Cusco, also spelled Cuzco, is a testament to centuries of South American history. Once the seat of the Inca Empire and later an important colonial city, it’s now a melting pot of tourism. It’s full of people from all over the world who want to witness the majesty of the Inca remains. But there are many things to do in Cusco besides using it as a starting point to Machu Picchu. Here, you’ll find a few activities and even the best places to stay in Cusco. In all, my Cusco travel guide is here to ensure you make the most of your visit to this ancient city!
To find out more about my adventures in Cusco, check out my Cusco travel story! If you’re planning to do Inca Trail after your stop in Cusco, my Inca Trail Travel Guide will give you all the best advice on how to make the most of your trip. But now, prepare for my list of the best things to do in Cusco!
We were really enchanted by this city of colors and living history. The city’s many components from various ages made UNESCO decide to declare it a World Heritage Site. At Cusco center, you can still see the remains of Inca ruins, beneath the colonial-era monuments. Today, hundreds of years after European colonization, Inca culture not only survives but thrives. Walking downtown we were mesmerized by the colors of indigenous handcraft and fabrics of all sorts. They should get a mandatory shout-out in every Cusco travel guide!
We stayed in Cusco for a day and a half to get used to the altitude before the Inca trail. For that, we looked up the best places to stay in Cusco and then went on an adventure. We were pleasantly surprised, finding much more than a place to just pass time: this is a landmark! There are so many things to see and things to do in Cusco. A gem among ancient pre-Columbian cities, you can feel the touch of past centuries. Plus, as was always the case throughout Peru, the restaurants in Cusco were great!
I hope my Cusco travel guide inspires you to visit this unexpectedly magic city from the past. You can also read my travel story here!
Traveling – How to Get to Cusco?
Cusco is 3,500 meters above sea level, right in the middle of the Andes, so the flight there is difficult. It’s a true rollercoaster, and you’ll still feel shaky long after landing. Every Cusco travel guide will tell you it’s super important to drink lots of coca tea to fight altitude sickness!
We arrived from Lima, which is where most flights on Cusco airport come from. Still, there are a few flights from other Peruvian cities, like Arequipa. There are direct flights from a few South American capitals, such as Bogota and La Paz.
The best option to get in from the airport is through an official taxi – and then prepare for all the things to do in Cusco!
Living – Best Places to Stay in Cusco
While we were super excited about all the things to do in Cusco, we were also on a budget during our visit. We visited Peru as part of a 3-month trip around South America, so we had to cut down on expenses. For us, the best places to stay in Cusco during this trip prioritized comfort and low prices. This is why we went with a 3-star hotel instead of our usual choice of a boutique hotel. Our choice was, however, a nice surprise and a definite value for money find! Every Cusco travel guide needs an affordable and reliable hotel!
Los Portales Cusco – A Pleasant Addition to My Cusco Travel Guide
Although on their website they market themselves as a boutique hotel, Los Portales is more of a pleasant 3-star accommodation. It has a perfect location smack in the middle of town, making it among the best places to stay in Cusco on a budget! From here, it only takes between 5 and 8 minutes to reach Plaza de Armas, the main square.
Another reason to put this hotel among the best places to stay in Cusco? It overlooks El Sol Avenue, Cusco’s main commercial street, with plenty of banks and other useful businesses!
Generally speaking, we really liked it and found it to be a safe option if you’re looking for one of the best places to stay in Cusco. While the rooms were pretty basic (I’d say 3 out of 5), they were also clean and fresh. We definitely got some well-deserved rest to prep for the physical challenge of the Inca trail. And for all the fun things to do in Cusco we didn’t even know awaited us!
The service was really great here, really going that extra mile to make guests feel at home. The staff is used to having guests who are leaving for the Inca trail, so they’re very accommodating. Plus, they offer free coca tea for those who get altitude sickness – like us.
The common areas were actually lovely, and we were big fans of the cozy indoor patio. Plus, there’s a sweet living room with an open fire that’s perfect to sit back during a chilly evening.
The hotel also had its own restaurant, which obviously became one of the entries of this Cusco travel guide. While breakfast was generally unimpressive, we really liked the lunch!
In all, it’s great if you’re looking for the best places to stay in Cusco that offer a good experience without spending a lot.
Would you like to stay at Los Portales. THEN BOOK IT HERE!
Eating & Drinking – Best Restaurants in Cusco
To be honest, we didn’t expect a lot from the restaurants in Cusco, nor from the city in general. We just stayed here to get used to the altitude before the Inca trail. Still, we were pleasantly surprised by the restaurants in Cusco.
We stayed here less than two days, but we still found some eateries worthy of a Cusco travel guide!
A must-visit for foodies traveling through town, Uchu Restaurant offers an outstanding culinary experience. One of the best restaurants in Cusco, it’s a traditional Peruvian steakhouse with a contemporary twist. While steak is clearly the house specialty, their ceviche is also top notch.
The food here mixes traditional South American cuisine with new and “exotic” ingredients. It brings a whole new flavor to Peruvian food, which is already very rich and delicious. Plus, their wine selection is pretty great. I couldn’t stop myself from adding it to my Cusco travel guide!
As if the food weren’t already worth the entry, the design is also remarkable. Inside a colonial home, the restaurant has a lovely garden that makes you crave for a long and lazy afternoon. Based on a pretty cool concept, the décor is all about serving boho-chic vibes. Loved the cute color palette rich in browns, with bright details in pinks and blues.
The atmosphere is fantastic, still, one of Uchu’s strongest points is its service, which is super friendly. The restaurant has a fantastic location, barely a block away from the iconic Plaza de Armas.
Organika Cusco is something of a rarity: an organic food haven in the Andes. It’s not easy to find this charming little place, as it has an almost speakeasy-like vibe. You have to really know what you’re looking for when coming to this healthy hole-in-the-wall. But it’s definitely worth the search!
A vegan-friendly restaurant is somewhat exotic in meat-loving South America. A downtown extravaganza, Organika is near Plaza de Armas and differs from all eateries in the surrounding area. The friendly atmosphere is boosted by the open crowd, who are happy to share their life experiences with the world.
It’s a very unique “cusqueño” place, in how the people here are very healthy and special. There are many exercise-minded people living or passing through Cusco, and this place is a great place to meet them. It’s always very energizing to meet fellow travelistas, and you can always exchange tips on the best places to stay in Cusco!
The food is also really yummy, with lots of greens and salads. The café-like feel is also pretty strong! A very chill spot, a visit to Organika should definitely be on your list of things to do in Cusco.
One thing to include in any Cusco travel guide is the city’s strong café scene and culture. A definite must-do in town is having breakfast or just coffee in one of the balconies around Plaza de Armas. The view overlooking the square and the mountains cannot be missed!
Exploring – 4 Things to do in Cusco
As an ancient city and the entry point to the Sacred Valley, many of the things to do in Cusco are cultural. It’s a city of museums and old buildings, some from before colonial times. As it often happened in those days, there are also many colonial constructions built on top of Inca ones. The result is an unmissable and unique mix that makes it fascinating to write a Cusco travel guide!
1. Museums in Cusco
One of the most iconic museums in Cusco is Coricancha, which specializes in pre-Columbian art. There’s also an ancient Inca temple by the same name, once the Sun Temple. It was the central site of worship in Cusco, until Spaniards built the Santo Domingo church over it. The bottom part of the temple remains to this day, bearing witness to this fascinating culture. Also, there’s a whole free museum dedicated to cocoa and chocolate production, the ChocoMuseo!
2. Plaza De Armas
When in the city, your tour should begin at Plaza de Armas. This is the main square in Cusco, and once the epicenter of the Inca Empire’s capital. It was later changed into a Spanish colonial square. Hundreds of years later, it’s still the ultimate Cusco meeting point, and where many of the social outings are located. Bars, restaurants and many of the best places to stay in Cusco are around this area. There are also many vendors selling beautiful and colorful crafts! Most of the city’s ruins and colonial landmarks are also around Plaza de Armas.
3. Markets & Boutiques in Cusco
There are many interesting markets in Cusco, which are great to really feel the city’s pulse. One of the most iconic is San Pedro Market, where you can try local flavors, including juices. There are also a lot of souvenir shops here, if you’re looking for little presents to take home.
4. Exploring the Magic Andes
Cusco is surrounded by incredible architectonic feats from the Incas. The most famous among things to do in Cusco is, of course, Machu Picchu, which has several routes. We took the arduous and days-long Inca trail, but there are easier paths. You can take a day trip to the UNESCO Site, combining a train and a bus to get there.
The entire Sacred Valley of the Incas is very close to Cusco, and it’s an unmissable opportunity. One of the other towns within the Valley is Ollantaytambo, the royal home of Emperor Pachacuti. Choquequirao is a nearby town founded by that very Emperor. Pisac, at the entrance of the Valley, includes numerous temples and other incredible ruins.
A natural wonder to behold near Cusco is Vinicunca, also known as the Rainbow Mountain. A unique place on Earth, it owes its hues to the many minerals of its soil. There are seven colors in total!
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