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After spending a month in this historic city, we were pleasantly surprised by the number of things to do in Cusco. When people search for Cusco, Peru, there’s a pretty good chance they’re planning a trip to Machu Picchu. After all, Cusco is ground zero for people who are visiting the Sacred Valley in Peru. And Cusco is the perfect place to stay if you’re heading to the so-called “Lost City” of the Incas.
But what if Machu Picchu is just one of many activities in Cusco you want to do? What if you want to make the most of your trip to Cusco itself? If that’s the case, we have several suggestions for you.
Machu Picchu was the main reason for our trip, too. But we decided to stick around because after researching it, we saw so many things to do in Cusco that it was worth spending the entire month there. Now, we know most people don’t have a month. But even if you only have two weeks in Cusco, that’s perfect too!
Cusco is the ancient capital of the Inca empire. A huge tourism industry has sprung up around this city, making it a great place to spend more time than it takes to just to go to Machu Picchu.
Yes, Cusco is a touristy city. When you walk down the street, you’re going to be asked a dozen times – on each street – if you want a massage (every woman in Cusco is a masseuse, every man is a tour guide). But there are plenty of restaurants, coffee shops, museums, nightlife and more that make Cusco the perfect place in Peru to spend a week or two.
Or, if you’re like us – a month!
Top things to do in Cusco
There are so many incredible things to add to your Cusco itinerary. You’ll find restaurants serving many different types of food. There is at least one good coffee shop in Cusco on just about every block. And there’s always something to find in the many shops along the cobblestone streets.
Here are 15 things to do in Cusco that we think will make your trip exceptional. Ours certainly was!
1. First, do a free walking tour
Whenever we visit a new city, and whenever there is one available, we like to take a free walking tour of the city. These free walking tours generally take you to the top areas in the city or a given neighborhood. When you’re done, you have a nice overview of where to go, what to do, what to eat and drink, and a little bit about the city’s history.
In Cusco, free walking tours are easy to find. Just hang out at the Plaza de Armas for a few minutes and you’ll see people walking around wearing red, blue, and yellow jackets advertising them.
Of course, free walking tours are not really free. The guides work for tips. When we tip, it’s usually about the cost of a middle-of-the-road dinner in the city we’re in. In Cusco, that’s about $6-8 per person (S/. 20-25).
2. Visit the San Francisco Monastery
Construction of the San Francisco Monastery began in 1645. In 1650, an earthquake brought a stop to that construction. The monastery was completed in 1651. The Iglesia de San Francisco de Asís has a very impressive collection of art. Some of that art is, sadly, in bad need of repair and cleaning. But you’ll be blown away when you see the largest painting in South America – The Genealogy of the Franciscan Order.
At the San Francisco Monastery, you’ll also see a large library with a collection of books from the 15th to 17th centuries, catacombs, and a beautiful church with a choral area that is simply stunning to see.
The cost to enter is S./ 15 and we recommend going there on Sunday at 3 for the fireworks. It’s pretty great.
3. Eat and shop at San Pedro Market
You know how when you go to a country and there’s one place where you see, smell, and hear things that make you really feel like you’re “there?” That’s Mercado San Pedro and it’s just a 5-7-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas. San Pedro is the place to go if you want to buy local products from local people. From vegetables and fruits to meat, cheeses, salt, teas, and thousands of other products and crafts.
If you’re on a budget, it’s the perfect place to eat as well. At San Pedro market, you can get a full meal – soup, entree, and a drink (and sometimes a small dessert) for about S/. 5-6. That’s $1.75 or less. And it’s delicious.
You’ll also find bars selling delicious fresh-squeezed juice, along with street food stalls outside surrounding the market. All equally inexpensive.
4. Take a few day trips from Cusco
If you’re coming to Cusco just long enough to use it as a base for your trip to Machu Picchu, then taking a few day trips from Cusco might not be an option for you. But if you have a few extra days – and you absolutely should plan a few extra days here – there are some amazing day trips you should take.
From Rainbow Mountain to amazing Inca ruins like Tipon, Ollantaytambo, and Pisac, there are many incredible and educational experiences all less than two hours from Cusco that will truly enhance your vacation.
5. Do a chocolate-making class at ChocoMuseo
We think food is one of the best ways to experience a culture, and in South America, chocolate is king. After all, Mayans in Central America invented it and it worked its way down through the continent.
We’re pretty sure that you’ll enjoy making chocolate at ChocoMuseo, in Cusco. At ChocoMuseo, you’ll learn the history of chocolate and even taste an unprocessed, gooey cacao bean, right out of the pod. While there, you’ll learn the difference between dark, milk, and white chocolate (which is not really chocolate). You’ll roast beans, grind beans into a paste, learn about tempering and, finally, mold your own chocolate from a pre-made batch.
The staff at ChocoMuseo is super fun and funny, especially our instructor, Arnold, who was so great at deadpan humor that he had everyone in the class laughing. Easily worth $25 for two hours and one of the top fun things to do in Cusco for us.
6. Check out the 12-angled stone
There are other multi-angled stones, so why is this one special? Well, it’s not really. There is nothing particularly mind-boggling about the 12-angled stone in Cusco. Every stone in the wall fits perfectly in the spot where it is.
It’s just that this particular stone has the most angles anyone’s found and it’s an excellent example to showcase the level of detail that the Incas put into making stones fit together. The Incas were perfectionists.
There’s almost always someone here dressed as an Inca king, so if you’re looking for a photo with an Inca, this is the place to do it.
7. Don’t miss the Machupicchu Museum
This was one of our favorite things to do in Cusco. The price is also reasonable at just S./ 20. We recommend that you visit the museum before you head to Machu Picchu itself. First of all, the Machupicchu Museum is modern and very well curated. You’ll see an exceptionally detailed scale model of Machu Picchu along with hundreds of artifacts recovered by Hiram Bingham during his “scientific discovery” of Machu Picchu. Pots, utensils, clothing, and more.
We visited the museum two weeks after we went to Machu Picchu, but we really think this is a great introduction to the site and you should go here first!
8. Take a tour of Sacsayhuaman
Sacsayhuaman, Saksaywaman, Sacsahuaman, and Saxahuaman – no matter how you spell it, the Inca ruins above the city are a great way to spend a day in Cusco. The term “Sexy Woman” is a running joke in Cusco, but it’s generally the right pronunciation. Many tour guides will ask you if you want to go see “sexy woman.” Don’t misunderstand them by thinking they might be suggesting something a little more, er, colorful.
When you look at a map of Cusco, you may notice that the city is shaped like a puma. Sacsayhuaman is the head of the puma – or the Sacsa Uma (“speckled head”). When you go, plan to spend at least a couple of hours here, although you can spend a half-day or more. Gaze at massive blocks of stone and wonder how the heck they got them here from quarries over 30 miles away.
One of the coolest things to do at Sacsayhuaman is to play on the stone slides. We suggest buying the Cusco Tourist ticket if you’re going here.
Suggested post: The Cusco Tourist Ticket includes 16 things to see and do in the Sacred Valley. Read about the archaeological sites, museums, and more things you can see with the Cusco Tourist Ticket.
9. See “The Last Supper” at Cusco Cathedral
The outside of this church is already impressive. But the inside is simply stunning. The entire inside of this massive cathedral is art. Everywhere you turn, more art.
The most famous piece of art here Marcos Zapata’s 1753 version of The Last Supper. It’s famous both because it’s a beautiful painting and because Jesus and the apostles are eating Guinea Pig. It’s said that the painting remains hanging as a concession to locals by their conquerors. And no one wanted to destroy a painting by a prolific artist like Zapata.
Not only that, but showing Jesus and his disciples eating local food might be seen as a great way to convert the locals to Catholicism.
More reading: See this and three other religious sites at a discount using the Cusco Religious Circuit Ticket (the Boleto del Circuito Religioso)
10. Where to watch an NFL Game in Cusco
Americans love their NFL Football. And Sundays just aren’t the same unless you can catch the game. Head over to La Fabrica Sports Bar in central Cusco, where they have food, reasonably-priced drinks (including craft beer) and several large screens.
Just get there a little early and ask them to switch a screen to the game you want to watch. We found the service to be a bit slow here, so you’ll have to get the attention of the wait staff to get anything. But other than that, it’s fine.
If you’ve found better places to watch an NFL game in Cusco, let us know in the comments!
11. See a church built on Inca ruins at Coricancha
Like many Quechua words, there are a lot of different spellings. That’s because Quechua wasn’t a written language, so people kinda made up spellings as they went along. So you may have seen Coricancha written as Koricancha, Qoricancha, or Qorikancha. Coricancha (we’ll go with the easiest!) is one of the most important sites in Cusco.
The walls of Coricancha were once covered in gold, with dozens of gold statues in the courtyard. Gold meant little to the Incas, but to the Spanish, it was everything. When they captured Atahualpa, the Inca emperor at the time, they demanded a ransom – most of which came from gold and silver in the walls and statues. The Incas paid the ransom, but the Spanish killed Atahualpa anyway by strangling him with a garrote – which he requested himself.
Although other emperors followed, the death of Atahualpa effectively ended the Inca Empire. Coricancha was largely destroyed in the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors. On top of the surviving foundations, they built Santo Domingo church and convent.
12. Attend a Sunday parade and flag raising
Every Sunday on the Plaza de Armas, thousands of Cusco residents and tourists gather for a big parade. While the parades are military parades, the military is not really the point of the event. The vast majority of marchers are civic organizations.
Every week, they choose new groups to march in the parade. They select groups as a way of honoring their service in certain aspects of the community.
As we watched parades in Cusco over the weeks, we saw marchers from religious groups, schools, bands, firefighters, and even doctors and nurses from local hospitals and clinics. Sunday is also the only day of the week that they raise both the Peruvian and Indigenous People’s flags over the city.
(You’ll notice the flag of the Indigenous People is a rainbow. While much of the world associates the rainbow flag with gay pride, the rainbow flag in Cusco region is slightly different. It has 7 colors instead of 6 – two of them are shades of blue – and has nothing to do with LGBTQ pride.)
13. Visit the Planetarium
Here’s something you might not have considered if you’re heading to Cusco from the United States, Canada, or any country in the Northern Hemisphere. The sky in the Southern Hemisphere is very different than the sky you’re used to seeing every night.
That, in and of itself, is cool enough and we think you should consider a tour of this planetarium.
Cusco Planetarium is one of the most unique planetariums in the world. On a guided tour, you’ll hear stories about how ancient people used the stars from those whose ancestors lived here. You’ll also get to see those very stars through a powerful telescope.
14. Take a Spanish class
As you can see above, Cusco has a lot of Spanish schools. Some are great; some, not so much. Personally, I learned enough Spanish to get by on before I left. So, being honest, I didn’t take a Spanish class in Cusco. But for people like Gemma and Craig, doing one of these classes while here was a great addition to their experience.
Peru Hop has written a guide to Spanish schools in Cusco. We traveled around Peru with Peru Hop. We got to know the staff, including some of the people in the corporate office. They were very open and honest with us the whole time. I say that only to demonstrate why I trust them. We know they only recommend the best.
15. See Cusco from San Cristobal Church
If you’re looking for a photogenic and panoramic view of Cusco, then the Church of San Cristobal is the place you’ll find it. A short, uphill hike from the city center will bring you to a large square from which you can see the entire city and the majestic mountains that surround Cusco.
Visiting San Cristobal was one of the highlights of our visit to Cusco. It’s especially worth it if you climb up to the bell tower for an even better view of the city.
Before you go to Cusco …
We could go on and on about Cusco. After being there for a month and basically living our lives there, we discovered so many things to do in Cusco that we could write about it all day. The list goes on.
Before you go to Cusco, here are a few things you need to know. If you’re staying for a while and you’d like to know a bit about prices, here is a list of 150 Cusco supermarket prices to give you an idea about costs. If you want to avoid Uber and taxis, we’ve got you covered there, too!
And if you’re looking for a place to stay, consider booking your stay here.
Enjoy your trip, and let us know what you did in Cusco in the comments!
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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert. Michael has traveled to over 50 countries learning how to experience more for less as he travels.