Things to do in Cusco

The city of Cusco, high in Peru’s Andes, was once the heart of the Incan culture. That was until the Europeans arrived and changed it forever.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


The best things to do in Cusco

As the former capital of the Incan Empire, Cusco is full of the ancient culture's legacy, from the city's layout to the foundations of buildings and the ruins on the outskirts.

But when you're planning what to do in Cusco, you'll find there's a fascinating mix of that Incan heritage with more modern history - plus some beautiful nature in the region.

Surrounded by an ambitious construction program of magnificent religious and administrative sites, with an unparalleled road network splitting off towards all corners of the empire, the city of Cusco was the heart of the great South American civilisation of the Incas.

It was the capital of a people who had taken control of an enormous swathe of the continent at such a rapid rate that their expansion seemed unstoppable. With gold as a reward and weapons as punishment, the leaders were gods and nothing could stand in their way.

Cusco was the heart of the Incas. Until one day, it suffered the most deadly of heart attacks – the arrival of Europeans.

Things to do in Cusco

Today, the Peruvian city has become the base for exploration of the lost Incan culture and there are lots of things to do in Cusco.

It is the first stop for almost every traveller to the region and is literally breathtaking. At a height of 3,400 metres above sea level, the air is thin and it often takes people a day or two to adjust to the shallow breathing as lungs grasp for oxygen.

But for those coming to find Incan relics, it must be just a stepping stone. It represents less the history of the Incan civilisation but more the invasion and colonisation of these lands by the Spanish conquistadors.

It is both physically and culturally a symbol of Europeans supplanting an incredible indigenous culture with the ideology of the West.

What to see in Cusco
Visiting the World Heritage Site of Cusco, Peru

“Look there, can you see it?” my local guide asks me as we stand on a hilltop around Cusco, looking down at the city.

“The old part of the city is in the shape of a puma!”

I squint a little and tilt my head to the side slightly. I can start to see it. Although urban sprawl makes it harder to distinguish, there is indeed a collection of older-style buildings that fill in the outline of a puma, a large cat worshipped in this part of Peru.

This is one of the remnants of the Incan time – but it’s just a shape of urban planning visible only from above.

Back down in the streets themselves, almost everything is European. The indigenous structure was preserved but, on top of it, the Spanish built their new churches, monasteries, manor houses and administrative buildings.

Visiting the World Heritage Site of Cusco, Peru

In the various plazas of Cusco, grand Baroque buildings line the edges atop the old Incan foundations- a testament to the complex history and a physical representation of the reality of colonisation.

Crowds of indigenous people in traditional garb sell wares that would be recognisable to the ancient Incas but they do so in buildings constructed by the rulers of the New World.

Earlier I described the takeover of Cusco by the Europeans as ‘a heart attack’. On reflection, that may be a bit simplistic. It’s probably more of ‘a heart transplant’. Because the city has thrived – just in a different way than its founders intended.

Visiting the World Heritage Site of Cusco, Peru

The Incan road system still leads, like arteries, to the untouched ruins of the great empire but now it’s pumping tourists and more Westernised Peruvians along its paths.

In restaurants in the centre of Cusco, menus still offer traditional food like quinoa and guinea pig but, amongst the offerings, are burgers and pizza.

There is an amalgam of Incan and colonial culture here in Cusco. At first sight, it appears the Spanish have paved over the pre-Columbian life but, like most paving, nature finds a way to grow through the cracks.

So, to explore all of these things, let’s have a look at the best things to do in Cusco.

In the city

Although its role as the former Incan capital has influenced much of Cusco, many of the sights in the centre of the city are related to the colonial era and subsequent centuries.

Stroll through the cobblestone-lined alleyways into the history-packed squares, pop into the markets and churches, or climb up the towering hills for the best views of the city.

Plaza de Armas

At the centre of Cusco is Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square. It holds centuries of history that reach back to the pre-Inca period, through the arrival of the Incas, and finally the Spaniards – who changed the cityscape forever.

The square is covered with glossy cobblestone tiles, woven with grassy patches that point to a modest fountain in the centre. Soaring to the sides are Catholic churches that rise supported by ancient Inca stones, in a place where once Incan temples used to stand.

Visiting the World Heritage Site of Cusco, Peru

Dotted around are modern-day restaurants and fast-food places, many of which boast amazing views of the square. You’ll naturally find yourself passing through Plaza de Armas and it’s one of the best things to see in Cusco as a starting point for your explorations.

Cusco Cathedral

Looming over the square, the Cathedral of Cusco is the most important building here. It’s an icon of the city and a symbol of the Spanish conquest of Peru.

When the Europeans arrived in the 16th century, Incan architecture dominated the Cusco landscape.

Where the Catholic temple stands today, once stood Suntur Wasi – the palace of the Incan King, Wiracocha. The remnants of this past are cemented in the foundations of the Cathedral of Cusco.

Visiting the World Heritage Site of Cusco, Peru

Inside, you will find a collection of paintings and sculptures. Made during the colonial period, they are a fusion of indigenous and mestizo artists.

Cusco Cathedral is open daily from 10:00 – 18:00.

A standard ticket is 25 Soles (US$6.65) and concession is 13 Soles (US$3.45)

San Pedro Market

Turning south and passing under the Arch of Santa Clara toward San Pedro Plaza, you will find the San Pedro Market – one of Cusco’s oldest.

Inside is a maze of narrow cobblestone walkways lined with endless stalls, where merchants arrange their products in enchanting displays. Walking through the complex, you will find the ultimate Peruvian souvenir – an alpaca wool poncho, among other traditional Andean fashion pieces.

Visiting the World Heritage Site of Cusco, Peru

Stroll through until the enticing smells lead you to the food corner. There, sitting elbow to elbow among locals, take a break from exploring to savour a healthy Peruvian meal.

San Pedro Market is open from 9:00 – 18:00.

Entrance to the San Pedro Market is free.

San Blas

Make your way up the hill to reach San Blas – a neighbourhood with a hippie character that shows how Cusco has changed in recent years. Its streets are ringed with galleries and artists enticing you to come in and check out their work.

Climb up the steep staircase onto San Blas Square, where you’ll find San Blas Temple, a charming adobe church built in 1563 in place of another sacred Inca site.

Continue strolling up the hill towards San Blas Mercado, where you can find vegetarian versions of Peruvian dishes. Just in front, there is a viewpoint overlooking the red-roofed buildings of the Imperial City.


Speaking of viewpoints, there are some stunning ones – and taking in the vista from them is among the best things to do in Cusco, a city that spills onto the mountains and hills of the magnificent Andes.

Overlooking the expansive historic centre, you’ll be able to see churches soaring above the small red-tiled houses, and perhaps even be able to make out the shape of the city’s Incan urban layout – it’s a puma!

Visiting the World Heritage Site of Cusco, Peru

Standing on top of a hill is the San Cristóbal church, from where you will get the best views of Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral of Cusco.

Nearby, dominating over the city is the Cristo Blanco statue, built atop the Pukamuqu Mountain and boasting panoramic views of the valley.

Another option is Santa Ana Viewpoint, which is situated along the winding Avenue Arcopata and is the favourite among locals.


The history of Peru goes back millennia. From pre-Inca civilisation to the mighty Inca empire and then colonial administrative centre, Cusco has gone through many transformations. Each brought new customs, innovations, and inspiration that, in turn, made it what it is today.

A great way to explore all of this history is through Cusco’s museums,

Museum of Pre-Columbian Art

The MAP (Museum of Pre-Columbian Art) offers a journey back to ancient Peru through a display of artworks, some of them over 3,000 years old. The 400 pieces that it houses belong to Lima’s Larco Museum – Peru’s best museum.

The ten rooms each hold a themed collection of shell, silver, gold, and wood artefacts, further separated into pre-Inca and Inca civilisations. Above that, other collections include findings from Northern, Southern, and Central Peru offering insight into the many other civilisations that called Peru home.

The museum is hosted in the 500-year-old Casa Cabrera on the elegant Las Nazarenas Plaza.

The Museum of Pre-Columbian Art is open every day from 8:00 – 22:00.

A standard ticket is 20 Soles (US$5.30) and 10 Soles (US$2.65) for foreign students.


More than a mouth-watering treat, Incas considered cacao to be the ‘drink of the gods’. To this day, Peruvians see chocolate as a symbolic and momentous part of their culture and diet.

To learn more about that, head to the ChocoMuseum, just a short stroll away from Plaza de las Armas. The exhibition is free and, tucked away in the corner of Plaza Regocijo, it also houses a shop, workshop, and a café.

The highlight of the museum is the interactive experience that it offers. You can attend Bean to Bar Workshops where you’ll learn how to make your own chocolate, whilst listening to the tales and facts of Peruvian cacao customs.

The ChocoMuseum is open daily from 9:00 – 19:30.

Admission to the ChocoMuseum is free.

Coca Museum

Another important ingredient deeply rooted in Peru’s past and still relevant today is the coca leaf, and you’ll likely come across it on your visit to Cusco.

This ancient herbal plant carries medical properties that helped the Incas in multiple ways throughout the years. Among other uses, it is an important part of rituals celebrating milestones of the Andes people. Plus, tourists like me use it to deal with the high altitudes!

The Coca Museum is a modest museum situated on the San Blas Plaza dedicated to this local icon. It covers the history, growth and processing methods, as well as ceremonial uses of this leaf.

Coca Museum is open from 10:00 – 19:00.

Free admission.

Other Museums

If you’re keen to learn even more, there are some other great museums in Cusco that will introduce you to other parts of the city’s story.

  • Museum of Regional History: This 16th-century building (the former home of Inca Spanish chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega Chimpuocllo) houses 13 rooms of exhibitions taking visitors on a journey from pre-Inca era to more modern times, from the history of potatoes to the Spanish conquest.
  • Museum of Contemporary Art: Housed inside the Municipal Palace on Plaza del Regocijo, the collection has about 300 pieces of art by contemporary artists from all corners of Peru and beyond, including paintings and handicrafts from locally famed artists such as Antonio Olave, Edilberto Mérida, or Hilario Mendívil.
  • Museum of Popular Art: Dedicated solely to local artists, the collection includes over 2000 pieces made since 1937 from paintings to ceramics, textiles, silverware, sculptures, and photographs.

Incan ruins

Within Cusco and the surrounding area, you’ll find scattered reminders of Inca civilisation.

Many of the Incan sites right in the city centre are now buried beneath the ground or reused as foundations of the colonial buildings that dominate the cityscape of Cusco today. But here are some impressive ones that are relatively untouched – and easy to see from Cusco.


Coricancha was the most important religious temple for the Incas, where the God of the Sun was worshipped. Hence, this temple is also known as ‘The Temple of the Sun’.

What is now the Convent of Santo Domingo, a cross-shaped church with copper red domes sheltering church bells, used to be a temple that resembled the sun with rays gleaming in every direction.

The walls were covered in gold and its opulence amazed the arriving Spanish conquistadores, who looted the place and demolished the temple before constructing a Catholic church in the same place.

Today, glimpses of the Incan temple can be explored on the grounds of the church.

Coricancha is open at these times:
Monday to Saturday: 8:30 – 17:30
Sunday: 14:00 – 17:00

A standard ticket is 15 Soles (US$4).


Perched at 3700 metres, atop a hill on the outskirts of Cusco, are the Sacsayhuamán ruins. Stretching hundreds of metres long, this is one of the largest temples of the Incas. It is also one of the most impressive ones.

Sacsayhuamán, Cusco

The walls that endure to this day are made from rocks that are over 4 metres tall and weigh over 100 tons each. Carved into those rocks are depictions of animals that were significant to the Incas, like the condor, puma, and snake.

During the Spanish conquest, Sacsayhuamán became a fortress that was attacked and conquered, and then completely abandoned.

Sacsayhuamán is open from 7:00 – 18:00.

Entry is with the Cusco Touristic Ticket, which is 70 Soles (US$19) for a partial pass that also includes Q’enco, Puca Pucara and Tambomachay (all in the same day). Or it’s 130 Soles (US$35) for the full pass that includes 16 sites (over 10 days).


Just nearby lies the Q’enco Archaeological Complex – another great depiction of the advanced engineering practices of the Incan people.

‘Quenko’ means ‘labyrinth’ in the Quechua language, and a labyrinth is exactly what it is. A maze of narrow walkways adorned with carvings that transform into caverns as you venture underground. Other walkways are tight zigzag canals that resemble a snake from above.

By the entrance, the horn-like peak is believed to be what remains from the seven-metre-long Inca statue. Although unfortunately not much is known about the purpose of this site because the Spanish demolished it and repurposed the materials.

Q’enco is open from 7:00 – 18:00.

Entry is with the Cusco Touristic Ticket, which is 70 Soles (US$19) for a partial pass that also includes Sacsayhuamán, Puca Pucara and Tambomachay (all in the same day). Or it’s 130 Soles (US$35) for the full pass that includes 16 sites (over 10 days).

Puca Pucara

Venturing further into Sacred Valley, you will find Puca Pucara and Tambomachay. Those two structures boast amazing views of the surroundings.

Nestled among the mountains on the outskirts of Cusco and lodged atop a hill, the long walls of Puca Pucara really stand out. Built at the height of the Incan empire, it was used as a military base and then as a fortress during the Spanish conquest.

Nearby, lies Tambomachay – another great engineering feat of the Incas. Its walls are assembled from tightly embraced stones that spread into steeped terraces.

Passing through those walls are sophisticated canals that to this day dispense clean spring water.

Puca Pucara is open from 7:00 – 18:00.

Entry is with the Cusco Touristic Ticket, which is 70 Soles (US$19) for a partial pass that also includes Sacsayhuamán, Q’enco and Tambomachay (all in the same day). Or it’s 130 Soles (US$35) for the full pass that includes 16 sites (over 10 days).


There are so many things to see in Cusco and the surrounding Sacred Valley (which I’ll talk about in a moment) that planning it can get a bit overwhelming.

A really good way to make sure you see all the highlights – and engage in a meaningful way with some local cultural experiences – is with one of these Cusco tours.

City tour

In Cusco, there is history hidden around every corner, and the stories here involve layer upon layer (physically and figuratively).

I think getting a local guide is one of the best things to do in Cusco because they’ll be able to show you all the main sights and explain their significance.

Visiting the World Heritage Site of Cusco, Peru

They’ll also take you to the Incan heritage on the city outskirts which can be a bit of a hassle to get to otherwise.

These are some good options that I would recommend for a city tour:

Another way you can see the city is by hopping on this Cusco Open Tour.

It includes a drive through the historic centre, archaeological sites, traditional Inca ceremony, and a visit to the alpaca wool weaving centre, before finishing off at one of Cusco’s best viewpoints.

Peruvian cooking class

There’s no doubt Peru is renowned for its cuisine!

There’s the world’s freshest ceviche, more types of potatoes than you could think of, and mouth-watering meat – all of which really make Peru stand out among its neighbours. (Not to mention the amazing pisco cocktails!)

Cooking class in Cusco

Cusco is an excellent place to learn more about Peruvian cuisine, with a number of cooking classes using local ingredients to make some of the country’s best dishes. You’ll even get to visit a local market to choose what you’re going to cook with.

I think this cooking class is a great choice, if you’re interested in the full experience. Or there are some other good options here:

If you’re lucky, there might even be a cocktail-making class thrown in!

Horse riding tour

Beyond all the landmarks that the historic centre has to offer, the natural landscapes of Cusco are also worth experiencing.

With endless mountains, hills (and nestled in them, Incan ruins), plus some peace and quiet, it’s really special out here.

You may already be planning to do a hike in the region, so for something different perhaps you would like to consider this horse riding adventure.

This tour includes a horse ride to the Temple of the Moon. It will take you through the quiet trails of the Andes mountains, offering mesmerising views of the Sacred Valley wrapped in green mountains and farmlands.

Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley of the Incas, or Urubamba Valley, is one of the best places to visit in Peru. Over 60 kilometres of serene green mountains provide shelter to countless ruins of the Inca civilisation that remain some of the world’s biggest mysteries.

In between, the charming village of Ollantaytambo, where the adobe houses are dwarfed by the besieging mountains, offers rich insight into the past with its well-preserved Inca sites.

Nearby, Pisac lies among multiple archaeological sites sprawling atop surrounding hills. And inside, a traditional market lined with cobblestone streets.

Unless you have a car, the best way to visit the Sacred Valley is on a tour. I would recommend this full-day tour that goes to all the best sights.

There are some other great options here:

If you are keen to plan it yourself or want to know what to expect, let me run through the best things to see in the Sacred Valley.


To the west of Cusco lies Ollantaytambo, one of the Incan towns that make up the Sacred Valley and, undoubtedly, the most alluring one.

Ollantaytambo is the best preserved Inca town in the Sacred Valley. Its buildings still have the original stone walls and sophisticated canal network running beside the dusty cobblestone walkways, just like they did at the peak of the Incan empire.


The water canal continues to run through Mercado Turistico, where the adobe houses are blanketed by layers of hand-made souvenirs crafted out of wool and painted in vibrant colours.

Beyond the charming town, you will find many archaeological sites laying on the mountains in the backdrop.

The Ollantaytambo archaeological site is open from 7:00 – 18:00.

Entry is with the Cusco Touristic Ticket, which is 70 Soles (US$19) for a partial pass that also includes Pisac, Chinchero, and Moray (over two days). Or it’s 130 Soles (US$35) for the full pass that includes 16 sites (over 10 days).


Down a winding mountain passageway, 30 kilometres east of Cusco, Pisac is another Incan town that stands out among the rugged mountains of the Sacred Valley.

Every Sunday, the main square comes to life as vendors from all around Pisac lovingly set up their stalls here. Fresh produce, hand-woven carpets, alpaca-wool ponchos, sweaters, and much more are all on offer if you fancy some shopping.

Pisac, Sacred Valley

Beyond that, the Pisac Archaeological Park is concealed in the nearby mountains. This Inca complex is where you can find the largest Inca cemetery, residential settlements, and ceremonial baths, all enclosed by terraces and walls that sprawl along the mountain.

The Pisac archaeological site is open from 6:00 – 17:00.

Entry is with the Cusco Touristic Ticket, which is 70 Soles (US$19) for a partial pass that also includes Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, and Moray (over two days). Or it’s 130 Soles (US$35) for the full pass that includes 16 sites (over 10 days).


To the northwest of Cusco, Chinchero is perched on a plateau, with the peaks of the Andes as its backdrop. At its centre is an expansive main square with a snow-white arch that rises on top of enormous stones, another reminder of the grand Incan civilisation.

Often filling much of the square are the local women wearing bright traditional Andean wear who are here to sell hand-woven traditional textiles, dyed in vibrant colours using natural pigments. It’s an old Peruvian tradition that Chinchero is famous for.

There are many textile production centres where you can learn how to weave yourself, and perhaps, purchase a souvenir straight from the local.

Weaving collective

I think learning more about the region’s weaving traditions is one of the best things to do in Cusco because it’s a great example of an ancient heritage that has continued to today.

Traditionally, weaving was women’s work and that’s still the case. The wool comes from indigenous animals like alpacas and even some of the tools utilise Incan techniques, such as using a llama bone.

Women's Weaving Cooperative, Planeterra, G Adventures, Peru

There are a few weaving centres you can visit in the Sacred Valley, but I would recommend the Ccaccaccollo community. Although there are now wooden looms in one of the buildings, most of the work here is done as it’s always been.

Ccaccaccollo is also a great example of a positive community project where all the money is used to support the locals – so don’t be afraid to buy something.

Maras Salt Mines

Further down the winding Machu Picchu Road are more places worth stopping, if you have the time. For instance, just off the desolated town of Maras, lie the Maras Salt Mines and Moray ruins.

Terraced on the side of a mountain at 3,200 metres above sea level are 4,500 salt pools. Nuzzled against each other, these white, cream, brown, and rosy pools have been here for over 500 years. Passed around by many civilisations, today they are still in use, actively producing Peruvian Pink Salt.

On the other side, the Moray ruins appear otherworldly, a mysterious complex of terraced, perfectly shaped circular depressions buried deep in the green mountains.

The Maras Salt Mines are open everyday from 6:00 – 18:00.

A standard ticket is 10 Soles (US$2.65).

Day trips

The options for things to do in Cusco seem neverending. Even beyond the historic centre, the ancient Inca towns of the Sacred Valley, and the other countless ruins, there are still more places worth checking out.

Take a look at those half or full-day trips away from Cusco.

Machu Picchu

If you’ve come all the way to Cusco, then I assume you’re keen to see Machu Picchu.

This is one of the world’s greatest sites and I would certainly recommend you take your time – either trekking out to the ancient city on one of the historic routes (such as the Lares Trail) or perhaps staying overnight at Aguas Calientes so you can get up to the top in time for sunrise.

Visiting Machu Picchu, Peru

If you’re short of time, though, there are some great day trips to Machu Picchu from Cusco.

I think this (very) long day trip is your best option, but there are some other good ones I would recommend here:

Ultimately, however, you visit Machu Picchu, it’s going to be one of the highlights of your time in Peru!

Rainbow Mountain

Buried deep among Andean peaks, is a mountain of seven colours. Stripes of varied colours sprawl out on both faces of Mountain Vinicunca. And in the foreground, you will find adorable pom-pom dressed-up llamas!

Since it was discovered, a day trip to Rainbow Mountain has become one of the most popular things to do from Cusco, although it doesn’t always live up to the photos. Still, it’s not a bad way to spend the day.

To see this spectacle, you will need to hike for two hours. Remember, the Rainbow Mountain is 5,040 metres tall, where the low oxygen levels make it hard to take regular breaths.

This journey is not for the faint-hearted! For your safety, consider going in a group led by an experienced, local guide. This will also take away your worries of getting there and back again.

I would recommend this tour to Rainbow Mountain from Cusco, which includes hotel pickup and meals.

Humantay Lake

For a lovely day out in nature, another fantastic option is hiking to Humantay Lake. This is an adventurous but peaceful journey to Peru’s far-flung glacier valley.

Just 40 years ago, this valley stood frozen. Then, the ice retreated and revealed stunning scenery of fog-draped glaciers and drastic peaks with meandering rivers and glass-like lakes below. Humantay Lake lies there, at the feet of Salcantay Mountain.

For the biggest chance of a clear view, it is best to begin the hike at sunrise. For that reason, joining a group tour that includes pick up and drop off, as well as an experienced guide is your best option.

There are some excellent tour options here:

Or you could also go on this epic 5-day Salkantay Trek that includes Humantay Lake as part of the journey to Machu Picchu.


As a busy base for trips to Machu Picchu, you’ll find a great range of accommodations right in the heart of Cusco.


Although it’s a colonial-era building, Casa Tunki has modern facilities and the dorm beds have a lot of privacy.


With old Peruvian charm, Amaru Colonial has large clean rooms and a convenient central location.


The themed rooms at Andean Wings Boutique Hotel are beautifully designed and there’s also a great free breakfast.


It’s rather grand, but Hotel Hacienda Cusco Centro Historico also has an intimate feel with a shared lounge, terrace, and garden.


This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

5 thoughts on “Things to do in Cusco”

  1. Wow! Quite a read that was. 🙂 Your photos are magnificent! I knew so little about Cusco. The European influence in its architecture is quite evident. But I guess, it’s for the good. It seems to be an inviting place with so much to marvel at.

  2. Cusco was one of my favourite places in South America, if not THE favourite. There’s something magic about it. Sometimes it’s hard even to put into words… although I think you did a pretty good job 🙂

  3. Great pictures! Cusco is a mixed of traditional culture and european as I can see in the pictures.. This article really inspires me to visit Cusco. I will put it in the bucket list.

  4. that was exquisite. the pinnacle of modern day literature. a thrill to read, with a twist around every turn. i know that in a few years this shall be among the great works of literature. Agatha Christi, William Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien and Gabriel Marques all grovel at your feet.


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