Standing on the ruins of ancient Inca temples and palaces, the colourful city of Cusco is a captivating blend of traditional Andean culture, architectural wonders dating from the time of the Incas to the colonial era, and a majestic setting in a highland valley. As well as offering exclusive access to Machu Picchu, Cusco has a long list of attractions from the charming Plaza de Armas and imposing Catedral to the masterful stonework ruins of the Koricancha Inca complex. The UNESCO-listed fortress of Sacsayhuaman commands an incredible view across Cusco and is the most impressive of the historical sites dotted across the surrounding hills. The formation of large polished dry-stone boulders is thought to represent the head of a puma and inside the walls are a number of towers and important temples.Read More
South of Cusco are the impressive Tipón ruins, a complex of Inca temples and aqueducts with amazingly preserved agricultural terraces, watered by channels lined with stone. Hidden in a natural valley shelf, the ruins are practically deserted with no habitation in sight. Perfect as a day trip, on the return journey to Cusco stop at the traditional village of Saylla and try chicharrones, a delicious local pork dish. Nowhere better will you find such a dish and with barely a tourist in sight, it’s a chance to see the real Peru. Back in town a range of restaurants, from the cheap and cheerful to the more gourmet establishments, serve a delectable variety of traditional Peruvian dishes including Luna Areja where you can grab a Chicha beer and hang with the locals over a plate of homely Andean food.
Best sites to visit in Cusco
Plaza de ArmasView on map
The political and geographical heart of Cusco is a fascinating blend of the modern and the old as imposing cathedrals and churches from the Spanish colonial era tower above shiny shops and trendy restaurants. The large, attractive Plaza de Armas is the best place to get your bearings with many of the city's top sights within easy reach along the streets that lead off from the square. It's a great spot for people-watching with benches looking out to the Catedral and Jesuit church, and plenty of bars and cafes lining the square where you can enjoy a drink or a snack with balcony views.
CatedralView on map
Dominating the northern side of the Plaza de Armas, the 17th century Catedral is one of Cusco's most prominent sights and home to an incredible collection of colonial art from the renowned Cusquena school. The building took almost a century to complete with stones pilfered from nearby Inca monuments and has since been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Behind the Gothic-Renaissance style facade is an intricately carved pulpit and over a dozen chapels that contain various statues of saints, artworks displaying scenes from the Bible and a large gold crucifix.
Iglesia de la Compania de JesusView on map
The incredible facade of the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus more than rivals that of the Catedral from its spot on the eastern flank of the Plaza de Armas. Originally built in 1571 upon an Inca palace, the Jesuit church dominates the Cusco skyline with its two towers and its colourful dome decorated in multicoloured tiles. The large edifice contains within it a grand gold-leaf altarpiece, interesting canvas paintings and a subterranean chapel. It's worth the 10 soles entry fee just for the chance to climb the rickety wooden stairs up to the second floor of the front towers where you can enjoy views across the main square.
KoricanchaView on map
Originally the main temple of the Inca capital in pre-Colombian times, the Koricancha complex is a prime example of how Spanish colonialists dismantled important Inca monuments in order to resurrect their own places of worship as part of their conquest. The impressive stone walls that survived the 17th century destruction display the skill of Inca stonemasons with the Convento de Santo Domingo later built on top in an act of dominance. Today you can walk among the Inca walls that would have once been covered in gold plate, and admire the collection of religious paintings housed in the convent.
Recommended things to do in and around Cusco
SacsayhuamanView on map
Overlooking the city of Cusco from its strategic hilltop position, the fort of Sacsayhuaman is easily the most magnificent Inca ruin of the ancient capital. Built to resemble the head of a puma, the outstanding feature of the site is the zigzagging stone walls that measure 600 metres in length and represent the teeth of the mountain lion considered sacred by the Inca civilization. What remains of the military site feels impressively large but what you see today is only a fraction of the original with much of Sacsayhuaman torn down by the Spanish. It's possible to reach the ruins on foot from Cusco with a steep 40 minute walk or 10 minute taxi ride.
QenkoView on map
Situated a 20-minute walk north of Sacsayhuaman, the Inca site of Qenko was an important place for ceremonial affairs and is a brilliant example of how the Incas used the surrounding environment to build their monuments. The stone steps and foundations of amphitheatres, grand halls and aqueducts blend seamlessly with the rocks of the large limestone outcrop on which the site is located. Here you can admire Inca stonework in the form of geometric reliefs and carved channels that once played a vital role during religious festivals and harvest predictions. The entry ticket to Qenko also covers nearby Sacsayhuaman, Puca Pucara and Tambomachay.
Puca PucaraView on map
Translated as 'Red Fort' due to the reddish hue of the walls as dusk approaches, Puca Pucara is a superb example of Inca military architecture with three concentric ramparts commanding impressive views of the Cusco Valley. Some uncertainty surrounds the site's intended function with the irregularly shaped granite stones used in the walls indicating that Puca Pucara was built in a hurry as a defence against imminent threat while the size of the site suggests it may have only been a guard post that made use of the high ground and the views afforded. Puca Pucara is located an hour's walk north of Qenko and can be easily combined with a visit to nearby Tambo Machay.
Tambo MachayView on map
The peaceful site of Tambo Machay is one of the finest Inca baths in Peru with four terrace walls built into the hillside and two impressively carved aqueducts. Located 8km north of Cusco, the site was used as a place for religious rituals, specifically those related to the worship of water. Nearby springs feed the cleverly designed channels that create a small waterfall used as a shower by the Incas with the foundations of a closed area situated further down that would have been used for ritualistic bathing. It's believed that Tambo Machay was frequented only by higher nobility due to the huge double doorway and the sheer quality of the masonry.
Machu PicchuView on map
The jewel in Peru's archaeological crown, Machu Picchu is the most spectacular of the country's Inca ruins thanks to its enigmatic location in the jungle-clad mountains and the remarkable state of preservation of the citadel after centuries of abandonment. For those short on time, Cusco makes a good base from which to visit Machu Picchu with day tours available that include the incredibly scenic return train journey from either Poroy station (20 minutes outside of the city) or Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu and around 2-3 hours at the site for a guided tour and independent exploration.
The Sacred ValleyView on map
The steep-sided valley known as the Sacred Valley is a wonderfully picturesque region of mountains and agricultural fields divided by the meandering Vilcanota River that traces a trail between Machu Picchu and Cusco. Dotted throughout the valley are typical Andean villages, colourful market towns and dramatic Inca ruins that can easily be reached on a day's excursion from Cusco though you could just as easily break up the journey to Machu Picchu with a night or two spent in one of the larger towns such as Ollantaytambo, home to an impressive Inca fort, or Pisac, a shopper's paradise with its excellent market.
Eating out in Cusco
Morena KitchenView on map
Within easy walking distance of the Plaza de Armas is this recent addition to Cusco's already burgeoning dining scene and a strong contender as one of the top restaurants in town. Specialising in Peruvian cuisine with inventive fusion twists, Morena Kitchen is a fabulous spot for either lunch or dinner with a bright dining area featuring colourful murals, wicker chairs and cushioned seats, and friendly, attentive staff. The menu features Peruvian classics such as ceviche and lomo saltado with a robust take on Chinese stir fry in the form of its signature Tacu Tacu Criollo. The cocktail menu is equally as appealing with beautifully presented Pisco sours and other alcoholic favourites.
Meal prices: $$
GreensView on map
Located nearby to Museo Machu Picchu, this organic restaurant is a great choice for those looking for healthy and ethically-minded meals. Set on the first floor of a building with an interior reminiscent of a cosy farmhouse, Greens offers a delectable range of dishes that focus on fresh ingredients grown in their own organic vegetable garden located in the Sacred Valley. Both meat-eaters and veggies are well-catered for with smoked trout and alpaca dishes alongside strictly vegetarian meals including beetroot and sweet potato gnocchi served in a basil cream sauce. It also serves desserts and an extensive range of fresh fruit juices and smoothies.
Meal prices: $$
Fallen AngelView on map
If you like your restaurants decorated with glamorous disco balls, leopard-print textiles, flying pigs and bathtubs, the Fallen Angel is right up your alley. The funky decor is the love child of a boudoir and urban zoo with a drinks menu that embodies the same sense of fun with playful cocktails and a selection of beers and wine. The food menu features popular Peruvian dishes including a creamy quinotto (a quinoa version of risotto), roasted guinea pig and alpaca steak.
Meal prices: $$$
Jack's CafeView on map
Popular with local expats and travellers alike, Jack's Cafe is always busy with hungry visitors looking for hearty portions and familiar tastes. Open from 7:30am to 11:30pm it's a reliable option for breakfast, lunch or dinner with something for everyone from the pancakes served with fruit and cream to the huevos rancheros and fry-ups with wraps, sandwiches and international favourites including pasta, burgers and tortillas.
Meal prices: $$
Marcelo BatataView on map
Set behind the Catedral a block north of the main square, the Marcelo Batata restaurant is a sure bet for refined Peruvian cuisine with recipes that perfectly showcase the typical ingredients of the Andes. Alpaca steaks are something of a speciality, juicy and tender, and smartly presented with the native meat featured in a flavoursome chilli con carne amongst other dishes. The Aji de Gallina Classica is also highly recommended with crispy chicken wings served on a bed of rice and creamy yellow sauce. Another reason to eat here is the rooftop terrace, which affords views across the Cusco city skyline and the impressive dome of the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus.
Meal prices: $$
Shopping in Cusco
Mercado CentralView on map
Also known as the San Pedro market, this is the main shopping destination for Cusco's residents with a variety of meats, fruits, vegetables and dairy products alongside rows of flower stalls and vendors selling all manner of goods from wool jumpers to herbs, colourful bags to pachamama dolls. It's a good place to pick up souvenirs, though don't forget to bargain, and is ideal for those on a budget with hot-food stalls serving quick meals of empanadas and salchipapas (fried sausages and potatoes) along with fresh juices and soups.
San BlasView on map
The barrio of San Blas has a long history of high-quality artesania which makes it a fantastic shopping destination while in Cusco. A good 15 minute walk uphill from the Plaza de Armas, the small but pretty San Blas Plazoleta is lined with shops selling typical souvenirs from textiles to oil paintings with streets leading off from the square also home to stores selling locally-produced crafts, antiques and jewellery. Some stores are hidden down backstreets or around small courtyards so get off the beaten track and keep your eyes peeled.
Centro Artesanal CuscoView on map
If you prefer to shop for souvenirs under one roof, the government-run Centro Artesanal Cusco brings together hundreds of vendors selling a huge variety of reasonably priced artesania in a welcoming environment. Located south of the Koricancha complex, it easily equals the scope of markets found in the Sacred Valley with prices open to negotiation and discounts offered buy multiple items from the one stall.
Transport links in Cusco
Flying InView on map
Cusco is served by the Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport, located 4km south of the city centre and named after a famous Peruvian pilot. Despite being one of Peru's most important airports in terms of passenger numbers, the airport itself is rather small though it has the necessary services including ATMs and cafes. Currently the only international route operated from Cusco is to La Paz (Bolivia) with Amaszonas and Peruvian Airlines, and to Bogota (Colombia) with Avianca. International travellers will need to fly into Lima and connect with a flight to Cuzco. From the airport it's an easy 15 minute journey to downtown Cusco with plenty of taxis outside the airport for those arriving without a pre-arranged transfer.
Railway ServicesView on map
The train services to and from Cusco primarily serve the key tourist routes in this region of Peru though trains no longer depart from the historic main station in Cusco itself, instead they depart from Poroy train station, which is located 20 minutes away and requires a road transfer. From Poroy it's possible to take the luxury Hiram Bingham, mid-range Vistadome, and budget Expedition trains (all operated by PeruRail) all the way to Machu Picchu. The journey takes roughly 4 hours with three morning departures from Cusco, and offers a scenic and comfortable way to reach the Lost Citadel. Another option is to transfer to Ollantaytambo and pick up either the Vistadome or Expedition train from there, which offers better flexibility with more departures during the day. The scenic Andean Explorer train also connects Cusco with Puno on the edge of Lake Titicaca.
By RoadView on map
The main road leading to Cusco follows a winding route along the mountains and is particularly scenic when heading north of the city towards the Sacred Valley. Excursions to towns such as Pisac (45 minutes from Cuzco) and Ollantaytambo (2 hours from Cusco) are generally made by road, which offers the chance to pass through smaller Andean villages en route. In Cusco itself you'll be getting around on foot or by taxi, though you can always brave the local bus system which covers the entire city. For long distance journeys, tourist buses in Peru are an excellent option with large, reclining seats, onboard toilets and entertainment, and Cusco is well served by a number of bus companies operating routes to Puno, Nazca and Arequipa.
Best Time to Visit Cusco
Peru's dry season falls between the months of June and September, and this is the best time to visit Cusco with little chance of rain and generally sunny days. Sitting at an altitude of 3,399 metres above sea level, the sun can feel quite fierce during the day but temperatures drop dramatically once it's gone so expect cold conditions at night and first thing in the morning. This is South America's winter and the absence of rain also means better visibility of the surrounding mountain ranges with blue skies and broken clouds. The high season coincides with this period so it's also the most popular time to visit Cusco and its nearby attractions.