Cusco is easily one of the most beautiful cities in Peru – if not in all of South America. The perfect starting point to explore Peru’s Sacred Valley, and a solid base to get accustomed to the altitude before you embark on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu since it’s set at a whopping 3,399 meters (11,152 feet) above sea level, Cusco actually has a lot to offer to visitors. Indeed, there are many fantastic things to do in Cusco, Peru – and I recommend spending a minimum of three days there to appreciate all that it has to offer.
In fact, I actually spent 10 days in Cusco during my last trip to Peru, and I promise you I didn’t run out of things to do. Every day offered a walk along the cobblestone streets; a trip to a colorful market; peeking at a church or simply soaking in the sun in one of Cusco’s many squares.
Are you curious to discover all the things to do in Cusco that you should not miss? Continue reading, and I will unveil all its secrets.
The Best Things To Do In Cusco, Peru
Soak up local life in the Plaza de Armas
The center of Cusco, the Plaza de Armas is always alive – day and night. There’s no doubt about it: if you’re visiting Cusco for any length of time, chances are you will find yourself in Plaza de Armas at some point.
Here you’ll find colonial era arcades, the city’s cathedral and more churches, as well as ornate walkways to stroll around. In the daytime, it’s one of the best places to go in Cusco for a coffee or long lunch thanks to the numerous cafes around the side of the squares; many have balconies where you can look down onto the square below. In the evenings, it’s illuminated.
One thing to keep in mind is that as this really is the heart of Cusco, touts abound. Sit on one of the benches and chances are you will be approached by kids selling trinkets; women offering massages in one of the spas nearby; people trying to sell guided tours or even art pieces. A polite but firm no is usually enough to send touts away.
Pay a visit to Cusco Cathedral
Situated on the site of a former Inca palace, Cusco Cathedral was built using material taken from Sacsayhuaman. Construction on this imposing cathedral began in 1551, and took almost 100 years to complete. Today it stands as a representation of Spanish colonial art and architecture – both inside and out.
Step inside the cathedral and you’ll find devotional paintings that have been done in the style of indigenous Andean artists; one example is the Virgin Mary wearing a skirt shaped like a mountain, with a river running around the hem, representing her as Pachamama, or “Mother Earth”.
The opening hours of Cusco Cathedral are actually quite random so it may take you several tries to be able to get in. You can get tickets here.
For a guided tour of Cusco that also goes to the Cathedral and the archeological sites just outside of town, click here, here or here. Alternatively, get in touch with Javier Cruz Mayta by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or whatsapp at +51953939331. I can attest he’s an excellent guide!
Explore the San Blas District
San Blas is Cusco’s artisan neighborhood. Situated just a short walk from the Plaza de Armas, here you’ll find cute boutique shops and boho galleries, as well as restaurants and hostels. It all adds up to a lively, interesting area of the city to explore.
Thankfully, San Blas feels like an authentic side of Cusco – and with a chilled out atmosphere to match. You’ll find musicians playing in the streets and intriguing crafts on sale. All in all, it’s a great place to get to grips with the city and fall in love with its old world charm.
For a tour of Cusco that also goes to the San Blas District, click here.
Browse the goods at San Pedro Market
For more fantastic things to do in Cusco if you want to get away from touristy sites, head to San Pedro Market. Located less than a 10-minute walk from Plaza de Armas, the market is a real treat for the senses, full of the buzz of life. Here you can pick up items such as freshly made fruit juices, delicious sandwiches, and even a souvenir or two to take home. Make sure to soak up all the smells, sounds and sights of the city, as you browse for fresh produce and local crafts.
For a guided tour that also goes to San Pedro Market, click here.
Stop by Korikancha (Sun Temple)
The Koricancha (also written Coricancha or Qoricancha), or Sun Temple, is a unique combination of the city’s Inca and Spanish colonial heritage. This was once the most important temple in the Incan Empire before it was destroyed by the Spanish.
The Spanish conquistadores took it apart piece by piece, and it was then used to create houses and churches around the area. The Church of Santo Domingo was built on the site of the ruins, which remains today as an interesting architectural blend of Inca foundations and European brickwork.
The Koricancha is located in Plazoleta de Santo Domingo and is open Monday to Saturday from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm, Sunday from 2:00 to 5:00 pm. Admission is 15 Peruvian Soles (about $3.70). Tickets are not included in Cusco Boleto Turistico.
Spot the artwork inside Iglesia de Santo Domingo
Situated next door to the Koricancha (well, as I said, built on top of it), the Iglesia de Santo Domingo may not be as ornate or as beautifully Baroque as the other churches in Cusco, but it’s well worth a visit – especially for its art.
Once inside this church, you’ll find some unique artwork of Andean children – wearing T-shirts and jeans – depicted as archangels. It’s not always open, so visiting times can be quite erratic, but if you do get a chance to go in, don’t miss the opportunity.
You should also make sure to walk up the tower. There’s a small additional fee to go up (it’s little over $1 USD) but the views are totally worth it!
Discover the mystery of the 12-Angle Stone
It might not seem much at first, but the 12-Angle Stone is more than just a brick in a wall: it is an archaeological artefact. Created from diorite (a type of stone), this large stone is actually a cultural heritage item of Peru.
You can find it down a busy narrow street, set into the wall that now makes up the Palace of the Archbishop of Cusco. The stone has been cut in varying ways on all sides (totalling 12), showcasing a type of perfectionist architecture that the Incas were very skilled at. It’s both a source of pride for locals and a testament to the abilities of the Inca people. It’s definitely an unmissable landmark in Cusco.
Peek inside the Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesú
Another of Cusco’s churches built on a former Inca site, this one was built on the remains of the Palace of Huayna Cápa – the last ruler of an undivided Inca Empire. The church was built in 1571 by Jesuits, but had to be reconstructed after the earthquake in 1650.
Interestingly, inside the church there are two pieces of artwork that depict marriages in Cusco in the early colonial days in beautiful detail. You’ll also have a great view of the interior of the church from the choir on the second floor. If you want to know more, you can ask one of the local student guides to show you around.
The Church of the Society of Jesus is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. There is a fee to visit of about 10 Peruvian Soles ($5 USD). You can get tickets here.
See the strange interiors of Iglesia y Convento de Santa Clara
Part of a strict convent, this 16th-century church is not always easy to visit, but it is worth it. That’s down to the altogether strange interiors. Inside this incredible church are hundreds of mirrors lining the walls, reflecting the interiors. It’s thought the Spanish colonial clergy installed them so as to entice indigenous locals to worship.
A good time to visit is during morning services, when you’ll see nuns singing in choir during the mass – separated from the congregation and the priest by heavy metal bars.
Tour the Sacsayhuaman
Easily one of the best things to do in Cusco is visiting Sacsayhuaman, a citadel situated to the north of Cusco, an Inca-era ruin that was originally built in the 15th century. You can either take a hike from the center of the city to this site, or alternatively you can ride the bus there.
Created from enormous black boulders, the ruin consists mainly of dry stone walls that were carefully cut and tightly slotted together – without the need for mortar. Because of its historic importance, it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sacsayhuaman is open daily from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is part of Cusco Boleto Turistico – you can get that here.
Get a view from up high
One of the best ways to really see the beauty of the city of Cusco, and the surrounding area, is to head up high for a view – even better for sunset. Luckily there are quite a few good viewpoints that can be easily accessed around the city.
Just a few minutes on foot from the Plaza de Armas is the Mirador de San Cristóbal, which boasts an incredible panoramic vista of the high Andes dwarfing the city below. There’s also another walk, this time up to Limbus Restobar, with a large seating area that features views out across the city and beyond; it’s the perfect place to sit with a drink and relax.
Learn about Inca astronomy at Cusco Planetarium
Astronomy was an important aspect of Incan day to day life, and played a big role in religious ceremonies, architecture and the harvests. You can learn about this and the detailed Incan astronomical calendar at the Cusco Planetarium.
This family-owned institution, located close to Sacsayhuaman, offers stunning glimpses of the stars. It boasts a high-powered telescope, and an indoor presentation in English and Spanish. You have to reserve a spot if you want to visit (make sure to do so ahead of time), and you will be picked up by shuttle from Plaza Regocijo.
To book your Planetarium experience in Cusco, click here.
See an exhibition at the Inca Museum
Just a block northeast of the Plaza de Armas is the Inca Museum. It may be small in size, but it is the perfect place to get historical insight into the Incan culture. The museum itself sits on original Inca foundations, and is also known as the Admiral’s House – one of the most beautiful colonial houses in the city, in fact.
The collection here is awash with pottery, textiles, jewellery, fine metals and mummies. There’s lots of information both in Spanish and English, so you can get to know the heritage and culture of the capital of the Incas and their empire.
The museum is located in Cuesta del Almirante 103 and it’s open Monday to Friday from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, and on Saturdays from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. Admission is 10 Peruvian Soles ($2.5 USD).
See some art at Museo de Arte Precolombino
Art lovers and history buffs alike should make a beeline to the Museo de Arte Precolombino – a museum dedicated to art and artifacts from the pre-Columbian era of Peru. In this neat, modern museum – housed in a Spanish colonial mansion – you’ll find a variety of collections of archaeological artifacts that were left in the storerooms of Museo Larco, in Lima.
Many of the pieces date from between 1250 BC and 1532 AD, and show off the rich cultural and artistic landscape of Peru’s past cultures, from the Paracas to the Inca. The mansion also has its very own Inca ceremonial courtyard. Exhibitions are labeled in French, English and Spanish.
The museum is located in Plaza de las Nazarenas 231; it is open Monday to Sunday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. Admission is 20 Peruvian Soles ($5 USD).
Visit the Museo Machu Picchu
Cusco is one of the main springboards to reach the world wonder that is Machu Picchu, so it’s only right that the city should include a museum dedicated to it, and visiting is one of the top things to do in Cusco. Located inside a beautifully restored colonial home, this modern museum showcases hundreds of pieces from the Machu Picchu area that were retrieved by explorer Hiram Bingham.
The items were recently returned to the area by Yale University, and include tools, ceramics, bones and metal pieces. In particular, this museum showcases the incredible variety of crafts and ceramics created throughout the Inca Empire. You can also learn about Bingham’s expeditions here; the museum has signs in English and Spanish.
The museum is located in Casa Concha, in Santa Catalina Ancha 320, and it’s open from Monday to Saturday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is 20 Peruvian Soles ($5 USD).
Get Artsy at Museo de Arte Popular
For a more modern taste of Cusco’s art world, head to the Museo de Art Popular. Cusco puts on an annual Popular Arts Competition, and it’s at this museum that winning pieces are displayed. A visit provides a good insight into local life in the modern city, with many artists from the San Blas in particular showcasing their skills.
Pieces range from funny, satirical takes on everyday life, all the way to fine art style realism. Ceramics are also on show, depicting various scenes, including drunken displays of revelry in local restaurants and a blood-spattered butcher’s shop.
The museum is located on Avenida El Sol and is open Monday to Saturday from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm and from 2:00 to 6:00 pm. Admission is part of Cusco Boleto Turistico – you can get that here.
Check out the Coca Museum
Drinking coca tea (mate de coca) is certainly one of the things to do in Cusco to fight the effects of altitude. Once the key ingredient of Coca Cola (hence the name!), the leaves of the coca plant have been long known to the people of the Andes, who use them abundantly for medical and recreational purposes.
What better way to honor coca leaves than visiting Cusco Coca Museum? The museum is actually small, but interesting. Plus you can buy all sorts of coca-based goodies (candies, tea bags and what not).
The Coca Museum is located in Plaza San Blas 618 and it’s open Monday to Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Visiting is free.
Pop inside the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco (CTTC)
One of the best things to do in Cusco if you have a thing for textiles is to head to the market. But to get a better understanding of the role of the colorful textiles in local societies, and for information on how they are made, head to the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco. You can also buy your fabrics to being home there – and you’ll be sure they are handmade and 100% sustainable.
The museum is located on Avenida Sol 603, near the Koricancha. It is open daily, from 7:30 am to 8:00 pm. Visiting is free.
Enjoy a meal in one of Cusco’s fabulous restaurants
Cusco is packed with excellent restaurants. You will find anything, from traditional Peruvian staples like the cuy (guinea pig) you can enjoy at Nuna, to typical Chinese Peruvian food (known as Chifa) if you are traveling on a budget, to more refined fusion cuisine (my personal favorite).
For an incredible meal prepared with fresh ingredients and excellent service, head to La Morena. It’s in the Plaza de Armas. You’ll need to call ahead of time to book your table, especially if you want to sit by the window for a romantic dinner; but they take last minute guests too – simply walk there and put your name on the waiting list.
The best all day breakfast / brunch is at Jack’s – we went the day after we got back from the Inca Trail and we stuffed our faces with delicious pancakes, fruit salads and freshly brewed coffee.
Sample Some Chocolate
Peru may be known for ceviche, among other famous dishes, but chocolate plays a big role here too. There are a surprising number of chocolatiers to be found across the city, where you can sample local produce made from high-quality cacao beans.
When you’re at the chocolate houses, you’ll have the chance to try various kinds of chocolate. For chocolate lovers, you may want to get hands on and get involved in classes where you can learn how to make dishes that use chocolate as an ingredient.
It goes without saying that a chocolate tasting and even chocolate making experience is one of the most fun things to do in Cusco.
Party the night away
If you want to have a fun time in Cusco, don’t fret: the city isn’t all about churches and archaeological sites. In fact, one of the unmissable things to do in Cusco is appreciating its nightlife. In this respect, Cusco actually has a lot to offer, and is in fact rated among the liveliest nightlife scenes in South America – I only know too well! My first time there, I almost missed my flight back because I was too busy having fun!
Thanks partly to the vibrant backpacking community that flows through the town, the many bars and clubs around the Plaza de Armas are often busy with revelers – both local and international.
The hotspot in town is Mama Africa, which stays open till the early hours of the morning (5 am) and plays a mix of hip-hop and electronic music. There’s also late-night drinks to be had around San Blas, with happy hours and live music aplenty.
For a guided night tour of Cusco that also goes to San Pedro Market, click here.
Head off on a day trip
Cusco makes for the ideal place to base yourself for numerous day trips around the region. In fact, many travelers to Cusco end up settling into the city for a week or so, and use it as a jumping off point to explore the surrounding area and further afield.
Here you will have the option to spend the day at the famous Rainbow Mountain, explore the Sacred Valley (where you can see Moray and Moras Salt Mines), or spend the day at Pisac Ruins and even Ollantaytambo. There’s something for everyone, and many of the sights are within a couple of hours’ drive from the city. If you don’t feel like taking public transport, there are many tour companies who can provide for your trip.
To book your day trip to Rainbow Mountain, click here.
For a day trip to the Sacred Valley, click here.
Make sure to read my post The Best Day Trips From Cusco.
Visit Machu Picchu
The Inca Citadel of Machu Picchu is everything you imagine it to be – and perhaps more. It’s such an incredible sight that it will literally take your breath away, or even bring tears to your eyes (that’s what happened to me the first time I visited!). The site is actually quite spread out, and were it not for the fact that you now need to book a time slot for your visit, you could easily spend a day exploring it.
It takes about 5 hours to get from Cusco to the entrance of Machu Picchu – so I don’t really recommend doing it as a day trip – you should plan to spend a night or two in Aguas Calientes instead. But if you are tight on time, you could consider going on a guided day trip, where you don’t have to worry about transportation at all!
For a full-day guided trip from Cusco to Machu Picchu, click here.
Go to Humantay Lake
Humantay is a glacier lake located near Cusco, at an altitude of 4,200 meters (12,630 feet) above sea level. It’s a fantastic place to visit on a day trip – a hike of about two hours will reward you with fabulous views of the lake surrounded by snowcapped mountains. The altitude may be intimidating, but I promise you it is doable. Just follow a slow, steady pace. It’s definitely better than riding horses!
To book your guided tour to Humantay, click here.
Make sure to also read my post A Complete Guide To Hiking Laguna Humantay.
If you are planning a trip to Peru, these posts will come in handy:
- Where To Stay In Cusco
- The Best Cusco Travel Tips
- Everything You Need To Know About The Inca Trail
- What To Pack For The Inca Trail
- The Best Things To Know Before Visiting Peru
- The Best Things To Do In Peru
- The Best Hikes In Peru
- A Short Guide To Ollantaytambo