So you’re going to Cusco and wondering what are the best things to do in Cusco? Then you’ve come to right place. I’ve listed the best things you can do while your visiting the historical city of Cusco. I’ve added some pro tips that’ll help you navigate the city effectively and safely. I’ve also added some tips for you to follow that can help you save some money, so you’re not overpaying and staying on budget.
Introduction to Cusco
Cusco is a beautiful city which was once the capital of the Inca Empire which ruled a large portion of Western South America. Conquered in the 16th century by the Spanish, many signs of the Inca Empire still remain. The Incas were known for their amazing stonework, which still stand strong throughout the city of Cusco. Many of these sites are open for tourists to see and explore.
Furthermore, tourist can also explore many sites show the aftermath of the Empire. After the conquest, the Christian Church began building many churches in the city and began converting people to Christianity. However, what is most interesting is that the Inca people still kept parts of their faith and culture and incorporated it to Christianity. This effect can be seen throughout Churches and art pieces that are now exposed all over the city of Cusco. A notable example of this is the painting of Marcos Zapata which depicts the moment of the Last Supper. However, in his rendering of the image, Jesus and his apostles eat Guinea pig (cuy), adding a touch of the Inca’s culture.
In other works, visitors will notice the depiction of Virgin Mary in the shape of a mountain, which would suggest that the Incas interpretation of Virgin Mary was that of Mother Earth. These works show that the Incas understanding and approval of Christianity was built using their own belief system.
Top 20 Things to Do in Cusco, Peru
1. Plaza de Armas
Once arrived, you’ll soon be looking for things to do in Cusco. Plaza de Armas is a great place to start your visit in Cusco. Due to the high altitude of Cusco, you’ll want to take it easy on your first day in the city and the Plaza de Armas is the perfect place to do that. The Plaza is filled with restaurants, coffee shops and shops for you to visit while you get acclimated to the altitude.
Also, as the cultural nexus of the city, the Plaza is situated near many of the cities churches and museums. Here’s a pro tip: when you arrive at one of the Churches on the Plaza, make sure to buy a general ticket which lets you in most of the other museums and churches. This will prevent you from overpaying. Also, if you’re a student, make sure to bring along your student identification card to receive a discount. In many instance you should receive a discount, however some places only allow a discount for Peruvian students.
2. Machu Picchu
The Macchu Picchu is an absolute must-see if you’re going to Cusco, or just Peru at all. The Machu Picchu was voted to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, making it one of the most important monuments on Earth. Pro tip: I strongly recommend that you visit the Machu Picchu with a tour guide. You can find a guide at the entrance of the Machu Picchu. It’s my opinion that you wouldn’t get half the experience of the Macchu Picchu.
For a private tour, you can expect the cost to be around 50 soles (15 USD), however if you don’t mind pairing up with other groups of tourist, the tour guide will be ready to lower the price.
Sun Gate & The Inca Bridge
After the tour, you’ll be given time to wander Machu Picchu on your own. Having seen all the monuments already, you’ll want to visit the Sun Gate and or the Inca Bridge.
Pro Tip: Getting Prepared Before Heading Back Out After the Tour
These are situated about 20-30 minutes away from the main Machu Picchu site, so you’ll want to prepare for some hiking. I recommend that you take some time offer after the tour to get something to eat at one of the restaurants near the entrance of the Machu Picchu. You have two choices, the Machu Picchu Snack Bar and Tinkuy Restaurant. The snack bar is more affordable, and serves sandwiches, pizzas and desserts. The Tinkuy Restaurants is a famous high-end buffet style restaurant, which is 40 USD per person. Before you head back out on your trek, I also recommend that you visit the bathroom (2 sols/60 cents USD) and grab some water at the vending machine or the surrounding souvenir shops.
Most people only choose to visit one or the other. However, I went to both which require a lot of effort. But I want very happy to have seen both. If you’re like me and would like to visit both, I suggest you arrive to Machu Picchu as early as possible. This will allow you enough time to do the guided tour and then go visit the Sun Gate and/or the Inca Bridge. Note: you don’t HAVE to visit both. This trek is already strenuous enough. Look at the pictures and see what interests you most. Personally, I thought the view of Machu Picchu from Sun Gate was breath taking and would recommend it over Inca Bridge.
3. Humantay Lake
This was one my favorite places to visit on my entire trip to Peru. The view while climbing (and descending) was absolutely amazing. Situated at 4,200 meters in altitude, you find Humantay Lake, which of beautiful green color. Behind the lake sits glaciers making it one of the best landscape I’ve ever seen.
When you arrive at Humantay Lake, you might see most tourists staying near the entrance of the lake. But I totally recommend you go explore the surroundings of the lake. You might also want to crouch near the water and spot tiny baby fish swimming near the shore. Be very quiet, or else they might get shy and swim away.
Also if you’ve got some time, you should also make a stack of rocks like we’ve done. You’ll enjoy the thrill of balancing the rocks together, which is similar to a game of Jenga but outdoors and surrounded by glaciers.
4. Rainbow Mountain
Rainbow Mountain is a colorful new attraction in Peru. The top of the mountain is a 5,200 meters in altitude. However with most tours, the tour bus will bring at around 4,200 meters high, and you’ll have to hike the rest of the mountain. You’ll get enjoy beautiful landscape as you go up the mountain. You’ll also get to see up close alpacas walking around and eating. Once on top, you’ll get to see the rainbow color mountains and get some stunning photos.
If you choose to do the tour leaving from Cusco, the bus typically will leave really early in the morning at around 3-4 am, and then
If you don’t want to hike up the mountain, you can hire a horse! The cost of going up on a horse from the beginning of the trek is around 90 sols (30 USD). You will see at the throughout the hike many locals standing by their horse and at several points of trek. You can go up to up and ask them if they bring you up. Also, you also have the choice of hiking halfway and then hiring a horse for a lesser price.
During my trip on Rainbow Mountain, I did ride a horse for about 5 minutes and then got down. I was about 3rd up the mountain and didn’t actually mind climbing, I just wanted to ride a horse and have the experience of it. But I soon realized the horse I got on was really tired and I felt really bad. I had paid for longer up, but I just got down and continued up without him. I’m 165 pounds (75 kg) and I think the horse I chose was a bit too small for me. In hindsight, I should of used better judgement and waited a bit longer to find a bigger horse.
Pro tip (I wish I had before going): Make sure your prepare for some altitude sickness on Rainbow Mountain, especially when you get to the top of the mountain. Some people will go to Rainbow Mountain without feeling any form of sickness other than being a little bit more out of breath than usual. In my experience, I ate s**t. Everything was fine on the way up, however things took a turn when I got to the last 100 meters. You can read can read my pity party article about my altitude sickness here. If not, you can read my article about to help prevent altitude sickness.
5. Cusco Cathedral, Iglesia del Triunfo, & Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus
These Churches are situated on the Plaza de Armas, you’ll want to get a general ticket so you can have access to all of them without overpaying. I also recommend you get yourself a tour guide once you enter the Church at the entrance. A tour guide will cost you around 30-40 sols (around 10 USD).
During your trip you’ll get to see some art that I personally found fascinating. You can clearly see that the Inca’s interpretation of Christianity was heavily influenced with their beliefs and culture before the conquest. You’ll find a many shrines that a very interesting history. We were told by the tour guide that these shrine were built for rich family, where each Sunday, the family would have the luxury of getting a private mass within the confine of their own shrines. In return, these families would financially support the Church. Families would also compete for the best looking shrine, by giving more to the Church and adding pieces to the shrine made of a precious metals.
If you want to do like me, after your tour, head over to El Meson of Don Thomas for some guinea pig (cuy). It’s a minute away from the churches.
7. The Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley tour will bring you to many different sites include Pisac Market, Pisac archeological site, Ollantaytambo and finally Chinchero. This is a whole day trip with a bit of hiking, but nothing like Rainbow Mountain, Humantay Lake or Machu Picchu. I went on this trek one my second day in Cusco and I recommend you do the same. Since you might no more time to get used to the altitude, this tour requires the least amount of effort compared to the other tours.
Pisac archeological site
This site was built in between the 10 and 11th century. Tourist are able to explore temples, markets, terraces which were built and used by the Incas.
Pro tip: My visit to the Pisac archaeological site initiated me to Inca architecture. It was also my first day trekking and I underestimated how hot it would get. I recommend you layer up for morning time which can be quite cold, however, you want to be able to remove those layers. It gets pretty hot and the sun is scorching, so bring some sunblock as well.
8. San Pedro Market
You’ll find San Pedro Market about 10 minutes away from Cusco’s main square, Plaza de Armas. At the market you’ll find vendors food, clothing and souvenirs. You’ll also find places to eat. During my time at the market I munched on some empenadas while I browsed the market.
Haggle With the Vendors
If you do decide to shop, don’t be afraid to haggle. Vendors will increase prices when they see you a tourist, so don’t be afraid to ask them for a lower price. Throughout my trip to Peru, I would often pick more than one item but only see interested in a single item. After being given the price, I suddenly bring the second item into play, where I would then ask for a good price since I was buying two items instead of one.
The Sacsayhuamán can be found on the outskirts of Cusco. The site was first built by the Killke during the 10 and 11th century and then taken over by the Incas in the 13th century who than expanded the site. As is the case with many of the Inca site tourists can visit in Cusco, I strongly suggest that you get a tour guide if you arrived on the site without a bus tour. There are tour guides available near the entrance of the site. Many bus tours of the Sacsayhuamán will take a stop at the Cristo Blanco (read about it below).
10. Cristo Blanco
The Cristo Blanco is perched at the top Pukamuqu Mountain and can be seen throughout Cusco. They monument was gifted by Palestinian Christians who came to Peru as refugees during the World War II. From atop, the status gazes in front of Cusco, offering its visitors a beautiful view of the city from high up. Tourist may want to visit the statue at night to enjoy of the Cusco’s city night lights.
How to Get to Cristo Blanco
To get to the top the mountain you can use a taxi. Cristo Blanco is a 15 minute drive from Cristo Blanco. Typically, such a taxi ride will cost you around 15-20 sols (4.65 to 6.6 USD).
If you’re embarking in one of the bus tours of the city, ask the tour guide if the bus stop at Cristo Blanco. Many bus tours of the Sacsayhuaman for example, will also stop at Cristo Blanco for about 15-20 minutes. If you’re not planning on doing any tours that stop at Cristo Blanco, then taking a taxi is also a good option.
If you don’t mind, Cristo Blanco is 30 minutes away from Plaza de Armas. You’ll have to climb up 150 meters up the mountain, which is not that bad compared to the hiking of the Machu Picchu for example. Personally, I wouldn’t walk. It’s hard to know what kind of neighborhoods you’ll cross on your way there.
Things to Do in Cusco You Should Avoid
11. Museo de Arte Precolombino of Cusco
This museum is dedicated to artworks that were created during Pre-Colombian times. This era denotes the time that precedes the arrival of Christopher Columbus in arrival in 1492.
The artworks presented in this museum were made by indigenous peoples who lived in South America prior any interference with European countries. The museum thus presents an important view of the history of the Indigenous Americas.
The museum includes over 450 different artworks, some of which date as far 1250 BC, or so from 3270 years ago! These artworks are mostly presented in the form of sculptures, paintings and clothing. The museums includes 11 showrooms and is presented in English, French and Spanish.
The museum also is the hosts to one of Cusco most famous restaurants, MAP, which I included down below in the list of restaurants you should try in Cusco.
12. Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is a trek that starts in Cusco and ends at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. The trek lasts 4 days and passes through many of Cusco most famous sites, including:
Ollantaytambo, Piscacucho, Wayllabamba, Wayllabamba, Warmi Wañuska (Dead Woman’s Pass), Paqaymayu, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñayhuayna, Intipunku, Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, Cusco.
I personally decided not to do the Inca Trail due to the fact that the trek lasts 4 days and can be extremely strenuous. However, I wouldn’t recommend anyone against it. Upon my arrival at the top of the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu, which happens to be the end point of the Inca Trail, I had the pleasure of seeing people making it to the end of the trek. I witnessed many of these people crying and being very proud of themselves. A women told me that this had been a “bucket list” thing of hers for many years and that she was so proud of herself for going through with it. I quickly found myself adding to my own bucket list of things to do: that one day I would like to return to Peru and do the Inca Trail. Among the trekkers was a man who told us he was 76 years old, which made me realize that if he could do it, I had no excuse to say that I could not.
Being at the heart of many of Peru’s main attractions, you sure won’t run out of things to do in Cusco. That being said, you will need to have a taste of Peruvian cuisine to get the full cultural experience of Peru. In my opinion, Peruvian cuisine does not receive the attention it deserve.
Peru offers a wide range of dishes made with ingredients that cannot be found elsewhere in the world. For example, Peru has a wide variety of corns which are native to the country. Included in many of its signature dishes, tourists will get to try the country’s different types of corns. Such dishes include Peru’s national dish: ceviche. A dish so important, Peruvians created a national holiday dedicated to ceviche!
Another interesting and unique aspect of Peruvian cuisine is their use of meats that are atypical to many other countries around the world. Notably, guinea pig and alpaca. This presents a delightful new experience to tourists and adds to the distinctiveness of Peruvian cuisine.
Listed below are the some of the best restaurants in Cusco that’ll give you a taste of Peruvian culture. I’ve listed below restaurants within many price ranges. I’ve also made mention of a few notable American fast food type restaurants might the craving come to you during your time in Cusco.
13. El Meson de Don Thomas
After a long day of trekking, you might want to spend a visit at El Meson de Don Thomas and try some guinea pig (cuy). This is a very popular dish in Peru making it a must-have during your trip. I was recommended this restaurant by one of the tour guides after a tour of the churches at Plaza de Armas (read about them below). The restaurant is situated a few steps away from Cusco’s main square, Plaza de Armas, which is convenient since chances are you’ll be spending a lot of time near that area during your trip in Cusco.
The restaurant is considered one of the best restaurants in Cusco for guinea pig (cuy). When we went to the restaurant and the waiter brought the guinea pig, we began taking pictures and looking at it. But when it came down to eating it, we didn’t know where to start. This is when the waiter as if on cue, intervened and brought the guinea pig back to the kitchen. He then came back with the guinea pig cut into pieces which we easily eat. You can read more about my experience eating guinea pig here.
14. MAP Cafe
Located inside the Museo de Arte Precolombino, MAP is considered to be one of the best fine dining restaurants in Cusco. The menu takes on a creative twist on traditional Peruvian cuisine, using many ingredients that native to Peru.
A diner for two landed us a 610 sols (190$ USD) bill which included 2 appetizers, 2 main courses, 4 drinks, and 1 dessert. I thought the experience was worthwhile withstanding what was one of the most visually beautiful meals I’ve ever had. Paired with
Personally, as much as I love food, I don’t consider myself a foodie. I can be perfectly happy without a fine-dining experience where the portions tend to be bigger and less expensive. So I have to mention that none of these restaurants I’ve listed are not a must have during your trip to Cusco. It depends on you, what interests you and what you’re ready to pay for food. You’re trip can be just as good without a fine dining experience.
15. American Food Restaurants
Needless to say that you will want to maximize your experience of Peru and try as many of their foods as possible. Personally, I find myself in need of familiar foods especially when I’ve been out away from home for a long time. If you are like me, the Plaza de Armas has three restaurants that will be familiar to most tourists from America and Europe.
I’m taking about good old McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks. So when the crave strikes. Go for it. A trio at McDonalds and KFC will cost around 15-20 sols (4.65-6.20 USD). I especially recommend these when you have had a long day visiting a place like Machu Picchu and you want to eat fast and go straight to bed, which is a likely event, trust me.
Places to Stay In Cusco
While there are many things to do Cusco and most of your time will be spent out and about, you’ll need a good place for a well-deserved night of sleep every night. I’ve listed below good options for all price ranges.
I stayed in 6 different places during my time in Cusco. All of these places we’re located near the main square of Cusco, Plaza de Armas. This was extremely practical since most things to do in Cusco are or begin near this location. The bus tours for example, began and ended near the main square. Also, the neighborhood surrounding the main square had many restaurants and shops, so we were close to almost everything which was convenient.
During my time in Cusco, I spent most of my time in Cusco at the 5-star hotel, JW Marriot, which was definitely a luxury. However, I have also stayed at a $20 USD AirBnB that landed me 3 nights in a damp, below freezing point apartment whose shower had at best lukewarm water, which was perhaps the most horrible “accommodation” I’ve ever had.
The J.W. Marriott is a 5-star hotel, which has an exceptional service paired with luxurious hotel rooms. The hotel offers two free vouchers per person for pisco sours which you can use at the bar situated on the first floor of the hotel. The hotel also included a heated pool along with a sauna and a Jacuzzi.
The hotel was built on top of what once was a building built by the Inca. The site was excavated for you to visit in the basement of the hotel. Each day at 6:30 PM, the hotel offers a tour of the hotel where the guide explains the process it took to build the hotel and excavate structures built by the Inca.
Also every morning between 6:30 AM and 11 AM, a women brings a baby alpaca to the hotel courtyard, where you can take pictures with. During our visit to the alpaca, the women let us feed the baby alpaca with milk.
The JW Marriot was definitively the best hotel that I’ve stayed in during my time Cusco, however, I don’t think staying in a 5-star hotel for that long was a necessity. There are definitely other hotels in Cusco that will do you just as good. Since there are so many things to do in Cusco you won’t be staying your hotel that much. So you don’t have to pay top dollar in Cusco in order to be fully satisfied.
I had a bad experience at the AirBnB I went to so I won’t make any recommendations in that regards. I visited Cusco during June and July, which is considered to be winter time in Peru. While the temperature during the days are comfortable, the nights are very cold. What I’ve also noticed is that most houses in Cusco do not have heating, so it gets very cold at night. I was freezing the whole time I spent at that AirBnb.
If you decide to stay at an AirBnB in Cusco, I recommend that you get one that has heating. If not, I recommend that you sleep with socks on with sweatpants and a good linen pyjama.