The Best Things to do in Cusco, Peru
Cusco is one of the most interesting cities in South America and it’s largely because of its unique flavor. The Peruvian city the longest inhabited city in the Americas and colonial buildings clash with old Incan architecture. In many cases, those colonial buildings sit on the foundations of the former Incan empire.
Cusco is both touristy and authentic. You’ll find a woman in traditional dress on her way to the market while another three attempt to ply you away to take a photo with them and their adorable pet llama for a few soles. Mass tourism has yet to ruin the vibe, yet you can easily find good food and a decent cappuccino. All of this takes place in the heart of the Andes and the gateway to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.
Almost every traveler to Peru makes their way to the city and for good reason, there are so many great things to do in Cusco. After several days of exploring the city in June, we made this simple list of things to do on your own in Cusco, Peru. We hope it makes your next trip to Cusco all the better.
22 Amazing Things to do in Cusco
Plaza de Armas
This is central square in Cusco and similar to what you’ll find in many South American cities. It’s always a hub of activity with tourists and locals alike going about their day or exploring. You can’t miss this site in the center of the city, and it is one of the best things to do in Cusco.
Plaza de Armas is a fantastic focal point for the city and the various colonial buildings and cathedrals that line the square are really impressive. In the former stone arcades built by the Spanish, you’ll find tour agencies, bars, restaurants, along with a handful of shops.
Cathedral of Santo Domingo, Cusco
There are two Cathedrals off of the Plaza de Armas. The Cathedral of Santo Domingo was Cusco’s first Cathedral and its grandest. When establishing their colonies the Spanish quickly went to converting all to Catholicism and set out to build imposing cathedrals. Construction for the cathedral began in 1560 on the grounds of the Palace of the Viracocha Inca and today is a site to be marveled.
Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus
This is the cathedral next to the Cusco Cathedral. Its stature is not as grand as the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, but the workmanship and craft are mind-boggling. The exterior is wonderfully intricate with fantastic details, but its interior covered in gold leaf will take your breath away. It’s well regarded as the most beautiful baroque church in the Americas.
Buy Quality Alpaca Wool
You’ll find street vendors all over Cusco selling sweaters, socks, and hats all claiming to be real alpaca. The simple fact is you’re not getting Alpaca a wool sweater for $10, despite their claims.
The majority of street vendors are selling a blend of Alpaca/Llama wool with a lot of synthetic nylon fiber. While it won’t be your prized possession it’s still cheap and cute.
The real stuff will be incredibly soft, cool to the touch, and lightweight – take a walk in a few nice shops and you’ll notice the difference and price. The higher end shops offer real alpaca products, we liked Sol Alpaca and KUNA. The clothing there is often made from baby alpaca, the most prized fiber as it is the first shearing of the baby alpaca and thus the softest.
I was able to pick up a nice baby alpaca sweater for around $100 on sale at Sol Alpaca but was prepared for $200+ a sweater.
Learn to Make a Pisco Sour
Every traveler to Peru should try a pisco sour, which is the national drink of Peru. You can find pisco sours everywhere in the country, but we suggest trying your hand in a cocktail making class.
We had a personal demonstration at our hotel at Machu Picchu, but you can find classes at museums, hotels, hostels, and tours. Take the time to try one – it’s one of the best things to do in Cusco!
If you’re not a big drinker or don’t drink alcohol that’s okay because you can try Chicha Morada. It’s a super tasty drink made from purple corn, pineapple, cinnamon, clove, and sugar. You can find it in restaurants, cafes, and small food stands at local markets.
The local markets serve it up from a large premade tub, if you have a sensitive stomach it may be best to get it at a restaurant or hotel.
You’ll see a lot of Incan architecture while traveling around Peru. It seems as if everywhere you go you’ll find some trace of the former civilization. They are well regarded for their amazing stonework, engineering, and architecture.
If you want to see one of the finest examples check out the Twelve-Angled Stone on Hatun Rumiyoc Street. It’s considered a piece of natural heritage and praised for its ingenuity.
Qorikancha and the Convent of Santo Domingo
The former temple of Qorikancha was a centerpiece for the Incan Empire. It was regarded as the most significant building in the capital city and was dedicated to the worship of the Sun God. It operated as an observatory and a calendrical device where around 4,000 of the most empires and important priests observed celestial activity. The garden was once covered in gold sheets and featured full llama sized statues in solid gold.
However, in the war against the conquistadors, the temple was destroyed and the gold was seized. Now, the convent of Santo Domingo sits on the foundation of Qorikancha. It’s an amazing blend of colonial and Incan architecture. The site carries a lot of historical value and meaning, for anyone visiting the city you should check out Qorikancha.
Snap a Photo With a Baby Llama
If you’ve seen anyone’s photo where they’re holding a llama with a lot of traditionally dressed women it’s not hard to replicate in Cusco. Throughout the city, you’ll find women in traditional dress with a baby alpaca who will take a photo with you for a few soles.
We gave this one a skip while in Cusco because we thought the Quechua women and their llamas would be at Machu Picchu, but they weren’t. We later kicked ourselves for not getting the photo in Cusco.
Shop for Cheap and Cheerful Souvenirs
I mentioned those cheap sweaters earlier. They may not be real alpaca, but they’re still cute. Everywhere in the city, you’ll find small open-air markets selling souvenirs like hats, socks, scarves, sweaters, jewelry, and trinkets.
Peru is a country where you barter for your goods so the price they first state may not be the final price. We generally start at 50% of the initial offer and then meet somewhere in the middle.
The Conquistadors tried hard to remove all former Incan ruins, but so much remains throughout the city such as Sasayhuamán. It was the site of a former Incan military fortress. A stunning example of Incan architecture as it features some of the largest stones used in all their former sites. Massive granite stones interlink so tightly that no mortar was necessary to keep the imposing walls standing, in spite of being in an earthquake zone.
Stones are all carved in square or rectangular size pieces, but there is no conformity in size and they’re all designed in near perfect harmony. You can hike to the site from the city center, but it’s best to take your time given Cusco’s high altitude. We spend a fair amount of time in the mountains and still found ourselves short of breath during hikes in Peru.
A short walk from Sacsayhuamán is a giant statue of Jesus Christ, referred to as Cristo Blanco. The statue was a gift from Palestinian refugees who fled to Cusco after World War II. It stands eight meters tall and while the statue is not particularly significant the view of Cusco from its platform is well worth the visit if you’re already visiting Sacsayhuamán.
Barrio de San Blas
Our favorite area of Cusco has to be the San Blas quarter. It’s full of small shops, artisans, health shops, and a few cute cafes. We spent an afternoon dipping into the various shops here and exploring. The quarter is a maze of small streets and cobblestone roads.
Those roads, such as Hatun Rumiyoc actually date back to the Incas and really transport you back in time as you walk along the street. We got lucky and caught a live band playing in the square next to the lovely Iglesia San Blas, you can see that in the video above.
Iglesia de San Blas
The church itself is rather plain, but it has a lovely square that provides nice views of the neighborhood. It also happens to be the most open area of the cramped neighborhood giving you a chance to breathe and walk around.
If you have the time stop inside the church and marvel at the famous pulpit. There are a lot of myths about the creation of the wood pulpit, but one thing is certain it’s a wonderful display of carpentry.
Try Some Cuy
As vegetarians, we gave a big skip to this, but trying cuy is a must do for many travelers. Cuy is what most refer to as a guinea pig, or in other words a pet, but here it is a Peruvian delicacy. The dish is an important part of Peruvian national identity and you’ll find it on menus around the country.
The most common form of preparation is by roasting the guinea pig in a wood-fired clay oven. It’s said to taste similar to duck or rabbit meat, but I honestly couldn’t tell you. (If you miss it in Peru you can also find it in neighboring Ecuador).
Take a Cooking Class
This is one of those must do things in Cusco, Peru. This is always a great thing to do in new destinations, particularly one with an interesting culinary culture. There are a number of tours available in Cusco to learn to cook with Andean flavors. We made sure to try one and now are experts at making our own ceviche. 😜
The Incas were are well regarded for their impressive astronomical prowess. It’s easy to see why with the clear sky views provided by the high altitudes in the Andes.
If you’d like to learn more about the stars and Peru’s long history with then head to the Planetarium Cusco. It’s a family run establishment that shows visitors the night sky Monday-Saturday on clear nights.
San Pedro: Cusco Market
This is the largest market in Cusco and it’s a melting pot of tourists and locals. In a short walk from the most touristy spot in Cusco, Plaza De Armas. You’ll find local’s in traditional dress from around the country, each region has it’s own outfit.
You’ll find all sorts of street food here like canchita (fried Peruvian corn), fried plantains, empanadas, buttifaras (traditional ham sandwich), and lots of juices. It’s a wonderful cultural experience and reminds you why travel can be such a rewarding experience. Make sure to add this to your list of things to do in Cusco, it’s a must.
Stay in a Monastery
Spanish architecture is all over South America and it plays an important role in Peru. At the two Belmond properties in Cusco visitors are afforded the opportunity to stay in old Spanish monasteries. We stayed at the Belmond Hotel Monasterio for a night and its property dates back to 1592! This property is seriously amazing, and staying here is one of the best things to do in Cusco, Peru!
The atmosphere in the hotel is a seamless blend of luxury and history. Walking along the quiet arched corridors that surround the open air courtyards you feel as if you’ve been transported back in time. Along the walls and inside the rooms you’ll find original artwork from 16rth century! The site of the monastery is the site of a former Incan palace and just sleeping here feels like a special privilege.
We were fortunate enough to stay in one of their suites with a large parlor, balcony, and massive bathroom with his and hers sinks. The room had original artwork and relics and the design was luxurious while never clashing with its historical routes. The floor had large stone tiles covered by beautiful rugs and exposed beams lie overhead.
There is one place that you forget about the history and that is quite happily the bathroom. Marble floors, large mirrors, modern fixtures, and granite countertops are welcome displays of the luxury bath products. When morning time comes you’ll have open access to the quiet courtyard and listen to the birds singing.
Even if you’re not staying at the hotel it’s well worth a chance to stop in and enjoy lunch, a coffee, or afternoon tea. The courtyard and the hotel halls all feel like you’re walking through a museum. Our only complaint about the hotel is that there was not enough time to properly enjoy the property, and we wish we could have stayed longer.
Explore the Sacred Valley
15km north of Cusco lies Rio Urubamba Valley or The Sacred Valley. It’s a gorgeous part of the world with stunning views of high Andean mountain peaks on either side of the long valley. The valley is home to cute colonial towns and villages that are well worth the exploration. Two amazing places to see are the markets and former Incan sites at Pisac and Ollantaytambo.
A day trip to either of these sites is certainly something to consider, but really it all needs more than just one day and is great for those that want to hike. There are a lot of places to stay in Ollantaytambo and we recommend using that as a base to explore the valley. Or you can always book a tour to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Day Trip to Machu Picchu
This is definitely not a thing to do in Cusco, but it is possible to make a day trip out of Cusco to see Machu Picchu. You’ll have to take one of the trains roundtrip and you have plenty of options for times as they run all day. Just make sure to book your tickets in advance and confirm the schedule.
We took the journey to Machu Picchu with the Hiram Bingham a luxury train operated by Belmond and Peru Rail and it was a highlight of our entire time in Peru (Watch the video here). You can also explore options run by IncaRail and look for which train option suits you best.
When to Visit Cusco
Peru is a popular destination these days and draws plenty of visitors. Add to the mix a slightly chaotic city and things can get a little busy in high season. The majority of visitors visit in the dry season which runs from June until August.
Our advice would be to aim for the shoulder seasons in May or September. We always say this, but September is one of the best months to travel, just about anywhere so you may still experience crowds.
Altitude Sickness in Cusco
Cusco sits at 3,399 meters which is pretty high for most visitors in the world. A lot of people experience altitude sickness, coming off a snowboard tour in the Alps and Rockies we were okay at high elevation.
However, if you live at a low elevation be prepared for some dizziness and shortness of breath. It’s advised to take the first day in Cusco if you’re at risk.
You can always try the Andean way of coping with the elevation and drink coca tea. Just don’t try to bring any home as the leaves are illegal in the U.S. and Europe – ya know cocaine.
What to Pack for Peru
You’re going to need something to carry your belongings in while you’re traveling around the world. Even if you’re not doing extensive hikes you need at least something small for day trips. My favorite daypacks are from Camelbak.
I love real books, but for traveling it can be easier to carry a lighter and more compact item like a Kindle. Plus, then you can download new books on the go!
Make sure you have a universal travel adaptor like we have before landing in a new destination!