Deep in the Inca heartland in Peru, the beauty and architecture of this high-altitude city make it more than just a base camp for trails to Machu Picchu, writes Marian Amos
Why go now?
July is peak season for hikers on the Inca Trail, for which the 'gringo capital of South America' acts as base camp.
The only international flights to Cusco leave from La Paz in Bolivia, so most travellers fly in from the Peruvian capital, Lima. This one-hour flight has a spectacular approach to the airport, which is hemmed in by mountains and the spreading city. Alternatively, the bus from Lima takes about 20 hours.
From the airport, a taxi to the centre should cost around five soles, equivalent to €1.10, but don't be surprised if you get asked for much more.
Catch your breath
As one of the highest cities in the world, Cusco takes some getting used to -- especially if you arrive direct from Lima at sea level. Initially, take things easy. It is said that Cusco is designed in the shape of a puma, regarded by the Incas as sacred. The head is high up on the hill to the north of the city centre, which is punctuated by a statue of Christ (1) and is the location for the ruins of Sacsayhuamán. The heart, though, is around the Plaza de Armas (2).
The tourist office (3) on the ground floor of the Galerías Turísticas at Avenida El Sol 103 (0051 8423 4498; www.peru.info) is well worth visiting. It has helpful English-speaking staff and is in the same complex as a bureau selling the Boleto Turístico (tourist ticket), which is the key to many of the important sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley beyond. The Boleto costs S/70 (€15) and is valid for 10 days.
Casa San Blas (4) is a beautiful, three-star boutique hotel at Calle Tocuyeros 566 (0051 8423 7900; www.casasanblas.com). A standard double costs €60.
Hostal El Balcón (5), at Tambo de Montero 222 (0051 8423 6738; www.balconcusco.com), is a rambling colonial building with views across the city and free Wi-Fi. Doubles start from S/185 (€39.50), including airport transfers and a hearty breakfast served from 4am for those setting off on the early trains to Machu Picchu.
Budget accommodation is plentiful, with a hostel on every block. One of the more appealing is the Pirwa Hostel B&B (6) at Suecia Street 300, 10 metres from the main square (0051 8424 4315; www.pirwahostelscusco.com), where a twin room costs S/60 (€12.85) including breakfast. For S/76 (€16.26) you can have an en suite.
Take a view
Stand in the middle of the Plaza de Armas (2) and 'do a 360' to appreciate fully the way that the Spanish imposed colonial architecture on the Inca heartland, often using the very stones of the civilisation that they had vanquished.
Take a hike
Set off east from Plaza de Armas (2) along Triunfo to Hatunrumiyoc, the cobbled street named after its 12-sided stone (7), which is a fine example of Incan polygonal masonry skilfully engineered into the wall. Pause just past the Archbishop's Palace to admire its angles. From Hatunrumiyoc, take the first right down another pedestrian alleyway, Inca Roca. About halfway down on the right-hand side is a series of stones said to form the shape of a pumal. It takes a few minutes to squint and focus.
Continue walking north-east to the pretty, peaceful Plazoleta de San Blas (8), home to the church of the same name -- Cusco's oldest church. Turn left into Tandapata, then right to climb the 99 steps of Calle Pasñana, which is lined with tiny, brightly-painted colonial houses. At the top, pause at the Mirador de San Blas (9), to take in the splendid view.
Head left across the top of San Blas along Kiskapata, lined with pre-Inca stone walls. Take a left into Calle Siete Diablitos ('Seven Devils Street') to Calle Siete Culebras ('Seven Snakes Street'), the narrowest street in Cusco, adorned with seven snake carvings as you descend to the city centre.
Lunch on the run
Find a space at the food stalls in the frenzied Mercado Central (10), adjacent to San Pedro station (11). Cheap and tasty dishes are cooked before you. Feast on ceviche (marinated raw fish) for S/4 (€0.85).
The Inca Museum (12), at the eastern corner of the Plaza de Armas, occupies a mansion ranged around a beautiful courtyard, and has a tasteful modern section. Exhibits explain the startling extent of the Inca empire. Open 8am-7pm daily (except Sundays, 9am-4pm), admission S/10 (€2.14).
Cusco is the handicraft and hand- woven textile centre of Peru, so you're never more than 20 paces from a shop offering alpaca clothing to dress you from head to toe. Alpaca's Best (13) at Plazoleta Nazarenas 197-199 (0051 8424 5331) is as good as any.
Cusco is packed full of bars, many serving the excellent Cusqueña beer. For something more sophisticated, head for Song The (14) at Calle Pumacurco 408 (0051 8423 2522). Besides tea, you can order a cocktail to sip beside the huge open fire.
Dining with the locals
Duck into Ccoyllor Restaurant (15) at Calle Garcilaso 291 (0051 8422 9257) to dine on an ensalada de palta (avocado salad) for S/5 (€1.07), followed by lomo de alpaca a la plancha (alpaca steak) for S/12 (€2.57). This informal restaurant may be sparse, but is full of locals of all ages.
Sunday morning: go to church
The ornate Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús (16) sits on the south-east side of Plaza de Armas and was begun by Jesuits in 1571. The intricate Baroque façade, gilded altars and finely- carved balconies took nearly 100 years to complete, partly because of reconstruction needed after the earthquake of 1650. Open 9am-11.30pm and 1pm-5.30pm daily, S/10 (€2.14)
Out to brunch
Climb the wooden stairs to Cafe Restaurant Yanapay (17), at Calle Ruinas 415 (0051 8425 5134), for brunch. All profits fund social projects such as the Aldea Yanapay School, so you can feel fulfilled by the wholesome dishes. Relax on giant floor cushions under foam clouds for their combo at S/18 (€3.85): a feast of breads, egg, ham, cheese, pancakes with mixed fruits, papaya juice, tea or coffee. It opens 9am-1am daily.
Take a ride
For a majestic view of the city, take a cab to Sacsayhuamán, the Inca ceremonial complex on the hill that overlooks Cusco. The sheer scale is awesome -- and so is the workmanship of the masonry. Admission is covered by the Boleto; the site opens 7am-6pm daily. Return to the city down a steep little Inca Trail -- whose cobbles are at least five centuries old -- which provides a grand entrance to the heart of Cusco.
A walk in the park
South-east of the Plaza de Armas on Avenida El Sol is a park that you can wander under: what appears to be a grassy open space turns out to be the roof of the Museo Arqueológico Coricancha (18). This explores the cultures other than the Incas that have walked these paths. The biggest surprise, though, is when you follow the exit signs and find yourself in the middle of a park beside a busy main road. Open 9.30am-6pm daily, S/20 (€1).
Icing on the cake
For a trekked-out, altitude-affected body there is no better cure than a deep tissue massage at Andina Spa (19) at Tullumayu 112 (0051 8425 2550). A one-hour full-body massage costs S/60 (€12.84).