Oh, Peru. Nine months on and my heart still aches for you. Everything about this beautiful country had me smitten – from the dramatic mountain scenery and ancient history, to the colourful cities and warm-hearted people. The city of Cusco seems to perfectly embody all of these things, making it an essential stop on any Peruvian itinerary.
We enjoyed 3 blissful days in Cusco – 2 days exploring the city, plus a day trip out to Rainbow Mountain (an absolute must-do if you have the time). I could have stayed for much longer but a few days is just enough time to appreciate the highlights, sample the world-class food scene, and soak up some of the local atmosphere.
Here’s everything you need to know to plan a visit to the beautiful city of Cusco.
Getting to Cusco:
Cusco is the former Incan capital of Peru and is located in the picturesque Andean mountain region, in the South East of the country. Cusco has its own airport (Alejandro Velasco Astete) serving mostly domestic flights, with additional routes to La Paz, Bolivia and Bogota, Colombia.
Most international flights to Peru arrive into Lima therefore flying is the quickest and easiest way to connect to Cusco. We picked up one-way flights from Lima to Cusco with Avianca for £68 per person, and were in the air for just over an hour.
Lima itself is a fantastic stopover city and is worth spending at least a night in – check out my guide to making the most of 24 hours in Lima here.
Once you arrive into Cusco airport, it’s a 20-minute taxi ride to the city centre. If you have a hotel or hostel booking, I’d recommend pre-booking your transfer for an agreed price, as some of the airport taxis are renowned for scamming tourists.
Buses do travel from from Lima to Cusco, but the quickest route (which takes around 24 hours) takes you through remote mountain roads, where there have been incidents of hijackings.
Instead, it’s recommended that tourists take the longer route via the famous Nazca lines with Peru Hop, which takes 3 days and will set you back by $159. We didn’t complete this trip ourselves, but we did travel with their sister company, Bolivia Hop, on our onward journey from Cusco and had a great experience.
The basics: what you need to know before visiting Cusco
Currency: The local currency in Peru is the sol (S/) but US dollars are also widely accepted in Cusco. ATMs can be found all over the city but there is generally a limit of S/400 a day on withdrawals and most will charge a fee.
Language: Spanish is the official language spoken in Cusco and it’s essential to know some basic phrases before you go. However, compared to some of the more regional parts of Peru, English is widely spoken in the city of Cusco, especially in restaurants and hostels dealing with tourists.
Altitude: Cusco sits at an elevation of 11,000 feet and it can take a few days to acclimatise to the altitude. Nausea, dizziness and headaches are just a few of the symptoms, so it’s a good idea to purchase some altitude sickness tablets from a travel clinic before you go. Coca leaves and coca tea are also widely available from most hotels and restaurants in Cusco (and perfectly legal, although don’t try to bring them back home!) and can help to relieve some of the symptoms.
‘Boleto Turistico’: This tourist ticket is worth buying, if you plan to visit any of the Sacred Valley sites in Peru, such as Moray, Chinchero or the Ollantaytambo ruins. It costs S/130 (approx £30) for a 10-day pass and tickets can be purchased at major sites across Cusco, including the Cathedral, Sacsayhuaman and the Church of San Blas. Once you’ve purchased the ticket, you’ll get free access to many of the other attractions and museums in the city of Cusco. Check the website for full details and pricing.
Where to stay in Cusco:
Cusco is one of those rare cities that has managed to retain its traditional culture and charm, despite being hugely popular with tourists. It’s also a very walkable city, so wherever you choose to stay you won’t be too far from the action.
We stayed at Hostel Wara Wara in the historical centre of the city, just 5 minutes’ walk from the main square “Plaza de Armas”. If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll know I’m a sucker for a rooftop view, so I was instantly sold by the incredible views from the hostel’s lounge and bar area.
Having breakfast out on the terrace each morning and watching the city light up at night, with a pisco sour in hand, was one of the best bits of the trip for me! Adding to Wara Wara’s charm is its warm, family-run atmosphere (and their gorgeous dog Tito), making it an ideal base from which to explore Cusco.
What to see and do in Cusco:
Cusco is the sort of city where you could easily spend weeks, just sipping coffee and watching the world go by. In fact, it’s one of only a handful of cities in the world where I’ve turned and said to my partner “I could live here” within about 3 hours of touching down.
But if you only have a few days, like us, then here’s some tips for what to see and do.
Plaza de Armas
Like most South American cities, Cusco is centred around a beautiful main square. The famous “Plaza de Armas” in Cusco is lined with pretty restaurants and charming wooden balconies, where you can take a break to enjoy some of the best views in the city.
Here, you’ll also find the iconic Cusco Cathedral, built in 1654. You can visit for free with your Boleto Turistico between the hours of 10am-6pm, but the views from the outside are even more spectacular.
Be sure to return to the Plaza at night during your trip – seeing the Cathedral and city lit up is an incredible experience in itself.
San Blas District
A 5-minute walk from the main plaza, you’ll find the pretty district of San Blas. A maze of sleepy, cobblestone streets, lined with cute galleries, white-washed buildings and colourful balconies – this is every photographer’s dream.
The main square at the centre of San Blas offers stunning views of the city and the surrounding peaks. Here, you’ll also find San Blas Temple – one of Cusco’s most beautiful and historic churches.
San Blas has an almost hipster vibe, with vegan restaurants, juice bars and coffee shops lining the streets. But there’s no escaping the authentic charm and history of the neighbourhood. Locals still go about their daily errands and the streets leading up to San Blas are carved out of giant Incan stone, perfectly preserved to this day.
San Pedro Market
To get to the beating heart of any city, you should always head to the local marketplace and Cusco is no exception. Located in the centre of the city, San Pedro Market offers up a treat for all the senses.
Open 7 days a week, you’ll find a bit of everything here, from fresh meat and vegetables to colourful fabrics and souvenirs. Be sure to explore the surrounding side-streets, too, where street vendors in traditional dress sell a whole range of produce.
San Cristobel Church
Perched high up on a hill-top overlooking the city, San Cristobel Church is visible from almost anywhere in Cusco. It’s a bit of an uphill walk to get there (not so fun in a city where oxygen is in short supply!) but 100% worth it for the panoramic views from the top.
If you have a Boleto Turistico, you can explore inside the church and climb the bell-tower for free. Maybe it was the time of day we visited, or it’s just one of the city’s best kept secrets, but we had the whole place to ourselves!
Museums and galleries
Cusco is packed full of museums and galleries, many of which can be accessed for free with the Boleto Turistico. Now I’m a history grad and self-confessed history geek but, honestly, I found some of the museums and galleries in Cusco pretty dull! I’d definitely save your time and skip the Popular Art Museum (a tiny room filled with photographs and creepy figurines…)
The Regional History Museum (Museo Historico Regional), however, provides an interesting history of the Spanish colonisation of Cusco and is set within a stunning building. The Museum of Contemporary Art (Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo) is also worth a visit for its beautiful courtyard and fountain alone.
We had over-indulged on Incan ruins by the time we reached Cusco, so decided to give Sacsayuahaman a miss but this is one of the most famous archaeological sites in Cusco and is meant to be pretty spectacular. It’s also pronounced “Sexy-Woman”, which might just be the best ancient site name ever, but I digress…
Once an Incan fortress, this sprawling complex of giant Incan walls can be found just north of the city centre, on top of a hill. The site is within walking distance of the main city centre and is open daily between 7am-5:30pm.
Where to eat and drink in Cusco:
Peru has experienced a culinary revolution over the last decade and Cusco is packed full of excellent restaurants, bars and coffee shops. We spent a lot of time eating and drinking our way around the city, so here are a few of my top recommendations.
For great coffee:
La Paccha Cafe – Located in the heart of the San Blas neighbourhood, this delightful little cafe is colourfully decorated in true Peruvian style and has a lovely little courtyard, where you can sit out and enjoy a coffee and waffles in the sun.
Museo del Cafe – If you’re a coffee fan, then you’ve certainly come to the right continent. Peru’s coffee beans are some of the finest in the world and where better to enjoy a brew, than in a coffee museum? It’s free to visit the museum and factory, where you’ll learn all about the bean-to-cup process. Or you can head straight to the cafe on the second floor for your caffeine fix. The building is actually the second oldest in Peru. If you’re lucky, you may be able to bag a spot on one of the tiny balconies overlooking the narrow streets below.
For great veggie and vegan food:
Organika – This place was recommended to us by our hostel owners and was one of the best meals we had in South America. The premise is simple – good quality, organic food sourced directly from the Sacred Valley region. They do serve meat and fish but it’s an excellent choice for veggies too. The secret is definitely out though – this place was full nearly ever night, so be prepared for a bit of a wait!
Green Point – This hip vegan restaurant in the San Blas district was one of my favourite finds in Peru. Order the tacos and a pisco sour and you’ll see why! They also run cookery classes, if you fancy trying your hand at some creative vegan recipes.
For the best views:
Cava Mora – For unbeatable views of the Plaza de Armas and Cusco Cathedral, head to Cava Mora or any one of the balconies around the main square. From here, you can people-watch until your heart’s content, whilst sipping a coffee or pisco sour.
La Valeriana – This chic restaurant and bakery is located directly opposite one of the most beautiful churches in Cusco – the Minor Basilica de la Merced. Grab a table under one of the giant archways and order yourself a fancy dessert – it’s a tough spot to beat.
For comfort food:
Papachos – It happens to the best of us – sometimes, when travelling, your body just craves a break from the local cuisine. Enter Papachos: a lively burger restaurant on the main square, serving up a huge selection of burgers and bar food (including veggie options). Yes, it’s a little touristy but the food and cocktails are solid and the location is ideal for exploring the nightlife around the square.
Republica Del Pisco – Cusco has a lively nightlife scene and you’ll find plenty of bars and night-clubs around the historic centre. We fell in love with Republica Del Pisco – a beautiful old bar, renowned for its pisco sours, live music and happy hour. What’s not to love?
So there you have it, Cusco in a nut-shell. Cusco is ideally located near to some of Peru’s most famous attractions. Find out everything you need to know about planning a day trip to Machu Picchu here. Alternatively, check out my guide to hiking Rainbow Mountain – the perfect side trip from Cusco.