Once the capital of the sprawling Inca Empire, Cusco is now the beating heart of Peru and the top of the list for tourist towns. This mountaintop city is the headquarters for many of the major attractions Peru has to offer, including the lost city of Machu Picchu. There are many things to do in Cusco city itself.
With the altitude in this region being extremely high (the city center itself is over 3,300m above sea level), many visitors to this area will spend a few days acclimating before heading out on their different excursions. While preparing for whatever adventure may lie ahead, work a few days into your itinerary to explore this fascinating city that is jampacked with history, stunning architecture, and Peruvian culture. Here are the top things to do in Cusco!
Take a Free Walking Tour
One of the absolute best ways to see a new city is to experience it on your own two feet. Free Walking Tours are a great way to see the ins and outs of Cusco city while an educated guide informs you of the history and culture of the area. In about 2 hours, they will take you to the famous “12 angled stone”, the Inca skulls and into the San Blas neighborhood for an observation point that overlooks the entire city. If you choose right, you might end up with a free Pisco Sour to enjoy as the finale!
Location: These tours typically start off in the Plaza de Armas. You can either book a spot ahead of time, or there are many operators that will be standing around in the plaza. Just pick one and go!
Timings: Check with the different operators to see what times they start their tours. Many begin in the morning or afternoon and last about 2 hours.
Entrance Fee: These tours are free, but the tour operators work off of tips. Don’t be that stingy tourist who doesn’t tip for an excellent service!
Roam around Plaza de Armas
The Plaza de Armas is the epicenter of Cusco, home to some of the most stunning works of architecture in the city, such as the Cathedral Basilica and the Santo Domingo Church. Cultures collide as Inca structures are next door to Spanish colonial buildings, showcasing the long and tumultuous history of the city. Also in the plaza are statues dedicated to prominent Inca leaders and, if you’re lucky, you will be able to see live street performance and parades that highlight the long-standing Peruvian culture.
Tip: Ask your hotel’s front desk for a map of the city. This will easily help you navigate to the major neighborhoods!
Location: Calle Plateros 326, Cusco 08000, Peru
Timings: Open All Day
Entrance Fee: Free
Explore the San Blas Neighborhood
Every street in the San Blas Neighborhood oozes with a bohemian and artistic vibe. Colorful buildings line the streets shop, restaurants and homes. Watch the locals weave blankets from alpaca wool, delight your taste buds with some excellent Peruvian food, and purchase a unique trinket or souvenir (or two!). You will also be able to find traditionally dressed women with their baby llamas for that picture-perfect moment!
Location: 08000, Peru
Timings: Open All Day
Entrance Fee: Free
Visit San Pedro Market
The San Pedro Market is a shopper’s paradise! Located about 5 walking minutes from the Plaza de Armas, this covered market is a treasure trove of unique food and souvenirs. Put your haggling skills to the test by getting lost in this maze of colorful aisles before stopping by a food cart for lunch. Don’t miss out on the natural fruit smoothies that are blended with a variety of Peruvian fruits! Just be warned that while this is a shopper’s paradise, it is also a pick-pocket’s paradise. Keep your wallet and purses close to you and closed at all times!
Location: Thupaq Amaru 477, Cusco 08002, Peru
Timings: 6:00 to 19:00 Monday through Saturday, 6:00 to 18:00 Sundays
Entrance Fee: Free, except for purchases
The Cristo Blanco Statue
Overlooking the entire Cusco Valley is the Cristo Blanco Statue. Gifted to the city of Cusco by Palestinian refugees after World War II, this iconic statue is situated on the rim of the city with undeniably gorgeous views.
Location: Cristo Blanco, Cusco 08003, Peru. There is a walking path that starts in the San Blas neighborhood. It is a very difficult trail, as you will scale many stairs. However, it is rewarding and not impossible. For those that do not want to climb, taxis from the Plaza de Armas will take you to the top for a small fee.
Timings: Every day from 8:00 to 19:00
Entrance Fee: Free
Learn about Inka culture at Museo Inka
For the history buffs visiting Cusco, Museo Inka (the Inca Museum) is a great place to learn about some of the culture and heritage of this mighty people. Filled with Inca treasures and artifacts, such as pottery, textiles, and mummies, you are sure to walk away with a new understanding of the Inca people and culture that dominated this region in the 14 and 15th centuries.
Location: Ataud 154, Cusco 08002, Peru
Timings: Weekdays – 8:00 to 18:00, Saturdays – 9:00 to 14:00, Sundays – Closed
Entrance Fee: $3
Visit Saqsaywaman Incan Ruins
Saqsaywaman is an archeological site located right outside of the city within an easy walking distance. This Inca citadel, or fortress, is a great introduction to the larger ruins that you will likely encounter during your time in Peru. It is also just really fun to say, as it sounds like “sexy woman” in English!
Location: Cusco 08002, Peru
Timings: Every day from 7:00 to 18:00
Entrance Fee: $25 per person
Look at the stars : Cusco Planetarium
Escape the hustle and bustle of downtown Cusco by making your way to the countryside for a look at the night sky and surrounding horizons. Situated about 15 minutes from the Plaza de Armas by taxi, visitors to the planetarium can learn about how the night sky affected the Inca culture and their interpretations of it. Looking through a seeing eyeglass at the stars about Cusco is an experience you will definitely not want to miss out on!
Timings: 6:00 to 20:00 every day except Sunday
Entrance Fee: $15
Visit the temple of Sun God : Qorikancha
The Inca were a very religious people, who built many temples and sites for their Gods. While many of them are no longer around due to the Spanish invasion, one of the most stunning and most important Inca temples still standing is Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun God. It was once completely covered in gold plating before being pillaged by invaders. Today, it serves as a museum for the Inca way of life, offering glimpses at artifacts, the grounds, and Inca history.
Location: Santo Domingo s/n, Cusco 08000, Peru
Timings: 8:30 to 17:30 every day except Sundays
Entrance Fee: $3
Visit El Choco Museo (The Chocolate Museum)
The cocoa bean has a long history with this South American country. At the Choco Museo, visitors can learn about the history of chocolate in Peru, taste a variety of chocolates, and see how the cocoa bean is used un many other products such as candles, hand soaps, and shampoos! If you are feeling adventurous, sign up for a class where you can make your own chocolate from scratch!
Location: Calle Garcilaso 210, Cusco 08002, Peru
Timings: Every day from 9:00 to 19:00
Entrance Fee: None to look around and taste, but they have a number of different activities that you can participate in for a small fee.
Also Read: 8 Must-try foods in Peru (and where to try)
Featured Image: Streets of Cusco, Peru © Rod Waddington / Flickr