First time to Cusco, Peru? Read the ultimate guide to Cusco and surroundings featuring the bestpoints of interest in the city, the Sacred Valley and the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu of course, but also some nice restaurants where to eat some great Cusco food and some places where to experience Cusco nightlife. Plus some practical information on the weather and the local airports.
Cuzco (commonly spelled Cusco) is a city in southeastern Peru: it was the capital of the Inca Empire before the Spanish conquest.
It is an incredible place, located in a valley right in the heart of the Peruvian Andes, at 11,200 feet of altitude: Cusco truly takes your breath away, both literally and emotionally.
Surrounded by unspoilt nature and full of history, Cusco combines Spanish cultural tradition and a taste bringing back to the pre-Columbian civilizations.
The Peruvian city represents a strategic point to explore some must-see attractions in the area: the breathtaking Sacred Valley of the Incas and the Inca Trail leading to Macchu Picchu, one of the most important achaeological sites in the world.
Things to Do in Cusco
You should consider staying in Cusco for 2 or 3 days, both to visit this astonishing city (UNESCO world heritage site since 1983) and get used to the altitude, if you are planning to visit Machu Picchu.
You can have a look at our page on Cusco hotels to view our top deals and select the place that best suits you.
Below, you will find an overview of the best Cusco points of interest and attractions you cannot miss.
1. Plaza de Armas
The lively and fascinating Plaza de Armas is undoubtedly the heart of the city. Known during the Inca Empire as Huacaypata or Aucaypata, this square was the fulcrum of the capital activities.
Today, the Baroque style dominates the majestic square, where the colonial architecture and the Inca walls embrace in a powerful and extraordinary mix.
Stone pathways, colorful gardens and baroque arcades characterize this place, dominated by the famous Cusco Cathedral and La Compañía de Jesús church.
2. Cusco Cathedral
The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, generally known as Cusco Cathedral, was built in 1560 and is today the main office of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco.
Erected on the ancient Inca temple of Kiswarkancha, it presents sumptuous interiors with gold and silver altars.
The numerous statues and paintings mix the colonial catholic culture and the indigenous tradition. The cathedral is flanked with 2 other smaller churches, the Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia (the Sacred Family church) and the Iglesia del Triunfo, the first Christian church in Cusco.
It is possible to visit the cathedral every day from 10 am to 6 pm; the ticket is 25 soles (about $9). The entrance is from the Sacred Family Church, on the left of the cathedral’s facade.
3. San Pedro Market
It is actually the lively local grocery market, but it is a must-see place, since it gives the opportunity to get in close contact with local people, habits and everyday life.
This huge and colorful market is 10 minutes’ walk from Plaza de Armas and it is open every day. Thousands of (sometimes weird) products and types of food will overwhelm you: animal heads and tails, herbal remedies, dragon blood (a red beverage coming from a tree), fruit juice stands, varieties of bread, vegetables, fruit, potatoes and tubers, purple corns, cheese.
4. Inca Museum
It is the best museum in Cusco focusing on Inca history and culture, from the beginning to the Spanish conquest. Here you can admire a collection of metal and gold artworks, pottery, textiles, jewelry, mummies and the famous Inca carved and colorful wooden cups, the queros.
Located not far from Plaza de Armas, in the Spanish Admiral’s House, this wonderful colonial building, restored after 1950’s earthquake, with its sculptures and architecture is further worth the visit.
The museum is open from Monday to Friday, 8-18, and Saturdays and holidays, 9-16. The ticket is $10.
Among other museums in Cusco, we also recommend the Museo de Arte Precolombino (Pre-Columbian Art Museum) and the Museo Casa Concha, that displays Machu Picchu artifacts.
5. Sacred Valley and Inca Trail
The Sacred Valley extends around the Urubamba River from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
It encloses some of the most fascinating villages and archaeological sites of the area, such as Sacsayhuaman, Pisac and Ollantaytambo, and, of course, Machu Picchu.
Inca trail is one of the most famous treks in the world. This incredible hike leads to Machu Picchu by walking. There are 3 overlapping trails: Mollepata (the longest), Classic, and One Day.
The trail runs along the sacred valley through stone paths, walls, stairways, galleries, gorges, cliffs, waterways, Inca ruins and tropical jungles. To walk to the conquest of this valley and to the discovery of Machu Picchu is something magical and unforgettable. Remember that this is not a picnic and that you must not underestimate the altitude.
Of course, you have to accurately arrange your journey in advance, contacting a specialized agency that ensures you the best organization, equipment, guides, porters and cooks. In fact, no more than 500 people a day can enter the Inca trail, so you have to book your permit ticket at least 6 months before.
In February the Inca trail is closed for maintenance.
6. Machu Picchu
Macchu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas, is a perfectly preserved Inca ruin site at 7,970 feet of elevation. It is a dreamy place surrounded by an incredible landscape of pristine vegetation and clouds.
Located 50 miles northwest of Cusco, the easiest way to get there is by train to Aguas Caliente, from here by bus to Ollantaytambo, and then by short bus to Machu Picchu (one day round trip is possible).
You should organize your trip before leaving to Peru, or ask a reliable local travel agency.
If you want to experience the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, the Classic trail starts from the surroundings of Aguas Caliente, at mile 51 (km 82) or 55 from Cusco. In this case you have to consider at least 3 or 4 days for your trip, since you have to trek 25 miles for about 6,500 feet in altitude.
As soon as the view on the site opens, you will suddenly regenerate.
Food in Cusco can be really delicious. There are some typical and very particular dishes, such as cuy (roasted guinea pigs), alpaca steaks and frog soup.
You can also opt for more traditional food, as quinoa soups with vegetables and chicken, chifa (Chinese food with Peruvian ingredients), lomo saltado (sauteed steak with onions and peppers), aji de gallina (chicken wings), papa rellena (stuffed potatoes).
You will appreciate the different types of potatoes and tubers, roasted corns, tasty soups and sauces, and the juicy tropical fruit.
Around Plaza de Armas there are many restaurants where to taste some great local and international food (pizza, pasta, steak), and you will be not disappointed.
Cusco Weather and Temperature
If you plan to visit Peru, remember that it is located in the Southern hemisphere and the seasons are opposite. September, October, November and December have generally good weather and nice temperatures.
The rainy season includes December, January, February and March, where January is the wettest month.
The drier period is that from May to September, where June is the driest month.
Throughout the year the average temperature is between 1° (33,8° F) and 23° C (69,8° F). November is generally the warmest month and July the coolest.
So, the best time to plan your visit to Cusco is probably during winter months, from June to mid-September.
If you want to avoid the crowd, you could plan your trip in May or late September.
Flights to Cusco
The best way to reach Cusco is flying from Lima.
Lima modern International Jorge Chavez Airport is linked to the most important cities in the world. Non-stop flights leave from New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, London, Madrid.
The 4 main Peruvian airlines connect Lima and Cusco every day. Cusco airport (Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport) is 3 miles southeast of downtown. To get to the city center you have to take your hotel shuttle van or a taxi.
Time in Cusco
Cusco time zone depends, of course, on where you are around the world.
Look at the following chart of the time difference from Cusco (you can check the complete list here):
Los Angeles: – 2 hours
San Francisco: – 2
Seattle: – 2
Washington DC: + 1 hour
Ney York: + 1
Miami: + 1
Toronto: + 1 hour
Vancouver: – 2
London: + 6 hours
Rome: + 7
Berlin: + 7
Perth: + 13 hours
Canberra: + 15
Sydney: + 15
Wellington: + 17 hours
Auckland: + 17
Why You Should Visit Cusco
If you love to travel and look for strong emotions, no doubt you have to put Cusco in your bucket list.
The indigenous and Spanish soul of this city, the extraordinary nature of its surrounding landscapes, the charm of its history and archaeological sites, where time has stopped, will enchant you.