Though Peru boasts astounding variety, most people don't have time to experience the range of its offerings (of course, that's what return trips are for). For first-timers, there's one place almost everyone has absolutely got to see: Machu Picchu. In a single week, there's really just enough time to see the best of Cusco and Incan Peru (and it won't involve crazed travel from one place to the next all over the country). This itinerary will give you an idea of how to best experience the ancient Inca capital, the empire's alluring, once-thought-lost imperial city, and the Urubamba Valley that the Incas held sacred.
Day 1: Arrive in Lima; Transfer to Cusco
All international flights arrive in Lima, but try to arrange it so that an overnight flight gets you there very early in the morning, with time enough to get an 8am or 9am flight to Cusco (note that flights are occasionally delayed by weather in Cusco, though, so the earlier the flight, the better). With only a week in Peru, there's little need to linger in Lima unless you want a day to take it easy and see Colonial Lima and have lunch at a cevichería.
Take it easy in Cusco on your first day. Drink a lot of water (and perhaps some coca-leaf tea) and get a good night's rest. The altitude (more than 3,400m/11,000 ft.) combined with an overnight international flight will prove very taxing. Have a light, relaxing lunch at Jack's Café Bar, a popular gringo hangout serving excellent sandwiches, salads, and fruit shakes. Limit yourself to taking a stroll around the delightful Plaza de Armas, popping into the tourist information office to pick up your boleto turístico (tourist ticket for the main sights in Cusco and the Sacred Valley), and choosing a spot for dinner. We recommend Cicciolina or, for superb sushi and views of the Plaza de Armas, Limo.
Day 2: Colonial Cusco
Sticking to the area near the Plaza de Armas, visit the Cathedral and the Santa Catalina Convent in the morning. After lunch, see the stunning Qoricancha (Temple of the Sun) to get an idea of the Incas' incredible masonry and the clash of native and Spanish culture. Take a walk along the Calles Loreto and Hatunrumiyoc to see some more magnificent Inca stonework. In Plaza Nazarenas, check out the beautifully designed Museo de Arte Precolombino (MAP) and some of the upscale alpaca goods shops on the square. Then stop at MAP Café, the chic restaurant in the museum's courtyard, for a celebratory dinner, or visit Chi Cha, a star chef's take on Cusqueña cuisine. Have a pisco sour at one of the lively cafes or bars near the Plaza de Armas afterward.
Day 3: Sacred Valley: Pisac
With luck, your third day in Peru will be a Tuesday, Thursday, or (better yet) Sunday—those are market days in the Urubamba Valley (the Valle Sagrado de los Incas). Take a combi or taxi to Pisac and check out the popular and lively artisans' market. Have lunch at Ulrike's Café right on the main square. After lunch, either hike up to or grab a taxi to the Inca ruins looming above town. Pisac's ruins will give you a taste of what you're about to see in Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. Head a little farther along in the valley (again by taxi or combi) to a rustic country hotel near Urubamba or Yucay, where you'll have dinner and spend the night.
Day 4: Sacred Valley: Ollantaytambo
Wake early and take a taxi to Ollantaytambo, where you'll want to arrive as close to opening as possible to explore the Fortress Ruins before the busloads arrive. Then grab lunch at Café Mayu by the train station and take a walk around Ollanta's Old Town. Very energetic types who can manage a few hours after lunch should go for a hike in the Valley, perhaps to Salineras de Maras, the ancient salt mines near Urubamba.
If you don't mind moving around, you could transfer to a hotel in Ollanta to enjoy it at night when there are few tourists (and be there for the train the next morning to Machu Picchu). Otherwise head back to your hotel near Urubamba.
Day 5: What You Came For: Machu Picchu
Catch an early morning train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the rough-edged town that sits below Machu Picchu. Catch the bus up to the ruins and spend the day exploring them (hiking up to the Huayna Picchu peak for panoramic views if you're in shape). Have lunch at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge next to the ruins and stay until late in the afternoon, after the large tour groups have left. Spend the night either next to the ruins (if you've got very deep pockets) or back down in Aguas Calientes (which is actually more fun). Hit the bars along the railroad tracks to share stories with some of the backpackers who've survived the Inca Trail.
Day 6: Back to Cusco
Now that you've acclimatized to the Andes and seen some of the greatest legacies of the Incas, head back by train to the old Inca capital, Cusco. In the afternoon, stroll around the hilly San Blas neighborhood, site of dozens of cool shops and art galleries. Do some shopping for handicrafts, souvenirs, and art. If Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo have intensified your interest in Inca architecture, catch a cab (or walk) up to the fantastic ruins, Sacsayhuamán, overlooking the city. If you have any energy left, get a taste of Cusco's hopping nightlife at one of the pubs or nightclubs around the Plaza de Armas. Then make your way up bustling Calle Procuradores, Cusco's gringo alley and restaurant row.
Day 7: Back to Lima and Back Home
Do some final shopping in Cusco before catching a flight to Lima. You'll probably have an evening flight back home, so you may have enough time for a ceviche lunch in Lima and, if you're ambitious, a short tour of colonial Lima Centro in the late afternoon.