Cusco (often spelt Cuzco) is a city in Peru, known as the historic capital of the Inca Empire. The city is home to beautiful architecture, abundant history, churches, artisanal markets, vibrant Peruvian culture, and delicious food.
Cusco is the gateway to Machu Picchu, the Urubamba Valley and the Andes Mountain ranges. With so many attractions nearby, you will never run out of things to do in Cusco.
This backpackers guide to Cusco covers things to do in Cusco, day trips from Cusco, volunteering, places to stay and other travel tips.
Things to do in Cusco
The list of things to do in Cusco is honestly never ending. You could stay for a month without running out of things to do (given you have money to spend). These are the best things to do in Cusco.
Visit Plaza de Armas
Plaza De Armas is the heart and soul of Cusco, located in the centre of the historical town. Any trip to Cusco should start in the Plaza De Armas. The surrounding building and architecture are something to admire. From the Plaza De Armas you can get your bearings of the city and information about tours.
Take a free city walking tour
What backpacker doesn’t love a free tour right? A free walking tour of Cusco will help you get the lay of the land, useful local tips on things to do, and places to eat! The free walking tours leave from the Plaza De Armas. There are several free walking tours in Cusco. Talk to your hotel or hostel to get more information.
Explore Machu Picchu
I am certain that anyone travelling to Cusco already has Machu Picchu on their itinerary. If you don’t, put it on there now. Machu Picchu is a world-renowned Inca site built in the 15th century. It is the most familiar icon of Inca civilisation and is extremely impressive. To better understand the history of Machu Picchu, I suggest taking a guided tour. If you are thinking of hiking to Machu Picchu, this is everything you need to know.
Hike the Inca Trail
If you love hiking, take the 4-day hike along the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu. This is one of the most scenic (and challenging) hiking trails in the world. Unfortunately, I booked too late and missed out but I heard from my friends that it was incredible. If you do miss out, there are many other hiking trails through the Sacred Valley that you could go on instead. You can book these hikes in person when you arrive in Cusco, but for the Inca Trail, you will need to pre-book months in advance.
Tour the Sacred Valley
I took a day tour with Sacred Valley Tours and was completely amazed. We started at Pisac markets then made our way to Pisac Ruins, Ollantaytambo Ruins and Chinchero. This is a great way to spend a day in Cusco. The Sacred Valley Tour cost $14 USD and worth every cent.
Hearing about the construction of the ruins is astonishing. Just imagine moving 100-pound rocks with no technology. Geologists have researched the ruins and state that it would be impossible to reconstruct the sites. It is a mystery how and why the ruins were constructed, but the theories are very interesting. See a complete guide to Ollantaytambo.
These are some more things to see in the Sacred Valley.
Maras Salt Mines
Families have been producing salt on the side of this mountain for 1000 years. Saltwater is directed from springs in the mountain to these ponds, the water evaporates and high-quality salt is then collected. Entry fee is 10 soles.
Visit Cusco Cathedral
To one side of Plaza de Armas is the Cusco Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral Basilica. Construction on this massive Gothic-Renaissance style Cathedral started back in 1559 and was completed in sections. Most of the stones and materials were taken from old Inca buildings (namely Sacsayhuamán) by the Spanish.
Both the outside and inside are impressive. Entry costs 25 soles.
Explore the San Blas Neighbourhood
Known as the artsy area of Cusco, the San Blas neighbourhood has a more quiet atmosphere than the rest of Cusco. There are nice cobblestone streets, cute cafes, artisans, great restaurants, and a church built in 1544 over an old Incan temple.
Visit the San Pedro Markets
Cusco’s local markets are a must see. Pick up some local handmade jumpers or souvenir’s and grab a fresh juice for 5soles ($2USD).
Visit the local museums and learn about Inca history
There are so many museums in Cusco. When you purchase a ticket into the Sacred Valley, entry into the museums is included so why not check them out?
Explore the ruins nearby to Cusco – Saqsayhuman
There are 4 ruins located within Cusco. These Ruins are Tambomachay, Pukapukara, Q’enqo and Saqsayhuman. You can easily see them all within one day however if you are limited for time, prioritise Saqsayhuman (pronounced like ‘sexy woman’) as it is the most impressive. The ruins are included in the ticket for the Sacred Valley Tour ticket, so hold onto the ticket to save yourself some cash.
Try the local cuisine
Local specialties include guinea pig, alpaca, lomo saltado, fruitillada and anticuchos.
Take a cooking class
In my opinion, there is no better way to learn about a culture than through its food. A Peruvian cooking class will teach you how to make with traditional dishes such as crema de choclo (corn soup), lomo saltado (marinated beef and rice) or the national drink of Peru, the Pisco sour.
Shop for bargains
The markets in Peru are so colourful and exciting. You can shop for handicrafts, colourful ponchos and jumpers, scarves, hats, jewellery and more. Be prepared to haggle for the best price.
Go Whitewater rafting
One of my all-time favourite things to do is white water rafting, and this is a tour offered in Cusco. If you go white water rafting, you will expect stunning scenery as you drift down the river!
The terrain around Cusco would be ideal for the adventurous mountain biker. Tours can be booked in person from Cusco.
Day trips from Cusco
Cusco is a great base for many surrounding attractions, that can be visited on a day or multi-day trip.
This colourful mountain is a popular attraction in Peru, and best explored from Cusco. These are the best tips for trekking Rainbow Mountain.
Manu National Park tour
Cusco is the perfect base to adventure into Manu National Park. I took the 4 days, 3-night tour into Manu National Park, you can read all about it and see photos here.
To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend this tour unless you are a hard out bird watcher. We spent 2 full days driving and didn’t see very much wildlife. If you want to see the Amazon, it may be best to go to Iquitos and do it properly.
Climate in Cusco
Summer: December – February
Winter: June – August
Winter is the dry season and therefore, May – September is the best time of year to visit Peru.
Recommended trip length in Cusco
I recommend staying in Cusco for a minimum of 7 days as there is so much to do and see in the area. You may even want to stay longer if you plan on hiking the Inca trail or visiting Manu National Park.
Volunteer in Cusco
If you would like to extend your stay in Cusco and Peru, volunteering is a great option. Volunteering is a safe way to stay for an extended amount of time, and save money as accommodation and/or food is often provided. Volunteering is also a great way to meet other like-minded people abroad. You can find out more about volunteering in Peru here.
Where to stay
There are endless hostels/backpackers in Cusco. The best location to stay is near the Plaza De Armas.
This hostel meets, and in my opinion, exceeds Hostelling Internationals standards. This hostel is just 4 blocks from Plaza De Armas (the main square). The hostel is clean, the staff speak English and are more than happy to help you with any questions.
Where not to stay
I don’t usually put recommendations on places not to stay, but I had a remarkably terrible experience at this hostel, and wouldn’t want anyone else to have the same.
Our group had a terrible experience at this hostel. We stored bags in the secure storage room, however, money was taken from the bags. We were locked out of the hostel after a night out and it took the night staff over 30 minutes to answer the door. Breakfast is meant to be served from 5 am however no one was awake at 5-30 when we went to get breakfast before our trip to the Amazon. The customer service was terrible and I wouldn’t recommend this hostel.
Search for hostels in Cusco
Getting to Cusco
You can fly into Cusco Airport, or get to Cusco from any destination in Peru using the Cruz Del Sue bus service.
Travel Insurance for Cusco
Safety in Cusco
Cusco feels like a relatively safe destination to backpack to, but safety precautions are recommended.
- Avoid flashing your valuables
- Keep an eye on your belongings at all times
- Lock your belongings in the hotel safe
- Remain aware of your surrounding
- Avoid unknown streets at night
- Don’t drink too much
Language in Peru
The official language in Peru is Spanish. Limited locals will speak English.
Vaccinations for Cusco
Check the Travel Doctor website to find out what vaccinations you need when backpacking to Cusco. If you have any further questions regarding vaccinations required for Cusco, I recommend consulting a doctor.
Packing for a trip to Cusco
Some essentials I recommend packing for Cusco are:
- Hiking Shoes
- Warm and waterproof clothing
- Insect Repellant
- A travel towel
- A good book
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Disclosure: This blog on the top things to do in Cusco contains affiliate links.