With it’s dramatic and breathtaking landscape, narrow and winding cobblestone streets, brightly clad llama-toting women and proximity to Machu Picchu, the Ancient Incan capital of Cusco, also spelled Cuzco, is a once in a lifetime (or more if you’re lucky!) destination that appears on many bucket lists.
While there are endless day trips, adventures and experiences to be had in this wonderful city, below I’ve rounded up my top 10.
1. Plan A Trip To Machu Picchu
Tucked away in the heart of the Sacred Valley, the hidden city of Machu Picchu is one of the wonders of the world. You can’t plan a trip to Cusco without including Machu Picchu in your itinerary. Book your tickets in advance, especially if you are traveling in the high season (the city issues a limited amount of permits per day). I recommend arranging your day trip through a regarded tour company, such as Viator, that organizes all the components—pickup at hotel, round-trip train tickets, bus ride up to Machu Picchu and entrance fee.
If you are starting from Cusco, you will begin your day early, typically leaving some time around 4 AM. Your hotel will communicate with the tour group and confirm your pickup time. It’s also a good idea to set up a wake up call! The arranged van or bus will take you to Ollantaytambo train station where you will catch the rail line (either Peru or Inca) to Aguas Calientes. The 1.5 hour train ride offers spectacular views as well as beverage and snack service. I recommend upgrading to the Executive Class for extra comfort.If you are sensitive to the high-altitude, drink some coca leaf tea on the train, supposedly it helps you acclimatize. It’s also a good idea to book your Machu Picchu trip after you’ve had at least a day to adjust to the altitude in Cusco. Once you arrive in Aguas Calienties, you will make your way to the bus which will take you up to the site. Just a note if you are afraid of heights—the bus ride up to Machu Picchu is not for the feint of heart but is well worth the trek! Bring a rain coat, weather-proof shoes and a compact umbrella—Machu Picchu has a micro-climate that tends to fluctuate.
After your Machu Picchu adventure, you will have some time to walk around the small town of Aguas Calientes. Grab lunch at Treehouse, they have plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free options, they also offer boxed lunches to-go.
2. Visit Sacsayhuaman
This historic capital of the Incan Empire sits on the northern edge of Cusco. The complex is built out of huge stones fit tightly together without mortar. If you are staying in central Cusco, I recommend walking through San Blas, up to the entrance (about a 20 minute walk from the city center). Opt for an audio tour, personal tour guide or explore the site yourself!
3. Explore the Plazas of the City Center
Spend a day walking and exploring the major sites of Cusco such as the Plaza Del Armas in the city center, Plaza San Franciso, Pampa de Castillo, Iglesia y Convento de Santa Clara and the Palacio de Justicia. If you like museums, here is a good list.
4. Peruse the San Pedro Market
Head to the colorful San Pedro Market for lunch and shopping. You will get a good idea of the local pulse of the city. There are fruit and vegetable vendors, hand-made crafts and multiple food stalls where you can find a spot to eat—I recommend choosing a place that looks popular with the locals.
5. Sip on Peruvian Coffee
Cusco has some incredible coffee—grab your caffeinated beverage of choice, a seat near the sidewalk and people watch. Here are my favorite places:
Three Monkeys Coffee—a small coffee vendor that makes pour overs and espresso inside the pleasant courtyard of the Casa Montesinos Hotel. Enoy your coffee on the bench inside the courtyard.
Cafe D’Wasi is located about two blocks from the Plaza Del Armas. Their baristas are friendly and talented. Sit by the large opening of the cafe, near the sidewalk if it’s a nice day. Be careful to keep your belongings close as some tourists have fallen victim to petty theft.
L’atelier Cafe has great tea and good coffee, it is one of my favorite spots in town. I mostly go for the ambiance—you can head up to the second floor and sit at a window overlooking the small streets of San Blas—one of my favorite views.
Monkey Coffee is a cute little coffee shop in San Blas with great coffee and a good ambiance. They also serve some light bites for breakfast or an afternoon treat.
6. Dine on Peruvian Cuisine
When traveling to any city, exploring the local cuisine is a must! I have food allergies and eat vegetarian, so I tend to seek out places that can accommodate my needs. Here are my favorite food spots:
Marcelo Batata has great food and service. If it’s a nice day, ask to sit up on the rooftop for a 360 degree view of the city.
Uchu is owned by the same restaurant group as Marcelo Batata and has two locations within walking distance. Uchu Palacio was the original restaurant and is larger than Uchu Nazarenus which is a smaller, cozier space located on the second floor of the Plaza Nazarenus. Although it is a steakhouse, they have vegetarian as well as gluten-free options.
Nuna Raymi has fresh and delicious fare, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Cicciolina is a fun tapas bar with a great vibe.
Baco is Cicciolina’s sister restaurant that is a bit more upscale.
Limo overlooks the Plaza Del Armas. The restaurant mainly serves fish, so if that isn’t your thing, go before dinner for a Pisco Sour and watch the sunset over the Plaza…perhaps enjoy some homemade papas fritas.
Greens Organic has good options for a healthy breakfast or lunch.
Jack’s Cafe is located in San Blas and is the perfect place if you are craving an American-style meal. It’s always packed; open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
7. Walk the San Blas Neighborhood
Explore the trendy bohemian San Blas neighborhood known for it’s tiny cobblestone streets elevated above the city center. There are many shops, cafes and restaurants options. One of my favorite shops is L’atelier by Grid and their sister cafe/boutique L’atelier Cafe.
8. Take a Day Trip to Pisac
Take a day trip to Pisac, another Incan citadel with far less tourists. Have your hotel arrange a taxi there and back.
9. Explore the Qurikancha Ruins & Museum
Located in the center of Cusco, near the Plazas, you will find the Qurikancha ruins and museum. This landmark was once the richest temple in the Inca empire, and now includes a unique mashup of colonial and Incan architecture.
10. Shop at Local Artisan Stores
Last but not least, you can’t leave Cusco without encountering alpaca wool (the most ethically-friendly wool option available.) If you’re in the market, opt to buy from vendors outside the touristy neighborhoods. There are some great local artisan shops in the San Blas neighborhood, one of my favorites is L’atelier by Grid.
photo credit: Mary Bell & Rod Long