Cusco is a must-see destination for any traveler visiting Peru. Not only is it the gateway to Machu Picchu, but it is a city full of history and charm of its own. This is a guide on the best things to do in Cusco and its surroundings.
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Cusco, also known as “the belly button of the world”, was the capital of the Inca empire before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in Peru. One of the reasons why the city is so interesting is because of its architecture. On the streets you can see how the old Inca constructions merges with the later colonial architecture. The union of these two worlds is what makes it such an interesting city both historically and architectonically.
Walking through Cusco is like being in a museum, every corner has its history and charm. There are so many monuments and important sites that the city is also known as the “Rome of America” and it’s been a World Heritage Site since 1983.
How many days to spend in Cusco
Cusco is a must stop before visiting Machu Picchu since the ruins are located about 80 km away. However, Cusco is a city with many things to see and do so I recommend that you spend a couple of days in this city before heading to the ancient Inca citadel.
I recommend a minimum stay of 4 days in Cusco and it surroundings. I spent a total of 6 nights and there werw still many places I didn’t visit.
If you are planning a trip to Peru read: 2 weeks in Peru itinerary
Best things to do in Cusco
- Plaza de Armas
The Plaza de Armas of Cusco is the heart of the city, where two of the most emblematic buildings in are located: the Cathedral of Cusco and Compañía de Jesús church.
This is the center of the city so it is surrounded by restaurants, businesses and tourism agencies.
A great option to start your visit to Cusco is to take this 5-hour guided tour which includes a stop in Plaza de Armas,and the interior of the Cathedral with an english speaking local guide.
- San Blas neighborhood
This is the neighborhood with the most beautiful and picturesque streets of the city. In this place you will find many shops with local crafts and souvenirs. In San Blas there are also some cafes with beautiful views of the city.
A place I recommend to visit for great sunset views is Limbus Restobar, located right next to Mirador de San Blas.
↣ Twelve-angles stone: A few blocks from the Plaza de Armas you can find this popular tourist spot. The stone is a great example of the Inca’s advanced construction techniques.
- San Pedro Market
This is the local market where you can find everything: meats, fruits, vegetables, clothes, souvenirs, etc. There are also local food shops where you can eat for a very low price. It is one of the best places to see how locals live everyday life.
- Church and viewpoint of San Cristóbal
San Cristóbal Church is located at one of the highest points in the city. The church square offers a very beautiful view of the city.
Qorikancha and the Convent of Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo is a convent which was built over the ruins of QoriKancha, the main Inca temple of the city that was destroyed with the arrival of the Spanish colonizers.
In this construction you can clearly see that mixture between the Inca and Spanish civilization since the Church and the Convent of Santo Domingo were built preserving the foundations of the ancient temple. Today there is a museum on the site which entrance is included in the Cusco tourist ticket. The tourist ticket allows you to access 16 tourist sites in the city.
Visiting hours: Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. – Sundays from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
- Cusco ruins: Sacsayhuamán, Tambomachay, Kenko and Puca Pucara
Just outside the city of Cusco there are several archeological sites that you can visit. The entrance to these 4 ruins is included in the Cusco tourist ticket. You can take this half-day city tour which includes the visit to the four Inca sites.
Day trips from Cusco
The city of Cusco is the perfect place to use as a base to visit the following places:
- Macchu Picchu
The main reason why everyone wants to visit Peru: Machu Picchu. The lost city of the Incas is located about 80 km from Cusco and it is possible to get there in several ways: the Inca Trail, walking from the Hydroelectric or by train. If you are planning your visit to Machu Picchu I recommend you read my complete guide to visit Machu Picchu where I explain in detail how to get there, how to buy the entrance ticket and more useful tips.
- Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley of the Incas is composed of several archeological sites and towns that you can’t miss. Some of the most popular places in the Sacred Valley are: Písac, Chinchero, Maras, Moray, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. To enter many of these places it is necessary to have the Cusco tourist ticket.
The most comfortable way to explore the Sacred Valley is to take a tour from Cusco. There are also some places that are accesible from Cusco by local buses. Trains to Machu Picchu leave from Ollantaytambo so I recommend you stay overnight in this charming town before or after your visit to the sacred city.
- Maras salt mines and Moray
These two places are within the Sacred Valley but are generally offered on a different tour. The Salineras de Maras are impressive salt mines that date back from the Inca era and is one of the 4 places in the world where pink salt is extracted.
The archaeological site of Moray is one of the most important places in the Sacred Valley. It is believed that these agricultural terraces were an Inca research center where crops were studied at different heights since the temperature of the concentric circular terraces decreases towards the outside, generating different microclimates.
- Rainbow Mountain
Vinicunca Mountain, also called Rainbow Mountain in Peru, became one of the most popular places in Peru thanks to Instagram. The mountain is located about 3/4 hours from Cusco by car. The most comfortable way to get there is by tour since there is no public transport that gets there.
It is a very hard trekking since the mountain is 5,200 meters above sea level. To know more I recommend you read my article: guide to visit the Rainbow Mountain from Cusco.
Another day trip from Cusco is Humantay Lagoon, located in the Andes Mountains with an incredible intense blue color. You can book a tour in the city of Cusco or in advance:
Where to stay in Cusco
- $ – El Balcón Cusco: A hotel which used to be a colonial house from 1630 located in the heart of Cusco. Learn more about my experience at El Balcón here. Click here to find the best rates for El Balcón Cusco.
- $$ – Hotel Monasterio San Pedro: a great hotel where I stayed my first days at Cusco. Amazing location and an excellent price-quality relation. Click here to find the best rates for Hotel Monasterio San Pedro.
- $$ – Kokopelli Hostel Cusco: Great hostel located just 500 metres from Cusco Cathedral. You can find shared and private bedrooms. Click here to find the best rates for Kokopelli Hostel Cusco.
- $$$ – JW Marriott The Cusco Convent: Located in a former convent, the Marriott achieves a combination of luxury, modernity and the original colonial style of the convent. Definitely one of the best luajres to stay in Cusco. See the price of JW Marriott El Convento Cusco on Booking.
Cusco tourist ticket
As I mentioned above, to enter certain places of Cusco and its surroundings it is necessary to buy the Cusco tourist ticket. There are several types of tickets:
- GENERAL TICKET (PEN 130.00): includes 16 attractions (Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo, Puca Pucara, Tambomachay, Museum of Contemporary Art, Regional Historical Museum, Museum of Popular Art, Site Museum of Qoricancha, Qosqo Center of Native Art, Monument to Inca Pachacuteq, Pikillaqta, Tipón, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero and Moray) and is valid for 10 days.
- PARTIAL TICKET – Circuit 1 (PEN 70.00): Includes 4 attractions (Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo, Puca Pucara and Tambomachay) and is valid for 1 day.
- PARTIAL TICKET – Circuit 2 (PEN 70.00): includes 8 attractions (Museum of Contemporary Art, Regional Historical Museum, Museum of Popular Art, Site Museum of Qoricancha, Qosqo Center for Native Art, Monument to Inca Pachacuteq, Pikillaqta, Tipón) and is valid for 2 days.
- PARTIAL TICKET – Circuit 3 (PEN 70.00): includes 4 attractions (Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero and Moray) and is valid for 2 days.
The tourist ticket can be purchased at two places in the city of Cusco (when I visited in March 2019 they only accepted cash):
- COSITUC main office: Galerías Turísticas, Av. Sol N° 103 (Monday to Friday 8 am to 5:30 pm and Saturday from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm).
- OFEC office: Calle Garcilaso (Monday to Saturday 8 am to 5 pm and Sunday 8 am to 8pm).
Getyourguide also sells the ticket online, which is a good option if you want to pay it with credit card:
A discount is offered for university students of around 45% but you must have the ISIC card and be under 25 at the time of your visit.
Where to eat in Cusco
Peru is famous for its exquisite cuisine and in Cusco you will find many restaurants to try some of its typical dishes such as ceviche, guinea pig, sauteed beef, chicharrón (pork rinds), ají de gallina, stuffed rocoto and more. These are some restaurants where I ate during my stay in Cusco:
- Morena Peruvian Kitchen: an excellent restaurant with exquisite food and with excellent service. Ideal for eating traditional Peruvian dishes.
- Carpe Diem Cucina Italiana: as the name implies it is an Italian food restaurant. The best pastas I tried were in this restaurant and its other headquarters in Aguas Calientes.
- Limbus Restobar: this restaurant is perfect to go to see the sunset because it has a spectacular view of Cusco. We ordered some nachos (super abundant) and we stayed for sunset admiring the city from a table on the balcony.
Tips for visiting Cusco
- Altitude sickness: Cusco is 3,399 m above sea level. As our body isn’t usually used to this height, you can suffer what is known as “altitude sickness”. You can have symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, headache, tiredness, etc. The best thing to avoid altitude sickness it is to take the first few days calmly, so that the body gets used to the altitude, drink coca tea and if necessary take some medicine for altitude sickness like these Altitude Sickness Relief pills.
- Wear the right clothes: the weather in Cusco is mild, but remember that it can get quite cold in the morning and at night. If you plan to go hiking it is necessary to wear the right shoes and clothes. If you want to know more I recommend you read my article: The ultimate Peru packing list + downloadable checklist.
I hope this guide on things to do in Cusco has been useful to you when organizing your trip. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to leave it in the comments.
OTHER POSTS OF PERU:
- 2 weeks in Perú Itinerary
- How to visit Machu Picchu on your own
- Rainbow Mountain tour from Cusco
- Peru packing list + downloadable checklist
- Things to do in Lima in 3 days
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