Once known as the ancient capital of the Incas, Cusco now bursts at the seams with culture. Tradition holds strong and authenticity remains in tact with a legacy that dates back to the 15th Century. If you like history, you’ll definitely be missing out if you don’t find time to visit Cusco! Don’t let the 3,399 m elevation put you off! This iconic city, high up in the Peruvian Andres is bursting with plenty to see and do. Whilst most people visit Cusco as a base for their Machu Picchu trek, we think you might be missing out. We suggest keeping a few days either side to explore this iconic city. Here are our top 8 things to do in Cusco!
1. Get used to the altitude
Nestled high in the Peruvian Andes, Cusco is more than 3,000 meters above sea level. To get used to those dizzying heights, travellers are strongly advised to take time to adjust to the high altitude. On your first day make sure to take it easy and not exhert yourself with too much physical activity. Alcohol can make it worse so try and avoid too many pisco sours! Tucan Travel have been visiting Peru for over 30 years and we share our top tips on how to acclimatise here.
2. Step back in time to explore the Ancient Ruins
Cusco is home to and surrounded by many ancient ruins. These are our favourites:
Qoricancha Sun Temple, is thought to have been constructed from the 12th Century CE. Also known as Cusco’s Golden Temple, it once housed an abundance of gold, including a golden sun disk that reflected light throughout the temple. The position of the temple is thought to be the key to its significance for the Incan Empire. Historians believe that Cusco was originally built in the shape of a puma (a symbol of power and strength) , with the Sacsayhuamán site at its head.
Sacsayhuaman Citadel is on the northern outskirts of Cusco and is thought to date back to the 9th Century. The huge interlocking stones lean inwards, an architectural trick thought to have helped this structure survive many earthquakes. Once the walls of a fortress , only the largest stones remain at the site today. The smaller ones were taken by the Spanish to build the Cusco we see today.
And of course, you can join one of our small group tours travel from Cusco to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail. If you aren’t up to the trek, you can take the Vistadome train to Machu Picchu. With its glass ceiling and panoramic windows, this is the perfect way to take in the majestic scenery, without the leg work.
3. Be amazed by Spanish Colonial Architecture
Use your time in Cusco to explore the city’s unique historic architecture. The city radiates out from the main square, Playa de Armas which is dominated by the Cathedral (Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin). Awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1983, the Cathedral is full of important gold and silver, engraved wooden altars and a collection of paintings from the Cusco School. One of the most famous is the painting by Marcos Zapata. This painting is an interesting take on the last supper mixing Catholic beliefs brought by the Spanish with the local view where guinea pig would be eaten at an important meal or celebration.
The cathedral stands on the Inca Palace built by the conquistadors, with stone from the Incan city of Sacsayhuaman. If you have a bit of time to spare, definitely walk around the inside and check out the artwork
Walk north from Plaza de Armas towards San Blas, a maze of cobbled streets and squares and explore Hathunrumiyoc the “great stone street”. This central street is home to a great wall, considered to be one of the finest examples of Incan architecture. The stones are carved so precisely and fit together so tightly that you cannot slide a piece of paper between them. Look out for the 12 angled stone, and the shapes of a serpent, guinea pig and llama hidden in the design.
4. Make chocolate!
Okay, you get to eat it too. No trip to Cusco is complete without paying a visit to the ChocoMuseo. Much more than a chocolate shop, ChocoMuseo is a South American institution! The boutique offers a range of workshops to suit every passion and budget. They will teach you the history of cacao farming, show you how to make chocolate and of course let you eat it! .
Who knew chocolate was popular? This optional excursion is available on all of our tours through Cusco. It can be really popular, so book early to avoid disappointment.
5. Marvel at the views
An excellent way to enjoy the views of Cusco is to head to Limbus Restobar above San Blas. The contemporary Peruvian cooking and tempting cocktails make this is an exciting venue. However, it is the stunning views across Cusco that make it stand out from the crowd and well worth the visit. Whether catching up with friends, or simply resting a while to sip your pisco sours, the terrace is the place to capture stunning views of Cusco and the surrounding area.
Don’t forget your camera!
6. Immerse yourself in the culture
Cusco has a population of over 300,000 people and the majority are of a Roman Catholic faith. Peru’s population is made up of roughly 45% indigenous people, 37% mestizo (a mixture of Spanish and indigenous heritage), 15% of European origin and 3% other. The country is almost half Amerindians and it is important to be respectful of the local people, many of whom view the term ‘indio’ as derogatory, preferring indígenas.
You will find many opportunities to have your photograph taken beside colourfully dressed locals, often leading a very smartly dressed llama. This is an open invitation to click away, a propina (tip) is expected and 1-3 sole should be fine for a couple of shots. In and around Cusco you will hear the distinctive Quechua, spoken by local people. Though many people throughout Peru speak English, a little Spanish will help you to break the ice.
A short distance from Cusco is Awan Kancha, a local initiative created to uphold and share the customs and traditions of the living culture of the Peruvian Andes. At this unique centre you will see local women creating iconic traditional textiles from llama wool. The perfect place to buy the softest wool garments and of course, take that Llama selfie!
7. Explore the markets where you can shop-till-you-drop!
Cusco’s markets are the perfect place to haggle yourself happy!
San Pedro Market is an unmissable permanent market with the most amazing displays of fruit, vegetables and other fresh produce. Stroll past mountains of bread, chocolate and cheese or be tempted by the rows and rows of textiles and jewellery stalls. This huge market is worth a visit and is a firm favourite with the locals and tourists alike. You can also pick up some dried cocoa leaves to help with the altitude.
It may not be the biggest, but many regard San Blas Market as one of the best markets in Cusco, and one of the cleanest. Famed for its fresh vegetables, food and drinks, is also a few minuets walk from Green Point, one of the most popular vegan restaurants in the city.
Your local guide can show you the way and can help you get to know the local currency, the nuevo sol, or the sol before you shop.
8. Eat like a local!
Peruvian food is spicy, full of flavour and utterly delicious and Cusco is the perfect place to taste the local delicacies! One of the most famous dishes is cuy, that’s guinea pig to you and me. Typically roasted, many say that the taste and texture are similar to roast duck or rabbit. Cusco is also famous for its alpaca steak. Pachamanca is a traditional dish that mixes slow-cooked meat with potatoes, corn and cheese. The dish is cooked by burying it underground surrounded by hot stones.
There are many delicious dishes available to suit vegetarian and vegan diets.. We recommend Palta a la Reina (Avocado to the Queen, stuffed avocado) and papas a la Huancaina (potatoes served cold with a spicy cheese sauce). Salads are widely available, including sweet tomato salads and huevos de la rusa (egg salad).
South America is famous for its vibrant nightlife and Cusco is no different. Popular clubs such as Mama Africa stay open until the early morning, as do many of the street stalls selling empanadas. For a quieter night, but just as much fun, head to the cosy Pisco Museo for locally flavoured pisco sours.
Grab a cerveza Zenith and chill. Zenith beer is brewed locally by ex Tucan Travel staff Zac and Milka. Relax with this highly rated beer on the balcony of the Norton Rat’s Tavern, which looks out over the Plaza. Alternatively you can go and drink at the brewery tasting room, only a 10 minute taxi ride from the Plaza de Armas.
You can read more about the food and drink in Cusco, and the best places to visit here.
If you are travelling from Lima to Cusco overland, but the journey may take over 20 hours. It is possible to book bus services from neighbouring countries of Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Chile. Most international travellers fly directly to Cusco via Santiago de Chile or Bogota. Lima to Cusco flights are available and inexpensive with a flight time of around 60 minutes,
There are many important things to consider when travelling to any new country, and |peru and Cusco are no different. In our comprehensive advice for travel to Peru we talk about when and where it is safe to take photographs, whether it’s safe to drink the water and top tips for travelling as a single woman. You can tread our guide here.
Take a look on our website for more details and find out why you should travel with us .
About the Author
Tanya Clover works as a freelance copywriter for Tucan Travel. Tanya’s passions are travel, reading and horses. She has recently returned from 2 years working in Australia, where she travelled extensively. She has travelled in India, Thailand, North and Eastern Africa, Egypt and Peru. Travels in Europe have included Romania, Bulgaria, Norway, Northern Ireland, Ireland and Italy. Her favourite destinations last year were Egypt and Jordan. Follow Tanya on twitter @tancloverkent and Instagram @tandealkent