Cusco is the cultural capital of Peru and therefore perhaps the best destination in Peru. It is a city where every traveler will certainly spend a couple of days. Cusco is the former capital of the Inca Empire. Cusco is a destination where you see South America’s history, beautiful small streets, colonial buildings, and unmistakable Peruvian street spirit. Cusco is also a nice city to relax and to recover from the days that you already had if you follow our Peru itinerary. Also, you can do many great day trips from Cusco with the number 1 destination Machu Picchu!
In this article, you can read everything you need to know about Cusco. The best things to do in Cusco, the best day trips from Cusco, Where to stay in Cusco, and a lot of personal tips.
Table of Contents
A little history about Cusco
Cusco is Peru’s cultural capital. It has had many wars and occupiers over the centuries. Around 1200 BC the Incas had built a city which is today called Cusco. In 1533 the Spanish people arrived and took over the city. The Spanish conquest went to South America where many churches have been built and Inca temples have been destroyed. Fortunately, you can still see the remaining ruins of the Incas in and around Cusco. At the time, the Incas were far ahead with their knowledge and way of building. If you are on a side street of Plaza de Armas on Hatunrumiyoc street, you will see a boulder with 12 corners that have been cut off precisely.
Best things to do in Cusco
There is a lot to do in and around Cusco. If you want to see everything you can easily stay in Cusco for weeks. Below you can read our tips for the best things to do in Cusco.
Stroll through the San Blas neighborhood
San Blas is a creative district with several boutique shops that make handmade products. You can find art, souvenirs, jewelry, clothes and much more in this area. San Blas is located near Plaza de Armas, the big advantage is that this district is completely different from the center which is beautiful but also very touristic at the same time. This district is great to discover because it is less busy. In San Blas, you can find the best coffee bars, restaurants, and bars. A great neighborhood where you can do a lot of fun things.
Tip: go to the KM 0 bar in the evening where they play live music and have a long happy hour. At the bottom of this article, you can read more about the best restaurants in Cusco.
Visit Iglesia de Santo Domingo and Koricancha
Koricancha is the golden temple of the sun. Koricancha and Santo Domingo Church are both the gems of Cusco. Koricancha was the center of the Inca Empire and was the holiest site in Inca mythology. When the Spanish people took over Cusco, they destroyed most of the Inca buildings. On top of the foundations of Koricancha, the Santo Domingo church and monastery were built. The remaining of Koricancha is to this day the most important remnant of the Incas. Here you see the clash between two civilizations so clearly in a metaphor.
Entrée is $5 per person for Koricancha. The church was free when we visited it. You need about 1 to 2 hours to see everything. If you would like to use a guide, you can arrange this at the entrance.
Tip: at the back are some beautiful gardens that are popular for relaxing in the afternoon for free.
Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas is the beating heart of Cusco. The square is beautifully surrounded by the cathedral and two smaller churches. The cathedral is definitely worth a visit. At the entrance, you can take an audio guide which is very nice. You will be amazed at what happened in Cusco and what you will listen to and see in this cathedral. Take the time to relax at Plaza de Armas and enjoy the surrounding.
Pay attention to the shoe polishers and young women who want to give a massage at the square. We recommend not to do this.
Tip: if you like a square where it is calmer, you can better relax at Plaza de Las Nazerenas.
Visit the authentic San Pedro market
If you are in Peru for a short period of time and you want to experience authentic things of Peru, you should visit the San Pedro market. For some travelers, Cusco isn’t the place to be to experience authentic things in Peru, because it is very touristy and busy. The San Pedro market is one of the few places where you will experience the authentic parts of Peru in Cusco.
Tip: if you want to visit more markets in Cusco, the daily market is Wanchaq, and the Baratillo market on Saturdays is recommended.
Free walking tour
If a city has a free walking tour we mostly participate. It is a fun accessible way to discover the city with a local. You will pass the San Blas district where the guide will tell you beautiful stories and visit some important historical points of the Inca and the Spanish. Finally, your tour ends at Cusco’s most beautiful viewpoint: San Blas Mirador. The tour lasts approximately 2 hours.
Gathering: Plaza de Armas at KFC | Departures: 9:50 AM, 12:30 PM, 3:30 PM, 6:00 PM
Do you prefer a tour with a small number of people? Or are more enjoying discovering a city by bike? You can easily book your ticket via the below link.
Cusco City Bike Tour | $49 per person
Half Day Cusco City Sightseeing | $49 per person
Enjoy the view of San Blas Mirador
If you are in Cusco you should pay a visit to San Blas Mirador, because it offers the best view of the city. In the past, Cusco was designed and built in the shape of a cougar. Nowadays you can no longer see this properly.
Tip: go to View House, a little further up the hill. This is a backpacker rooftop bar with a beautiful view and delicious cocktails.
Join a cooking class in Cusco
If you are staying a little longer in Cusco and you want to do something different, then following a cooking class is amazing. You walk across the market with a local and start making your own dish with the ingredients that you bought at the market. Interested? You can easily book your ticket via the below link.
Peruvian Cooking Class and Local Market in Cusco | $38 per person
Best day trips from Cusco
Besides the fact that Cusco itself is such a beautiful city to discover, it is also a perfect location to make day trips from Cusco. Below you read the best day trips from Cusco.
The Salkantay trek isn’t officially a day trip from Cusco but we want to start with this tip because we recommend this tour 100%. It is the best trek we ever did in our life so far. During a 5-day tour, you end on the last day before sunrise at Machu Picchu, which was the highlight of our trip through Peru. The Salkantay trek is very beautiful and in our opinion more beautiful than the Inca Trail. We have written an article about our experience on the Salkantay trek and tell you everything you need to know. Hopefully, you will be as excited as we still are about this trek. Again: for us, it was the best trek we have ever done in our life. Read our article about the Salkantay trek: Salkantay trek guide
Do you want to do the same tour as us? Book via below link
Salkantay trek | $298 per person
A visit to Machu Picchu is the highlight for most travelers on their journey through Peru and defiantly one of the best days trips from Cusco. Machu Picchu is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and when you be in Machu Picchu you will certainly understand why. This Inca city was built around the year 1450 and was inhabited for 100 years. Because the Spanish people entered South America, the people fled from Machu Picchu. Only on July 24, 1911, the “lost” city was rediscovered. Because of this city is so well preserved.
You can visit Machu Picchu in combination with a trekking tour like we did with the Salkantay trek. This is of course not necessary because you can also do a day trip to Machu Picchu. To ensure that your visit to Machu Picchu is an unforgettable experience, there are some things you should take into account. If you don’t do this, you probably won’t like it as much as you expect. Read all the information about visiting Machu Picchu in this article.
You can easily book a ticket for Machu Picchu via the link below. Make sure to book on time, because you often have to indicate a place + time weeks in advance!
Machu Picchu Lost Citadel* | 6:00 am to 12:00 pm & 12:00 pm to 5:30 pm | $64 pp*
*This is the regular ticket. There are several tickets where you can discover other aspects of Machu Picchu, read our article for more information.
Sacred Valley: Salinas de Maras & Moray
If you want to see more buildings of the Incas we recommend visiting Maras and Moray. This is one of the day trips from Cusco which are worth a visit. Both buildings are located a 1.5-hour drive from Cusco. In Maras are the salt terraces built by the Incas. Today the salt terraces are still in production. This is very special if you think about it because those terraces are built-in by the Incas, many years ago.
In Moray, there are circular terraces that were used for agriculture. One theory is that the Incas used this to investigate how they could increase agricultural production. So they looked at the influence of the soil, amount of sun, and wind. You can buy a ticket via the below link.
Tour Sacred Valley | $82 per person
Are you searching for day trips from Cusco where you can make perhaps the most famous picture of Peru after Machu Picchu? You need to do the hike to Rainbow Mountain. Until 2015 it wasn’t possible because it was covered by snow. Due to climate change, this has changed and you can now climb this mountain. The hike is so popular because the surroundings are beautiful and the mountain with 7 colors is unique. Important to know is that this hike isn’t easy. So make sure that you are acclimated and have a rest day before you start this trek. The hike to Rainbow Mountain can only be done with a tour.
Rainbow Mountain | $35 per person
Lake Humantay is a lake at 4200 meters above sea level which is located middle of the mountains. If you aren’t going to Puno or Huaraz, a visit to Lake Humantay is a must. One of the best days trips from Cusco! It is a spectacular hike of 1.5 hours where you will be rewarded with a beautiful view at the top. We have visited Lake Humantay during the Salkantay trek. If you are going to do the Salkantay trek you don’t have to do this day trip because you will visit it during the Salkantay trek.
This day trip from Cusco cannot be done individually. You can easily book a tour where everything is included via the below link.
Lake Humantay | $33 per person
How many days do you need for Cusco?
Of course, it depends on how many day trips you want to do. We recommend a stay of at least 4 nights. You will have enough time to discover the city, do a day trip, and prepare yourself for the Salkantay trek.
Where to eat in Cusco?
We stayed in Cusco for one week and have listed the best restaurants for you.
By far, the best restaurant in Cusco is Green Point. Here you can eat delicious vegetarian dishes. The best time to visit it is during lunchtime. They have a deal where they serve three courses with a drink for only $6. This place is very popular so don’t wait until the last day to eat here, because it is sometimes full.
If you like curries you can go to Taste of India – “Cafe Carvalo”. If you are looking for a good Peruvian restaurant, Yaku is a must. Another good vegetarian restaurant is Qura Bowl Bar.
How do you get to Cusco?
The best way to get to Cusco depends on where you are of course. If departure from Arequipa or Puno you should take the bus. If you travel from Lima to Cusco you should take the plane. The bus ride from Lima to Cusco is 22 hours. The prices are roughly the same so it isn’t worth spending that long on the bus. Below is an overview of the different options:
- Lima to Cusco | plane | price from $60 | time 1,5 hours
- Arequipa to Cusco | bus | price from $14 | time 10 hours
- Puno to Cusco | night bus | price from $12 | time 7 hours
Tip: buy your bus ticket in advance at the bus station or at one of the Cruz del Sur sales points.
Where to stay in Cusco?
The two best areas to stay in Cusco are Plaza de Armas and San Blas, which together form the historic center. Both accommodations are located in the San Blas area because in our opinion this is the best area to stay. We stayed in San Blas and we loved it because it isn’t that busy and you are located at the best place in Cusco.
Important: be on time with booking, because both accommodations are incredibly good and very popular, so they are fully booked quickly. Also spend a little more on your accommodation in Cusco, because you will be doing heavy activities. It is pleasant to stay in a good hotel.
We stayed in Amaru Inca and recommend it 100%. An authentic hostel with a lot of charm. It is located in a nice street in the middle of the San Blas district. The breakfast is really good, it was the best breakfast in Peru that we had. The rooms are quiet and the beds are very comfortable. The staff is professional and very nice. You can leave the things you don’t bring with you during the Salkantay trek without any problems. Highly recommended.
Price per night from:
$ 50 double room
Another highlight in the San Blas district is Illa hotel. This hotel is located near Amaru Ican. A beautiful building with a beautiful courtyard. The rooms are new and equipped with many facilities. Travelers who have stayed at this place are very pleased with the breakfast. A very comfortable hotel where you can completely unwind. Highly recommend staying at this place.
Price per night from:
$ 71 double room
Hopefully, you enjoyed our article. If you follow our Peru itinerary your next destination will be the best hike you will do in Peru: the Salkantay trek. Read everything you need to know about this trek via our article: Salkantay trek guide.
If you can’t do this hike, which is a shame you will probably travel to Machu Picchu. Read everything you need to know in this article: Machu Picchu guide.
When you going to travel back to Lima you can use this article: Lima guide.