The city of Cusco, in Peru, is a must-see destination in south-east Peru and is the gateway to much of the Inca sights and wonders that Peru is famous for.
Cusco, also called Cuzco, was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th to the 16th Century, when the Spanish conquered the Incas and made Cusco the centre of their efforts to colonise the Andean region. As such it contains gems of both Inca and Spanish architecture and design. In fact, some of the buildings have Inca foundations under colonial buildings.
There’s a lot to see in Cusco, but the altitude can take the wind out of your sails. So if you struggle at altitude or just like to take things easy when you travel, most of the things to do in Cusco featured in this article are good for a chilled-out, laid-back Cusco itinerary.
Why Visit Cusco?
Cusco sits high up in the Andes and is the nearest city to many Inca ruins and monuments including the Sacred Valley of the Incas. In particular, many people visit Cusco because it is the jumping-off point for trips to Machu Picchu, whether they’re taking the easy route via train or they’re preparing to hike the Inca Trail.
If the latter, it is advisable to acclimatise to the high altitude before starting the Inca Trail, so many hikers spend a few days in Cusco before they start the trek. I have great memories of wandering the streets of Cusco, trying to acclimatise to the altitude. But, if this is your plan, don’t worry, you won’t be bored during those acclimatisation days! Cusco is an enticing and delightful destination all on its own. There are some great things to do in Cusco, and it’s a beautiful city to explore.
What is Cusco’s Elevation?
Cusco’s elevation is 3400m above sea level, which is 11,150ft. This is a third of the way to the altitude commercial jets fly at, so it is pretty high! Unless you live at a high elevation yourself, you may experience the effects of being this high up, where the air is thinner. Common symptoms include dizziness, fatigue and shortness of breath, but most people get used to it in a few days.
However, some people experience worse symptoms and develop altitude sickness, which is a serious illness, which you can read more about here. If you develop persistent symptoms, you should seek medical help.
When I flew into Cusco, I felt the effects almost straight away waiting for our bags in the airport. I was light-headed and a little dizzy, kind of how you feel after a glass of champagne. And as soon as we started walking around the city, I noticed I was getting out of breath very quickly. I’d walk ten steps on flat ground and I’d be really breathless! It took about 5 days before I felt normal, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying Cusco – I just took it very easy as I explored the city.
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Top laid-back things to do in Cusco
1. Plaza de Armas
The first thing to do in Cusco is to visit Plaza de Armas, which is the handsome, main square in Cusco. It was built on the remains of an Inca gathering place, the Great Inca Square or Huacaypata. Most of what you’ll see today, though, is from the Spanish colonists.
There are pretty gardens in the centre of the square, with several benches, so it is a nice place to sit and take it easy. The square is also ringed by several restaurants and shops, where you can buy alpaca goods and other souvenirs.
When I was there, I was lucky enough to see a couple of religious ceremonies and processions through the square.
2. Cusco Cathedral & Church La Compañía de Jesús
On the north side of the east side of Plaza de Armas is the magnificent Cusco Cathedral (or Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, to use its full name) and on the south side is a similarly grand church, Church La Compañía de Jesús.
These two colonial-era churches feel like companions – both feature ornate towers and are built in red brick (some of which came from the remains of Inca temples that had stood there previously).
The Cathedral is famous for its depiction of The Last Supper, with Jesus and his disciples dining on Peruvian food, including a guinea pig. You can visit the Cathedral between 10 am and 6 pm each day, via an entrance on the left-hand side.
Apparently, the Church La Compañía de Jesús’s spectacular design was seen as a threat to the pre-eminence of the Cathedral. The Pope decided it should not overshadow the Cathedral, but it was already built by the time his message reached Cusco. This is why the two look very similar in splendour and stature!
3. Walk The Ancient Streets
Now, this might not sound like a very exciting ‘thing to do in Cusco’, but it is my favourite thing to do in a new place: just wander without a mission. Go down the streets which look interesting; eat & drink in places that take your fancy; absorb everything. I recommend doing this everywhere, and it is especially rewarding in Cusco.
In the centre of Cusco, especially around Plaza de Armas and in the San Blas area, you can see some great examples of Inca construction. These walls are built with huge stones, each carefully cut and polished to fit together perfectly and securely, without mortar. Sometimes, you can see colonial buildings built on top of these unshakeable Inca foundations, the style of the masonry changing part-way up the wall.
As you wander, I recommend you find a viewpoint. Cusco sits in a shallow valley, and as it has expanded, housing has crept up on the surrounding hillside. If you can get to higher ground, you’ll see the lovely effect of the red rooftops stretching out in front of you. I found some great vantage points in the area north of Plaza De Armas. In particular, the Mirador de Plaza San Cristobel has a good viewpoint.
4. San Pedro Market
A hub of activity and the centre of commerce in Cusco is the bustling San Pedro Market. It is a really big indoor market where all sorts of things are sold by independent merchants: clothes, souvenirs, fresh meat, fruit and vegetables. It’s a great place to appreciate all the many different varieties of Peruvian staples, like corn and potatoes, both of which come in all sorts of colours!
There are also rows and rows of fruit bars, offering all sorts of fresh fruit smoothies and juices. After wandering the aisles of goods, and possibly haggling for something you want to buy, you might welcome a chance to sit and take a fresh fruit smoothie.
In the midst of all the coming and going, the buying and the selling, this lady’s moment of stillness caught my eye.
If you love to people-watch, you will love Cusco! There’s a real mix of people there and you’ll see lots of Peruvian people in traditional dress, which can be so interesting to those of us who come from very different cultures.
In particular, the bowler hats (and similar styles) that some Peruvian ladies wear are fascinating. I read the tradition of wearing these hats goes back to a shipment of bowler hats sent to Bolivia for European men working on the railways in the 1920s. The hats were too small, so a clever person marketed them as a fashion for women, and it caught on!
However, the ladies who wear extra-colourful and decorative outfits are normally doing so for tourists. They often have baby llamas that you can hold and take photos with, for a small fee. They are so cute! I took a photo with some of these ladies and their llama before reading that it could be cruel because the llamas may be taken from their mothers too young. I don’t begrudge anyone trying to make a living from tourism, but I was not happy about the idea I had just contributed to harming the llama. I would not do this again.
6. Sample Peruvian Cuisine
Peruvian food is amazing, and you will have some great choices for dining in Cusco.
If you don’t eat meat and fish, check out the Museum Natural Factory Plants and products of Perù.
If you eat fish, then you can enjoy top-notch ceviche – I didn’t have a bad serving of this all over Peru. It was light and piquant everywhere we went. I would recommend Limo, which is a high end modern Peruvian restaurant with really great ceviche.
And if you eat meat, consider some local delicacies: alpaca steak and roasted guinea pig (or cuy). I wasn’t a huge fan of the guinea pig: it tasted OK (a mix between chicken and bacon), but there was a too much fat for my liking and a lot of bones to pick the meat off (it is usually served whole, with its head still on!). However, I did enjoy a tender alpaca steak and chicha, a local corn-based alcoholic drink, at Deva, which offers traditional Peruvian food. I was recommended to visit this place by a Peruvian friend who lives in Cusco. It proved that rule that restaurants where local people eat are normally the best! If you don’t fancy Peruvian, international cuisines are available in Cusco, like Italian and Japanese.
Visiting Qoricancha (or Coricancha, Koricancha or Qoricancha) is a top thing to do in Cusco.
It is the site of the most important temple in the Inca Empire, built to honour Inti, the sun god. The interior walls are thought to have been plated in gold by the Incas, making them shine like the sun. However, you guessed it, the Conquisators destroyed most of the temple and built their own monument on top of the foundations – the Santo Domingo Convent.
You can still see the remains of the Inca temple foundation, though: it is the dark, rounded structure at the base of the building. This masonry is the ashlar style, which involves precisely cut cuboid stones fitted together.
There’s a museum on-site, where you can see inside the Inca-built foundations, the surrounding complex and learn about the history of the building.
8. Museo De Arte Precolumbiano
In Plazoleta de las Nazarenas in Cusco’s San Blas district, there’s a museum dedicated to arts from the time before the Spanish invasion: the Museo De Arte Precolumbiano.
For 20 sols, you can tour an exhibition about the history and evolution of early Peruvian arts and crafts, including ceramics, jewellery and sculpture. It covers the timespan from 1250 BC to AD 1532 and showcases artefacts from the Incas, but also the Nazcas, Mochica, Huari, Chacay and Chimu civilisations.
I’ve always been interested in the Incas and didn’t know much about the other pre-Columbian civilisations – and I found the museum a really interesting thing to do in Cusco. There’s a cafe on-site if you want to have dinner after you tour the exhibition.
9. Go Shopping
If you’re preparing to hike the Inca Trail, Cusco is a great place to grab any last-minute items you need, as there are lots of shops in Cusco. In the days before my Inca Trail, I picked up a waterproof poncho, a cheap hold-all to use for the gear I would leave in the hotel while I did the trek, a spare battery for my camera and also some over-the-counter medication for altitude sickness.
And if you’re not hiking the Inca Trail, Cusco can be a good place to buy souvenirs from Peru. There are several shops where you can buy alpaca goods, for example. I found some high-quality shops in the San Blas area and bought some gorgeous Peruvian wool hats for my nieces and nephews.
Remember: you can haggle in Peru, so do have a go if you feel comfortable.
10. Day Trips From Cusco
Most of my recommended top things to do in Cusco are in Cusco itself – because I think it’s a wonderful city with lots of charm. However, some great attractions are reachable on a day trip from Cusco. These include:
- The Sacred Valley of the Incas: Machu Picchu is the most spectacular Inca ruin, but it is far from the only Inca site that is worth exploring. The Sacred Valley of the Incas, or the Urubamba valley, has many Inca ruins, including those at Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Moray.
- Rainbow Mountain: first opened as an attraction in 2015, Rinabow Mountain is a popular destination – and of course very instagrammable!
- Lake Humantay: if you like hiking, you might consider a 7km hike to this picturesque lake, do-able as a day trip from Cusco.
How to get to Cusco
As Peru is a big country, a lot of travellers fly from location to location. You can fly from Lima to Cusco in about 1 hour 20 minutes. There are several flights a day.
It is also possible to fly to Cusco from Arequipa (Peru’s 2nd biggest city after Lima); Juliaca (if your Peru itinerary includes Lake Titicaca) and La Paz in Bolivia.
Where to stay in Cusco
My Cusco hotel was the Hotel San Agustin El Dorado, which is located just downhill from Plaza de Armas and it was a great base from which to explore Cusco before and after the Inca Trail. It was very comfortable and had a great view of the mountains around Cusco from the bathroom, so I definitely recommend it.
If you want more ideas, check out this guide on where to stay in Cusco.
Oh, and Cusco hotels will let you store any gear you’re not taking on the Inca Trail, so don’t worry about that.
I hope you enjoy your time in Cusco!
And if you’re thinking about doing the Inca Trail, check out my Ultimate Guide to Preparing and Packing for the Inca Trail.