Ultimate Cusco Travel Guide: Discover the Imperial City

Ultimate Cusco Travel Guide

Discover The Imperial City, Colorful Cusco, built by the Spanish on the remains of Inca temples and palaces, is as rich in human activity today as it was at the height of the empire. This Peruvian city boasts a thriving Andean culture, Inca architecture, and colonial treasures galore, not to mention exclusive access to the mighty Machu Picchu, an unmissable highlight of any trip to Peru.

1. Best Time to Visit Cusco

Best time to Visit Cusco

From the dry streets to the colorful outdoor festivals and temperate climate, Cusco’s weather of just over 60 degrees makes winter beautiful. The season’s only caveat is its popularity, drawing crowds from all over the world, meaning travelers should book accommodations and tours at least three months in advance, particularly if planning to travel between June and August.

To have the city to yourself, visit Cusco at the beginning of winter, in May and June, as the city gets increasingly busy each month after May.

2. Things to See and Do

Stroll Through The City’s Historic Center

The Cusco Historic Center

Cusco’s historical center represents the fusion of Incan settlements and a modern-day South American metropolis that draws visitors from all over the world. Nowadays, Cusco has a visually striking hybrid of scenery where time is portrayed in overlapping layers of history and culture with a mix of Spanish, Andean, and international influences. For that reason, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, with over 100 historical monuments. The authentic old town has maintained a great part of its pre-Columbian distribution due to the Incas’ impressive knowledge of how to build their structures to be earthquake-proof. The main square, Plaza de Armas, is a lively place with plenty of restaurants and iconic buildings like the Cusco Cathedral.

Shop In The Colorful San Blas District

Shop In The Colorful San Blas District

Cusco’s San Blas neighborhood is known as Cusco’s trendiest, most creative district. It is steep with cobbled streets, the incredible works of art of its famous artisans, and an observatory to see the entire city of Cusco. These are just some of the great attractions that draw hundreds of tourists every day. Here you will find streets filled with cafes and hundreds of Peruvian artisans selling their work—from handicrafts to artwork, alpaca clothing, and more, making it the perfect place to pick up souvenirs and support the local community.

Visit the Coricancha Temple and Santo Domingo Monastery

Coricancha Temple and Santo Domingo Monastery

Coricancha, also known as the Temple of the Sun, was one of the most important buildings of the Incan civilization. During the time of the conquest, the temple was destroyed and looted. On its base, the church and convent of Santo Domingo were built. Currently, there is a museum with all the Inca pieces that were found there during the excavations. The thin walls of the temple express the highest level of engineering that the Incas achieved. Many of the walls, as well as doors and temples, are known to have been covered by a broad band of gold. Interested in fascinating history? Now, visitors can visit both sites with the same ticket.

Visit The Ruins of Sacsayhuaman

Visit The Ruins of Sacsayhuaman

A 30-minute walk uphill from Cusco, or just 10 minutes from the Plaza De Armas by car, is a citadel on the northern outskirts of the Imperial City – Sacsayhuaman. The complex was built by the Inca in the 15th century, particularly under Pachacutec and his successors, and is considered one of the most amazing buildings in the world. It is believed that more than 20 thousand men extracted the stones from the nearby quarries and moved them 20 kilometers to the hill of the city of Cusco. Today, it is estimated that Sacsayhuaman retains only 40 percent of its old structure. Even so, the site has structures of up to 125 tons of weight. Visitors can experience this Incan marvel while visiting Cusco for a glimpse into the region’s hundreds of Incan ruins.

Taste Your Way Through The Chocolate Museum

Taste Your Way Through The Chocolate Museum

Peru is one of the world’s biggest cacao producers. Cacao gave farmers the chance to transform from coca (raw material for cocaine) to cacao farms. Cusco’s Chocolate Museum, called ChocoMuseo, gives visitors the chance to learn about cacao, taste pure cacao, or do a chocolate workshop. The museum shows you various interesting things about Peruvian chocolate, from the harvesting of the cocoa beans to the drying of the cocoa pods. Visitors can learn about the history of cocoa and chocolate and make their own chocolate. Visitors are offered free samples, flavored liquors, cocoa tea, and jams among many other things when entering. The museum is also a great place to buy some gifts for family members and friends at home.

Explore Mercado de San Pedro

Explore Mercado de San Pedro

Mercado de San Pedro is Cusco’s largest and most vibrant market. This bustling market offers an authentic glimpse into the daily life of Cusco’s residents. Visitors can find a wide array of products, including fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheeses, as well as traditional Peruvian dishes and snacks. The market also features stalls selling local crafts, textiles, and souvenirs, making it an excellent place to find unique gifts and immerse yourself in the local culture.

Discover the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art

The Museum of Pre-Columbian Art in Cusco is dedicated to the art and culture of ancient civilizations that once thrived in Peru. The museum houses an impressive collection of artifacts, including pottery, textiles, metalwork, and sculptures from various pre-Columbian cultures, such as the Nazca, Mochica, and Inca. The museum’s exhibits provide valuable insights into the artistic achievements and daily life of these ancient societies, making it a must-visit for history enthusiasts.

Visit the Cusco Planetarium

Planetarium Cusco

The Cusco Planetarium offers a unique experience for stargazing and learning about the astronomical knowledge of the Incas. Located just outside the city, the planetarium provides visitors with the opportunity to observe the night sky through telescopes and learn about Inca astronomy and cosmology. The guided tours include presentations on the constellations, celestial events, and the significance of astronomy in Inca culture. The planetarium is a great place to gain a deeper understanding of the Inca civilization’s connection to the stars.

Take a Cooking Class at Marcelo Batata

Cooking classes Marcelo Batata

For a hands-on culinary experience, consider taking a cooking class at Marcelo Batata, a renowned restaurant in Cusco. The cooking classes offer participants the chance to learn how to prepare traditional Peruvian dishes, such as ceviche, lomo saltado, and causa. Under the guidance of skilled chefs, you’ll get to work with fresh, local ingredients and discover the techniques and flavors that define Peruvian cuisine. The classes are a fun and interactive way to deepen your appreciation for the country’s culinary heritage.

Hike to Montaña de Siete Colores (Rainbow Mountain)

Hike to Montaña de Siete Colores

Montaña de Siete Colores, also known as Rainbow Mountain, is one of Peru’s most stunning natural attractions. The mountain’s vibrant, multi-colored stripes are the result of mineral deposits and geological processes over millions of years. A hike to Rainbow Mountain is a challenging but rewarding adventure, offering breathtaking views of the Andes and the chance to see local wildlife, such as llamas and alpacas. The hike typically takes about 3-4 hours each way, and it’s recommended to acclimate to the altitude in Cusco before attempting the trek.

3. Best Hotels in Cusco

Best Hotels in Cusco

Belmond Palacio Nazarenas: This luxury hotel, a restored former palace and convent, offers a perfect blend of historical charm and modern comforts. The spacious suites feature original Inca stonework, and the hotel boasts a heated outdoor pool, serene gardens, and a world-class spa. Guests can enjoy gourmet dining at the hotel’s acclaimed restaurant and experience personalized service, making it an ideal choice for a luxurious stay in Cusco.

Monasterio, A Belmond Hotel: Located in a beautifully restored 16th-century monastery, Monasterio offers a unique and luxurious stay in Cusco. The hotel features stunning colonial architecture, elegant rooms with oxygen enrichment to help with altitude acclimatization, and a tranquil courtyard. Guests can dine at the hotel’s exceptional restaurant, which serves a fusion of Peruvian and international cuisine, and enjoy the serene atmosphere of this historic property.

Inkaterra La Casona: Exploring the Peruvian Andes in high luxury style and in the most sustainable way is more attainable than ever before with a stay at Inkaterra La Casona, Cusco’s first boutique hotel built in the 16th century. La Casona has just 11 carefully designed suites, which keeps the space intimate and ensures each guest is thoughtfully attended to. Each suite is complete with heavy carved wooden doors, a stone fireplace, heated floors, and an extra-large bathtub for travelers to soak and relax in. With its gorgeous colonial design and 16th-century furniture in each of the rooms, travelers will feel as if they’ve checked into a royal palace for their stay in the Sacred Valley.

Palacio del Inka, a Luxury Collection Hotel: Considered a historic landmark, Palacio del Inka is a five-centuries-old mansion located in the heart of downtown Cusco. The luxury hotel’s unique and captivating design embraces historical aspects of Peruvian culture while maintaining world-class luxury and modern conveniences. At Palacio del Inka, you’ll find stone archways, authentic Hispanic art, and ornate gilded antiques. Indulge in a delectable meal at Inti Raymi, the hotel’s on-site restaurant serving an array of epicurean cuisine, or enjoy a selection of wines curated by their Master Sommelier. Harmonize your body and soul with a signature treatment or massage at the hotel’s luxurious Andes Spirit Spa. Each of the unique guest rooms and suites is fashioned with traditional colonial decor and a rich color palette evocative of the local Peruvian heritage.

Casa Cartagena: Casa Cartagena is a luxury hotel in Cusco, located in the heart of the city. The building has been recognized by UNESCO as a protected site. An intimate refuge consisting of only sixteen ample and homely suites, which combine modern and ancient, luxurious and historical elements to perfection. The carefully crafted 12 exclusive suites provide privacy and luxury to guests. They are distributed symmetrically around a dreamlike patio in which time stops for the guests to enjoy an unforgettable experience. Guests can also enjoy an on-site restaurant and a gourmet breakfast buffet before exploring Cusco and the surrounding areas each morning.

JW Marriott El Convento Cusco: Housed in a restored 16th-century convent, JW Marriott El Convento Cusco offers a luxurious blend of historical charm and modern amenities. The hotel features elegant rooms with oxygen systems to help with altitude adjustment, a beautiful courtyard, and an indoor pool. Guests can indulge in gourmet cuisine at the on-site restaurant and unwind with a spa treatment. The central location makes it a convenient base for exploring Cusco’s attractions.

Hotel Aranwa Cusco Boutique: The elegant five-star Aranwa Cusco Boutique Hotel is housed in a converted 16th-century mansion, located just two blocks from Plaza de Armas, adjacent to Plaza San Francisco. Featuring colonial gold leaf-plated carvings and sculptures and colonial furnishings on the inside, the exterior is just as outstanding, with one of the best-preserved facades in Cusco. There is also a wellness spa with a variety of treatments, from massages and saunas to steam rooms and hair salons. All this in very easy reach of all the main attractions of Cusco.

Antigua Casona San Blas: Antigua Casona San Blas is a charming boutique hotel located in the artistic San Blas neighborhood. The hotel features beautifully decorated rooms with modern amenities, a cozy courtyard with a fire pit, and a rooftop terrace with panoramic views of the city. Guests can enjoy complimentary breakfast, a relaxing spa, and personalized service, making it an excellent choice for a comfortable and intimate stay in Cusco.

4. Cusco’s Best Restaurants

Cusco's Best Restaurants

For an authentic look into Incan and Andean cooking styles, Cusco has plenty to offer adventurous eaters looking for a taste of the highlands. Visit San Pedro Market to enjoy fresh produce grown locally, or experience a cooking class and learn how to make Pachamanca, a traditional Peruvian dish made with hot stones. Visit one of the city’s bustling restaurants and send your taste palette on an adventure.

Cicciolina: One of the city’s top restaurants, Cicciolina offers Italian-style dishes with Peruvian touches, such as quinoa-encrusted prawns and osso buco with pumpkin ravioli topped by local cheese and a touch of Andean mint. There’s plenty to choose from, including seafood, duck, beef, alpaca, chicken, and even a few vegetarian dishes, as well as perfectly done handmade pasta. You can pick from either the tapas or the full-restaurant menu in the bar area, but not the other way around, so you may want to go twice, as the tapas are popular options too. A great wine list and yummy desserts finish out options in a quaint, charming venue.

Chicha by Gastón Acurio: Gaston Acurio is one of Peru’s most notable chefs and has become an ambassador of Peruvian cuisine all over the world. His restaurant in Cusco, Chicha, is about regional food—from the produce, traditions, and culture of each location in the Sacred Valley. Elevated with good culinary techniques, the chef works responsibly with local producers to bring dishes to the table which highlight the ingredients and flavors of the local produce in ancient Cusco. The dinner style is casual, and the menu features a massive selection of dishes to choose from, like the traditional Arequipa dish escribano with coarsely mashed potatoes, tomato, hot pepper, and oil & vinegar.

Limo: Limo offers Peruvian fusion par excellence that uses typical ingredients in daring new ways. It’s particularly known for fish, including many types of sushi, as well as a variety of entrées that feature tuna, shrimp, octopus, crab, salmon, or trout, some inspired by Andean recipes, others taken from the Japanese tradition. Not a seafood lover? No problem! Limo also has delicious options featuring chicken, pork, beef, and alpaca. This second-floor restaurant overlooking the Plaza de Armas is also a great place for sampling pisco cocktails. Reservations are a good idea, especially if you’d like to score a balcony table with a town-square view.

MAP Café: Located in the courtyard of the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, MAP Café offers a sophisticated dining experience with a focus on contemporary Peruvian cuisine. The glass-enclosed café provides a unique and elegant setting for enjoying dishes like roasted guinea pig, Andean lamb, and quinoa risotto. The attentive service, beautifully presented dishes, and intimate atmosphere make MAP Café a top choice for a memorable meal in Cusco.

Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse: Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse specializes in grilled meats and traditional Peruvian dishes with a modern twist. The restaurant offers a warm and inviting atmosphere, with a menu featuring a variety of meats cooked to perfection on volcanic stone grills. Guests can enjoy dishes like alpaca steak, beef tenderloin, and lamb chops, as well as an array of delicious sides and sauces. Uchu’s creative presentations and high-quality ingredients make it a standout dining destination.

Morena Peruvian Kitchen: Located in the heart of ancient Cusco, the bright and modern Morena Peruvian Kitchen offers a wonderful journey through Peruvian flavors with a contemporary twist. This sophisticated restaurant is located directly in the Plaza des Armas and offers incredible views of the city and innovative takes on traditional Peruvian dishes. From traditional dishes like lomo saltado to more innovative fusions like Alpaca Risotto, this restaurant offers something for everyone. The experience even includes tableside drinks, like Pisco Sour.

5. Bars & Cafés in Cusco

Bars and Cafes in Cusco

Museo del Pisco: More a bar than a museum, enjoy some of the best-made cocktails in Cusco here. If you’re interested in the more educational aspects of the bar, they offer cocktail-making classes and give a little history on pisco and how it’s made.

Limbus Restobar: With a view over Cusco—and a claim of being the highest bar in Cusco—this place is the perfect spot for a date or to begin a party. The spectacular views are perfectly paired with quality food and classic cocktails like the pisco sour. Located in San Blas, it won’t be very far from where you’re staying.

ChocoMuseo Café: Adjacent to the Chocolate Museum, ChocoMuseo Café offers a delightful selection of hot chocolates, coffees, and pastries. It’s a cozy spot to relax and enjoy a sweet treat after exploring the museum. The café also serves light meals and snacks, making it a great place for a casual lunch or a quick break.

Jack’s Café: Jack’s Café is a popular spot among travelers and locals alike, known for its hearty breakfasts and generous portions. The menu features a variety of international and Peruvian dishes, including pancakes, eggs Benedict, and traditional Andean soups. With its friendly atmosphere and delicious food, Jack’s Café is a great place to start your day in Cusco.

Café Cicciolina: Café Cicciolina offers a more casual dining experience compared to its upscale restaurant counterpart. The café serves a variety of breakfast and lunch options, as well as freshly baked pastries and excellent coffee. The cozy ambiance and central location make it a perfect spot for a relaxing meal or a coffee break.

L’atelier Café Concept: One of the most unique coffee shops in Cusco. L’atelier Café holds a privileged view from its quaint blue balcony overlooking the traditional streets of San Blas. Stop for good honest coffees and cakes, as well as handmade jewelry, vintage art, and local artisan-made products.

Three Monkeys Coffee Cusco: Three Monkeys’ team has the mission of spreading the unknown side of a cup of coffee by giving coffee-growing families in the heart of the Valley of the Convention of the Cusco region a place to showcase their passion and dedication. Find a chilled spot in their lovely courtyard to enjoy some of the best coffee in town.

6. Where to Buy Souvenirs

Where to Buy Souvenirs in Cusco

Ekekos – Arte & Colores: Find a selection of Peruvian handicrafts such as alpaca and baby alpaca clothes and accessories, ceramics, and handmade fabrics, with the corresponding historical and sentimental information pertaining to each product.

Hilo: Hilo is an independent, slow-fashion brand by Irish designer and now long-time Cusco resident, Eibhlin Cassidy. Located in the artesanal quarter of San Blas, she has been creating uniquely customized pieces using locally sourced materials that inspire.

Isa Luna: A contemporary artist born in Cusco, Isa bases her work on the typical pieces of Cusco crafts, giving it a current approach inspired by a world of winged beings, the Andean worldview, and the technique of colonial art.

Kuna: Kuna offers high-quality alpaca and vicuña wool products, including clothing, accessories, and home decor items. The brand is known for its luxurious textiles and elegant designs, making it an excellent choice for finding unique and stylish souvenirs.

Taller de Hilario Mendivil: This workshop and gallery feature the distinctive ceramic sculptures of Hilario Mendivil, a renowned Peruvian artist. The sculptures often depict religious and cultural themes, with elongated necks being a signature element of Mendivil’s work. The gallery offers a range of pieces, from small figurines to larger, more elaborate sculptures.

Galería de Arte Olave: Galería de Arte Olave showcases the work of Edilberto Mérida, a celebrated Peruvian artist known for his expressive ceramic sculptures. The gallery features a variety of unique and intricate pieces that reflect the rich cultural heritage of Cusco.

Cerámicas Tater Vera: Cerámicas Tater Vera offers a selection of beautifully crafted ceramics, including plates, bowls, vases, and decorative items. The pieces often feature traditional Andean designs and motifs, making them perfect souvenirs for those looking to bring a piece of Cusco’s artistic heritage home.

7. Must-Visit Neighborhoods

Must Visit Neighborhoods

San Blas: San Blas is a charming neighborhood known for its narrow, winding streets, artisan workshops, and bohemian atmosphere. The area is home to many of Cusco’s best cafes, galleries, and boutique shops, making it a great place to explore and soak up the local culture. Visitors can also enjoy stunning views of the city from the San Blas Church and Plaza.

Centro Histórico: The historic center of Cusco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the heart of the city’s cultural and historical attractions. Visitors can explore the Plaza de Armas, the Cusco Cathedral, and many other colonial-era buildings and museums. The area is also home to a vibrant nightlife scene, with numerous bars, restaurants, and clubs to choose from.

8. Festivals and Celebrations

Festivals and Celebrations in Cusco

Semana Santa: Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is a significant religious celebration in Cusco. The event includes processions, masses, and other religious activities that commemorate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The streets of Cusco are filled with locals and visitors participating in the festivities, making it a unique cultural experience.

Inti Raymi: Inti Raymi, or the Festival of the Sun, is one of the most important Incan celebrations. Held on June 24th, the festival marks the winter solstice and honors the sun god Inti. The event includes elaborate ceremonies, dances, and reenactments of ancient Incan rituals, attracting thousands of visitors from around the world.

Corpus Christi: Corpus Christi is a major religious festival in Cusco, celebrated 60 days after Easter. The event features a procession of religious statues from various churches around the city, accompanied by traditional music and dances. The festival is a vibrant display of Cusco’s religious and cultural heritage.

Señor de los Temblores: Señor de los Temblores, or Lord of the Earthquakes, is a religious festival held in honor of a statue of Christ believed to protect Cusco from earthquakes. The event includes a procession of the statue through the streets of Cusco, followed by masses and other religious activities.

Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen: The Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen is a colorful celebration held in the town of Paucartambo, near Cusco. The event honors the Virgin of Carmen with traditional dances, music, and elaborate costumes. The festival is a unique opportunity to experience the rich cultural traditions of the region.

Qoyllur Rit’i: Qoyllur Rit’i, or Star Snow Festival, is a pilgrimage to the Sinakara Valley in the Andes, held in late May or early June. The event involves a challenging trek to the snow-capped mountains, where participants perform traditional dances and rituals to honor the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i. The festival is a fascinating blend of indigenous and Catholic traditions.

Feria de Santurantikuy: Held in December, the Feria de Santurantikuy is a traditional Christmas market in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas. The event features a wide variety of handmade crafts, including nativity scenes, ornaments, and other festive items. The market is a great place to find unique holiday gifts and experience the local culture.

9. How to Get to Cusco

How to Get to Cusco

Cusco is accessible by air, bus, and train. The city’s Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport receives flights from major cities in Peru and some international destinations. Buses and trains connect Cusco to other cities and regions, providing scenic and comfortable travel options.

Cusco, with its rich history, vibrant culture, and stunning landscapes, is a must-visit destination for travelers seeking an unforgettable experience. From exploring ancient Incan ruins to strolling through charming neighborhoods, the city offers a unique blend of past and present. The diverse culinary scene, luxurious accommodations, and colorful festivals further enrich the experience, making Cusco a place where every moment is filled with wonder and discovery. Whether you’re an adventurer, history buff, or simply looking to immerse yourself in a new culture, Cusco promises a journey that will leave a lasting impression.

 

 

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