If you’re planning a trip to Peru, you’ll no doubt find yourself in Cusco at some point and for good reason. Not only is Cusco the gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu it’s a world-class destination in its own right. Full of beautiful colonial architecture, a vibrant food scene and local culture Cusco was, for me, the most beautiful city in Peru.
Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire for three centuries until the Spanish Conquest making it a hot pot of local, mystical Andean culture as well as its colonial history. While not being a very big city 2 days is enough to get your bearings and to see the highlights. Rustic, colonial houses, beautiful brick churches, hilltop ruins and city views? Cusco offers this and so much more.
Here are the top things to do and see in Cusco and why it’s a city that should be very high on your bucket list.
Take in the colonial architecture in the historical centre
Cusco is best explored on foot and one of the best things to do is to walk around looking up. Enjoy the narrow cobbled streets with rustic, stone houses, beautiful cathedrals in the Plaza de Armas and luxury, colonial buildings with brightly painted balconies. Some of the most photo-worthy buildings include the main cathedral, Santo Domingo church and convent and the Santa Clara Arch.
Visit San Pedro market
Nothing gives a more authentic experience than seeing a local market. Head to this market where you can just wander and marvel at the amazing variety of local produce on offer from the Andes to the coast. Why not up your vitamin intake and stock up on fresh local fruit or even coca leaves? While the market is a great place to eat some local food, I found that the food here wasn’t particularly veggie friendly. What you can’t miss though, is ordering a local smoothie. Choose from countless fruit combinations or mix your own. Perfect for breakfast or mid-morning snack.
Hot chocolate at the Choco Museum
Chocomuseo, while located in many cities across Latin America, provides an excellent pitstop during a day of wandering. They make a delicious hot chocolate with many flavours on offer. I tried the chilli one and it was amazing. In Cusco, it’s located in a gorgeous colonial building, so why not order a hot chocolate, take a seat on the rustic, wooden balcony and watch the city below. Chocomuseo also does a number of different ‘bean to bar’ workshops and even a cooking course. Check it out here.
Marvel at the city below from the Sacsayhuaman ruins.
For one of the best views in the city, climb up to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman. While being a bit of a tough climb, especially at this altitude, you’ll pass through some charming streets on your way and get a glimpse at local life. Sacsayhuaman was an Incan fortress of which only the largest stones remain today and is a great introduction to the buildings and practises of the Incas. Take it in but make sure not to miss the amazing view. You can see the whole valley as well as the city of Cusco. I recommend coming up as close to sunset as you can for the best light and colours.
To visit Sacsayhuaman and many other ruins in the sacred valley you’ll have to buy a ‘boleto turistico’. You can do so at any of the major museums or sites.
Hang out in San Blas
San Blas is the ‘hippie’ or ‘cooler’ neighbourhood of Cusco. In my opinion, it’s also the best place to stay in. It’s known as the bohemian part of the city, full of life both in the day and night. You can walk around, admire the independent boutiques and have a coffee at one of the many good coffee shops. It’s also full of bars and restaurants to keep you busy at night. When arriving in Cusco definitely make a beeline for this neighbourhood.
Visit Corichanka- The Golden Temple of the Sun and Santo Domingo Church
This site demonstrates perfectly the struggles between the Incas and the Spanish. The Golden temple was considered the most important site in Incan mythology and after emperor Atahualpa was captured by the Spanish, the Incans stripped and burned down much of the temple’s gold and silver to pay for his ransom. In true Colonial form, the Spanish then killed him and adding injury to insult, they pillaged the last remaining gold and built a church over the top of it. Visiting Corichanka gives you more of an understanding of Incan culture and the events that happened during colonial times.
Eat lunch at Green Point
Wow…just wow, I still smile every time I remember a meal at Green Point. Green Point is one of Cusco’s best restaurants and obviously, it gets bonus points for also being vegan. I think I ate here every time I was in Cusco for lunch- lunch is the best time to go. They offer a Peruvian fusion almuerzo, a three-course vegan menu including a drink for a very reasonable price. Just don’t leave lunch too late, it sells out fast. They also have a standard menu available for lunch and dinner at slightly higher prices.
Travelling elsewhere in Peru? Check out my guides here.
Heading to Cusco? Ask me anything! Leave a comment below.