Cusco, Peru has come to be known as the gateway to Machu Picchu, but it is so much more! I consider Cusco one of the best places to visit in Peru, and so do others who have been there. I’ve been to Cusco several times and I’ve put together this 3 day itinerary for your pre- (or post) Machu Picchu exploring.
Cusco Peru Itinerary
Day 1: City Tour of Cusco Peru
Visit all the Churches in Cusco
There are dozens of churches you can visit in Cusco Peru. If you don’t visit any churches, did you really go to Cusco? Well, yes, but you’re definitely missing out. The art and religious artifacts within their walls are stunning.
Many of the paintings are colonial era and depict local life at the time as influenced by the fusion of Inca and Spanish culture and the best part is they’re inexpensive to visit, usually around 10 soles or less. My favorites are:
- Basilica Cathedral
- Iglesia de la Compañia
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Lunch over Plaza de Armas the most beautiful square in Cusco
Known as one of the most beautiful Plazas in all of South America, the Plaza de Armas is the center of life in Cusco.
There are dozens of restaurants nestled on the second floor surrounding the Plaza de Armas. You can’t beat the view and the people watching.
On my last trip I spent several meals sitting on the balconies observing the Plaza below. During lunch one day a local dance group in traditional Peruvian dress did a performance next to the fountain.
The next day I was walking by and a school group was marching though the square practicing for a festival that happened a couple days later.
And if you’re lucky, you’ll even get to see some kind of celebration. I sat for at least an hour one time watching a parade that covered the square. It was full of dancers and drummers all in their traditional dress.
Museo del Pisco in Cusco Peru
Pisco, the national spirit of Peru, is an unaged brandy made from the distillation of recently fermented Peruvian grape musts and juices. To try some amazing pisco, head over to the Museo del Pisco.
Don’t let the name of this place fool you, it’s not really a museum, it’s a bar and restaurant. What I enjoyed about this place, was the Pisco Sour making experience. It’s not very long, but they give you a brief history of pisco and you get to go behind the bar and make your own Pisco Sour! And it was the BEST Pisco Sour I’ve ever had.
Dinner at Quespi
Quespi is the house restaurant of the JW Marriott in Cusco Peru
I was lucky enough to attend a special dinner there with WHOA Travel, where we experienced, A Taste of Cusco. We had a potato dish that was a twist on a recipe belonging to the grandmother of the Canteen Chef at the hotel.
For me the real gem of the meal was a chocolate mousse inside a cocoa bean shell with crushed raspberries and pistachios on top. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
This is something I was unable to do on my last trip to Cusco Peru, but I’m planning on going when I go back. I have had several friends go to the Planetarium and they loved it!
You get picked up (and dropped off) at Regocijo Square, get an introduction about Inka astronomy, a look at the sky in their dome, and finally some stargazing! I’m counting down the days until I get to do this!
Day 2: Tours Cusco
ATV tour with Willka Travel
Get a little adventure in and let your hair blow in the breeze on an ATV tour. On this half day tour Willka Travel will take you out of the city and into the Sacred Valley to visit Morays and the Maras Salt Mine. Note that entrance into both these places is not included in the price of the tour.
For a more in depth look at this tour check out my blog post ATVing in the Sacred Valley with Willka Travel
If you’re not interested in ATVing take a day trip from Cusco to Morays and Maras instead.
San Pedro Market
Once back in the city, head over to San Pedro Market. You’ll have to opportunity to find weird and wonderful things from delicious fresh squeezed juices, rounds of bread the size of your head, the much needed cocoa leaves you’ll need if you’re headed to Machu Picchu. I time I even saw a women selling frogs that she’ll cook up for you to eat fresh.
Need a traditional Peruvian skirt? How about a blanket? If you need souvenirs you can find them here. It’s an experience of sights, sounds and smells.
For an extra special experience book a tour of the market and attend a Peruvian cooking class.
Convent de San Francisco
Just a short walk from the San Pedro Market to the Plaza de San Francisco and you’ll find, tucked away in the corn of the square, the Convent de San Francisco. The full name is Museo y Catacumbas Del Convento San Francisco, but don’t get too excited, the full catacombs are not open to the public.
However, you will find a courtyard lined with impeccable, and to my surprise, huge, paintings. You also gain access to the upper gallery of the church with its ornately carved woodwork and view of the church itself.
read more: The Most Incredible PLaces to visit in Peru
Dinner at Cultura Paraiso
This little hole in the wall restaurant that will not disappoint. It is one of the best kept secrets in Cusco Peru, and my personal favorite restaurant.
All the ingredients used for their international Peruvian fusion dishes are from local farms or from their own Cultura Paraiso Centro farm and gardens. Most of their dishes can be adapted to make them, vegetarian, vegan or gluten free.
I’ve visited this restaurant nearly a dozen times across various trips and have never had a bad meal there. I’m a bit obsessed with Cultura Paraiso, and have something different each time I’ve been.
I had the alpaca burger, the alpaca tacos and the chicken Inka nut pad thai (no longer on the menu). Oh, and try the purple corn juice, a local favorite and mine too!
Day 3: Cusco Peru Itinerary
Hike to Cristo Blanco
Cristo Blanco is a small version of Christ the Redeemer found in Rio. It sits atop a hill overlooking to the city. The hike up to Cristo Blanco isn’t a very long one, but it is steep. I would encourage anyone who wants to do the hike to wait a few days after arriving in Cusco, so you’re used to the altitude. You can also take a taxi up, but you’ll miss out on the fun. It’s free and you get an amazing view of the entire city. I enjoyed watching planes take off from the airport, and it was a nice little warm up for Machu Picchu.
Once you’re done at Cristo Blanco take the short walk over to Sacsayhuaman. Roughly pronounced “sexy woman,” the site is an ancient Incan fortress. The site of one of the bloodiest battles with the Spanish Conquistadors took place at this site.
Most of the fort was demolished by the Conquistadors when they took control of Cusco, Peru. However, the remains are worth the visit. If you get there early enough you’ll have the entire place to yourself. Make sure you bring the ticket you purchased at Morays yesterday, it will get you in to Sacsayhuaman at no extra cost.
For all the history buffs I suggest taking a tour of Sacsayhuaman. Having a guide will help you understand the history off the site. If you’re a little more adventurous try horseback riding around Sacsayhuaman the the surrounding area.
Before you head back down to the city, have a picnic lunch near Cristo Blanco. You’ll find families up there enjoying the sunshine, especially on weekends. There is lots of space and it’s truly a local experience.
You can purchase food before your hike up to Cristo Blanco and enjoy the spectacular view of Cusco.
Take a different way back down the hill, and get lost. Walk down new streets and take in the city.
Dinner at Rucula
Rucula is another spectacular restaurant in Cusco located just up the hill to the Plaza de Armas.
This multilevel restaurant is tiny, but a must visit. If you are a party of 2 or a solo traveler try to get one of the few window seats they have. The food is spectacular and I love everything on the menu, particularly anything with Alpaca in it.