Dec 4, 2021
9 min read
A Guide to Enchanted Cusco
has put Cusco on the tourist map for quite some time. In fact, it has made Peru one of the most popular destinations in all of South America. However, we’re here to share what you should see and do before you get to the incredible Inca ruins.
Cusco was declared aUNESCO
site in the 1980s, and it’s this heritage that sets the tone, with beautiful cobbled streets and old colonial-style houses. The city is home to great markets, where you’ll find art and textiles, and the food here is great – if you know where to go. As the gateway to the Inca Trail, it’s also a good base for exploring the rest of the region.
A note on tourism: it’s a small place, so the streets and main sites do get easily crowded. Some of the indigenous culture has been intensely commodified, so we encourage you to shop and explore responsibly (especially when it comes to the “medicine” experiences). Otherwise, enjoy!
Where to stay in Cusco
This place is pure idyllic luxury. Probably Cusco’s most high-end option, the hotel is housed in a 17th-century Baroque seminary. Though the outside structure has been perfectly maintained, the interiors are up to the Belmond’s exceptional standard. The courtyard is a peaceful setting for morning coffee or an afternoon glass of wine.
Our favorite hotel in Cusco is El Balcón, for its intimate vibe, minimal but considered design, and the fact that it’s housed in a 1600s pre-colonial building. The gardens that lead to the rooms are perfect, the views from the balcony are stunning, and the dining area offers complimentary coca tea. Don’t skip on the breakfast either, it’s exactly what you need to start the day at altitude.
Nao Victoria is the best of the hostel-level options. It’s design conscious, definitely not a raucous crowd, and good for meeting new people if you’re in that frame of mind, but a little older than the 21-year-old backpackers. The shared rooms come with comfortable, lofted beds, nice sheets, and privacy curtains. If sharing isn’t your thing, Nao Victoria also has standard private rooms and a superior private room. The cafe on the second floor serves food all day, and is a great place to catch up on emails.
Where to eat in Cusco
If you arrive in Cusco after traveling through other South American cities, you might be in need of some lettuce. Organika provides healthy greens in a delicious way: think edible flowers, big salads, and vegetables sources from their farm in nearby Urubamba. Tucked away on a side street, the restaurant is small but perfectly formed.
This Cusco spot isn’t
as good as their Arequipa restaurant, but we still love the food. Come here for excellent Peruvian cuisine, with traditional flavors and quality ingredients from local farms. Save room for dessert.
Pachapapa restaurant is right off of the San Blas plaza. Though it’s a bit touristy, the courtyard is adorable – complete with wooden banquettes and heaters (which is a huge win during the evenings in Cusco). Get the Alpaca skewers.
This little San Blas cafe is great for breakfast. There are only three tables, so you might have to wait your turn, but it’s worth it. Get an acaí bowl or some avocado toast – they bake the bread in-house, and have treats takeaway, too.
We love this vegan restaurant, and we aren’t even vegan. Head down an alley, follow the signs, and upstairs you’ll find more seating than you would imagine. Order anything on the menu and you’ll be happy – the tea selection is ideal, when you’re ready to take a break from the pisco sours.
Where to get coffee in Cusco
This is the boutique/coffee shop set-up that we all love to seek out, no matter the city. Owned by a French woman, L’atelier has a beautiful curation downstairs, and good coffee and pastries upstairs. Grab a cup and sit at the window overlooking the street. It doesn’t really get much better, in our opinion.
This gem of a coffee shop is a little hidden away, but worth finding. They have homemade baked goods (we had a delicious carrot cake with edible flowers) and does ‘specialty’ (for the area) drinks like lattes. The benches makes for a cozy spot to do some travel journaling away from the crowds.
, Cocoliso is a clothing store that also has a coffee station in it. There are little tables outside, to sit with your espresso and watch the city go by. It’s fairly close to thePlaza de Armas
, but there isn’t too much foot traffic, so it’s the best of both worlds.
Where to shop in Cusco
This place deserves a second mention! As good as the coffee is, the jewelry, accessories, and homewares are even better. Get yourself something special to remember Cusco by.
This is a cute shop in San Blas that stocks leather purses, ponchos, handmade ceramics, and more. Everything you see is made by local artisans, and the store itself is owned by a Cusceña – so you know you’re supporting good work.
Cusco is small, so another second mention! Though is good to grab coffee here, it’s primarily a clothing store, with a great line in adorable baby clothes and sweaters. When we were last there we bagged a quality leather pouch that we’re getting a lot of wear out of, too.
A bit more upscale, Iya Mayta sells beautiful sweaters and gorgeous jewelry. Fringing features quite heavily, so if you’ve got a Coachella-esque event coming up, you’ll find something to add to the outfit rotation here. It’s all made by Peruvian artisans, so is properly authentic. Plus, a portion of sales goes towards a local non-profit.
Xapiri is a gallery space that showcases and sells photography, art and other crafts, in support of the indigenous cultures of the Amazon. Head to the events here if they coincide with your stay.
Located in the museum under the same name, this place aims to preserve the traditional Peruvian textile techniques. They support several different local weaving communities (nine at our last count). Browse the museum, then get a memento from the shop.
What to do in Cusco
You can’t come to Cusco without visiting San Pedro market – a large scale, classic mercado with everything you can imagine. They have food stalls – try the Caldo de Gallino (Peruvian chicken soup) – and aisles of fresh vegetables, grains, herbs, and fruits, which you can have freshly juiced. Make sure to pick up maca powder and chia seeds to take back home.
This is one of the lesser known ruins to visit in the Cusco area. It’s a good hike away, and the walk takes you through a beautiful meadow and along a trail. There is a bit of mystery revolving around the origin of the ruins, which makes them even more magical.
The Incas designed much of their lives based on the stars. Agriculture, city planning, and spiritual practices were therefore made with the stars in mind. At the planetarium, you can see what they saw in the sky – which looks quite different to what you might expect to see now. The planetarium is family owned and the staff is super friendly. They can pick you up in town, and take you to the observatory up bySacsayhuamán
For an alternative day trip, check out the town of Písac. Known for one of the best markets in the entire valley, Písac has beautiful hikes, great spas, and some of the most intact ruins in Peru.
Where to get your hit of culture
A citadel on the outskirts of Cusco, Sacsayhuamán is a great option for getting your fix of Inca ruins without the long drive or trek. Some sections date back to the early 1000s, and you can spend a few hours exploring each area. Get ready for some spectacular views of Cusco.
This museum showcases Pre-Columbian artwork from cultures across all regions of Peru. Many works have been loaned by theLarco Museum
in Lima, which date to 1250BC. Truly amazing stuff.
Just a little south ofPlaza de Armas
is Museo Casa Concha. Once a colonial mansion, the house is now a museum where you can see archeological finds fromMachu Picchu
. The exhibitions are diverse, and include an “ongoing research room” where you can see how modern science has led us to discover more about the lifestyle of the Inca people.
Cooking class (TASTE Peruvian cooking studio, Marcelo Batata Cooking Experience)
Peruvian cuisine is popular all over the world, and with good reason. While you’re at the heart of it, take a cooking class with one of the above, so you can recreate the experience once the trip is over.
Where to work
The dining room at El Balcon
The light-filled cafe area of El Balcon is the perfect place to get work done. We know, because it’s where we plugged in for a week or so during our stay. The space is warm and quiet, and they offer free teas. If you get hungry, they also do food, and the staff is super sweet.
Cafe at Nao Victoria
Not to tap into our “To Stay” section too much, but it turns out the communal spaces in the hotels are particularly good here. The cafe on the second floor has great music, good coffee (or a beer if it’s a bit later in the day), and all-important power outlets.
This spacious cafe is in the center of town and super comfortable. There are outlets galore and good sweets to keep you powered up.
Where to drink in Cusco
This is is a great bar owned by an Australian-Peruvian couple. There are couches in the back room, so you can settle in for a while. The drink options are solid, and the food menu is good (try the yucca). Also, on Sundays they have live jazz.
BBC is a Lima based brewery, and this is their Cusco outpost. The space is small, but it serves some of the best beer in all of Peru.
This place is a bit touristy, but secure a spot on the balcony and it’s absolutely worth it. Order a glass of wine or a cocktail and take in the view of the entire city.
We love hotel bars, and the Belmond’s is an exceptionally good one. Order a pisco sour and make yourself comfortable in front of the fire. The large wooden bar and the friendly bartenders make this somewhere you could easily hang for hours.
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