For those planning a trip to Peru, visit Cusco is mandatory, whether you are going to Machu Picchu or not. There are many things to do in Cusco, including amazing historical sites and ruins to visit, so make sure to plan a 3 or 4 days stay in the Inca Capital.
To help you know what you do in Cusco during your staying there, and to make the most of your trip, here is a list of the 20 best things to do in Cusco.
Also, don’t forget to download the completely free guide to Cusco, you just need to subscribe, and you will receive more than 10 pages of information including a list of the best trails and day trips to take!
For those planning to combine a travel experience with a learning opportunity, why not taking advantage of your visit to Peru to learn Spanish in Cusco? Maximo Nivel offers you immersive programs classes with native speaker teachers for all levels.
20 Things to do in Cusco
History of Cusco
Considered the most beautiful city in Peru, Cusco is, besides beautiful, full of history. The city was built by the Inca Manco Capac in the 12th century to be the administrative capital of the Inca Empire.
It was here that all the Incas used to live, as well as the main authorities in the Empire, which included the imperial council, consisting of around 8 people, many walls that we see today was once part of the palaces where these Incas used to live.
The palaces were scattered around the city, but most of them were located in the surroundings of the Plaza de Armas, the main square of Cusco.
When the Spaniards conquered the region, they used the bases of these palaces to build their new buildings, turning them into important administrative or religious buildings, two examples of these are the Cathedral and the La Campania
When Cusco was first built, it had the form of a puma, a sacred animal for the Incas, where Sacsayhuaman, a famous ruin that can be visited today (later on in this post), used to represent the puma’s head.
Cusco remained the capital of the Inca Empire until 1532 when it was invaded and looted by the Spaniards.
How to get to Cusco
Cusco has an airport, but unfortunately, it doesn’t receive international flights, another airport is under construction in the region, in Chinchero District, a town near Cusco, in order to receive international flights directly, however, there is no opening date yet.
To get to Cusco, you must come by plane from Lima, the capital of Peru, or by bus from other cities. A good option is to take the bus from Lima to Cusco with Peru Hop, a high-quality bus company that offers comfortable trips to a variety of cities in Peru.
Altitude Sickness in Cusco
If you are coming directly from Lima or another city located in a low altitude, you may need to rest in the first or second day after arriving in Cusco, due to the Altitude Sickness.
Altitude sickness is a response of your body to the difference of altitude, it is normal to feel dizzy, tired, breathing difficulty and other symptoms. So in order to feel better, you must let your body acclimate first, otherwise, your trip will turn into a kind of nightmare.
When I first felt it, I was in Puno, a city in Peru located at 3,800 above sea level, and I spent 2 days in bed without being even able to move much. Of course, every person will respond differently, but in any case, you better chill and rest for at least one day.
Where to stay in Cusco
When I visited Cusco, I stayed in the Golden House Inn Cusco, I couldn’t recommend more. When I arrived there I was feeling too sick because of the altitude sickness, and the girls who work there gave me all the attention, moved me to another room (as my official room was being cleaned at the moment) they made me tea and offered me things to eat.
Later they even moved me to a better room than the one I had booked, with a bigger balcony so I could have a better view of the streets. It is super well located and you can see part of the Plaza de Armas from your window.
The rooms are very cozy with nice Peruvian decor. They also offer breakfast, the service is great, everybody is very kind and always wanting to make sure you are fully enjoying your stay.
If you want to stay in the Plaza de Armas though, you can go to the Hotel Plaza de Armas Cusco, where you will open your window to the beautiful sight of the Cathedral. They also offer breakfast.
For a more luxurious option, take a look on the Ramada by Wyndham Costa Del Sol Cusco, located in a beautiful historical city, really close to the Plaza de Armas, and also includes the breakfast.
For more options take a look on this map of hotels in Cusco:
Best things to do in Cusco
Take a Free Walking Tour
This is the best way to get to know a city, Cusco has two groups of Free Walking tour, both starting the first tour at 110:00 am.
Free Walking Peru’s meeting point is in the Plaza de Armas, next to the fountain, while the other group, Free Tours by Foot meets at the Plaza Regocijo, also next to the fountain.
This is a fun activity where you will be able to learn more about the history of Cusco while visiting the most important points in the city while making friends along the way.
Plaza de Armas
The main Square of Cusco, that’s where the Cathedral of the city is located as well as La Campania, one of the main churches in Cusco (read next).
The garden in the center is surrounded by flowers and has a beautiful fountain, picturing Pachacutec. It is in this square that all the important things, like celebrations, protests, etc happen.
It is a beautiful place to spend the sunny afternoons but also a lovely place to spend the night, there are many bars and restaurants and the atmosphere this area at night is amazing.
The main cathedral in Cusco, located in the middle of Plaza de Armas, the main square. Built in 1654, in the area were once the palace of the Inca Wiracocha stood, the Cathedral houses nowadays the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco.
Inside you will also find small artifacts and relics from the Inca Empire and the Colonization era. To visit the Cathedral you have to pay a fee at the entrance, which is something around $30 soles.
Another church located next to the cathedral in Plaza de Armas. It was built by the Jesuits in 1571 upon the palace of Huayna Cápac, one of the last Incas of the empire.
The church was built to be the most beautiful in the city, however the idea was turned down by the papa himself, first because the fact that the La Campania wasn’t the main church in Cusco, second, it was located next to the Cathedral, which was supposed to be the most beautiful and sumptuous building in the whole city.
Sacsayhuaman, which is pronounced as ‘Sexy Woman’, yeah that’s right, is an ancient Inca fortress, located close to the main square and can be easily be visited by walk leaving from the city center. There is a bus that takes you there, as well as to the other ruins nearby, which is way more convenient though.
The fortress was built by the Inca Pachacutec with more than 4,000 square meters. Back in the time of the Incas, when Cusco used to have the form of a Puma, Sacsayhuaman used to be its head. From the distance, it is still possible to recognize the form, including the teeth of the Puma.
Just like other Inca buildings, like Machu Picchu or the ruins, that you find across Cusco, what calls attention is how close the stones were placed of each other, they fit in perfectly without any mortar, something that is impressive even for us nowadays.
To visit the Sacsayhuaman as well as the other ruins next to it, it is necessary to buy a ticket that includes the entrance to all these ruins in the city of Cusco.
Sacsayhuaman can be visited buying the Boleto Turistico, that includes the visit to many of the ruins near Cusco
Qenqo is believed to be a religious site related to death and blood sacrifices, the temple was carved on a cave and is considered the most important temple in the region, as it is known that many noblemen and leaders where mummified here.
In Qenqo it is possible to see the stone table where the mummifications of these important figures took place.
Qenqo was also used for different celebrations as well as sacrifices. A famous tradition was the sacrifice of the Black Llama. Black was considered the purest color to the Inca people (in contrast to the white of nowadays).
During August, Qenqo was used as a place for the Fertility Ceremony, to celebrate the earth, water, as well as the solstices and equinoxes.
It can be visited with the Boleto Turistico.
Located at 3,765 meters above sea level. In Tambomachay you will start feeling the symptoms of altitude sickness again, you will notice you get tired way faster!
Tambomachay from the Quechua “Bath of the Inca”, was the place where the Incas used to go to purify their bodies and souls from bad spirits. In this site, it is possible to notice all the hydraulic technology the Inca people already had back in their days.
The water that is stored in Tambomachay comes from a lake located 25 km away from the site!
A visit to Tambomachay is included in the Boleto Turistico.
Located next to Tambomachay, Pukapucara means “Red Fortress”. Pukas were actually military fortifications that used to be built every 20 km by the Incas to protect their cities.
The name Pucara, which means read in Quechua, comes from the red color in the stones depending on the time of the day due to the sunlight.
Pukapucara, specifically, used to be an Inca fortress that protected the Inca population from attacks coming from other Amazonian tribes.
Pukapucara is included in the Boleto Turistico.
One of the most well-preserved ruins near Cusco, hidden between mountains, it is not so well known, which makes the place more chill and tourist free.
Tipon is formed by many terraces used for agriculture by the Incas, fountains, water channels, and aqueducts, some of which are still in use nowadays by the locals.
Buy the Boleto Turistico to visit Tipon.
It was first built to be the Temple of Sun, the most important god for the Inca people, its walls and floors used to be made of full gold with statues also made of gold decorating the yards.
Qoricancha temple was destroyed by the Spanish and on its place a church was built, it is still possible to see nowadays parts of the old temple, as the church was built on the temple base.
Mercado San Pedro
A traditional market that sells everything, from food to souvenirs. The prices are way cheaper than in the city center and the market is really easy to get to.
If you wish to feel like a local, you can have lunch there to eat local dishes with the locals.
This is the best viewpoint of the city, from there it’s possible to see the main square and all the central area of Cusco. You can take a bus there or climb by walk.
The Inca Museum is definitely the most important of all the museums in the city. It keeps many artifacts of different people from the Pre-Inca area to the Inca Empire, including people from different regions of Peru.
It is possible to learn a lot about the history of these people in the museum.
The Twelve angles stone
A stone located in the middle of the most well preserved Inca wall in a small street, that used to be an Incan road in the past, known as Hathunrumiyoc.
A lot is said about the mystery behind this stone, some believe it was a form of a calendar of the Incas, while others dare to say it is a form of portal.
San Blas District
Going up through the Hathunrumiyoc, you will find yourself in San Blas District. The neighborhood has strong colonial architectural influences.
The highlights are the main square and the small San Blas Church built in 1544 over an ancient Inca temple.
Mirador de San Blas
Located in the San Blas district, this is one of the best viewpoints in the city, especially if you are looking for a scenic view.
Located next to Sacsayhuaman, the planetarium offers its visitors not only the chance to gaze at the stars but also a cultural experience, learning more about the Incan astronomy.
Museu de Arte Precolombino
Built over the “Amaru Cata”, the school of the Incas, nowadays houses more than 400 masterpieces from different periods, the museum is dedicated to the Peruvian art and exhibits art from different Peruvian tribes.
Basilica de la Merced
One of the most important colonial churches in Cusco. Next, to the church, there is the entrance to its museum where it is possible to see many paintings representing the life of San Pedro Nolasco, founder of the order La Merced and the tomb of some famous conquistadors.
The collection also includes the famous jewel “Custodia de la Merced”, made of pure gold encrusted with diamonds, rubies, emeralds pearls, and topazes.
A living museum where it is possible to learn about the products made from the local camelids (llamas, alpacas, guanacos, and vicuñas) from the beginning to end, from watching the animals learn how the wool is dyed and how the clothes are made.
Books to read before going to Cusco
“A special illustrated edition of Hiram Bingham’s classic work captures all the magnificence and mystery of the amazing archeological sites he uncovered. Early in the 20th century, Bingham ventured into the wild and then unknown country of the Eastern Peruvian Andes–and in 1911 came upon the fabulous Inca city that made him famous: Machu Picchu. In the space of one short season, he went on to discover two more lost cities, including Vitcos, where the last Incan Emperor was assassinated.”
“In 1911, Hiram Bingham III climbed into the Andes Mountains of Peru and “discovered” Machu Picchu. While history has recast Bingham as a villain who stole both priceless artifacts and credit for finding the great archeological site, Mark Adams set out to retrace the explorer’s perilous path in search of the truth—except he’d written about adventure far more than he’d actually lived it. In fact, he’d never even slept in a tent.
Turn Right at Machu Picchu is Adams’ fascinating and funny account of his journey through some of the world’s most majestic, historic, and remote landscapes guided only by a hard-as-nails Australian survivalist and one nagging question: Just what was Machu Picchu?”