Choosing which destinations to visit on a trip to Peru is a bit like choosing which candy to eat at a chocolate shop. The options are limited by the simple constraint that you can’t try it all.
But no doubt Cusco is the crown destination in most travelers’ itineraries to Peru. The historic capital of the Inca Empire has swelled in recent decades with the growth of the tourist industry but there is still a feeling of another century felt through the narrow, cobbled streets.
Though primarily the jumping off point towards Machu Picchu, Cusco itself has so many treasures within the city proper that only spending one rest day here, or skipping it altogether, would be a crime.
Before jumping off on your intrepid Machu Picchu itinerary, here are our thoughts on the best 6 things to do in Cusco, Peru in your time in the city of the Incas –
Wander the Barrio de San Blas at Night
Known as the artsy district of Cusco, San Blas sits very close to the Plaza de Armas and is a great post dinner walk (you’ll be burning the calories and feeling the altitude in Cusco). Up a steep hill looking down on the city, the narrow streets of San Blas are filled with cozy cafes, bars, mini-hotels & hostels, and Andean artisan craft shops.
If you can visit before close, a stop at the Iglesia de San Blas at the Plaza San Blas, between 8am and 6pm, is a Dargui must-visit. This church dates back to the 16th century and is the centerpiece of the Plaza San Blas. It doesn’t call nearly as much attention from the outside as the cathedral on the Plaza de Armas, but inside is filled with ornate, baroque-period intricacies. A wooden pulpit on the left of the church is itself is high up on our list of what to see in Cusco.
Keep hiking up past the Plaza San Blas, after enjoying the water fountains for a minute, for a cocktail at the Limbus Resto Bar. A rooftop view over Cusco is a perfect spot to enjoy a nightcap in Cusco.
Pickup up some Spanish at a Cusco Language School
Though not normally listed in the top things to do in Cusco, learning some Spanish is one of the
most valuable things you can take home with you. If you skipped Lima altogether and jetted to Cusco, taking a few days in a language school to improve or learn some Spanish will enhance the rest of your travels (more on that in our blog post about Lima Spanish Schools).
A host of Spanish schools dot Cusco. We recommend one like Wiracocha Spanish School that offers flexible classes from beginning courses to immersion courses and also organized group activities for students.
Take a cooking class in Cusco, go out for a group dinner, or learn some salsa and put your new Spanish skills to the test. Even just a few days in a school will help you understand Peruvian culture a bit better and will make your Machu Picchu and other Peru adventures that much more enjoyable.
Enjoy an Andean favorite - Pachamanca
Around every corner restaurant in Cusco plates of cuy and alpaca dominate, but more for their novelty than for their taste. How many people really want to eat a large guinea pig? Another tasty traditional, hearty Andean dish for dinner is Pachamanca.
Translated as “earth oven” in Quechua, the making of a Pachamanca meal is an incredibly labor intensive process and was done historically for special occasions. Made by placing an incredible amount of grilled pork, chicken, beef, lamb, potatoes, comote, and Andean veggies into the earth on hot rocks to cook, restaurants like Gaston Acurio’s Chica and Pachapapa in the Barrio de San Blas offer individual plates of Pachamanca in Cusco. The mixture of flavors and tenderness of the meat makes for an incredible dinner!
However, the best way to experience a full Pachamanca demonstration is by being a part of it. A Cusco day tour to the Sacred Valley is a perfect time to take in a several hour Pachamanca demonstration. El Albergue in Ollantaytambo has a daily Pachamanca ceremonies that will give you the full Andean experience and is one our absolute favorite things to do in Cusco.
Take a free visit to the Museo Quechua
Though small and not listed in most top attractions of Cusco, the Museo Quechua is made of a collection of Quechua artists looking to promote and preserve their culture. The museum is found a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas, and entrance is currently free.
Besides the incredible color used by the Quechua people in pottery, textiles, paintings, and more, the best part of the museum is the artists’ desire to share their culture with others. The largest minority group and language in Peru at 19% of the population, the Quechua language and people have a history of persecution. A very recent surge in national pride in the Quechua language, culture, and art finally has made attractions like this museum possible.
Cook Andean Food & Experience a Peru Marketplace
Is it clear yet that we can’t get enough of the food in Cusco? The San Pedro Market in Cusco is a feast for the eyes and has long been one of our favorite Cusco things to do. Taking up a city block, there’s fruit, Peruvian bread (try the chuta bread), an assortment of meat, Andean vegetables, nuts, juices, and much more in this traditional Peruvian marketplace.
But the best way to enjoy the San Pedro Market is with a culinary cooking class in Cusco. This is the perfect activity on a rest day. An afternoon or evening cooking class with Cusco Culinary always starts by meeting at the San Pedro Market for an interpreted guided tour before going back to their studio to try your hand at a number of Andean Peruvian dishes.
The reason we love Cusco Culinary is the use of Andean ingredients (not to mention being headed by a Cordon Bleu trained chef). Make a quinoa tamale, taste a potato and moraya baked cake, and use local fruits for a smorgasbord of desserts. The whole experience lasts about four hours.
See the Fusing of Inca and Spanish at Koricancha
Built as a temple to Inti, the Sun god, by the Incas, the Koricancha Temple was gutted when the Spanish arrived and pillaged Cusco. Also traditionally spelled Qoricancha, Quechua for “Golden Courtyard,” this most important Inca temple had its walls literally lined with gold until Spanish conquest. The opulence stunned the Spanish so much that they described it as “fabulous beyond belief.”
After being mostly razed, the Spanish built the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo on the site in the 17th Century. However, some of the outer Inca walls were left and have since been preserved to create a multi-dimensional blend of Inca and Spanish architecture. The Koricancha can be found just a few blocks from the Cusco Plaza de Armas and so has long been a favorite Cusco attraction.
If you have visited, what have been some of your favorite things to do in Cusco, Peru? Our Lima, Peru Travel Agency would love to hear your feedback!