Cusco is more than a place you spend time acclimating to the high altitude. There are plenty of things to do in Cusco alone that you may find yourself needing to extend your stay there. It’s natural to treat Cusco as a ‘home base’ for exploration to the Sacred Valley or Machu Picchu, but it’s worth taking some time to explore around this historic Incan city. To help you plan your trip, we’ve compiled all of our tips into this comprehensive city guide of the top things to do in Cusco, places to stay, and safety tips.
Table of Contents
Things to Do Inside Cusco
Take a Free Walking Tour
This is one of the best ways to see any city, and Cusco is no exception. The free walking tours will take you all around the city, teaching you key Quechua history and cultural facts, and helping you plan a few things to do in Cusco in the coming days.
I took a free walking tour with Free Tours by Foot that was pretty good, but I heard raving reviews about some of the others too. I’d imagine most of them are pretty similar, so I recommend reading the reviews and deciding for yourself.
Hike to the Sacsayhuaman Ruins
Located just north of the city on a tall hill is a set of Incan/Quechua ruins called Sacsayhuaman. It’s a bit of a hike from the city up some stone steps, but it boasts beautiful views and some fascinating ruins to explore. Keep in mind that to enter the ruins, it costs 70 soles ($25).
Peruse the San Pedro Market
In my opinion, there’s nothing quite like visiting a local city market when traveling in a new places. They’re always buzzing with life and full of local surprises. The San Pedro Market is a great place to look for souvenirs, try local teas and fruits, and eat a cheap, “street food”-style meal. Here, you can also buy snacks for trekking and local altitude sickness remedies like agua de florida.
Try Some Local Dishes
One of the best things I did while in Cusco was wander into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and order a rocoto relleno, or stuffed chili pepper. It was AMAZING. Peruvian food is quite unique and has a lot of delicious dishes to explore, so why not try some of the local specialties? In Cusco, some of these local specialties include dishes made with alpaca or guinea pig. The chocolate and coffee here is also to die for.
See the Last Supper Painting…With a Twist
In the Cathedral Basilica, you can see some famous Peruvian paintings . The most notable of them is a painting by Peruvian artist Marcos Zapata. It depicts the iconic Last Supper scene, except Jesus and the disciples are feasting on a delicious meal of cuy, or Peruvian roasted guinea pig. If you’re intrigued by strange or unique art, you can’t miss this – it’s quite the Peruvian take on a classic image! For more information on the painting itself, check out this article on Atlas Obscura.
Relax and Acclimatize
How can I possibly use “relax” as an item to do in a city? Well, for Cusco, this is especially important because you’ll likely need to adjust to the altitude in order to avoid altitude sickness. There are a lot of things to do in Cusco, so it’s tempting to try and do everything in a few days. Be sure to take it easy your first day or two and don’t try to pack too much into each day. Spend some ‘down time’ relaxing at a coffee shop or sampling some Peruvian wines (they’re pretty good!). Your body will thank you.
If You Have More Time
Visit Vinicunca, or Rainbow Mountain
Rainbow Mountain, actually named Vinicunca, is a destination whose popularity has skyrocketed over the past few years due to an uptick in viral social media posts. It’s a really unique place to visit, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life. So, I mentally prepared for a tough hike up to 5,100 meters, laced up my hiking boots, and went for a day hike to Rainbow Mountain. Although it was a tough hike and the tour was slightly rushed, it was worth it to see this colorful mountain for myself. This is one of the more popular things to do around Cusco.
Explore the Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley is an extremely popular tourist destination, but nonetheless one I think is worth a visit. Situated between jagged mountains and striking Incan ruins, it’s an aesthetically incredible place. You can explore the Sacred Valley on a bus tour, but a friend and I decided to try and do it using colectivos. It was cool to see how locals travel around from city to city, but it was pretty inefficient for getting around from place to place. In retrospect, I probably would have just splurged on a private cab ($100-120 total for a full day) to be able to see all of the sights on my own schedule.
Take a Cooking Class
Did I mention Peru’s food is awesome? If you want to learn how you can take these Peruvian restaurants home to your own kitchen, take a cooking class. This is a wonderful, low-key activity to do while acclimatizing to the altitude. Some tour operators even offer fruit tastings for some of the local tropical fruits. I don’t have a specific tour operator to recommend, but this one comes with very high praise.
When to Go
If you’re looking to spend a lot of time outside or to visit Machu Picchu, the best time to visit Cusco is during the dry season, which is April-October. However, the high season for tourism is June-August, so the best time to visit for avoiding the crowds is either April-May or September-October.
Where to Stay
Budget: Kokopelli Hostel
Price: 40 soles or ~$13 USD per night
Reservations: Book here
Kokopelli is an incredibly nice hostel located close to the city center. With individual bed capsules that have attached curtains, it’s a fantastic choice for any backpacker or budget traveler looking for a place to stay.
Splurge: El Retablo Cusco
Price: 300-500 soles or ~$100-150 USD per night
Reservations: Book here
El Retablo is the most vibrant and beautiful hotel I have ever stayed in. With stunning views of Cusco and bright, hand-painted murals everywhere, it’s a splurge worth making. If you’re interested in learning more, you can read my full review of this hotel here.
How to Get Around
Cusco is super walkable, so this will be your best bet in terms of getting from place to place. However, if you find yourself needing a ride somewhere, there are plenty of taxis available in most central areas. Taxis to and from the airport typically run between 20-30 soles. There are also local buses and colectivos (or shared taxis) that will take you to nearby cities, such as Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley.
- Cusco is situated at 3,400 m (or 11,100 feet) of elevation. Therefore, it will be difficult to breathe if you are coming from sea level, especially at first. Make sure you see a doctor before your trip and take the necessary precautions to avoid altitude sickness.
- As with any large city, be aware of your surroundings and keep your valuables hidden. Cusco is generally a safe city but it’s always best to be alert.
How to Get to Cusco, Peru
If you’re arriving in Peru from an international destination, you’ll likely fly into Lima. From Lima, the easiest way to get to Peru is by flying. However, if you’d like to take the scenic route, Peru Hop buses are also a fantastic option (and good value) for getting around the country as a tourist. There are also land border crossings from Ecuador and Bolivia where you can enter Peru from its neighboring countries.
The Bottom Line
Although you’re probably stopping through Cusco en route to Machu Picchu, it deserves a couple of days of exploration. While in Cusco, the best way to see the city is to wander around by foot and find the hole-in-the-wall gems that make the city so interesting. There are so many fascinating things to do in Cusco, so be sure to take some time to explore this historic city!
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