7 Ways to Experience Cusco Like a Local

Our insider Marisa guides you through 48 action-packed hours in the famed former capital of the Inca empire.


Photo © iStock/Meinzahn

Cusco is full of visitors prepping for or returning from Machu Picchu, yet the international influence has integrated beautifully with the local lifestyle. With an abundance of excellent restaurants, awe-inspiring churches, breathtaking vistas and busy marketplaces, there’s always something to draw you back to Cusco – or keep you extending your stay.

Seeing the sights of Cusco with the Boleto Turistico

A Boleto Turistico (tourist ticket) is required to see most of the important sights in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. You can buy the full ticket, which includes 14 sights and is valid for 10 days, for S/. 130 (US $40). Or you can buy tickets for three different circuits – Cusco museums, Cusco Inca sites, or Sacred Valley sites – for S/. 70 (US $21.60) each. These are valid for one to two days only. The Boletos can be purchased at the entrance to most of the sights, or at the COSITUC office in at Avenida Del Sol 103 in central Cusco.

Plaza de Armas in Cusco

Start off at this vibrant square in the heart of the city. At its center is the statue of Inca ruler Pachacuti. Surrounding it you’ll find restaurants, shops and La Catedral, a dramatic piece of architecture representing Spanish conquest. If you’re lucky, you’ll be in Cusco during one of the city’s many festivals and see parades around the Plaza.

Corpus Christi Festival, Cusco. Photo credit: iStock

Cusco’s San Blas Neighborhood

Next, it’s a (steep) uphill walk to the artisan neighborhood of San Blas for a stroll through the shops. Take a snapshot of the picturesque Iglesia San Blas, then stop at the San Pedro Market, a bustling, open-air food market. Grab empanadas or stop at Govinda’s food stall for spectacular vegan treats.

Fruit market in Cusco. Photo credit: iStock

Koricancha and the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art

Head back down the hill to find the twelve-angled stone, which makes up part of the wall of the ancient Hatunrumiyoc Palace and is a prime example of the Inca’s remarkably precise dry-stone masonry.

Then, head off to the Inca Sun Temple, Koricancha, which was once lined with sheets of gold. It was ransacked by the Spanish, who built a church atop the ruins, and the contrast is striking.  

Fill your belly at Greens café, then it’s over to the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, a museum-lovers favorite that stretches across two floors of a Spanish-Colonial casona.

Koricancha. Photo credit: iStock

Sacsayhuaman and other Inca treasures

Hike up Pukamuqu mountain to say “hola” to Cristo Blanco, then continue on to Sacsayhuaman, an ancient fortress with excellent views of Cusco less than an hour’s walk from the city.

Q’enqo, the site of Inca ritual sacrifice, is worth a stop as well. But the real gem of your adventure is the Cusco Planetarium. Astronomy was essential to Incan life, and this family-owned planetarium will teach you all you need to know, complete with stunning views of the stars. (Learn more about Incan astronomy here.)

Back in town, stop at the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales. This nonprofit organization is preserving traditional weaving techniques and helping local communities in the process.

Dining and nightlife in Cusco

For dinner, it’s Morena’s for incredible, well-priced Peruvian food, or try Papacho’s, the only gourmet burger joint in Cusco, by famed Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio.

Then it’s time to party, and Cusco is rife with options. Pepe Zeta is a no-frills hangout serving liter beers and Andean music, or try Mama Africa, the pop-reggaeton club that’s the spot for young travelers. For laid-back vibes, hit Los Perros, a cafe that turns jazz lounge at night.

Sacred Valley day trip

The next morning, head out early to see the Sacred Valley. Your Boleto Turistico will get you into the Moray agricultural amphitheater and the Pisac and Ollantaytambo archaeological sites.

Back in Cusco, grab a healthy bite at Organika. Then it’s off to the ChocoMuseo for a chocolate making lesson, followed by a yoga class at Healing House to unwind before your trek to Machu Picchu or another worthwhile site.

Where to stay in Cusco

Milhouse Hostel is a popular spot with comfy beds, large lockers, and free luggage storage during your hike.

Casa San Blas Boutique hotel is a quaint boutique offering in a renovated 17th-century house with city-view balconies.

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