Cusco truly is one of the most unique destinations in the world, a designation recognized by UNESCO when they made it a World Heritage Site over a quarter century ago.
But there’s so much going on here that it can be easy to lose track of the best things to do in Cusco.
The Peruvian city of Cusco isn’t the most popular vacation destination in Latin America, but that’s a shame. This is easily one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Built in the shape of a dancing jaguar, Cusco was once the seat of power for the Incan Empire, and the modern day city of Cusco is dripping with history but also rich with modern sensibilities.
With a population of nearly half a million and a perfect location at the heart of the Sacred Valley, there are countless things to see in Cusco. We’ve identified 15 of the best things to see and do in Cusco, and we’re ready to share them with you. Keep reading to learn more.
What to do in Cusco: Best 15 Things to Do in Cusco
1. Learn to Cook in the Peruvian Style
While there are some commonalities throughout South American cooking, Peru has a sense of culinary style all its own. Peruvian cooking classes in the San Pedro Market will pair you with an expert chef who can teach you the basics and provide you with the skills you can bring with you back home.
Ceviche, a dish of raw seafood that’s cooked through the acidity of the citrus used in its preparation, is probably the most popular dish from Peru, but that’s just scratching the surface of the country’s rich culinary heritage.
The presence of Chinese immigrants has influenced Peruvian cooking strongly – particularly in the creation of lomo saltado. Made from steak, tomatoes, and onions, this dish is essentially beef stir fry with a uniquely South American spin.
2. Tour the Famous San Pedro Market
If you’re coming from America, you’re probably used to shopping at strip malls, big box stores, and farmers markets, but chances are good you haven’t seen anything like the markets in Cusco. This city is dense with traditional open air markets, but there’s nothing quite like San Pedro Market.
Located a convenient ten minute walk from the city center of Plaza de Armas, San Pedro is the pulse of everyday life in the city and one of the coolest things to see in Cusco. As you head towards the market, larger outlets give way to smaller stores and street vendors selling treats like popcorn, nuts, and a variety of dried fruit.
San Pedro Market is a great way to experience the decadent and savory foods the way they’re made in Cusco homes, but it’s also one of the best places in the city to pick up souvenirs.
Handmade arts, crafts, and mementos are available at these stalls in abundance, and you can get a great price on some cool items to take home to your friends and family if you’re willing to haggle a little.
3. Stroll Through Plaza de Armas
A list of what to do in Cusco wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Plaza de Armas. Fortunately, as the beating heart of Cusco, you’d have to go out of your way to miss the plaza.
The history of Plaza de Armas dates all the way back to the days of the Incan Empire – a time when it was nearly double its size. It’s still the cultural center of Cusco, and while there are always bound to be throngs of tourists at Plaza de Armas, they’re just one flavor in a park that’s lively with people from all walks of life.
It offers a fantastic view of the Cusco Cathedral and the surrounding mountains, and it’s one of the best places to orient yourself before engaging on city tours. But we highly recommend that you take the time to just hang out in Plaza de Armas during your stay.
It’s one of the most beautiful architectural feats in a city full of them, and there’s no better way to immerse yourself in the energy of daily living in the city.
4. Explore the Beautiful Churches
As is the case with any city colonized by the Spanish, it’s only natural that Cusco would be overflowing with gorgeous churches, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t place at least a couple of them on your list of what to do in Cusco.
The biggest and most popular is the Cathedral of Santo Domingo. It’s the first cathedral built in the city and also the most lavish, with a history dating all the way back to the 16th century.
And while the exterior facades are impressive and imposing when viewed from the city center, the interior of this massive church is perhaps more impressive. It features some of the most meticulously detailed and extravagant colonial era gold work in the world.
Also worthy of note is Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus. Sporting a baroque design, this church is like a glimpse directly into the past. In fact, the Jesuits built it in an attempt to outdo the glory of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo. Whether they succeeded is a question open to debate, but there’s no doubt it’s an astounding feat of engineering.
Fortunately, both of these phenomenal churches are situated directly alongside the Plaza de Armas, so they’re readily accessible.
See also: Where to stay in Cusco
5. The Convent of Santo Domingo
As with most of Latin America, the beauty of Cusco can largely be defined in terms of the conflict between the native peoples and the colonial invaders. And while both have produced some beautiful examples of art, architecture, and culture, that conflict is best expressed with a visit to the Convent of San Domingo.
This imposing brick structure looks as much like a fortress as a convent, but it was once a far different structure. Known as Qurikancha – or the Temple of the Sun – when the Inca Empire was at its height, it used to be a celebration of decadence. All the walls were lined with gold, and massive golden statues dominated the courtyards.
Remnants of that once majestic building remain, as the foundations of the Convent are actually exactly the same as those that served as the base for the Temple. And while the monastery itself is beautiful in its own right, the recently unearthed remnants of the Temple are incredibly well preserved and still being uncovered.
They’re meaningful testament to the engineering genius of the ancient natives who ruled for decades before the arrival of the Spanish and undoubtedly one of the most important things to do in Cusco.
6. Take a City Night Tour and Discover the Wonders of Pisco
Cusco is a city that’s alive throughout every hour of the day, but there’s something especially enchanting about this Latin American city at night. A night tour is a great way to experience the nightlife of Cusco and see how the locals party.
Most night tours will take you through the most lively neighborhoods and treat you to a dinner at one of the finest dining establishments in town. But you’ll also get a crash course in the city’s history.
We highly recommend that adult visitors book an excursion that offers a tour of the Pisco Museum. A brandy crafted from fermented grapes, pisco is more than just a drink in Peru. It’s a point of national pride, and it’s quite delicious as well.
If you’re instead looking for a way to spend an evening with the entire family, there are few better options than the Southern Skies Planetarium which provides you with a stunning closeup view of the stars of the southern hemisphere. The low ambient lighting of the area makes it one of the best places to go stargazing.
7. Check Out Local Artisans at the San Blas Quarter
San Blas Square isn’t as lively or well known as Santo Domingo, but it oozes a personality all its own. This square is the heart of the San Blas barrio, a neighborhood that’s home to some of the city’s most diverse and talented artisans.
Spending an afternoon exploring these streets is one of our favorite things to do in Cusco. If you’re looking to seek out some cool souvenirs for friends and family, it offers a more authentic and diverse variety of handmade goods than what you’ll find in San Pedro Market, but you can have fun even if you aren’t looking to buy anything.
The winding streets are lined with cobblestones and appealingly quaint in a way that few other neighborhoods in Cusco are. It’s also a great place to grab a bite with its wealth of nice restaurants and bars that offer laid back cuisine ranging from sandwiches to traditional French food.
Moving away from the city square and into less traveled neighborhoods like San Blas are a great way to discover the true diversity of cuisine in this cosmopolitan city.
8. Learn the Language
Maybe you plan on spending some time on Duolingo or another language learning app before making your trip to Peru, but there’s nothing quite like immersive learning if you really want to engage with the locals.
If you have a little longer to stay and are looking for a truly educational experience, you should take the time to schedule a lesson at Máximo Nivel. This Spanish school offers both group classes and private lessons to those looking to learn the local language, and it offers an up close and personal opportunity to get to know the locals and bond with your fellow travelers.
It may require a little more effort than a traditional sightseeing tour, but there are few more personally enriching things to do in Cusco, and it can provide you with one of the best social outlets you’ll find in the city.
9. Make a Hike Up Sacsayhuamán
Cusco was one of the most important population centers in Peru well before the arrival of Europeans, and while much of the history of the city has been torn down, paved over, and replaced first with colonial and then modern buildings, a surprising amount of the ancient Incan settlements remain intact.
The most stunning of these is Sacsayhuamán. This citadel dates all the way back to the beginning of the 10th century and underwent extensive renovations over the centuries that preceded the arrival of Europeans. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a reminder of what was once one of the continent’s most powerful empires.
This military fortress isn’t the most imposing pie of architecture in Cusco, but it’s certainly humbling to see this ancient fortress in the heart of a modern city. And since it’s accessible via a casual hike from the city square, you can explore it in an afternoon and still have plenty of time for piscos and lunch at Plaza de Armas.
And discoveries are still being made at Sacsayhuamán. There’s evidence of a structure that actually preceded the rise of the Incans by a century beneath the stones above the surface.
10. Gorge Yourself at the ChocoMuseum
Chocolate is easily one of Peru’s most decadent and most popular exports, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that Cusco has an entire museum devoted to the sweet treat. In fact, there are two ChocoMuseum builds in Cusco, and they offer a surprisingly rich and enriching experience for visitors of all ages.
While this isn’t quite a museum on the scale of Willy Wonka’s factory, you will have the opportunity to learn how to make your own chocolate and then prepare an entire dish with the rest of your peers.
If you’re looking for a less hands on approach, tour the factory workshop where a full ton of cacao is prepared every month, explore the jungle plantation where the growth of chocolate is complemented by the harvesting of fruits and coffee, or take a tour through the free museum on site.
There are tours suited to every budget and people of every age. But even if you just have the time to stop by for a second, it’s worth visiting the store to pick up some of the best chocolate in the entire region.
11. The Ruins of Machu Picchu
The ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu is easily the most popular landmark in the region. It’s one of the most stunning examples of pre-colonial architecture in South America, but it’s also a landmark of great mystery.
No one is quite sure what this building was used for, but monumental effort was clearly invested into its design. The towering monument was constructed from dry-wall stones that combine multiple heavy structures into a solid fortress without the use of mortar, and the buildings that make up the larger structure draw on natural astronomical alignments in incredibly sophisticated ways.
It’s also one of the best places to capture a view of the surrounding mountains, valleys, and vistas. Tours to Machu Picchu are easily the most popular and prodigious in the area, and many of them package a visit to the monument with other landmarks of note within the vicinity of Cusco. You’ll find both day trips and multi-day tours available depending on your needs.
12. Rainbow Mountain
Cast in beautiful pastels, Rainbow Mountain is a site unlike anywhere else in the world. While it’s often compared to the Painted Desert of the American West, it has a beauty all its own. If you don’t make this a priority for what to do in Cusco, you’ll find yourself disappointed upon your return home.
You can reach Rainbow Mountain in a few hour drive from the city proper, making it one of the best choices for a day trip from Cusco. But you might be amazed to learn how recent this natural phenomenon is. It may be a work of truly original natural beauty, but it didn’t appear until 2015.
It’s a sobering reminder of how climate change is affecting the world, but it’s also a reminder that beauty can arise from even dramatic disaster. Just be sure to check the weather report before you head out to this natural landmark.
It may be one of the most important things to see in Cusco, but it’s also often prone to rainy weather. You deserve to see the majesty of this landmark under a clear and sunny sky.
13. Ride a Quad Bike Through the Salt Mines
The unique salt lakes of Peru have been used to harvest salt for generation after generation, and the mines that have sprung up in their wake are truly a sight to behold. If you’re a more adventurous sort, hopping on a quad bike and tearing your way through the wilderness is one of the most thrilling experiences you can have in or around Cusco.
A tour through the salt mines is a great way to enjoy the natural beauty of the Incan Valley, but that’s just scratching the surface of what most tours provide. In addition to the salt mines of Maras, you should definitely take the time to check out the remote Incan ruins of Moray.
You can experience most of what this region has to offer in just about six hours and be back in the city proper in time for sunset.
14. Zipline Over the Sacred Valley
The natural wilderness surrounding Cusco is truly breathtaking, but it’s primarily composed of two environments: the Sacred Valley and the Andes Mountains. A zip lining tour gives you the opportunity to see both up close and personal.
While it’s mostly recommended to the most adventurous travelers to Peru, there’s truly no better way to experience what this gorgeous country has to offer. You’ll climb up 300 meters of sheer rock cliff side, giving you the opportunity to soak in all of the natural majesty around you.
Once you’re ready to get going, you’ll be able to choose from multiple zip lines that provide you with a truly stunning aerial view of the valley below. It may be outside of the city proper, but a quality zip lining expedition can be completed in the case of just a few short hours.
15. Humantay Lagoon
You don’t have to strap yourself to a zip line or mount on a quad bike to enjoy the areas around Cusco. If you want something a little more casually paced, you can take a hike up to Laguna Humantay. The hike itself is absolutely gorgeous, but the lake is undoubtedly a sight to behold.
The waters are a crisp turquoise all year long, and there’s plenty to do once you arrive. Hiking, biking, and walking trails criss-cross the shores and mountains surrounding the lake, but we encourage visitors to get out on the water as well.
You’ll have the opportunity to take a dip in the crystal clear waters or even test your balance and skills on an upright paddle board.