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Some of the best things to do in Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu in Peru.
After living and working in Cusco for two weeks, I am completely in love with this amazing city.
Full of modest architecture, colorful local crafts, a thriving tourism industry, and vibrant nightlife, Cusco somehow manages to be thrilling yet humble at the same time.
There is so much culture here, and so many amazing things to do.
In my opinion, here are the 15 best things to do in Cusco for travelers.
15 Best Things To Do In Cusco, Peru
1. Wander Around Plaza Del Armas
Chances are, this will be the first thing you do when you arrive in Cusco.
It is the beating heart of the city, the main public square, the center of the city where tourists and locals congregate.
Because most travelers wander here first, the square if full of tourist traps so be ready.
Locals will constantly come up to you and try to sell you tours, souvenirs, or just tell you their story and ask for money.
Some people are super nice and genuine, some are obviously just trying to scam you.
Regardless, experiencing the crowds and admiring the architecture of Plaza Del Armas is one of the best things to do in Cusco.
2. Visit the Coca Museum
Coca leaves are used as a local remedy for altitude sickness.
If you’re feeling unwell due to the high elevation, chew on a few coca leaves or sip on coca tea and your symptoms should go away.
Hostels, hostels, and tours in Cusco usually have coca leaves on hand for their guests.
But you can also visit the Coca Museum to learn more about this beloved leaf.
The museum has lots of interesting facts about how Coca is used in native culture, which is refreshing for those who only think of coca as an ingredient for cocaine.
The plant is much more special than that, and you can learn all about it here. There is also a cute gift shop with lots of coca-themed gifts.
- Location: Plaza San Blas 618, Cusco 08003, Peru
- Hours: Open every day from 9 am to 7 pm
3. Hike to San Cristobal Church at Sunrise
Cusco is a city of hills. Every alleyway turns into a hike, so even though San Cristobal Church isn’t far from the city center, it still feels like a trek.
Head up to this church at sunrise to enjoy an amazing view over the city.
Cusco is very quiet and peaceful in the morning, and the city appears to glow in the sun’s early rays.
4. Get a Local Almuerzo at Mercado San Blas
This humble market hall near Plaza San Blas is the best market in Cusco, in my opinion.
Mercado San Pedro is Cusco’s biggest market, but it’s too crowded and chaotic in there.
Mercado San Blas is much more relaxed and has better quality food because it’s less touristy.
Getting an almuerzo in Mercado San Blas is one of the best things to do in Cusco. It’s a great way to try local food for a cheap price.
Almuerzo is the local lunch that consists of quinoa soup, a main course of usually rice and veggies and meat, a dessert, and a fresh juice. You can get this massive meal for usually the equivalent of a couple dollars.
There is a place in Mercado San Blas, located on the left-hand side right when you walk in, that does a delicious vegan almuerzo.
- Location: Pumapaccha 231, Cusco 08003, Peru
- Hours: Open every day from 7 am to 4 pm
5. Drink a Pisco Sour
Pisco, a strong, clear Peruvian alcohol, is harsh when tasted alone but absolutely delicious when turned into a Pisco Sour.
Sipping on this classic Peruvian cocktail is one of the best things to do in Cusco, whether you are at dinner, at a bar, or at a hostel pregaming for a wild night.
The drink consists of Pisco, fresh lime, sugar syrup, ice, egg white, and a dash of bitters on top. The egg white makes that silky layer of foam.
I suggest everyone visiting Peru to try it before you decide you don’t like it because it’s fresh, citrusy, and not overly sweet.
6. Explore the Sacred Valley
Visiting the Sacred Valley is one of the main reasons people visit Cusco.
The Sacred Valley stretches through the Andes Mountains and contains many significant remnants of the ancient Inca Empire.
Some of the highlights of the area include the artisan goods of Pisac Market, the archeological ruins in Ollantaytambo, and the royal estate of Tupac Inca Yupanqui.
Seeing all these pieces of ancient Incan history and civilization is fascinating, and it’s a classic day trip from Cusco.
Book your day trip to the Sacred Valley here for 39 USD.
7. Browse the Souvenir Shops
Admiring the colorful art and textiles is definitely one of the best things to do in Cusco.
There are souvenir shops on pretty much every street and the contents can be overwhelming.
Every single store shelf is always hidden underneath overflowing mountains of alpaca wool clothing or chaotic clusters of trinkets.
All the textiles contain layer after layer of stunningly bright colors, and sometimes the displays of scarves, bags, and sweaters have a hypnotizing effect due to the intricately patterned fabrics.
8. Climb To Cristo Blanco
The image of a tall, white statue of Christ with his arms outstretched makes most people think of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio De Janeiro.
But Cusco has one too! Cristo Blanco is the white stone statue of Christ that looks similar to the famous one, but it is located on a hill outside Cusco.
It takes about 30 minutes to an hour to hike up to the statue.
The statue is also free to visit, and you’ll get some lovely views over the city from up there.
9. Indulge in the Nightlife
Cusco’s nightlife is insanely fun. I’m not even a huge partier myself, but I couldn’t resist the crazy clubs in Cusco.
On my very first night in the city, I was sound asleep in my dorm bed when my coworkers woke me up at 2:30 am to go to the club. Every fiber of my being wanted to say no, but I said yes. Funny how that happens isn’t it?
Anyway, I dragged my groggy body out of bed and went to the club in a t-shirt and gym shorts. No one even cared that I wasn’t dressed and it was such a fun night.
Some of the most fun clubs in Cusco are Chango, Mama Africa, and Ukuku.
A great place to party in Cusco is actually at other hostels since there are so many party hostels. Loki, Wild Rover, and Milhouse are some of the best party hostels. They have cheap drinks and host theme nights.
So experiencing the nightlife is definitely one of the best things to do in Cusco.
10. See the Maras Salt Mines
This UNESCO World Heritage Site makes an incredible day trip from Cusco, and I know a few people who said it was one of their favorite sights in Peru.
Locally known as Salineras de Maras, these salt mines were created by the Incas for harvesting salt, and they are still in perfect shape today.
The different blocks of salt across the valley look like tiles on a floor, and it’s a super cool thing to see.
Book your day trip to the Maras Salt Mines here for 25 USD.
11. Visit the Chocolate Museum
The chocolate in South America is so rich and flavorful, and luckily Cusco has a chocolate museum where you can taste it or make it yourself.
Choco Museo is actually a really famous chocolate museum that also has locations in Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala, and more.
Here you can take chocolate making workshops, or just walk through, eat some free samples and browse through the cool chocolate products.
- Location: Calle Garcilaso 210, Cusco 08002, Peru
- Hours: Open every day from 9 am to 7 pm
12. Shop at San Pedro Market
I did say earlier than San Pedro Market is crowded and chaotic, which it is.
I wouldn’t come here just to hang out or eat a meal, but if you’re looking to buy groceries to cook your own food in Cusco, you can get some cheap stuff here.
Fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and spices are all affordable here and you can buy lots of fresh food in bulk for cooking.
This is also a fun place to try some local snacks, like grilled corn or a smoothie.
- Location: Thupaq Amaru 477, Cusco 08002, Peru
- Hours: 6 am to 7 pm every day
13. Take A Day Trip to Rainbow Mountain
Climbing Rainbow Mountain is easily one of the best things to do in Cusco. Though you have to venture outside Cusco for this hike, it’s 100% worth it.
After leaving Cusco at 3:30am, driving through the countryside, hiking for 5 hours and reaching an altitude of 5,100 m above sea level, this day trip resulted in aching legs, sunburnt faces, and tired lungs. But the views were some of the best I’ve seen in my life.
The best way to visit Rainbow Mountain is to book a day tour from Cusco. It’s a very remote area so it’d be a hassle to try and get their on your own.
Whether you book a tour online in advance or in town when you arrive, don’t pay more than 30 USD for a tour. That is the standard price, anything higher is a rip-off.
Book your day trip to Rainbow Mountain here for 28 USD!
14. Experience Hostel Life
Because Cusco is a travel hub for backpackers in South America, there are too many amazing hostels to count.
Most of them have great amenities, restaurants and bars in house, knowledgable local staff, and are located close to Plaza Del Armas.
Whether you are traveling alone or with others, indulging in the backpacker culture of Cusco is something that must be done.
From drinking games, guitar jam sessions, story circles, and card games, to the hungover mornings at the hostel breakfast and group dinners, bonding with other backpackers is definitely one of the best things to do in Cusco.
I bartended at Milhouse Hostel in exchange for free accommodation. Milhouse is a classic example of a Cusco party hostel, and spending one month there was one of the craziest times of my life.
15. Ditch Your Travel Plans and Go With The Flow
As I mentioned, I spent one month working at Milhouse Hostel.
While working in the bar and running the free breakfast, I was able to meet lots of the travelers that came through.
A good portion of those guests ended up staying in Cusco for days, even weeks longer than they had planned.
So many people think of Cusco as just a stopover city, where you stay for a day or two and then move onward to Machu Picchu, or to Lima and other spots in Peru, or down to Bolivia.
But once travelers experience the captivating charm of Cusco, they don’t want to leave.
So I recommend ditching your travel plans, immersing yourself in the amazing energy of Cusco, and leave whenever you want to. Don’t rush it!
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Before you travel to Peru…
- Visit iVisa.com to see if you need a visa for Peru.
- Check out Squaremouth Insurance to find a super affordable travel insurance plan that suits you.
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