The mountain city of Cusco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, welcomes some 2 million tourists every year. Once the capital of the Inca Empire, and an important centre of Spanish colonial rule for centuries afterwards, the city’s rich and layered history gives it a unique identity. Here we compile some of the very best things to do in Cusco to help you get the most out of your stay.
We stayed in Cusco either side of hiking the Inca Trail with G Adventures. Arriving after a long night’s bus journey through the winding mountain roads, we were immediately struck by the city’s beauty. High up in the sprawling Peruvian Andes, its red rooftops, colourful walls and baroque churches looked magnificent in the early morning light.
Like many of Cusco’s visitors, we arrived a couple of days before starting the Inca Trail to allow time to acclimatise to the high altitude. We fell in love with the place and decided to extend our stay after returning from the trek. This article packs in some of the highlights of our time in the city to inspire your travel plans.
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Where to stay in Cusco
We stayed in the San Blas district during our time in Cusco, which is a beautiful area of cobbled streets and old buildings with a stunning elevated view across the city. It’s a short uphill walk from Plaza de Armas, with many bars, restaurants and shops nearby.
Things to do in Cusco: discovering Inca culture
1. Get started at Museo Inka
Before you start visiting the Cusco region’s incredible array of Inca ruin sites, it’s a great idea to learn a little about the background and context first. There’s no better place to start than Museo Inka, the city’s foremost museum about the Inca settlement period.
The museum is located a short distance from the Plaza de Armas (main square), and displays an impressive collection of well-preserved artefacts. All information is presented in both Spanish and English, providing an insight into the origins of the region.
The museum costs 10 Peruvian soles to enter (about 3 US dollars) and is the perfect way to spend a couple of hours introducing yourself to Inca history.
2. Walk up to Sacsayhuaman
While many of the famous Inca sites in the Cusco region are away in the Sacred Valley, you will find some absolute gems in and around the city itself. Perhaps the best of these is Sacsayhuaman, perched on a hilltop to the north of the city centre.
Sacsayhuaman was originally the site of a structure built by the Killke civilisation around the beginning of the 12th century. Years later, the Incas built on the foundations and expanded the site into an imposing fortress. The remains are remarkably intact, and it is considered one of the greatest examples of Inca engineering – hence it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right.
It’s possible to reach Sacsayhuaman by foot via a 20-minute walk up a steep hill from Plaza de Armas. Alternatively, a taxi costs around 10 soles (3 US dollars) if you don’t fancy the ascent on foot.
3. See the Coricancha site
Coricancha is an example of Inca architecture even closer to the historic centre of Cusco, located a short walk to the south-east of Plaza de Armas (and there’s no hill to climb for this one).
The original complex was considered the most important temple of the Inca Empire, but was demolished almost entirely by the invading Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. Later, its foundations were repurposed as the base of a church, Iglesia De Santo Domingo, which still stands on the site today.
It costs 15 soles (4.50 US dollars) to enter the Coricancha site and peruse the remains. Next door you can also visit Museo Quechua, a small museum with no entry charge where you can learn about three millennia of Quechua culture.
4. See the twelve-angled stone
Tucked away in the back streets of the San Blas district you will find one of Cusco’s most photographed pieces of history. The twelve-angled stone was once part of the walls of an Inca Palace, but today forms a wall of the Archbishop Palace.
The stone is a superb example of the meticulous ingenuity of Inca construction techniques. Rather than building blocks in a uniform size and shape, the Incas often crafted stones into varying dimensions to adapt to the space available.
Now considered a national heritage object as well as an Instagram hotspot, you’ll be able to spy the twelve-angled stone by the crowds of tourists hovering around it for the obligatory photo opportunity.
5. Read about Inca culture
If you’re visiting Cusco to hike the Inca Trail or another trekking route to Machu Picchu, you’ll need to spend at least a couple of days acclimatising to the altitude before you set off. That means taking it easy while your body gets used to being so far above sea level.
What better way to use this time than to relax and read a good book about the Inca period? After we completed the Inca Trail, I asked our local guide for recommendations on good books to read to learn more about the history.
He advised that we try Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas by the Elorrieta brothers. It’s a comprehensive insight into the history, and reading it will give another dimension to your experience when it comes to treading the path yourself.
Things to do in Cusco: sightseeing and museums
6. Soak up the atmosphere in Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas is the centrepiece of Cusco. Surrounded by arched colonial buildings with terraces overlooking the square, it is always buzzing with activity, and is the best pivot point for navigating the city.
The square is perfect for ambling around and enjoying the atmosphere, or stopping on a bench to take a break and watch people go by.
Plaza de Armas features Cusco Cathderal and Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, two of the city’s most iconic buildings hailing from the Spanish colonial period. You can buy a ‘Religious Circuit Ticket’ for 30 soles (9 US dollars) that gives access to both, as well as a few other landmarks close to the square.
7. Take a free walking tour
One of the best ways to find your feet in a city is by taking a free walking tour, and in Cusco there are several options to choose from. One of the most popular is by Inkan Milky Way.
This tour runs daily in English and Spanish, starting at Plazoleta Regocijo, a couple of minutes’ walk from Plaza de Armas. It covers many of the city’s sightseeing highlights, such as Saint Claire Church, San Pedro Market, Acclla Wasi Temple and the Palace of Inca Tupac.
Free walking tours work on a tipping basis, so you pay whatever you feel is a suitable contribution when it’s finished. The guides will be happy to give personal recommendations on places to eat and drink during your stay.
8. See the city from Cristo Blanco
Glance up at the hills that rise over Cusco and for a moment you might think you are in Rio de Janeiro. Looking down over the city is Cristo Blanco, a statue of Jesus Christ not dissimilar to its famous Brazilian counterpart.
The statue, which stands some eight metres tall, was a gift to the city from Arabic Palestinian refugees who came to Cusco after World War II. A spectacle in its own right, it also comes with a spectacular panoramic view of the city.
Cristo Blanco is walkable from Plaza de Armas, if you’re ok with a steep climb. Situated very close to Sacsayhuaman, it should take around 15 to 30 minutes (it’s a good idea to combine the two sites).
9. Discover history at Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino
The Museo de Arte Pre-Columbino, or MAP Cusco for short, is a window into the many layers of Cusco’s history over the last 3,000 years. This museum, located in the San Blas district, displays a range of artwork and artefacts dating from the civilisations of the Huari, Nazca and Inca people.
The museum’s building is itself a piece of history. It is built inside a renovated 16th-century Spanish colonial mansion that features an Inca courtyard. Not an experience to be missed for history and archaeology lovers.
The entrance fee to Museo de Arte Pre-Columbino is 20 soles (6 US dollars) for foreign tourists.
10. Visit Museo de la Coca (Coca Museum)
You won’t be in Cusco for long before you encounter the green leaves of the coca plant. They have been consumed in the city for thousands of years, either chewed or infused in tea. The leaves are known to alleviate the effects of altitude and are believed to provide other medicinal benefits, while in the past they have held religious significance too.
You can find out all about the history of the coca plant ant its usage at Cusco’s Museo de la Coca. Located on the edge of San Blas square, the museum explores the historic relationship between the Andean people and the coca plant through neatly presented artefacts and information. You can also buy a range of coca-based products in the museum shop.
The entrance fee for Museo de la Coca is 10 soles (3 US dollars).
11. Indulge at ChocoMuseo (chocolate museum)
Peru is one of the world’s top producers of cocoa, and so chocolate is a pretty big deal in the country. At ChocoMuseo you can travel back to the beginning of chocolate production in Peru, and learn about the traditions over the ages through to the present day. As you would expect, there are plenty of opportunities to sample some chocolate too!
The museum is free to enter, but if you have a spare hour and 50 soles (15 US dollars) you can ramp it up and take part in an interactive chocolate-making workshop.
12. See the city views from San Blas
The San Blas district is a picturesque neighbourhood on the steep hills to the north-east of Plaza de Armas. With its quaint and narrow cobblestone streets it is an enchanting place to explore, and its steps reach high above the city for some superb views.
It’s especially rewarding to come up here after sundown and see the city at night, lit up across the mountainous curves.
Things to do in Cusco: shopping and souvenirs
13. Explore the markets and shops of San Blas
While you’re in San Blas, take the opportunity to visit its main market square and get lost in the many craft shops that line its cobbled streets. This is one of the best spots in the city to get immersed in its creative culture and pick up a souvenir or gift to take away.
The main market square, Plaza San Blas, is the beating heart of the district and is usually busy with local vendors selling artwork, clothes, ornaments and alpaca fibre goods. There are also plenty of places to stop for a drink or a bite to eat when your feet need a rest.
14. Get lost in San Pedro market
A few blocks south-west of the main tourist drag around Plaza de Armas is San Pedro Market, a lively marketplace frequented mainly by locals. You will find stalls inside the market hall selling pretty much anything, from craftwork and clothes to groceries and household goods.
San Pedro Market stands out as one of the most memorable markets we’ve visited in South America, and we have been to many! It’s a whirlwind of activity and a great place to get to know the local shopping culture.
15. Find the street shops near San Pedro Market
For an even more authentic local shopping experience, walk a couple of blocks south-east of San Pedro market to the very outskirts of Cusco’s historic centre. This neighbourhood is jam-packed with a variety of stores selling colourful fabrics, bags, grain, herbs, spices, drinks, and all sorts of everyday trinkets.
In the morning and midday this area is teeming with local shoppers, and we enjoyed just pottering around, checking out the produce and soaking up the atmosphere. As this is a little off the beaten path you’ll find prices cheaper than the shops in San Blas and around Plaza de Armas.
16. Get a tattoo
What better keepsake to take home from your Inca experience than with a tattoo that will last forever? I had considered getting a tattoo for years, and completing the Inca Trail seemed like the perfect excuse. Cusco was the place I got inked for the first time, at the age of 34.
Lots of people have the same idea, and unsurprisingly, there are plenty of tattoo artists around the city willing to help. We had our tattoos done at Willka Tattoo close to Plaza de Armas, recommended by the staff at our hostel. We were not disappointed. The process was quick and professional, the results fantastic, and there were no infections or irritations to speak of.
Lisa and I both chose the ‘chakana’ for our tattoos, otherwise known as the Inca Cross. As the symbol of the Incas, representing the city of Cusco and the cardinal points of the compass, it makes for the ideal memento.
Things to do in Cusco: food and drink
17. Try a cooking class
For the traveller who loves to get thoroughly immersed in local food cultures, there’s no better way to do this in Cusco than by taking a cooking class.
Peru takes pride in its traditional cuisine, and Peruvian food is becoming increasingly popular around the world. Once you’ve had a taste you will understand why! Cusco is an ideal place to experience it and to learn more about the country’s historic cooking culture.
Ready to get cooking? Check out this article by Our Sweet Adventures for some inspiration on where to try a Cusco cooking class.
18. Drink Peruvian coffee
Coffee is one of Peru’s proudest exports. The country has over 200,000 coffee farms and the industry employs close to a million people. It’s not surprising, then, that’s you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to finding a good coffee in Cusco! Peruvian coffee has a distinctive taste deriving from the Andean soil and high-altitude conditions, and it’s a must to try while you’re so close to the source.
San Blas is the epicentre of Cusco’s coffee scene. Here you will find popular hipster hangout spots like Monkey Coffee and polished modern outfits like Cafe Loco. The Meeting Place is another great option, and it’s for a good cause too as it donates its profits to local community organisations.
19. Have lunch in San Pedro Market
San Pedro Market isn’t just about souvenir shopping. A huge portion of its massive hall is occupied by rows of food stalls, which are at their busiest at lunchtime. This is the place to get a traditional local meal for an incredibly low price.
The typical set-up is a busy kitchen area with a bench and some chairs in front of it, with diners jostling for space. No matter how full the seating area is, the stall owners will try everything to convince you to dine at their establishment. It’s quite a lot of fun.
The menus are not always available in English, so if you can’t speak Spanish then you may need to do a little guesswork, or choose from the photos. If you’re not after a full meal, there are also dedicated coffee juice and dessert stalls to choose from as well.
20. Eat some alpaca or guinea pig
Cusco is renowned for some of its culinary delicacies, in particular, guinea pig, or ‘cuy’ as you will see it on menus. I was foretold of this by a friend in Lima before we arrived. “You can try guinea pig in Cusco,” he said. “But there really isn’t much meat on it… mostly bone.”
That seemed to make sense. What didn’t make sense was the price. Guinea pig was at least twice as expensive as anything else on the menu in most places. Our tour guides told us it had become a thing for tourists only; locals don’t really eat it at all. All considered, we decided to give guinea pig a miss.
Alpaca, on the other hand, is a traditional local delicacy, and comes with health benefits in comparison to other meat alternatives. It has half the saturated fat of beef, a third less cholesterol, and contains fewer calories than most land-based meats. We thought it was pretty tasty, too.
There is no shortage of places to try either guinea pig or alpaca if you are feeling adventurous. Once again, the restaurant-lined streets of San Blas are a good place to start.
21. Try some chifa (Peruvian–Chinese cuisine)
One of the facets of Peru’s food culture is chifa, a form of cuisine that fuses Chinese cooking techniques with traditional Peruvian ingredients. It hails back to the early 20th century and the influx of Chinese immigrants who contributed to building Peru’s transport infrastructure. Their arrival also brought new cooking traditions to Peru.
Two of the classic chifa dishes to try are lomo saltado, a beef stir fry, and arroz chaufa, a form of fried rice. We had a taste of chifa in Cusco at Kion, a restaurant located just off the south-east corner of Plaza de Armas. The food was great, and the prices very reasonable for budget travellers.
22. Have a balcony beer at Norton Rat’s Tavern
Around the edge of Plaza de Armas you will find a choice of bars and restaurants that make use of the terrace viewing areas. For a cold Cusqueňa beer at sunset, look no further than Norton Rat’s Tavern. In the fading hours of daylight there is a lot of competition for the balcony seats – we had to wait a while before we could ensnare some.
With flags of many world nations draping from its walls and ceiling, it’s a welcoming place to kick back, relax and socialise. Perhaps save this one for after the Inca Trail – the beer tastes even better when you’ve earned it.
One of the best ways to eat in Peru on a budget is by frequenting the legendary set-lunch menú restaurants. You will find these in towns and cities across the country, typically open from about 12 noon until 4pm.
Menú restaurants serve fixed-menu meals of two or three courses, usually with a drink included, for unbelievably low prices. the cheapest we saw was 3 soles (less than 1 US dollar) for two courses and a drink! You can read our article about these quirky restaurants here.
There are lots of menús dotted around Cusco. In San Blas you will find some slightly more up-market ones, as well as a few vegan eateries. Head south to the other side of Plaza de Armas to find some of the cheaper places. Take note beforehand though – the quality can be very hit and miss!
Things to do in Cusco: day trips
24. Witness the stunning Pisac ruins
One hour’s drive from Cusco will take you into the Sacred Valley, the heart of the Inca Empire. This scenic region is populated by small colonial towns and villages, with many Incan ruins to explore. We visited as part of our Inca Trail package, but it is also possible to take day trips from Cusco.
One of the highlights of the region is the Pisac Ruins, a hilltop citadel surrounded by dramatic slopes of agricultural terracing. If you have time, the four-kilometre ascent to the summit from Pisac town has some spectacular views and makes for great Inca Trail training.
25. See Peru’s famous Rainbow Mountain
One of the top-billed tourist attractions within the vicinity of Cusco is Vinicunca, otherwise known as Rainbow Mountain. The multicolour bands of soil at its 5,200m summit are among Peru’s most iconic images.
You will find agencies and tour operators all over Cusco that run day tours to Rainbow Mountain. As it’s a three-hour drive from Cusco, these tours tend to leave at around 2am. This, combined with its more extreme altitude, means it requires careful acclimatisation. Take plenty of water with you as well, as it’s a long day out and you’ll need to stay hydrated.
26. Explore the Inca complex of Huchuy Qosqo
Machu Picchu isn’t the only major Inca archaeological site in the Cusco region. Huchuy Qosqo, which means ‘Little Cusco’, is another option that you can visit in a day trip and hike from Cusco.
The ruins of the complex are in good condition, with an array of stone walls and halls to explore, as well as an impressive irrigation system. Huchuy Qosqo was once the home of Viracocha, one of the most celebrated of the Inca emperors.
The starting point is about a 45-minute drive from Cusco, and the hike is around 12–14 kilometres. While it’s not too strenuous, the altitude peaks over 4,300 metres and so you shouldn’t attempt this without having acclimatised in Cusco for a day or two beforehand.
27. Discover Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo is a small town that features some spectacular mountainside Inca ruins, located between Cusco and the Machu Picchu. Due to its convenient setting, it is included in the itineraries of many Inca Trail and other Machu Picchu tours.
If you’re not already visiting it on a package tour, you can take a day trip to Ollantaytambo from Cusco and return in the evening.
The highlight is an Inca fortress that stands directly above the town, built by the emperor Pachacuti. It’s quite an effort to climb the steps right up to the top – with about 100 metres elevation gain – but when you make it there’s a stunning view of the surrounding valleys and other ruin sites in the distance.
28. Take a trip to Moray and Maras
Deep in the Urubamba Valley lies one of the most unusual sights of the Cusco region: the salt pans of Maras. Over 3,000 salt ponds are layered into the mountainside, originally crafted by the Incas and still in use today.
On a half-day tour from Cusco you can witness this unique spectacle as well as the nearby archaeological site of Moray, which features a a series of circular terraces believed to have been used by the Incas as agricultural laboratories.
29. Trek to Humantay Lake
One of the striking natural wonders of the Sacred Valley, the brilliant turquoise Humantay Lake is formed from glacial melt and coloured brightly by mineral deposits. Like Rainbow Mountain, it requires a long day trip from Cusco with an early-morning start.
You can expect to spend about six hours of the day in transit and a further couple of hours trekking, but the reward is a wonderful view of the lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains from the base of Humantay Glacier. You can also choose to ride to the lake’s shores on horseback.
30. And of course… visit Machu Picchu!
No list of Cusco activities would be complete without a mention of Machu Picchu. The chances are that’s why you’re there in the first place. Read this article on walking through the clouds in Machu Picchu and you’ll hear first-hand why it’s such a magical experience.
There are many ways to see Machu Picchu from Cusco. One possibility is to take a direct tour from Cusco, which involves taking a train to the town of Aguas Calientes, and then a bus from there. Entry tickets sell out quickly, so book yours as far in advance as you can.
The classic way to see Machu Picchu is to hike the Inca Trail, a 43-kilometre-long trek that typically takes four days. This also gets filled up well in advance, so book at least six months ahead to secure a place. For more advice, see our guide to hiking the Inca Trail for first-timers and Inca Trail packing list.
If you do miss the boat, or fancy a different challenge, then the Salkantay Trek is an alternative route to Machu Picchu. This crosses the 4,600m-high Salkantay Pass and descends through the cloud forest, taking in Inca ruins such as Llactapata.
Have you been to Cusco? Share any of your own tips in the comments below.
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