Let’s start with a small disclaimer… I spent over 3 weeks in and around Cusco alone!
Yup I spent more time in this city than I reckon most people spend in the whole of Peru and that’s because it’s a) amazing and b) there’s so much to do here.
Initially, I planned to spend only 2 weeks in and around Cusco… having already stayed longer than I planned to in Peru full stop (spot the theme of me getting sucked in folks!) but the sheer amount of things to do in Cusco, its fascinating history, stunning natural surrounds, authentic culture and delicious food, just reeled me in.
Yes siree, I’m a sucker for a good time, a good hike and a good view and Cusco boasts them all in abundance!
So I think it’s fair to say that after 23 days in and around this city, I’ve got a good grip on all the top spots to hit up when you travel to this amazing part of Peru.
And so here they are, my list of the 21 top things to do in Cusco… 9 of which are free – hoorah for us budget travellers!
This page contains affiliate links meaning Big World Small Pockets may receive a small commission on any purchases at no extra cost to you.
My stay in Cusco was kindly part-sponsored by Milhouse Cusco Hostel but, as always, all views are my own.
#1 Admire the Architecture – FREE
From the first moment you step out into the streets of Cusco you can’t fail to be amazed by the atmospheric architecture and ambience of this city.
Crumbling stone buildings and cobbled streets belie a colonial city that was layered up on an ancient Incan city – once of the epicentre of this huge kingdom.
As such, the streets of Cusco seem to ooze stories as thin alleys clatter with Peruvian and the plazas throng with tourists alike.
Small doorways allow sneaky peeks into hidden courtyards – many filled with travel agencies, hotels and restaurants, but others that allow picture-perfect glimpses of family dogs laying out in the sun and women in traditional dress going about their household business.
Indeed, this is a city that has retained as much of its history as it has embraced the 21st century, and a point in case are the Inca walls still visible within the city centre… don’t miss the famous and huge 12 angle one!
Yup admiring the architecture and feel of this city, free if you just wander the streets for an afternoon, is definitely one of the best things to do in Cusco.
#2 Check out Some Churches – FREE
And sticking with architecture theme, we can’t talk about Cusco and not mention the churches that clutter this city – a clear reminder of the Spanish conquistador legacy… and the fact that they ransacked and destroyed much of the Inca monuments here before them.
I learnt there are actually 32 churches alone with Cusco’s historic centre and while it’s unrealistic, if not tedious, to suggest you visit them all, checking out a few is certainly one of the best things to do in Cusco.
The main players are the Cathedral de Cusco, which lies off the main square – Plaza de Armas – San Francisco on San Francisco Square and Minor Basilica de La Merced, which is situated on Plazoleta Espinar.
I actually went into the latter of these (accidentally) when a local wedding was taking place and it is was amazing to see the mix of pomp and ceremony in the setting of this grand church combined with the personal celebration of an important moment in someone’s life.
WHERE TO STAY IN CUSCO
There’s no question in my mind that near the Plaza de Armas is definitely the best place to stay in Cusco, especially if you’re only here for a few days.
This location will give you quick and easy access to all the city action, sights and eateries both day and night without having to take a taxi, because this city is safe to stroll at most hours of the day.
Centrally-located, immaculately clean and with a great, free breakfast, Milhouse Hostel Cusco have hit the nail on the head.
They offer both private rooms in a quiet wing for those who want to work (comme moi!), chill or get ready for an early hike, as well as a main building for those who want to let their head down and enjoy some Cusco fun too.
With fast wifi, hot water, an onsite tour agency and super friendly staff, these guys really have it all covered.
Plus the historic building, spacious chill-out courtyard and friendly feels, make this the perfect place to meet other travellers too!
Book your great-priced stay in either a private room or a dorm at Milhouse Cusco HERE!
#3 Sit in the Squares – FREE
And, as you’ve now realised, most of the major religious buildings and indeed much of Cusco life, revolves around the city’s plazas, which are a delightful place to stroll, sit and soak it all in.
Benches filled with locals and tourists alike make the plazas beautiful spots to see local life at its best and whether morning, noon or night, they are always a hub of action.
The perfect place to take a break from the sightseeing and catch your breath in this lofty city (yup Cusco sits at 3,500m) sitting in some of the city’s squares is definitely one of the best things to do in Cusco.
My fav is probably Plaza San Francisco, which has less of the tourist crowds, but quaint Plazoleta Regocijo also deserves a mention.
THE BEST TRAVEL INSURANCE FOR PERU
I wouldn’t dream of travelling to a country like Peru without proper coverage and always recommend travel insurance from World Nomads which I’ve used during my time in this country and across the world.
World Nomads are actually one of the few companies that will insure you for hiking and camping at altitudes above 3000m – essential for a country like Peru where many destinations, including Machu Picchu, are situated above this height.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for travel insurance with Covid-19 cover, then look no further than Safetywing’s great Nomad Insurance policies. These guys will cover you at some seriously great prices, including if you have to quarantine!
#4 Visit Some Museums
And sticking with the historical theme, no trip to Cusco would be complete without visiting at least a few of its magnificent museums.
Many are included in the Full Cusco Tourist Ticket, also known as the Boleto Turistica del Cusco (more about this later) including the Museo de Arte Popular, Museo Historico Regional, Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporaneo, Museo de Sito de Korikancha, the Pachacuteq Monument and Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo, so if you get this great ticket (top budget travel recommendation) these guys are essentially free for you.
Otherwise, the centrally-located Museo Inka and Museo de Arte Precolombino are also worth a visit if you have time.
In particular, the Museo Inka is located just off Plaza de Armas and the second floor here has some interesting models of the biggest ruin sites in the area, as well as (confusingly) quite a lot of pre-Inca artefacts. Sadly no photos inside were allowed, but the courtyard setting is also quite pretty.
A WORD ABOUT ALTITUDE
There is something very important you need to know about Cusco and that is, altitude!
Being in the Andes and situated at 3,500m above sea level, Cusco is high and altitude sickness is a real and serious thing here.
This is even more true given that some of the hikes in this area go up to 5,000m above sea level.
As such you must, ABSOLUTELY MUST, take altitude issues seriously when you come to Cusco and spend at least 1 day here (better 2) acclimatising before attempting any hiking.
This is especially true if you’ve come from the coast i.e. Lima, as you must allow your body to get used to the lower levels of oxygen in the air in Cusco before attempting any serious exertion.
I’ve had altitude sickness myself in Ecuador and can definitely attest it is not nice.
In fact, it can be very serious and sometimes lead to hospitalisation and even death.
Do not take this issue lightly when travelling to Cusco and if you start to suffer any symptoms then take the necessary precautions.
You can learn more about altitude sickness, what causes it, what the symptoms are and how to avoid or treat it in this useful article.
#5 Munch at the Market – FREE
And moving away from preserved culture to the living culture, there’s no question one of the top things you absolutely have to do in Cusco is visit the main market, known as the San Pedro market.
This is a feast for the senses, with everything being sold here from tourist souvenirs to various animal body parts!
In between all this (both of which make me feel squeamish to be honest!) the excellent lunch, natural juices, fresh produce and dry good stalls make it the perfect place to stock up on picnic goods or to enjoy a cheap breakfast or lunch.
A near litre of fresh vegetable / fruit juice here will set you back just 7 Soles and a delicious avocado and cheese sandwich just 1.5 Soles.
And some great people-watching is thrown in for free!
A bargain if ever I saw one!
#6 Hit the Shops!
So while we’re on the subject of markets, I guess it’s time to talk about a favourite pastime of many travellers who come to Cusco and that is, shopping!
Yes Cusco is a souvenir paradise and everything from cheap market keyrings to luxury alpaca sweaters can be bought in this bustling tourist centre.
If Cusco is the last stop in your Peru journey it’s definitely worth picking up an amazing bargain and the beautiful fabrics, clothing and decorations (some more authentic than others) are hard to pass up!
WHEN TO VISIT CUSCO
Travel seasons in Peru are often a little complicated, purely because of the diversity of this country’s topography.
When it’s summer on the coast, for example, it’s rainy in the mountains and when it’s cooler in the jungle, it’s freezing along the Pacific.
As such, you’re always going to be rolling the dice a little when you travel Peru, especially with global warming messing everything around too.
Bearing all that in mind however, the best time to visit Cusco is during the dry season in the Andes aka winter in Peru, which runs largely from the months of May through to October.
Trying to combine the best of both worlds i.e. spring on the coast and dry season in the mountains, I visited Cusco in October and actually found it ideal, as there were less tourists (because it was shoulder season) but it was not yet too cold or wet.
That said, it can, of course, rain any time of year at this altitude, so maybe it was just luck!
#7 Eat, Eat and More Eat
So because this is Peru, it goes without saying that absolutely one of the best things to do in Cusco is to eat!
And what a choice!
From hole-in-the-wall heavens to economic menu del dia lunch options, right through to gourmet restaurants, vegan cafes, excellent pizzerias (yup, I was surprised too!), it’s all for the taking in this foodie city!
And just remember if you feel guilty about tucking in a lot – you need to eat more at altitude, particularly food of the sugary and carby variety – legit it helps with the lack of oxygen!
As a vegetarian, I was wonderfully well-catered for in Cusco and my special shoutouts go the charming Organika, delicious Vida Vegan Bistro, budget-friendly Green Falafel, beautiful Rucula Restaurant, relaxed feels at JC’s Café, scrummy Prasada Veggie Food and the piece de resistance, Green Point Restaurant – trust me you gotta go!
Also, let’s talk coffee!
Cusco is good at it!
My tip is the hidden hipster coffee cart run by the guys at 3 Monkeys and the lovely independent Uma Café which uses its own homemade vegan milk – yum!
For socially-conscious coffee, the amazing guys at Café Manos Unidas run an inclusive work environment employing local people with learning and physical difficulties.
#8 Wander San Blas – FREE
And a lot of the restaurants, yes the veggie / vegan ones especially, are set in the San Blas area of Cusco.
Known as the more boho part of town, this suburb sits on a hill above the main centre and was one of my favourite parts to wander, chill and yes, stuff my face!
As such, braving the stroll up this hill at least once is a must of this list of the best things to do in Cusco and, while you’re up here, you can’t miss the fabulous San Blas market too – there’s more treats to be found here as well!
#9 Enjoy Sunset at the Lookout – FREE
Also located in San Blas is the best lookout in Cusco centre – namely the mirador de San Blas.
This is a great spot to come and enjoy the fading colours at the end of the day, plus the cute benches here make it a nice place to chill too.
Alternatively, the glass-fronted Limbus Bar found here too is the place to enjoy the view with a Pisco Sour in hand!
Otherwise, there’s another great lookout slightly out of the city, but more about this in point #12.
HOW LONG TO SPEND IN CUSCO
Well, if you read the intro to this article, you’ll know I spent a lot of time in Cusco and, honestly, I could have spent even longer!
There’s just so much to do in and around this city that you really shouldn’t underestimate it.
As such, I’d recommend a stay of at least 1 week in and around Cusco, which will give you time to sample both the best of this city and its magnificent surrounds.
If you’re then wanting to explore some of the top Cusco day trips I list below, or chill in the Sacred Valley, I’d give yourself anything up to 2-3 weeks in and around this city!
#10 Get Ruined
No I’m not talking about partying, although there is plenty of that to do in Cusco if you want too.
I’m talking about visiting the Inca ruins and not the big boys you’ve probs heard of, most of which lie further out from Cusco.
Instead, I’m talking about the ruins near the city, which again are included in the Full Cusco Tourist Ticket, also known as the Boleto Turistica del Cusco.
There’s several variations of this ticket, but the best one to go for is the full 10-day version, which costs 170 soles, lasts for 10 days (ha ha surprise!) and covers 15 historical sites and museums in and around the city.
I’ve covered the museums earlier on in this post, but now it’s time for the ruins and the ones that lie just out of Cusco in particular.
The biggest and most famous of these is Saqsayhuman, a huge site, with epic views of the city.
From here you can then walk to the 3 others – namely Q’enqo, Puka Pukara and Tambomachay.
Either a steep walk up the hill from Cusco (good training for later hikes!) will get you to these ruins, or you can take a taxi for 10 Soles one way from the centre.
Visiting all 4 of these ruin sites makes for a great half-day trip and is definitely one of the best things to do in Cusco.
#11 Take a Walking Tour – FREE
And if walking up to these ruins wasn’t enough exercise for you, then joining a free walking tour is certainly one of the best things to do in Cusco.
A great introduction to the main places in this city and a bit of its history too, there’s several tours to choose from, so hop onto TripAdvisor to check out your best options.
Departing several times daily, both in the morning and afternoon, most of the free walking tours meet in one of the main city squares – just look out for the guys in the coloured T-shirts.
5 PACKING ESSENTIALS FOR PERU
#1 Good Camera – I would never even think of travelling to Peru without a camera good enough to capture the amazing landscape and people of this country. Both my Sony A6000 and GoPro Hero 7 have been perfect for the job!
#2 Waterproof / Windproof Jackets – With so much of this country situated high in the Andes, taking a waterproof and windproof jacket is essential if you’re going to be hiking or sightseeing in the mountains. I highly recommend the North Face Venture 2 for the job.
#3 Hiking Boots – You can’t come to Peru and not do some trekking, so make sure you come prepared with some good, supportive hiking boots… I’ve never worn mine so much in my life! These Keen Targhee II’s are the perfect solution.
#4 Day Pack – Also for the hiking and sightseeing, a good daypack to carry water, snacks, camera, hat, gloves and other clothing layers is key in Peru! This one from Osprey is my pick.
#5 Travel Scarf – And finally, I’ve just discovered the amazing travel wraps from Sholdit and am so happy I took mine to Peru. Acting both as a scarf to keep you warm and a place to store your valuables while you’re out and about, this great invention is perfect for travel in South America.
#12 Chill in the Park – FREE
And last but not least, when it comes to the best things to do in Cusco centre, and another one that’s free, the green space that all the locals stroll in is around the Explanada which makes for some great forest time.
Another hike out of the city, but with good vibes and packed on a sunny weekend, the super mirador at Cristo Blanco is also a very local thing to do in this city and great if you want some green space, top city views and fresh mountain air.
HOW TO GET TO CUSCO
It’s pretty easy to get to Cusco overland from other places in Peru with regular buses from Lima, Arequipa, Ica and Puno.
Most take over 10 hours however, so strap in for a nighttime ride!
As usual in Peru, you can book buses online and choose from a range of services including day or night buses with varying levels of luxury. The more you pay, the better service you get.
Always book your long-distance bus tickets in Peru at least a day in advance, preferably 2.
Alternatively, if you want to save time, you can pick up domestic flights to Cusco from cities around Peru – with most services coming from Lima.
#13 Spend a Night in Ollantaytambo
And now we get to the best things to do around Cusco and some adventures in the Sacred Valley.
If the altitude is a bit much in Cusco, heading to this valley, which sits at a lower altitude, is a lovely place to get out of the city and take in the views and more low-keys feels.
And a great place to start is the town of Ollantaytambo.
A fairly short and easy collectivo ride from Cusco, this charming town is home to some great ruins and views.
The ruins here are included in that Full Cusco Tourist Ticket and have a lovely setting, right on the edge of this small town.
Spending a night here is a great way to see these ruins at a relaxed pace and to enjoy this quiet, traditional town.
The Mama Simona Hostel here comes highly recommended with its peaceful river setting.
#14 Bliss Out in Pisac
And just down the road from Ollantaytambo (again we’re talking Peru terms here because just down the road is only an hour or 2 away), the other lovely town to head to is my personal fav, Pisac – visiting here is definitely one of the best things to do in Cusco.
After only planning a stay of 3 days, I ended up spending a week in this town on account of its relaxed feel, alternative vibes, great market and super hiking.
And if you do visit Pisac, have to stay at the fab Wolf Totem Hostel / Guesthouse to enjoy the sauna and the magnificent mountain setting … you probably won’t want to leave either!
You can book dorms at Wolf Totem through Hostelworld or one of their amazing studios or villas care of Airbnb.
There’s also a super set of ruins at Pisac (again included in the Full Cusco Tourist Card), which was were probably my favourite due to their hilltop setting.
And don’t miss the hike to the lakes from Pisac either – just ask Ivan at Wolf Totem about it!
#15 Tick Machu Picchu Off Your List!
Ok, now things are getting serious!
Yup, it’s probably the one you’ve heard of and, as such, no trip to this part of Peru is complete without ticking Machu Picchu off your list.
Whichever way you get here – be it hiking in, taking a train or via the budget-friendly bus/walk option (learn more about this in my full post on the cheapest way to see Machu Picchu) you’ve simply gotta get to this New Wonder of the World.
I almost skipped it for fear of the tourist crowds and the expense; but honestly, it was worth the pricey entrance tickets and the crowds weren’t that bad.
Quite simply, there’s nowhere on earth like it.
It is worth pointing out however that you need to buy entrance tickets to Machu Pichu a few days in advance, which you can do here (along with your ticket to the mountain Huayna Picchu too) care of Get Your Guide.
#16 Trek Choquequirao
And I say this even though I had previously visited Choquequirao – which I’m calling the best Machu Picchu hiking alternative!
Yes these rarely visited ruins are only accessible via hiking trail currently and wonderfully authentic, crowd-free and magical as a result… although a soon-to-be-built cable car might put an end to that, so get here quick while you can!
The 3-5 day hike to these ruins and back, which departs from Cusco, was one of my Peru highlights and you can learn more about the whys and wherefores in this specific Choquequirao post I wrote about the experience.
For now, I’ll leave you with the thought that if you want to get off the beaten track in around Cusco on a budget, this is the place to head!
Absolutely one of the best things to do in Cusco!
#17 Snap Rainbow Mountain
And at the other end of the spectrum, it’s fair to say Rainbow Mountain is definitely not off the beaten track when it comes to the top things to do in Cusco!
However, it’s worth braving the crowds for this one day trip which takes you to one of the most stunning landscapes in the whole of Peru.
Affordable group tours like this one, run daily from Cusco.
Taking a full day (they leave around 4:30am and return around 5:3opm because Rainbow Mountain is situated a good few hours from the city), this high altitude spectacle has to be seen to be believed.
Just make sure you are acclimatised first because you’ll be walking here at an altitude of over 5,000m!
I tried to go to this mountain on my last full day in Cusco, but sadly, the rainy season had just begun and when it rains this high, it means it snows!
As such, we arrived, following a 3 hour drive, only to discover that no vehicles could pass along the road to the mountain, nobody could hike on the mountain and of the 7 colours it’s famed to have, had become 1… white!
#18 Soak in a Hot Spring
And after all that hiking, it’s likely you’ll want to relax those muscles and the perfect place to do just this is in the Sacred Valley spot of Santa Teresa.
Yes there are hot springs in the town of Aguas Calientes too (the access town for Machu Picchu), but the ones at Santa Teresa are way less crowded and way nicer.
Don’t say I didn’t tell ya!
#19 Marvel at Maras
And also in the Sacred Valley, between the town of Pisac and Ollantaytambo (sorry I’m skipping around here a bit!) is the amazing salt farm at Maras.
You can either view this as part of a top day trip from Cusco or, if are visiting both Ollantaytambo and Pisac, you can visit it as you move between the 2 by getting a collectivo (public minivan) to Urubamba and from there hiring a taxi to take you here.
Entrance is 10 Soles.
#20 Learn About Moray
And just down the road from Maras, is Moray – an amazing Inca site again included in the Full Cusco Tourist Ticket.
Try to include this as part of the taxi ride from Urubamba if you can haggle it in as well… most do!
Not like other Inca ruins, the ones at Moray are more an indication of the amazing agricultural ingenuity of this ancient civilisation and the stunning amphitheatre-like shape of them, and the way in which the Inca’s utilised the microclimates and soil variations of this structure are, quite frankly, unbelievable!
#21 Enjoy the Sunday Fun at Chinchero – FREE
And last but not least on this list of the 21 top things to do in Cusco, is come to Chinchero.
Again another Sacred Valley town, actually situated near Maras and Moray (so haggle this into your taxi adventure from Urubamba too, or check out this top Cusco day tour which includes it), this delightful town is the perfect way to soak in the local culture of this strong cultural heritage area.
Time your visit on a Sunday if you can for the amazing market, as well as the ruins.
If you’re lucky, you might just get to see an incredible local festival like I did too … totally spontaneous and 100% authentic.
Don’t miss stepping inside the incredible church here as well – ancient and adorned with frescoes, it’s mystical feel reminded me of the ancient churches in Ethiopia and, needless to say, had me enchanted… and it’s not often a church does that!
PIN IT TO PINTEREST!
And there you have it!
My list of the 21 top things to do in Cusco that will have you exploring all the best spots in and around this incredible part of Peru.
Are you heading off on a trip to Cusco?
What are your plans?
Tell me all in the comments box below…
4 thoughts on “21 Top Things to Do in Cusco … 9 of Them Free!”
I was lovely to meet you Steph! and this post in amazing, full of good advise 🙂
Thanks Melisa, so lovely to meet you too and delighted you enjoyed the post 🙂
Excellent guide Steph! I think this is a really interesting content, learning about the culture and recommendations is essential. Thanks for taking the time to explain the experience in detail. I share some details>>
Thanks so much Norka – I really appreciate your kind comments. Best, Steph 🙂