirs from textiles to clothing. It’s a great place for photography with colourful flower stalls and a food area selling fruits, vegetables and meats. Here you’ll also find some of Cuzco’s cheapest eats, perfect if you’re on a tight budget.
Next head back along Santa Clara to the Plaza de Armas. It’s the symbolic heart of Cuzco, home to some of the city’s most striking colonial architecture. Step inside the impressive Catedral. It dates back to the mid 16th century and is built in the shape of a Latin cross. Close by is the attractive Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus. Visit the below-ground chapel and climb the narrow stairs to the third level for views across the Plaza.
From here walk the short distance to Santa Catalina. This working convent is home to a large library, peaceful gardens and original artwork. To get a handle on the history of Peru’s most iconic site, pop into the Museo Machu Picchu, housed in the colonial-era Casa Concha. The collection features over 300 objects originally excavated from the Inca citadel back in 1912. Exhibits include pottery, metalwork, textiles, and flutes made from llama bone. There’s also a small number of skeletons retrieved from the site’s burial chambers.
You’re perfectly placed to enjoy lunch at Green’s, a popular organic restaurant in Cuzco. There’s a tempting menu of appetizers, mains and sandwiches. The fresh, healthy ingredients are grown in their own organic vegetable garden located in the Sacred Valley. Meat eaters and vegetarians are both well catered for.
With fuel in your belly, follow Avenida el Sol to the Qoricancha complex. This was the Inca capital’s main temple in pre-Colombian times. The temple was originally called Inticancha (House of the Sun), in honour of the god it was dedicated to. It was later changed to Qoricancha (gold enclosure) as King Pachakuti filled the complex with treasures and covered the walls in gold plate. Sadly none of these treasures remain and much of the Inca structure was destroyed by the conquering Spaniards. However, it’s still a fascinating spot with magnificent Inca walls underlying the colonial buildings that house a collection of religious paintings by the Cuzco School of Colonial Art.
Walking back towards Plaza Regocijo, head to the Choco Museum. Here you can sample all manner of goodies made from the humble cocoa bean, from flavoured chocolate to tea made from the cocoa husk. There’s also punchy liqueurs and sweet jams to try, all with the assistance of the friendly and enthusiastic staff. True chocolate aficionados can even learn to make their own chocolate with a two hour workshop (book in advance). Or simply enjoy a cup of hot chocolate at the museum’s cafe.
Catch the last of the day’s rays at one of the many bars overlooking the Plaza de Armas before walking up Calle Plateros to the popular Morena Peruvian Kitchen. This restaurant delivers superb Peruvian fusion food inspired by international styles, complimented by trendy decor and a buzzing ambience. Try the Tacu Tacu Criollo for a huge serving of stir-fried beef, prawns, mussels, peppers and onions. Morena is also a great place for beautifully presented cocktails.
Day 2 in Cuzco
Start your day as you mean to go on with a hearty breakfast at Jack’s Cafe, a stalwart choice among the expat community in Cuzco. Portions are huge and prices reasonable with a menu that caters to all tastes from the sweet to the savoury. The restaurant is quite small and always busy so expect queues.
Grab a taxi to the sacred Inca site of Qenko. This former ceremonial centre is stretched across a hillside with a canal running through the main structure. Alongside the typical Inca walls and foundations, the complex also features a number of naturally occurring rock formations and elaborate stone terraces. The entry ticket covers a further three Inca sites close to Cuzco – Salapunco, Puca Pucara and Sacsayhuaman.
It’s about a 20 minute walk from Qenko to Sacsayhuaman. This megalithic temple-fortress with distinctive zig-zag walls built from large boulder stones overlooks the city. Its Inca walls are 16 metres in places and said to resemble the teeth of a puma. Within the large and grass-covered complex you’ll also find the foundations of the Muyu Marca tower. There’s also an intricately carved rock that once held an Inca throne.
From here it’s a short walk to the Cristo Blanco, a large statue of Jesus Christ measuring eight metres in height with arms outstretched. It’s an omnipresent image from down below on the streets of Cuzco and affords great views from its hillside perch. Follow the trail back down to Cuzco, veering to the left on your way to reach the artesan barrio of San Blas.
Search out the Pachapapa restaurant for lunch where you can enjoy the best of Andean cuisine. Dishes range from cuy (roasted guinea pig) to alpaca cooked in the wood-fire oven. Pizza is also on offer for those feeling a little less adventurous in their culinary exploits. The dining area is split across a pretty indoor courtyard and outdoor area.
Explore San Blas and enjoy the relative quiet of the attractive cobbled streets. At San Blas Plazoleta you can see the fountain shaped like an Inca cross. It’s adorned with 49 gargoyles that spout water. Lining the square are a number of souvenir shops where you can pick up local crafts. There’s a second small plaza further up from here where you can enjoy views across Cuzco.
Next, follow Cuesta de San Blas to where it meets Hatun Rumiyoc. This was one of the main streets when Cuzco was capital of the Inca empire. The impressive walls of an Inca building are still standing today – an excellent example of the precision of Inca stonework. It tends to be busy with snap-happy tourists and business-savvy locals dressed as old Inca royalty only too eager to complete the picture.
From here turn right into the pretty Plaza Nazarenas for the fascinating Museo de Arte Precolombino (MAP). This museum houses some of the finest Pre-Colombian objects in Peru. There are well-presented exhibits of ceramics, wood carvings, gold & silver vessels, jewellery made from seashells, funerary masks and figurines from civilisations including the Huari, Mochicha, Nazca, Chimu and Inca. It’s a great overview of Peru’s historical artistic tradition.
There’s plenty more museums in Cuzco worthy of a visit but the Museo Inca is a definite highlight. It’s set in a beautiful colonial mansion with an extensive catalogue of exhibits. There’s pre-Inca pottery, Inca jewellery, ceramics, stonework, ceremonial drinking vessels and textiles, including a quipu, or a talking knot as it’s more commonly known. Perhaps the most intriguing of all the displays is the Mallki Wasi, or the House of the Mummies. Here you can see close to a dozen amazingly preserved bodies buried in the foetal position during the Inca period.
After a busy afternoon wandering the streets of Cuzco and swotting up on ancient history, it’s time to treat yourself to dinner and a sundowner. Few places offer such a perfect setting than the rooftop terrace of Marcelo Batata restaurant. Situated on Calle Palacio behind the Catedral, the terrace offers lovely views of the domes. The menu features classic and wonderfully refined Peruvian dishes ranging from tender alpaca steaks to the aji de gallina classica, which consists of shredded chicken and rice in a creamy, curry-esque sauce topped with quails egg and fried chicken wings – a delicious way to end 48 hours in Cuzco.
Enjoy the best of Cuzco with our range of escorted group tours in Peru.