If you’re planning a vacation in Peru or to Machu Picchu, then Cusco will undoubtedly be on your itinerary. If so, keep reading our best things to do in Cusco for tips on what to do, where to eat, where to stay, and more, including a sample itinerary. In addition to this guide, check out our posts on visiting Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley to learn more about how to maximize your time in this area!
Cusco, Peru in a Nutshell
Cusco was the center of the Incan Empire and is the gateway for exploring several Incan ruins. It is not a big city, and yet it is flooded by tourists year-round on their way to Machu Picchu. This makes Cusco appear VERY touristy on its face. Think of it as the Venice of South America. As a foreigner, you’re constantly being asked if you’d like to take a photo with a baby llama or begged to buy souvenirs and trinkets. It can get old pretty quick.
Luckily, with this guide, you can minimize your time spent feeling annoyed by the constant offers and say adios to decision fatigue. We’ll lead you to the places to go and even offer an itinerary based on our time there.
Things to Do in Cusco
Incan Milky Way Walking Tour
The Inkan Milky Way Walking Tour is a 2.5hr walking tour that will give you a layout of the city and arm you with fun facts about Cusco’s history so you can impress all your friends back home. The tour starts everyday except Sunday at 10am, 1pm & 3:30pm at the Plazoleta Regocijo, just a block away from the main plaza. On Sundays, they only have one tour at 10am. On this tour, you’ll visit a couple plazas, learn about Cusco’s history, go to the main market and get a chance to try some frog juice, take selfies with llamas, and learn why Cusco boasted an Aztec statue in its main plaza for decades. Bring sun screen and enough cash for snacks and tipping your tour guide.
Visit Sacsayhuaman and Qenqo
Sacsayhuaman and Qenqo are archeological sites near Cusco. Sacsayhuaman is a huge archaeological site just north of the main plaza and Qenqo is two house-like rock structures within walking distance. Entry to both requires a boleto turistico (If you haven’t heard of a Boleto Turistico, check our our quick Boleto Turistico guide to figure out which one you need!). Sacsayhuaman and Qenqo were arguably the most fun we’ve had at archaeological sites. There are caves AND slides — it’s about as interactive as archaeological ruins get.
To get there, we recommend taking a 10-15 taxi from the plaza to Qenqo (~S/10, $3 USD). Walking is also an option but we recommend taking a cab uphill and walking down back into the city. On your walk back you can also stop by the Cristo Blanco viewpoint that offers a great view of the city. Block out a half day from this excursion and bring some snacks.
**If you’re really into ruins, see Day 2 of the sample itinerary below for a self-guided tour that will maximize your 10-day boleto turistico.
Qorikancha (Coricancha or Koricancha)
Qorikancha is the site once boasted the most important temple of the Incan empire. The temple was mostly destroyed by the conquistadors and a catholic church was built atop its foundations. The site is split into parts: the museum and the church, which the Spanish built atop the Incan ruins to exert their dominance.
The museum is under the large lawn near to the church. It is small, with only about 5 rooms, and requires a boleto turistico to enter. While whoever translated the message boards did a very poor job, it is still insightful. (Did you know the Incas had a practice similar to Chinese foot-binding but instead they elongated skulls?!)
If you were already planning to purchase the 10-day boleto turistico, give the museum a whirl, otherwise, it’s an easy skip. Entrance to the church is S/10 and hiring a tour guide for a 45min tour is about S/30-S/40 ($9-12 USD). We recommend getting a tour, as the information inside is limited. Also because the S/10 you pay to enter the church goes straight back to the Dominican order in Spain (literally $0 goes to Peru); so paying a tour guide is one way to keep tourist dollars inside Peru.
Explore San Blas Neighborhood
San Blas is Cusco’s hipster neighborhood that boasts of coffee shops, concept store, and veg-friendly restaurants. Take in the cobble-stone streets and maybe snap a few pics in front of an adorned balcony.
Shop at the Mercado de San Pedro
Mercado de San Pedro is a great place to stock up on essentials for any upcoming hikes, like coca tea, coca candy, or trail mix. You can also order a smoothie with frog juice or try natural jell-o (literally, brown gelatin). Michelle even bought some cute turquoise earrings from the vendors outside.
Day Trip to the Sacred Valley
Aside from this list, there are many day trips you can take from Cusco. We chose not to day trip, and instead to take time to explore and stay in the towns around Cusco. If you’d like to day trip instead, see this post by Along Dusty Roads. Otherwise, check out our post on exploring the Sacred Valley self guided.
Two Day Cusco Itinerary
Below, I’ve really tried to boil it down to what there is to do in Cusco on a tight schedule. For a three or four day itinerary, I would recommend visiting the Sacred Valley.
Day 1: Do a walking tour in the morning to get acquainted with the city’s layout and history, followed by lunch at Greenpoint. After lunch, explore San Blas by foot, grab a coffee, or buy some souvenirs. For dinner with a view, swing over to Lumis Restobar or View House.
Day 2: After breakfast, stroll to Qorikancha for some learning about the Incas. If you have the boleto turistico, enter the museum for a quick stroll. Otherwise, enter the church to see the ruins. Hire a tour guide for bonus points (and because you’re stimulating the local economy). For lunch, opt for the menu del dia of your choice. Once you’re refueled with lunch and maybe some coffee, hike up to Saqsayhuaman for nice views of the city and a little play time on the slides. You can hop over to the Cristo Blanco mirador for more views.**
**Option: There are more ruins further uphill from Saqsayhuaman that are easily accessed from Cusco. They’re not terribly impressive, so we recommend visiting only if you’re really into ruins and you’ve purchased the 10-day boleto turistico. To visit the ruins self-guided, hail a cab to the furthest archaeological site in the area, Tambomachay. It should be maximum S/20 from the main plaza. From Tambomachay, you can walk across the street to Puca Pucara. From there, I’d recommend catching a cab to the next site, Q’enqo, as there’s not much to see along the way. If you chose to walk or your on a tight budget, it’s a pretty boring 30 minute trek along the road.
Where to Stay in Cusco
There’s no shortage of lodging options in Cusco to fit any travel style/preference. We chose to stay at Nomade Hostel in San Blas for its affordability for private rooms with en suite bathrooms (a luxury when on a trip like ours) and proximity to the square. We had several friends who stayed at hostels around town, with no consensus on where is best. As long as you’re 5-10min from the main plaza (Plaza de las Armas), you should be set.
If you’re planning to make Cusco your homebase to day-trip to the Sacred Valley, look into booking an AirBnB.
Where to Eat in Cusco
There’s no shortage of dining options in Cusco. Below are a few restaurants that we visited and recommend.
Greenpoint is all the rage and for good reason. Their S/18 menu del dia (or set lunch menu) includes a salad bar, soup appetizer, unlimited fresh fruit juice, and a main plate. All vegan and enjoyed in an airy, green courtyard. Definitely try it out.
For an off-the-beaten-path and very cusqueño experience, head to Don Bigote. It’s close to the tourist-dense area and yet just on the outskirt to be tourist-free. They’re known for their rotisserie chicken, but their drinks and apps are also on point. Their 2×15 all-day happy hour and their tequeños con wacamole (it’s actually spelled that way) are dangerously good. We ordered 2 rounds of each!
- Quinoa Cafe – food, affordable, menu del dia for S/7 (has veg. options)
- Organika – organic and locally-grown produce; tasty salads; handmade pasta; plenty of veg. options.
- La Bodega 138 – their pizza and bread are on point
Listed in order of enjoyment:
How to Get to Cusco
Cusco’s airport is well-serviced, though a layover in Lima is virtually unavoidable. If you’re short on time, then flying to Cusco might be your best option.
However, if you can find 5 days to spare, we recommend take your time getting to Machu Picchu by taking an epic bus trip through southern Peru. From Lima, head south to the visit the “Poor Man’s Galapos” in Paracas, then to Ica/Huacachina for a little sandboarding, Peru’s second largest city Arequipa, and finally to Cusco!
Where to Next?
We’ve got a pretty good idea of why your in Cusco. Be sure to check out on the best way to do Machu Picchu and a couple crazy days in the Sacred Valley.
From Cusco, you may want to fly to Lima, as it’s a nearly 24hr bus ride vs a similarly priced 1.5hr flight. You can also take a 8 hour bus to Puno to check out Lake Titicaca and then cross the border in Bolivia.
There you have it, our favorite things to do in Cusco! From us to you, happy adventuring!
All price estimates are accurate as of November 2019.
We like to give credit where it is due. Here are other blogposts we used to help plan our trip:
- 13 Wonderful Things to Do in Cusco – Along Dusty Roads
- Why Do You Need a Boleto Turistico in Cusco? – Tales from the Lens
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4 fun facts about Cusco with pictures: . It sits at 3400m, that’s over 11000ft. Coca leaves and tea are essential for acclimatizing. . . The main market was designed by Gustav Eiffel, but it’s not very pretty. Eiffel may have been suffering from altitude sickness. . . Then Incan statue in the main plaza is relatively recent. It was an Aztec warrior for the longest due to an error in shipping. There’s a town in Mexico that still has an Incan statue adorning their fountain. . . The Inca’s most important temple was located in Cusco. In a display of dominance, the conquistadors had a catholic church built atop the Incan ruins, supported on the Incan foundations. To this day, when you pay to see the ruins, your money goes to the catholic order of Santo Domingo in Spain. . . #cusco #travelblog #insideperu #travelperu #discoverearth #exploreobserveshare #discoverperu #funfacts #globetrotter #adventureseeker #worldtour #theconstantlycurious #culturegram #viajero #southamerica #sudamerica #viajaperu #viajar #viajeros #mochileros #backpacking #traveltoexplore #travelexplore #exploremore #letstravelmore #travelexplorerepeat #travelbloggeres #explorar #travelawesome #fernweh