Cusco is so much more than a landing point to get to Machu Picchu (via Aguas Calientes) or the Rainbow Mountains. This city is teeming with historical and religious significance, beautiful Incan and Spanish architecture, and great restaurants with enviable views! We recommend you spend two days exploring this city before or after heading off to explore Machu Picchu, the Rainbow Mountains, or the Manu National Park. Here are some things definitely worth checking out in the city:
*Note that in this article, we talk about things you can actually do within the walking limits of Cusco, and not trips you can take from Cusco such as to see Moray, Maras, Tambomachay (requiring longer hikes or taxis). The locations mentioned below are walkable, and can be explored within two days in Cusco. Also note that there are slight variations in spelling when you see these attractions online, and in person (from place to place).
Plaza De Armas (Plaza Mayor)
The “main square” of Cusco is a beautiful place to start your tour of the city. You’ll have great views of the Cusco Cathedral (Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption) and Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús. Enjoy the beautiful fountain, and don’t be alarmed by the whistles of the police warning people not to litter, or sit on the grass (please, don’t litter or sit on the grass, there are plenty of dustbins and benches provided!)
There are a host of restaurants and cafés that offer beautiful balcony views over the plaza. Arrive before or after the usual lunch times to get a table with an unobstructed view!
Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption (Cusco Cathedral)
We definitely recommend paying the nominal fee to enter this grand basilica. Its sheer size, different galleries, and multiple altars and artwork make the visit worth it.
Templo (Iglesia) de la Compañía de Jesús (Church of the Society of Jesus)
Visit this beautiful Jesuit church not only to see a painting of the marriage of the last Incan princess to a Spanish prince, but to marvel at the views over the Plaza de Armas it offers.
Iglesia San Sebastian
Construction of this beautiful Catholic church began in 1560 and concluded in 1799. A fire in 2016 destroyed the altar and most of the sculptures and paintings inside. It’s worth taking a walk to this church, if only to marvel at its architecture from outside and take in the surroundings.
The Inca Museum (Museo Inka)
This museum is definitely worth spending one or two hours in. Simply designed, it offers a wealth of information about Machu Picchu, the 25 different civilizations that existed before the Incas, the variations of the Inca civilizations across Peru, and so much more.
A quick walk from Plaza de Armas, there are regular local presentations, performers, and excellent restaurants around this plaza.
Qorikancha (The Temple of the Sun), Iglesia De Santo Domingo
The Incans in Cusco worshipped the sun, as the sun was always shining in this area of the country (as you will hopefully see!) The Qorikancha, or Sun Temple, used to be one of the most important temples to this civilization. It was mostly destroyed during the Spanish invasion, and now exists mostly as the foundations for the Iglesia De Santo Domingo, or the Convent of Santo Domingo. The symbolism of the Catholic Church erected on the Incan temple is obvious and deliberate. See below for information on tickets for this (now) convent. There is some preservation of the Incan temple within, but there is no denying that it largely still embodies Catholic décor and architecture.
Note that we are not talking about the Museo de Sitio de Qoricancha here, a small museum located a short walk from what is now Iglesia Santo Domingo/Qoricancha. This museum is poorly maintained.
San Blas, Church of San Blas
San Blas is a small, off-beat neighborhood with some beautiful cafes if you’re interested in venturing a bit higher up in the city, away from the center. This is a good stop to make if you’re walking up to Cristo Blanco and Saysaywaman.
This is a hike up from the city center – we say hike here because the way is easy to navigate and mostly even, but the elevation is formidable. You can also take a taxi from the city center up to Cristo Blanco for around 10-12 soles and walk down. From here you can enjoy stunning views over the Cusco city, surrounded by mountains.
As a side-note, this lady offers a wonderful snack of potatoes and a hard-boiled egg with a medium-spicy sauce if you’re hungry! One of the best meals I had in Peru (and that’s saying a lot!)
Located right next to Cristo Blanco, this was an Incan fortress that formed the site of temporary glory for the Incas when they won it back from the Spanish after the latter’s initial invasion of Cusco. Unfortunately for them, Francisco Pizarro came back with reinforcements to take it back from the Incan King, forcing him to flee to the Ollantaytambo fortress. The Spanish then went onto dismantling this fortress and used most of its large stones, some of which weigh a few hundred tonnes, to build their own dwellings. The Incan King originally had plans to build Cusco in the form of a puma (or lion, the exact form is disputed), and the stones of Sacsaywaman were supposed to be a part of its fangs.
We recommend visiting Sacsaywaman if only to see it from Cristo Blanco earlier during the day to avoid the heat of the sun. This sight is definitely worth seeing.
Take a tram tour
We don’t usually do tours of cities (tram, bus, walking, or otherwise), but we enjoyed the tram tour of Cusco, as a great way to drive through the botanical gardens or neighborhoods that would otherwise have been inaccessible to us, given their proximity from the city center and even Sacsaywaman. Taking the tram tour gives you a great overview of the lay of the city, and the driver even gives you a tour of the different types of maize, coca, and other herbs and grains grown in the area. The tour costs 10 soles and you can hop on at Plaza de Armas or even Cristo Blanco (a great way to get down to the city by the way!) for a round trip back to Plaza de Armas.
If you have more time:
La Merced Church
Dating back to the mid-sixteenth century, La Merced Church is a church and monastery with beautiful murals, statues, and fountains – worth a short visit.
What is the Boleto Turistico Tourist Card and do I need it?
This is a ticket you can buy for 130 soles as of October 2017 that officially covers the following 16 attractions in and around Cusco:
- Regional History Museum (Museo Historico Regional)
- Qenko (Q’enqo)
- Puca Pucara (PukaPukara)
- Pisac ruins
- Ollantaytambo ruins
- Pachacutec Monument (Monumento al Inca Pachacutec)
- Piquillacta (Pikillaqta)
- Museo de Arte Contemporaneo
- Museo de Arte Popular
- Museo de Sitio Qorikancha
- Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo
We would recommend buying it if you are a) taking a tour of the Sacred Valley including Pisac, Ollantaytambo (this is very important) and Moray. A single ticket to these destinations without this “integrated” ticket costs 70 soles. If you are just interested in the churches, you can buy a so-called “religious” ticket that covers the churches as well at the Museo de Arte Religioso (Religious Art Museum) for 30 soles. If you do have 2 days in Cusco, we actually would recommend getting this Boleto Turistico but choose where you go carefully: if you visit Ollantaytambo and Saysayhuaman, there’s no need to visit the other ruins as well, unless you are extremely interested in visiting all the ruins specifically and learning about their individual histories. As a local told us, “Ruins are ruins. Once you’ve seen one or two, you’ve seen them all.” We’d strongly recommend spending time at the Inca Museum before or after one or two ruins to inform yourself of the histories behind them better, instead of running from one ruin to another. See our guide to visiting the Sacred Valley to see the highlights you can enjoy from the above list of attractions there.
Entrances to the Cathedrals and churches within Cusco city can be bought separately if you wish. Prices range from 2 to 5 soles per person.
Avianca, Peruvian Airlines, and Latam all offer flights to Cusco from Lima, Iquitos, and Arequipa. Be prepared for long check in lines at the airport, delayed flights, and changes in your flight gate (it’s a good practice to always check the flight monitors and even talk to the gate officials an hour before you flight to check on its status). Latam tends to be more expensive than Peruvian Airlines, and have less variations in their schedule. We flew Peruvian and faced delays of more than an hour both to and from Cusco, but have no complaints about their inflight service (and were relieved that no bags were delayed!) We recommend you arrive three hours before your flight, and keep your expectations low when preparing for your flight. We still found flying better than taking a bus though due to time constraints and the likelihood of delays on the road (we have a friend who took a bus to Cusco and her bus broke down in the middle of the Andes unfortunately, and they had to hike a few days to get to Cusco. We’re not saying this will happen to everyone but if you’re tight on time – we had 10 days – then we’d recommend flying to Cusco).
Taxis from the airport
A taxi from the airport to the city center should not cost more than 12-15 soles. Think of it as a sol for a minute (a tip given to us by a Peruvian). “Certified” or “official” cabs charge as much as 50 soles to get to the city from the airport and this is awful, according to the locals we spoke to. Most hotels offer a pick up service for a nominal fee from the airport; we’d recommend calling ahead to arrange that or always bargaining with the taxi drivers at the airport to get the price to at least 15 soles. There is a kiosk inside the airport for “official” taxis – discuss prices there or with the organizers outside the airport.
Taxis around Cusco
You can usually apply the sol for a minute rule when getting around Cusco as well. Taxis are plentiful and you just have to put an arm out (or whistle like a local!) to grab the attention of a driver. You wouldn’t need a taxi to explore the city though unless you’re headed up to Saksayhuaman or taking a day tour of the Sacred Valley by car. Most of the city is extremely walkable (just watch where you go with the traffic on the narrow streets!)
Where to stay
Here are some affordable yet comfortable places to stay in Cusco, in order of preference:
Casa Real Hoteles
Located in the Wanchaq district of Cusco, Casa Real Hoteles is an phenomenal place to spend your time in Cusco. The breakfast, which is included in the room rate, is offered in a room with panoramic views over the city. The breakfast buffet itself is the best we had in Peru (and comparable to excellent breakfasts we’ve had worldwide). The taxi to and from the airport is included in the price of the room. The rooms themselves are comfortable and clean. It’s around 0.6 miles to the Plaza de Armas and a short walk to Qorikancha. The entrance is non-descript but the staff and the hotel itself is excellent. Stay here if you can!
Golden Inca Hotel
Located a little further up from Plaza de Armas, Golden Inca hotel offers small, comfortable rooms for a few nights stay in Cusco. The breakfast is sufficient but not fancy. The staff is extremely helpful and taxis to the Sacred Valley and Poroy (to get to Aguas Calientes) and more are offered at the front desk.
El Mariscal Cusco
A little more expensive for what it’s worth, El Mariscal is located in the San Blas district and a good hotel to spend a few nights in. It offers clean, comfortable beds and microwaves and fridges fitted into the rooms. It’s a bit difficult to find as there is no identifiable sign (that is easily visible) outside. The staff was very friendly and the breakfast is very good, cooked on the spot, with almost full-length glass windows over the city.
Remember that all the hotels are familiar with travelers heading off to the Rainbow Mountains etc. in the wee hours of the morning and if you inform them earlier, will be happy to store you luggage and provide a packed breakfast to go.
Where to go from Cusco
The Sacred Valley
If you’re not hiking the Inca Trail, you can organize a taxi day-trip of the Sacred Valley for around 160-170 soles per car. Discuss where you will visit, and the fact that the price is for the entire car and not per person before you get in. We recommend visiting Moray, Maras, the Salineras de Maras, Pisac, and Chinchero. Don’t forget to stop along the way to enjoy some beautiful vistas – the drive itself makes the tour worth it! Here is your guide to taking a trip of the Sacred Valley!
The Rainbow Mountains (Vinicunca/La Montaña Siete de Colores)
Tours to the Rainbow Mountains can be organized from Cusco city center for as low as US$26 (around 84 soles as of 24-10-2017) up to the day before you travel. You don’t need to organize this online in advance, you will get ripped off! Just walk into one of the myriad offices that offer these tours, identifiable by the signs outside, and as for nothing more than 90 soles. Bargain, and if they insist on charging you a higher price, find another office.
Isn’t this why you originally came to Cusco? Here is your step-by-step guide to getting to Machu Picchu without the crowds!
We hope you enjoy your time at this beautiful city, worth a visit on your bucketlist!
Planning a trip to Peru?
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