Last Updated on May 7, 2022 by Nellie Huang
Get to know the Inca capital with this detailed Cusco travel guide, including where to stay and the best things to do in Cusco, Peru. This article has been updated based on my recent trip to Cusco.
As the capital of the Inca empire, Cusco was known as the “navel of the world”. A visit to this ancient city and its nearby ruins will transport you back to the mystical Andean civilization. Many of the city’s finest Inca architectural treasures were so masterfully constructed out of local stone that they are still in great shape today.
Beyond the city lies the Sacred Valley in the Andes Mountains, dotted with hundreds of ancient villages, high-altitude hamlets and of course, Peru’s biggest draw – the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. There are so much historical treasures in and around Cusco that it’ll take a lifetime to experience them all.
With this Cusco travel guide, we hope you get to dig deep beneath the surface of Cusco and explore the natural beauty beyond the city. Here’s a list of best things to do in Cusco, the best restaurants to sample Peruvian cuisine, and the best places to stay in Cusco.
Things To Do In Cusco, Peru
1. Start at Plaza De Armas
The main square of Cusco is Plaza de Armas, which literally translates to Weapons Square. In fact, every major city in South America has a Plaza De Arma, a hangover of the Spanish colonization days. The two iconic buildings surrounding Plaza De Armas are the Cusco Cathedral and Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus.
The Plaza De Armas of Cusco is also a bustling gathering spot, perfect for visitors to catch a glimpse of the local’s lives. Take a seat on one of its benches, soak in the fresh mountainous air, people watch or admire the glorious remnants of the Incan civilization.
2. Sip Coffee to a View
One of my favorite things to do in Cusco is hang out at the many coffee shops in Cusco. Peru is after all one of the world’s top coffee producers. Overlooking the glorious Plaza de Armas is a slew of coffee shops and cafes that sell some of the best coffee I’ve had. Many of them have balconies overlooking the square.
Cappuccino Cafe is one of our favorite spots on Plaza De Armas — coffee here is excellent and views are amazing. Plaza Cafe also has great views, though the food is overpriced. A few blocks away from the square, Three Monkeys Coffee Company is a local’s favorite, with amazing brew and a colorful setting.
3. Take Pictures with Quechua Ladies and Alpacas
On the streets of Cusco, you’ll come across Quechua ladies dressed in colorful traditional wear, walking around with their fluffy alpacas. The ladies will approach you for photos, but they do require a tip. I talked to a few of them, and most of them come from rural villages outside of Cusco and this is the only way they can make a living. I suggest tipping at least 20 Soles (US$1).
4. Celebrate the Inti Raymi Festival
Throughout the month of June, Cusco becomes a focal point for celebration and activities – the most notable of which is Inti Raymi, or the Sun Festival. On the 24th of June, Cusqueños celebrate Inti Raymi with a full day’s events. Performers take to the streets with traditional dances, processions, and an impressive reenactment of ancient Inca rituals. This spectacular festival is one of the highlights of Peru.
5. Visit Museo Inka
Located in the historic center of Cusco, the Inca Museum is the best spot to learn about the Inca empire. Run by Cusco’s San Antonio Abad University, the museum has a huge collection of artifacts housed in the equally impressive colonial home of a Spanish admiral.
There are 24 exhibition rooms, filled with information dating from pre-Inca societies to the height of the Inca Empire to Spanish conquest. The museum’s mummified bodies are a highlight, as well as the courtyard where indigenous artisans weave textiles. Information is provided in both English and Spanish. Book your tickets here.
6. See the Qorikancha Sun Temple
Qorikancha, sometimes also spelled as Coricancha, is one of the best places to visit in Cusco. Historically, it was the most important temple in the Inca Empire. The temple was dedicated to Inti, the ancient Inca sun god.
Once upon a time, the walls and floors of the Qorikancha were covered in gold, but the 16th-century war with the Spanish conquistadors destroyed most of the temple and stripped off its gold.
With most of the temple demolished, the Spanish decided to build its own church in place of the temple. Using the original foundation of the Qorikancha, the Spanish built the present-day Convent of Santo Domingo. Nowadays, visitors can visit inside the church and see the old Incan foundations. Book the entrance ticket here.
7. Learn about Coca at Museo de la Coca
Within your first few days in Peru, you will notice that coca leaves are extremely popular among locals. Everywhere you go, you’ll find indigenous people chewing on them (which apparently give you energy).
For those suffering from altitude sickness, coca tea will be the most offered antidote! Although most of us know these as the key ingredient in cocaine and Coca-Cola’s original recipe, these leaves have been used for centuries in Andean cultures for medicinal purpose. The Coca Museum explains the plant’s significance in Peru’s past and present. Here you’ll also get to buy some coca leaves or coca tea, chapstick and candy to try.
8. Admire Art at the Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino (MAP)
You don’t have to be art lover to visit this impressive internationally-recognized museum. MAP is one of the best museums in Cusco in terms of curation — we were bowled over by the quality of exhibits.
It houses and exhibits objects created by women and men of the Andes, more than three thousand years ago (before the Spanish invasion). The 400 pieces exhibited here are part of the collection of the Larco Museum, considered one of the best 20 museums in the world. Definitely one of the coolest things to do in Cusco!
9. Wander through San Pedro Market
One of the best things to do in Cusco is to visit the Mercado Central de San Pedro. Just a 10-minute walk from Plaza de Armas, the traditional market is lively and vibrant, a cacophony of colors and smells. You’ll find everything from fresh juices to alpaca products and colorful local textiles.
San Pedro isn’t a tourist market where you go to get refrigerator magnets — it is an actual working market that many locals frequent daily. It’s a great spot to get a glimpse into local lives.
10. Visit the Museo Histórica Regional de Cusco
Step back in time with a visit to the Cusco Regional History Museum, where you can view ancient Inca relics and restored Spanish paintings. Though relatively small, the Regional Historical Museum of Cusco gives travelers a peek into Cusco’s history, architecture and politics. The museum itself is something to admire as it was once home to the colonial-era poet (and one of the first Peruvian mestizos), Garcilaso de la Vega.
11. See the 12-Angled Stone on Calle Hatun Rumiyoc
Tucked away in the narrow street of Hatun Rumiyoc, the 12-angled stone is an amazing sight you can’t miss. This architectural enigma has 12 perfectly cut angles that fit flawlessly into the Inca wall. The stone itself is huge and forms part of the wall at the Palace of the Archbishop’s. Be sure not to touch it as it is prohibited, but feel free to take pictures.
12. Head up to the Campanario de San Cristobal
One of the best viewpoints in Cusco is the San Cristobal belfry. It’s just a 15-minute walk from Plaza de Armas, but it’s a steep uphill climb. Make sure you’ve acclimatized to the altitude before hiking up here. Alternatively, you can catch the Mirabus that will bring you to all the important mirador (viewpoints) overlooking Cusco.
For just 10 soles (US$2.50) you can climb up to the top of this 17th century baroque style tower for a 360 degree view of the city. Definitely the best spot in Cusco for a panorama!
13. Hang Out in San Blas
My absolute favorite thing to do in Cusco is to wander aimlessly around San Blas, a bohemian district tucked away from the main tourist area. It’s beautiful, less crowded and laid back. The cobblestoned walkways and white-washed buildings are chocked full of indie boutiques, jewelry shops and awesome coffee shops and bars. It is definitely worth the steep walk up the hill!
I could easily spend days just wandering around San Blas, drinking Pisco Sour in a bar, and watching the world go by. L’Atelier in San Blas was one of our favorite spots, where we spent long hours chilling on a little balcony overlooking old Cusco. Another great spot is the Laggart Club Cafe, a colorful hippie haven that’s really chilled out.
14. Climb the Steps of Siete Borreguitas
The prettiest street in the San Blas neighborhood has to be the Calle de Siete Borrequitas, or Seven Lamps Street. It’s a narrow, cobbled street with a set of stairs that’s lined with colorful houses, cafes and artisan shops. Here’s the Google Maps location.
If you want to avoid the crowds, come here early in the morning or late afternoon/early evening. Entrance: free.
15. Admire the Acueducto Colonial Sapantiana
Right before climbing the steps of the Calle Siete Borrequitas, turn right and you will find a wet, muddy trail that leads to the colonial aqueduct. Sapantiana is one of the most interesting and overlooked sites in Cusco.
It’s an ancient structure that dates back to 1565, but it still stands as a monument to colonial history. Before the 1950s, it is said that water still flowed through the canal above, but today it is nothing more than a remnant of the past. Entrance: free.
16. Enjoy Pisco Sour with a View
You can’t visit Cusco without trying the national drink, Pisco Sour. The alcoholic cocktail is mainly made up of the liquor, Pisco, and sour citrus juice. And there are some fantastic bars in Cusco that serve the perfect Pisco Sour.
I highly recommend trying it in Limbus Restobar, that has fantastic views of the city through floors-to-ceiling glass walls. View House, just a little further up the hill offers a more casual rooftop setting as well as excellent views and strong cocktails.
17. Hike to the Mirador de San Blas
One of the free things to do in Cusco is to hike up to its numerous miradors (viewpoints). The Mirador de San Blas is perched on the very top of San Blas. To get to the mirador, walk up Calle Mantas until you reach a set of stairs on your left. It’s right above the Limbus Restobar, so if you don’t want to spend any money, just take a few more steps and you’ll reach the Mirador de San Blas (free entry).
From here you’ll get a panoramic view of the city, as well as a glimpse of some of Cusco’s most iconic landmarks like the Cathedral and Plaza de Armas. Entrance: free.
18. Reach the Mirador de Cristo Blanco
If you still have some energy left, continue further up the hills to the Mirador de Cristo Blanco, where a white statue of Jesus Christ stands. Towering at 8am tall, the imposing statue was actually a gift from the Palestinians who sought refuge in Cusco after World War II.
The statue shows Jesus Christ with arms wide open, similar to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. This is just a 10-minute walk from Sacsayhuaman (read the next section).
19. Try Gourmet Peruvian Cuisine at Ethnika Restaurante
Peruvian cuisine has made a name for itself in recent years, so it comes as no surprise that Cusco is home to a plethora of enticing restaurants and bars. These days, gourmet restaurants serving elevated fusion cuisine have also found their way to Cusco.
An outstanding restaurant worth visiting is Ethnika Restaurante in San Blas. The restaurant looks casual and modest, with a hint of rustic folklore flair, but its elevated, gourmet dishes really surprised us. Try the yuca croquettes, lomo de alpaca, and quinoa risotto — they will not disappoint! Book a table here.
20. Do a Chocolate Workshop
It comes as a surprise to many that Peru is known for its quality cacao beans and chocolate. Here in Cusco, you’ll get to try some of it and the many chocolate houses dotted around the city. These shops only offer chocolates made by local producers.
Choco Museo is probably the best spot to learn about the cocoa secrets of Peru and taste the best artisanal chocolate. You can even do two-hour ‘bean to bar’ Chocolate Workshop, where you make your very own creations. Book your spot at the workshop here.
21. Shop For Alpaca Products
Alpacas are native to the Andes Mountains and their fleece is a priced item that many love. Cusco is one of the best places in the world to purchase these alpaca products such as hats, sweaters and scarves. There are plenty of alpaca souvenirs stores dotted throughout Cusco.
Visit the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco where you can learn more about the history of weaving in Peru, watch daily weaving demonstrations and bag a stunning piece of 100% alpaca-wool clothing in the museum shop. This non-profit organization promotes the sustainable practice of ancient weaving whilst supporting local craftsmen and women.
22. Treat Yourself to an Inca Massage
After visiting Machu Picchu, you might want to get a rejuvenating massage at one of Cusco’s spas. There’s no shortage of ladies advertising “masajes” for cheap, but it’s wise to do some research if you want a proper massage.
The spa at Casa Cartagena is one of the best spas in Cusco. Set in a boutique hotel just 2 blocks from Plaza de Armas square, the Cartagena’s spa has large windows looking out onto a garden terrace. Indulge in therapy baths, body wraps, couple massages and plunge pools. We absolutely loved the Inca massage here: the hot stones definitely did the trick!
Things to Do Around Cusco
23. Explore the Sacsayhuaman Ruins
Located in the northern outskirts of Cusco, the Sacsayhuaman Ruins are an ancient site worth the trek for both the impressive stonework and spectacular views of Cusco. Perched over a hill, Sacsayhuaman was a religious site as well as the scene of a bloody battle between Inca forces and the Spanish conquistadors.
Most of the ruins have been removed, but the parts that are deemed too difficult to remove have stayed. Visitors will find the remnants of an almighty Inca citadel. A walk to Sacsayhuaman (around 45 minutes from the center) also includes a glimpse of Cristo Blanco – the massive statue of Christ that stands above the city. Book your ticket in advance here.
24. Explore the ancient Qenko Ruins
Another Inca archaeological site worth visiting is the Qenko ruins, which was used for worship and sacrificial rituals. This archaeological site is a network of tunnels and secret rooms. It’s said that during the summer solstice, the shadow of the main rock at the entrance reveals the form of a puma, one of the Incas’ sacred animals.
25. Visit the Ruins of Tambomachay
Tambomachay, also known as El Baño del Inca or the “Incas’ Bath,” is a small but intriguing Cusco ruin located outside of the city. This beautiful archaeological site features a canal and aqueduct system that leads to waterfalls fed by natural springs in the region.
26. Wander around the Puka Pukara Arcaeological Site
Just 1km from Tambochay is Puka Pukara, which means “red fortress” in Quechua. If you come here at sunset, you’ll see how it got its name. The setting sun changes the color of the rocks to a dark shade of red. It’s said that when the Inca was about to visit the Baths of Tambomachay, the rest of the troops would stay in Puka Pukara, which was their resting place.
27. Visit the Cusco Planetarium
Located near Sacsayhuaman, the Cusco Planetarium gives a fascinating look into the world of Incan astronomy. Astronomy played a huge role in day-to-day life for the Incas. It influenced the planting and harvesting of crops, religious ceremonies and architecture.
Stargazing is an incredible experience at the Planetarium (thanks to Cusco’s high elevation). Your guide at the Planetarium will reveal the secrets of why their ancestors observed the skies to understand the world. You’ll also get to enjoy an incredible projection of the southern skies, the stars, and the Inca constellations with a professional telescope.
28. Meet Alpacas at Awana Kancha
One of the COOLEST things to do in Cusco is just a 30-minute drive away! The Awana Kancha is an educational farm and living museum of the Andes. The farm is home to four species of the native camelid family: alpacas, llamas, guanacos and vicunãs. These long-necked creatures have historically roamed the Andes and provided clothing, fuel and companionship as domesticated animals for over 5,000 years.
Feeding these cheeky creatures is a lot of fun, and their inquisitive nature makes meeting them an enjoyable experience. Just be careful about saliva and spitting; they’re a slobbering species! Don’t miss out on Awana Kancha’s fascinating exhibits on Peruvian textiles’ manufacturing and making. Entry is free, but donations are much appreciated!
29. Admire Giant Rock Sculptures at Mirada de los Dioses
Apukunaq Tianan (also known as Mirada de los Dioses) is a newish attraction with rock sculptures depicting mythological Incan gods. There’s a small display of intricately carved sculptures that measure up to 8m in height. They’re all masterpiece of a Cusco local artist, Michael de Titán Monteagudo Mejía.
It’s located 12km from Cusco in the district of Poroy. To get there, take the bus from Qorikancha towards the Poroy. Entrance: 2 soles (US$0.60).
Day Trips from Cusco
30. Explore the Ancient City of Machu Picchu
It’s time to visit what most people come to Cusco for: the world famous Machu Picchu. What makes Machu Picchu so unique compared to the other Incan sites is that Machu Picchu was never discovered by the Spaniards. Machu Picchu was perched over a hill and the Spaniards just missed it. It was only in 1911 that Hiram Bingham, an American explorer from Hawaii, “discovered” it.
Cusco is the launch pad for Machu Picchu, but getting there is a complicated process. Check out my detailed article on how to get to Machu Picchu. Many visitors also choose to hike one of trails to reach Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail is known as one of the best treks in the world, and definitely a must-do for adventure travelers interested in exploring Peru’s backcountry.
31. Climb Rainbow Mountain
Rainbow Mountain (or Montana de Siete Colores in Spanish) is one of the best day trips from Cusco. The mountain is home to an incredible natural phenomena where different mineral deposits create a rainbow-like marbling effect on the surface of the mountains. Thanks to social media, the site has really become extremely popular among travelers in recent years.
However, seeing the Rainbow Mountain is no easy task. To get there, you have to hike for 3.5 hours at around 17,000 feet (5,200 meters) above sea level. At that altitude, there is less than half the amount of oxygen than at sea level. It’s not possible to visit Rainbow Mountain on your own — book a guided trek in advance to make sure you have a spot.
32. Admire the Humantay Lake
Another great day trip from Cusco is the Laguna Humantay, Located 13,779 feet (4,200 meters) above sea level, Humantay Lake is a glacial lake with sparkling spearmint waters and backdropped by craggy snow-capped peaks.
However, good things don’t come easy. In the case of the Humantay Lake, you’ll need to hike 1.5 hours at high altitude to get a glimpse of the lake. Surprisingly, it is one of the easier hikes in Peru, but can be difficult if you haven’t acclimatized enough in Cusco. Book your day tour here.
33. Visit the Sacred Valley
Along with Cusco and Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley formed the heart of the Inca Empire. Because of the fertile soil in the Sacred Valley, many Inca settlements were built here. Visitors can still the remaining of some of the settlements today.
There are many things to do in Sacred Valley of Peru, but none is as interesting as the Moray archaeological ruins. Featuring many multi-level circular depressions, Moray is very distinctive from all the other sites discovered in the region. Scientists and archaeologists have their own hypotheses but no one knows for sure.
The best way to visit Moray is by booking a day tour from Cusco. The tour is usually combined with a visit to the nearby Maras Salt Mines, one of the few places in the world that produces pink salts.
34. Explore Ollantaytambo
Also located in the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo is a small ancient village, often overlooked by travelers making their way to Machu Picchu. I recommend booking this day trip and combine Ollantaytambo with Moray and other parts of the Sacred Valley.
The town is home to two vast and imposing ruins that are worth more than a few hours of exploration – particularly once the early morning tourist masses have boarded that aforementioned train. Get lost in the narrow cobblestone streets, hike upwards for a spectacular viewpoint and absolutely explore some of the Sacred Valley’s most impressive Incan ruins.
Cusco Travel Guide
How To Get To Cusco
The easiest way to get to Cusco is by air. Cusco International Airport is a small airport and mainly serves other airports in Peru. It used to be very expensive to fly into Cusco airport, but now you can get cheap flights from Lima for just $50 each way.
For slow travelers, long distance buses in Cusco are very common, affordable, and actually not too bad in terms of quality. Just be aware that the bus journey from Lima to Cusco takes 24 hours!
Getting Around Cusco
If you are staying in the historic center of Cusco, everything that is of interest should be within walking distance. Taxis in Cusco are usually very safe, even for solo travelers. It usually cost around 5 Soles for a taxi ride within Cusco. Uber sadly doesn’t work in Cusco.
By Public Transportation
Unless you are exploring outside of the historic centre or visiting a town outside of Cusco, you won’t have to take any public transportation. Public transportation comes in two forms in Cusco: buses and colectivos (shared vans) which can be flagged down on the street. These buses and shared vans are usually crammed to the brink, and pickpockets are fairly common.
When to Visit Cusco
The best time to visit Cusco is during the dry season from April to October. The weather is good during these periods and everywhere is less crowded. During the rainy season, the rains can be fierce when they hit, causing landslides and disrupted transportation schedules.
I recommend timing your Cusco trip to coincide with Inti Raymi, the largest Andean festival in Peru. The Festival of the Sun falls on June 22, 2020 and celebrates the Sun God Inti. There will be big parades in Cusco as well as sacrifices of llamas and re-enactment of Inti Raymi.
Where to Stay in Cusco
The best area to stay in Cusco is the historic centre. You’ll be able to walk everywhere, and museums/sights are within easy reach. We stayed in San Blas on our recent return trip to Cusco; the views from there are the best, but keep in mind it’s a steep uphill walk back to the hotel.
Budget: Dragonfly Hostels Cusco
The hostel boasts a colorful and lively decor, an outdoor garden for guests to soak in the sun, and a fully-equipped shared kitchen. When you are not out exploring Cusco, come hang out in the on-site bar and meet other travelers from around the world. Check the rates here.
Mid Range: Tariq Boutique Hotel
If you are looking for the hotel with the best views in Cusco, you can’t go wrong with Tariq Boutique Hotel. We absolutely loved our stay here; waking up to jawdropping views of Cusco outside our window was a privilege. Prices are affordable and service is great. One thing though, it’s a steep walk up to the hotel so it’s only suitable for mobile travelers. Check rates here.
Luxury: Aranwa Cusco Boutique Hotel
If you’re looking to splurge, one of the best luxury hotels in Cusco is the Aranwa Cusco Boutique Hotel. This luxurious hotel offers 5-star amenities in a refurbished 16th-century mansion, that was declared a National Monument in 1980. Check rates here.
Ultra Luxury: Palacio del Inka
Arguably the best hotel in Cusco, this heritage hotel is housed in a historical complex right in front of Qoricancha. It has a lavish and tastefully designed interior as well as an indoor swimming pool and restaurant. Check rates here.
Where To Eat In Cusco
Because Cusco is such a popular tourism destination in Peru, there are plenty of restaurants in Cusco showcasing some of the best traditional dishes of Peru. Here are some of the best restaurants in Cusco
One of the most traditional Peruvian restaurants in town, Pachapapa is known as the best place in Cusco to try cuy (guinea pig), a local delicacy amongst the indigenous population. Its drinks, deserts, and other dishes are also excellent. Read TripAdvisor reviews.
Ceviche Seafood Kitchen is an excellent place to try the national food of Peru, ceviche. As a dish made from raw fish cooked in powerful Peruvian limes, it offers unique flavors that will have you addicted. Besides ceviche, this restaurant also serves yummy seafood dishes such as arroz con mariscos (seafood with rice) and trucha (trout). Read reviews here.
An excellent value-for-money restaurant in Cusco that serves delicious Peruvian cuisine. With a delightful decor and a friendly staff, guests will immediately feel cozy in this beautiful restaurant. One of their best dishes is the lomo saltado, which translates to stir-fried beef in English. However, their other dishes certainly won’t disappoint either. Read reviews here.
Cost of Travel In Cusco
Cusco is generally more expensive than other parts of Peru, but it is still generally quite affordable for travelers from abroad. A room in a budget hotel costs around $15-20 per night, while an upscale hotel costs upwards of $50 per night.
When in Cusco, you’ll most likely book a day tour or two to explore places like Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain. Day tours generally affordable, at around $50 for full-day trips.
Food can also be very cheap in Cusco. Many restaurants offer set meals called “menu del dia”, that usually includes a drink and a main dish. A set menu costs around $3-5. If you want exotic dishes like cuy or alpaca steak, then you have to pay a premium price for it, though they usually still don’t cost more than $15 to 20.
Further Reading on Peru
There’s definitely no shortage of things to do in Cusco — just make sure you spend at least one week in Cusco to experience everything on this list. If you’re looking to read more on Peru and other parts of South America, check out these articles:
We hope our Cusco travel guide has helped you plan your trip to Cusco! Let us know if you have any questions about Cusco below.
About the Author: Sean Lau
In 2018, Sean left the comfort of his home and job in New York City to find out what truly inspires him. Since then, he has trekked through the Andes, tested his lungs at over 5,000 meters above sea level, encountered the world’s deadliest spider in the Amazon Rainforest, and explored the world’s most catastrophic nuclear disaster. On his travel blog, you will find personal information, guides and travel tips.
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