Things To Do And Explore In Cusco

Cusco was once the capital of the Inca Empire. Today, the lake is the travel capital of South America.

This is thanks to its proximity to Machu Picchu — one of the seven wonders of the world and an important item on the bucket list for travelers from all over the world.

While you can simply drive through Cusco on your way to the ancient city of the Incas, this fascinating city is definitely worth a few days. To begin with, you need to get used to the high altitude before setting off on this epic trek.

There are several good things to do in Cusco to keep you busy for several days. Before heading to Machu Picchu, you can visit a number of museums and other Inca ruins in the area to learn more about the ancient civilization.

Cusco is also full of adventure activities, including mountain biking and white water rafting.

After a great day of exploring, you can return to the city to enjoy delicious Peruvian cuisine and a beautiful wild nightlife. Does that sound good? Read on to find out more about the best things to do in Cusco.

1. Discover the Plaza de Armas

Your exploration of Cusco should start at the Plaza de Armas.

As is the matter in so many places in Latin America, it is the historic center of the city. In Cusco, the main square has a beautifully maintained garden, a central fountain and a statue of the Inca ruler Pachacuti.

Speaking of the Incas, it was once the site of Haukaypata — the great Inca square. While the Spanish conquistadors built the original square a long time ago, traces of the Incas can still be found on every street corner in Cusco.

Walk around the Plaza de Armas and you will quickly notice the different layers of history that are present here.

Around the Plaza de Armas you will find some of the most important cultural and historical sites, such as the magnificent Cathedral of Cusco.

The square is also surrounded by stone arcades that the Spaniards built, which are now usually full of shops and agents catering to the huge amounts of tourists who visit Cusco.

There are also many cafes and bars in the area, many of which offer stunning views of the square.

One of the best things to do in Cusco is to grab a window seat at one of these places to grab a drink and watch the action below. I especially enjoyed the Cappucino Cusco coffee, which you can find on the map here.

2. Take a free walking tour

While it’s fun to explore Plaza de Armas on your own, it’s much better with a knowledgeable local guide and a group of other travelers. This is exactly what you can do if you sign up for a free walking tour of Cusco.

Inkan Galaxy organizes walking tours of the city every day at 10 am in English and Spanish (groups are separate, not bilingual). If you miss the morning tour, you can simply skip on the 13:00 or 15:30 tour.

These free walking tours will give you a great introduction to Cusco.

You will learn a lot about the long history of the city, from the great achievements of the Incas to their collapse and conquest by the Spaniards. Along the way, you will have many opportunities to ask your guide questions and get recommendations on what to do after the tour.

The visits take place in the Plaza Regocijo in front of the Chocolate Museum (see the map here). Just look at the guides wearing their shiny yellow vests. Speaking of guides, they rely on your generous tips for their income and to make these tours work.

3. Visit the beautiful churches

There are several beautiful churches in Cusco that are definitely worth a visit. The most striking is the Cathedral of Cusco, which took almost a century to build. It is a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, and it is an absolutely magnificent building.

As is the matter in much of Latin America, the Spaniards built a cathedral over an indigenous temple. Before the conquest, this site housed the palace of Viracocha, one of the most important gods for the Incas.

Although the church is awesome from the outside, you have to go inside to really appreciate it.

Inside, you can admire the elaborate altars covered with gold leaf. The cathedral also has a wide range of archaeological remains and colonial art.

The most famous piece is a replica of DaVinci’s “The Last Supper”.”Look closely and you will see that a local specialty – guinea pig – appears on one of the plates.

You can visit the Cathedral of Cusco if you buy the Religious Tour ticket. These cost 30 soles and you can also visit the Church of San Blas, the Church of San Cristobal and the Museum of Religious Art.

Alternatively, you can simply buy a ticket for 25 soles to visit the cathedral on your own. As you can see, it’s a good deal to just get the combo ticket.

4. Start your trip to Machu Picchu

Cusco is a big city in its own right, but the main reason most people come here is its proximity to Machu Picchu.

If you are hoping to visit the ancient city of the Incas – and I am sure you are – then you will end up through the city before and after your trip there.

One of the best things to do in Cusco is to go on an adventure to Machu Picchu.

Any travel agency and tour operator in Cusco can help you plan the trip of a lifetime to Machu Picchu. You have several options to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the world, depending on your interests and budgets.

After much deliberation, we decided to make the trek through the jungle of Machu Picchu.

This adventurous trip includes downhill mountain biking, rafting (depending on the weather), zip-lining, and even a little hiking on the Inca Trail. You can sign up for a 4D / 3N trip for less than per person. Considering all the activities covered by this trip, this is a great deal.

If you prefer the classic Machu Picchu trek (4 Nights, 5 days), you’ll want to book it well in advance. Read more in this detailed article about trekking to Machu Picchu.

Only a certain number of people are allowed to enter each day, and this number is even less to be able to climb one of the two mountains inside. Book early to avoid disappointment!

5. Walking in Cristo Blanco

Once you’ve put your trip to Machu Picchu in order, it’s time to start exploring this beautiful Peruvian city again. One of the best things to do in Cusco is definitely the walk to the Cristo Blanco statue.

This large statue of Jesus stands on top of Pukamuqu mountain at an altitude of 3,600 meters. Just look up from the Plaza de Armas, and you’re sure to see the bright white statue in the distance.

Although you can reach Cristo Blanco by the tourist bus or taxi, the best way to appreciate these panoramic views is to win them the hard way! It is about 30-40 minutes walk from the city center. Be sure to bring sunscreen and plenty of water.

6. Explore the Inca ruins

Before heading to Machu Picchu, it’s worth checking out some of the other Inca ruins that surround Cusco. The closest option to the city is Sacsayhuaman, which is located on top of the hill near the statue of the White Christ.

There are some theories about Sacsayhuaman’s function. Due to its high location on a hill and its well-fortified walls, it is believed that it was a fortress. The large square here also indicates that it once served as a ceremonial center.

Whatever its function, the ruins of Sacsayhuaman are quite impressive. It is estimated that more than 20,000 men worked to extract the stones and then transport them up the hill. They also cut the rocks so carefully that they were able to mount them without mortar.

Many locals jokingly refer to this Inca citadel as “sexy woman”, as this is not so far from the indigenous pronunciation of the name. This is definitely a good tip to help you remember the name!

One problem with visiting Sacsayhuaman is that you can’t just buy a ticket to visit this site. You must either purchase the full tourist ticket for 130 soles which gives you access to 16 different sites, or the partial ticket (circuit one) for 70 soles which allows you to visit three other ruins.

If it sounds complicated, it’s because it is. Read more about the different options here.

The ruins are open every day from 7 am to 6 pm. The ruins of Sacsayhuaman and Cristo Blanco can be found here on the map.

7. Taste the local cuisine

Without a doubt, one of the best things to do in Cusco is to taste the local cuisine. Of course, you can find Peruvian classics like ceviche and lomo saltado, but you will also want to try some dishes that are Cusco specialties.

To start your day, join the locals ‘ queue at the market to order a very hot bowl of Caldo de gallina, a delicious chicken soup. Another local favorite is chicharrón-fried pork which is usually served with potatoes and corn.

If you walk around Cusco, you will definitely see a lot of alpacas. Not only are these animals kept for their wool, but they are also on the menu. In the restaurants around Cusco you can try an alpaca steak and even alpaca burgers.

You might think that guinea pigs are cute pets, but here they are a delicacy. They are called cuy in Spanish and have been an important food source in the region for centuries. It is grilled and served whole, with the head, teeth, legs and everything.

8. Studying Spanish

As a major tourist hub, Cusco is very used to gringos with terrible Spanish. Although you can definitely get by with English and body language here, you will have a much better trip if you take a little Español.

There are many Spanish schools in Cusco that can help you go beyond the simple “hola” and “gracias”.”Regardless of your level, you can find a Spanish course that suits you in Cusco.

Most schools offer private lessons, group classes, and immersion programs where you live with a local family in a host family. With so many great things to do in Cusco, it’s a great place to bend over for a while and improve your Spanish.

I didn’t take Spanish classes when we were in Cusco, but the people of Peru Hop put together this handy guide on the different Spanish schools in the city.

9. Museum jump

If you like to visit museums when you travel, then you are in for a real treat in Cusco. The city is home to numerous excellent museums in art, history, archaeology, and much more. There is even a museum dedicated to the coca leaf here!

The museums you choose to visit in Cusco depend on your interests and whether you want to buy a tourist ticket or not. This is because some museums can only be visited with a ticket.

It’s a bit boring, but that’s how it is in Cusco. Here are some that you can visit without the complications of the tourist ticket:

The pre-Columbian Art Museum is the only one of its kind in Peru. Here you will find hundreds of artifacts sent to Cusco by the famous Larco de Lima Museum. Admission is 20 soles for foreigners and they are open every day from 8: 00 to 22: 00. Get directions by checking the map here.

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