Cusco is one of those tourist sites where its activities and possibilities seem to be endless. Beyond the tours of the Seven Colors Mountain or the excursions to Machu Picchu, the ancient capital of the most powerful empire in South America left a legacy that deserves the visit and appreciation of every globetrotter.
From tasting its traditional drinks, rafting, mountain hiking, meeting llamas or sampling its gastronomy, whether exploring the intricate stone carvings of Tipon or marveling at the Inca walls of the Plaza de Armas, visitors feel transported back in time, and in this article you will find a list of 15 best things to do and see in Cusco.
1. Get to know Cusco's Main Square
The ancient capital of the Inca Empire from the Andes Mountains oozes history and culture and, to begin exploring this mystical city, the ideal place to start is at the Plaza de Armas, the heart of the so-called "navel of the world", Cusco.
The entrances to the Cathedral of Cusco and the Church of La Campiña are just some of the must-see places in this bustling public square that, seduces even Hollywood, but you also find museums, beautiful fountains and the municipal library among other sites worth visiting.
Don't miss any of the cultural performances that take place there such as the "Wawa Inti Raymi" or Sun Festival, the various fairs, the Corpus Christi Festival... this square is a public place with events every month so, no matter when you travel to the ancient capital of the Tahuantinsuyo Empire, there are always many incredible things to do and see in Cuzco.
2. Visit the Sacred Valley of Cusco
Be sure to stroll through the Sacred Valley, which stretches between Cusco and Machu Picchu and is home to numerous Inca ruins and villages. Stroll through the countryside captivated by the magnificent views of the mountains and the Urubamba River. In addition, if you want a luxury experience, you can sleep under the open sky under the dome of a glass dome.
This is one of the best excursions you can do from Cusco, with a route that runs through the heart of the Andes and reflects its splendid natural beauty. You can go hiking or if you prefer a more fun adventure, you may be interested in following some of the best quad biking routes in Cusco. You will explore small communities along the way, where the locals warmly welcome visitors revealing curiosities of their ancestral lifestyle.
Do not miss the remains of ancient Inca fortresses such as Pisac, or one of the Ollantaytambo, which is one of the top 50 tourist destinations in the world, located high on the mountainside, over 2700 meters high, from where they offer an incomparable view of the surroundings. Don't forget to bring your camera and keep an eye out for the surrounding flora, it will take your breath away.
3. Meet the Valley of the Goblins
Did you think that goblins were only prevalent in European folklore? Cusco demonstrates the influence of these mythical characters with its Valley of the Goblins.
Just 8.1 kilometers from Cusco' s Main Square lies this little known gem. There is a popular belief in the area that points to goblins as the makers of the intricate shapes of this rock puzzle, and following an environmentalist theme you can discover dozens of goblin figures that give the place its name.
As you go, you will see how the sculptures revalue the culture of the ancient Tahuantinsuyo Empire. Admission is very cheap, about 1 ¤. Ah! And if you want your experience to be memorable, don't forget to rub the Huanac bells to vibrate with the Valley of the Goblins.
4. Marvel at the historic fortress of Sacsayhuaman
One of Cusco's most impressive monuments is the Sacsayhuaman Archaeological Park, perched atop a hill at an altitude of 3,700 meters, a testament to the skill and ingenuity of the Inca people.
The massive stones used in the construction of this fortress are so perfectly carved and fitted together that they have withstood centuries of erosion and natural disasters since the 15th century.
Enjoy the enchanting panoramic views of the city from the Puma fortress and while doing so, connect with the Pachamama from the top of its mountain.
5. Visit the colorful San Pedro Market
This colorful and vibrant market is a perfect place to explore the local culture and gastronomy since 1925. Here you will find a wide variety of fresh produce, from fruits and vegetables to meats and fish.
Savor local delicacies such as rocoto relleno, chicha morada or the traditional "choclito con queso". Enjoy its neoclassical architecture, aromas, views and peculiar atmosphere, and don't forget to bargain with the vendors in any of its 1100 stalls.
In addition to food, you can also find local handicrafts, textiles and souvenirs. San Pedro Market is a colorful and bustling feast for the senses.
6. Visit the Inka Museum
Housed in an old colonial house, the Huascar mansion of yesteryear, the museum houses an impressive collection of Inca artifacts, including ceramics, textiles, paintings of the Cusco school, jewelry and tools.
During your visit from Monday to Friday between 09:00 and 16:00 hours, you will also see replicas of important archaeological sites such as Machu Picchu and the fortress of Sacsayhuaman.
7. Ride the tourist bus while you acclimatize your body to the altitude
Unlike other cities where the tourist bus is not my first choice, the Hop on Hop off bus tour in Cusco I do recommend it as a first activity in the city, especially if you are planning one of those 3-day Cusco getaways or a 5-day trip to the Peruvian city. The reason? In one word: altitude.
When we arrive in this beautiful South American region, we need to acclimatize the body to prepare it for the adventure with an average altitude of 3000 meters. There is no time to waste! So, a practical and cheap solution, starting at 13 €, is to walk around the 13 stops of the tourist bus route including the Sacsayhuaman Fortress, the Plaza de Armas, the Mirador del Cristo Blanco and Awanakancha -the Alpaca Farm-.
Take a guided tour
If you like to be told the history of the places where you travel, it is always a good idea to take a guided tour of the city as a first contact. In Cusco, booking this route with an expert guide will give you the opportunity to learn first-hand about the monuments of the center of the ancient Inca Empire.
In addition, local guides are always happy to give you the best tips about the city and will recommend other must-see places to visit or what to do at night in Cusco.
8. Visit the Tipon Archaeological Park
The Tipon Archaeological Park is a little known jewel in Cusco, specifically in Quispicanchi, where its 239 well-kept hectares impress tourists. This archaeological complex is known for its agricultural terraces and irrigation canals of exquisite and visionary construction, product of the ingenuity that the Incas demonstrated more than 500 years ago.
During your visit you will be able to admire the impressive stone structures, such as the water temple and the fortress, which served to supply the vital liquid to the city. In addition, this space was used to worship water.
The park has a great variety of flora and fauna, including a great variety of birds. You can also learn pottery techniques, participate in Cusco handicraft workshops, learn about the history of the park in detail at the Tipon Museum, and more. This activity is ideal for those looking to practice intermediate level trekking during a fascinating tour of Cusco's Sacred Valley.
9. Learn the secrets of Cusco's cuisine
Attention, foodies and food lovers! Consider adding a cooking class with local chefs to your itinerary. You will learn the secrets of traditional Peruvian dishes such as baked guinea pig, puchero or "uchucuta " - Peruvian chili - and baked suckling pig. Cusco's cuisine blends indigenous and Spanish influences, and attending a cooking class is a great way to learn about the history and traditions behind the dishes.
In addition, you will participate in an interesting cultural exchange ranging from connecting with local products such as the 50 varieties of Peruvian corn, its thousands of potatoes to its spices, seeds and condiments. You will connect with the local community on a deeper level.
This is no ordinary cooking class, it is the experience of enjoying a delicious meal and learning ancient techniques and culinary traditions that bring a smile to your heart and palate.
10. Rafting on the Urubamba River
With the rivers and lagoons to visit in Cusco we have enough for a complete article, from the spectacular Humantay Lagoon, the Huacarpay Lagoon or the 7 lagoons of Ausangate that even have their own blue lagoon! This is a paradise for fresh water lovers and, although I recommend that you visit at least one of them, the unmissable activity is rafting on the Urubamba River.
To enjoy the scenery of the area and raise a few degrees of adrenaline, go canoeing on the Urubamba River where you find rapids with 3 levels of difficulty. And if you feel like an adventure with height, go down the Urubamba River on a zip line, in both cases the imposing mountains and lush vegetation are exhilarating. Undoubtedly, one of the best activities to do in Cuzco.
11. Meet the famous Peruvian llamas
Well, well, if you don't see them, it's because you didn't leave the hotel, because llamas in Cusco are like dogs in Madrid or cats in Istanbul, they are everywhere!
These adorable South American camelids have been an integral part of Andean families for centuries. Llamas in Cusco are: pets, pack animals, companions, providers of soft wool and the darlings of children -and not so children-. There is a whole culture around them!
You can get to know them closely through different adventure excursions where you will find them roaming free in the mountains. You will also see them decorated with multicolored pompoms, or if you prefer to learn about their history in detail, you can visit the Awanakancha South American camelid theme park, the only one of its kind in the region.
12. Hiking in Vinicunca: the Mountain of Seven Colors
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is full of things to see and do. A highlight is a visit to the Seven Colors Mountain, known locally as Vinicunca.
This enchanting mountain has a variety of colors at its peak due to its particular mineral composition. The hike to the top of the mountain is a bit challenging, it is classified as medium-high level trekking, but it is worth every step. Its colorful peaks offer an unforgettable impression.
Also, if you prefer to surf the mountains on four wheels, you can rent a quad bike. Put on your boots and get ready for an unimaginable adventure!
13. Taste the frutillada
In addition to corn, among the Cusco mountains red fruits flourish at will, especially wild strawberries -mostly known in the city as frutilla- and from the combination of corn and strawberries came the frutillada.
You will often see sales of frutillada as a traditional drink, especially during Cusco's hottest months -between December and March-, however, its use is widespread in the rest of the Sacred Valley where dishes like "lechón cusqueño" are prepared with frutillada as a base.
When you go to Cusco, make a stop at the chicherías that are identified with red banners like Cusqueñisima Picanteria and taste the wonders that come out of the strawberry.
14. Visit the younger sister of Machu Pichu
If you are looking for a hidden gem in Peru, Choquequirao is a must-see. Known as Machu Picchu's little sister, this Inca city is located in the province of Cusco, specifically in the canyon of the Urubamba River. The name Choquequirao means "Cradle of Gold" in Quechua, and it is not difficult to understand why.
This site is the true lost city of the Incas and, unlike Machu Picchu, it is not flooded with tourists. To reach it, you must embark on a challenging four-day hiking adventure through the mountains at over 3200 meters above sea level, but the views and the unique experience are worth it.
15. Meet Machu Picchu: the jewel in the crown
Of course, we could not close this list without recommending a visit to Machu Picchu. Located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas and surrounded by misty Andean mountains, the ancient citadel is a testament to Peru's rich history.
Accessible by train from Cusco, visitors can choose to hike the Inca Trail or take a more leisurely bus ride, there are several ways to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco, although it is best to sign up for one of the organized excursions to Machu Picchu from Cusco.
Whichever one you choose, take your time to appreciate the magic of this place, explore the ancient ruins and feel as if you were traveling back in time. Just book your ticket in advance and don't miss the opportunity to visit one of the wonders of the world on your visit to Cusco!
When is it best to travel to Cuzco
If you are wondering what the weather is like in Cuzco to start organizing your trip, I recommend you take a look at our post on what is the best time to travel to the Peruvian city. It is essential that you know the two seasons -dry and rainy- that mark the weather in this Inca paradise so that nothing tarnishes your adventure.
Finally, although the Alejandro Velasco airport is not poorly connected to the city center, check what are the options of transfers that are available to move comfortably and start exploring the Peruvian Andes as soon as possible.