Cusco & Machu Picchu 2023 Travel Guide: Best of the Ancient Inca Gateway

In this Cusco travel guide, we give you the best hotels, restaurants, bars and things to do in and around the storied gateway to the ancient Incas. Plus, everything you need to know about visiting Machu Picchu.

San Blas Neighborhood in Cusco, Peru
San Blas Neighborhood, Cusco / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Cusco Travel Guide: Best Hotels, Restaurants, Things to Do and Day Trips

Last updated: November 2023 

Seamlessly combining ancient Inca roots, colonial-era architecture and the thrill of modern day adventure, there’s a reason visitors flock to Cusco (or Cuzco) when heading to Peru – and not just because the storied city is an obligatory stop to/from Machu Picchu. The former capital of the legendary Inca empire, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983, has long proven its status as a world-class destination in and of itself.

The sense of layered history is palpable as you wander down charming cobblestone streets, marvel at fabled temples and watch local life pass you by in Cusco’s picturesque plazas. Not to mention the Imperial City’s buzzing culinary scene and restorative hotel stays you’ll no doubt be thankful for post-Inca Trail.

In this self-attested travel guide we’ve rounded up our can’t miss sights, stays, eats and day trips in and around Cusco, including our top tips on how to maximize your bucket list visit to Machu Picchu.

Related: The Best Rolling Carry-On Luggage You Can Buy Right Now, According to Amazon Reviews

Cusco’s Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas, Cusco / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

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Toritos de Pukara in Cusco, Peru
Toritos de Pukara (ceramic bulls) you’ll see perched on rooftops all over Cusco to bring good luck. / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

But first: travel insurance to the rescue.

Wherever, and whenever, you might be traveling, travel insurance is always a good idea. I personally use and recommend Faye Travel Insurance for their thorough, easy to understand and fair-priced coverage options. Think: emergency medical and sickness benefits in the event of an accident or illness while abroad, compensation for lost luggage and personal effects, and trip protection covering things like unforeseen cancellation, interruption or missed connections.

You can even add optional coverage for your traveling pets, that sweet ride you’ll be renting, extreme sports and accidental vacation rental damage (oops). Plus! A game-changing travel benefit you can add on to your policy: the ability to cancel for any reason. Did I mention a seamless in-app claims process and rapid, on-the-go reimbursements to your digital Faye Wallet? Check pricing here.

Pro Tip: it’s best to buy your travel insurance policy within 14 days of making your initial trip deposit (like when you buy your flights or book your hotel).

Related: The Best Travel-Friendly Loungewear Sets That Are Stylish, Cozy and Perfect For Your Short or Long-Haul Flight

San Blas Neighborhood in Cusco, Peru
San Blas Neighborhood, Cusco / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Cusco Travel Guide
Cusco, Peru / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Cusco Travel Guide: Getting to Cusco

While most travelers arrive to Cusco by plane or bus (Cruz Del Sur is our preferred ride, or you can try Peru Hop), there’s another mode of transport bringing you to, or from, the Inca epicenter in arguably elevated fashion: PeruRail’s Titicaca Train. If you need even more reason to visit glistening Lake Titicaca and the floating islands of Uros pre or post-Cusco, it’s to embark on this luxurious 10-hour rail expedition through the Andes.

PeruRail Titicaca Train: Luxury Train Ride in Peru
PeruRail Titicaca Train / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

The setting? An elegant 1920s-style Pullman train, exuding equal parts nostalgic glamour and riveting adventure as you wander freely from your plush dining seats to the bar car to the open-air observation car – where panoramic Andean vistas await. Plus: fine dining, afternoon tea, live music, traditional Peruvian dances and freshly shaken pisco sours from the dapper barman.

Related: This Luxury Train Journey in Peru is the Best Way to Travel Between Cusco and Lake Titicaca

PeruRail Titicaca Train: Luxury Train Ride in Peru
PeruRail Titicaca Train / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Cusco Travel Guide: Where to Stay / Best Hotels in Cusco

Converted colonial era-mansions, charming boutique hotels and luxurious points-earning stays all equate to a thriving hotel scene in Cusco.

Related: 14 Best Hotels in Peru: Boutique Stays to Bucket List Overnights in Cusco, Lima & Beyond

Best Hotels in Cusco, Peru: Novotel Cusco
Photo courtesy of Novotel Cusco
Best Hotels in Cusco: Novotel Cusco

Loyalty travelers of the global ALL – Accor hospitality portfolio will want to check into Novotel Cusco, a picturesque points-earning hideaway taking residence in a converted 16th-century mansion. At just four blocks from Cusco’s bustling Plaza de Armas and mere steps from the bohemian neighborhood of San Blas, the elegant hotel benefits from being in the middle of it all while enjoying a restful location on a quiet, unfussy street. Room types range from Standard to Colonial, the latter featuring vaulted ceilings, colonial-style furnishings and direct access to the atrium by way of beautifully arched hallways.

Best Hotels in Cusco, Peru: Casa Andina Premium Cusco
Casa Andina Premium Cusco / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Hotels in Cusco: Casa Andina Premium Cusco

If you’re not already familiar with Casa Andina – Peru’s leading hotel group offering accommodations across the country from Standard to Premium – there’s never a better time than in Cusco. Preferably, at Casa Andina Premium Cusco: a calming sanctuary set in a converted 17th-century residence. Expect spacious suites-with-a-view like this one, airy colonial courtyards, excellent Andean cuisine (& cocktails) and more from this luxury stay in the heart of Cusco’s historic center.

Antigua Casona San Blas, Cusco
Photo courtesy of Antigua Casona San Blas
Best Hotels in Cusco: Antigua Casona San Blas

Wander through the winding cobblestone alleys of San Blas – Cusco’s bohemian, hillside enclave – and you’ll stumble upon Antigua Casona San Blas. The 49-room boutique hotel awaits to charm with thoughtfully appointed guest rooms and suites, a fire-pit accented courtyard and intimate, candle-lit restaurant serving contemporary takes on traditional Andean dishes. Plus, a soothing spa complete with sauna, jacuzzi and even a hyperbaric chamber for those acclimating to Cusco’s notoriously high altitude.

Cusco Travel Guide: Best Things to Do in Cusco

Best Things to Do in Cusco: Free Walking Tour

Activities abound in Cusco, and we suggest getting your lay of the land crash course with this Free Walking Tour of the city’s historic center. The tip-based excursion ticks off Cusco’s must-sees in 2 1/2 hours, including San Francisco Square, Saint Claire Arch, San Pedro Market, La Calle Del Sol (Street of the Sun) and even an alpaca and llama visit.

Best Things to Do in Cusco: Plaza de Armas

The beating heart of Cusco, chances are you’ll cross paths with the city’s historic Plaza de Armas (main square) at least a few times during your stay. The grand square has acted as the city’s primary public and ceremonial headquarters since Inca times – well before the Spaniards arrived – lined today by the 16th-century Cathedral of Cusco, ornate Church of the Society of Jesus (boasting a gold leaf-covered interior), balcony-fringed cafés, restaurants and bars, and plenty of tourist shops and street vendors. Take a seat in one of the plaza’s many benches and watch Cusco life go by, anchored by a fountain monument paying homage to legendary Inca King Pachacutec.

Related: Best Things to Do in Ica & Huacachina: Peruvian Wine, Pisco & a Natural Desert Oasis

Cusco views from the Bell Tower at Santo Domingo Church.
Cusco views from the Bell Tower at Santo Domingo Church. / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Original Inca stones at the Qorikanca, Cusco.
Original Inca stones at the Qorikanca. / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Things to Do in Cusco: Qorikancha

If you only have time to visit one landmark during your stay in Cusco, it’s without a doubt the Qorikancha (or Coricancha): a 15th-century Inca temple once covered in pure gold. Roughly translating to “Golden Temple” in Quechua, the sacred site was later destroyed, looted and built atop by the colonizing Spaniards to form a Dominican church and convent – though parts of the original foundation were left in tact. Today, the site is a visual showcase of layered cultures as original Inca stones stand in juxtaposition to the Spanish colonial architecture of present-day Santo Domingo Church.

San Pedro Central Market in Cusco, Peru
San Pedro Central Market, Cusco / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Things to Do in Cusco: San Pedro Central Market

No trip to Cusco is complete without a visit to San Pedro Central Market, the city’s oldest and most traditional mercado. Stop in for a quick stroll or stay longer to browse vibrant vendor stalls offering everything from beautifully displayed local produce and dry goods to colorful textiles and souvenirs. Wander the juice aisles and order a lucuma con leche smoothie (lucuma fruit with milk) from a vendor who strikes your fancy. Lucuma is a popular native fruit and superfood held in such high regard it’s even earned the nickname “The last gold of the Incas.”

Follow wafting smells to the expansive food hall, where you’ll find rows of family-run eateries offering menús del día (menus of the day). This local lunchtime ritual consists of a set 2 or 3-course menu typically accompanied by mate (tea), at a bargain price.

San Blas Neighborhood in Cusco, Peru
San Blas Neighborhood, Cusco / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Things to Do in Cusco: San Blas

Follow Cusco’s narrow cobblestone streets uphill and you’ll find yourself in the charming neighborhood of San Blas: a bohemian enclave marked by whitewashed colonial architecture, winding alleys, relaxed cafés, unassuming art galleries and the loveliest boutique hotels. Stroll through quaint Plaza San Blas, then keep climbing for rewarding Cusco views at this lookout point. Better yet, make a reservation for sunset drinks and bites at any of the hillside quarter’s restaurants-with-a-view, like our pick: Limbus Restobar.

Related: These Game-Changing Travel Backpacks Are Made From Recycled Ocean Plastic

Regional Historical Museum of Cusco
Regional Historical Museum of Cusco / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Things to Do in Cusco: Museums

Several historical, art and religious institutions await museum buffs, including the Inka Museum, Pre-Colombian Art Museum, San Francisco Convent Museum and Catacombs and Regional Historical Museum of Cusco – housed in the former home of celebrated mestizo (Inca-Spanish) writer Garcilaso de la Vega.

At Casa Concha (also known as the Machu Picchu Museum) you’ll find an extensive display of archaeological finds from the sacred site’s original excavation, providing excellent context pre or post-visit to the Lost City. Many of the objects displayed at Casa Concha were only returned to Peru in 2011, after winning a decades-long international custody battle with Yale University.

Original Inca and Spanish colonial stones stand side-by-side in Cusco, Peru.
Original Inca and Spanish colonial stones stand side-by-side in Cusco. / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Original Inca stones in Cusco, Peru
Original Inca stones. / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Things to Do in Cusco: Saqsaywaman and Inca Stones

While exploring Cusco you won’t be able to miss marveling at the remarkable masonry of the ancient Inca empire. Walls of precision cut stones fit together seamlessly – and incredulously – without mortar, like this legendary Twelve-Angled example. These extraordinary stones have held up for centuries against the elements, even outlasting earthquakes that otherwise toppled non-Inca constructions. Although attempts were made the Spaniards could never quite replicate the precise stonework, remaining evident as meticulous Inca masonry and Spanish colonial stones stand side-by-side today all throughout Cusco.

For the most impressive display of Inca stone engineering in Cusco, you can embark on the approx 30-minute uphill walk (or take a taxi) to Saqsaywaman. This hilltop perched archaeological site is cheekily pronounced exactly like it looks – “saxy-wah-man” – and features the remaining stone foundations, tunnels, walls and looming towers of a 15th-century Inca citadel.

Cusco Travel Guide: Eat and Drink / Best Restaurants, Cafés and Bars in Cusco

Lima may hold the title as Peru’s current culinary star – as evidenced by four of the capital’s dining establishments landing on 2023’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list – but that doesn’t mean the scene in Cusco isn’t equally scintillating.

Related: Lima Travel Guide: Where to Eat, Stay and Play in Peru’s Bustling Capital

Chifa cuisine at KION in Cusco, Peru
Chifa cuisine, a Chinese-Peruvian fusion, at KION. / Photo: Under the Palm
Best Restaurants and Bars in Cusco: Historic Center

Off picturesque Plaza Kusipata, Gastón Acurio – the Limeño chef widely accredited with putting Peruvian cuisine on the international map – gives travelers to Cusco an elevated taste of regional Andean flavors at Chicha, including a popular chef’s tasting experience. Other top spots for traditional Peruvian plates include festive Yaku Restaurant, intimate DEVA – Cocina Andina, and Inkazuela for hearty stews.

In the Plaza de Armas, we recommend snagging a spot on the balcony of Calle Del Medio for pre-dinner drinks and fusion bites with cathedral views. Those in the mood for something a little different can head to KION, a sleek take on traditional chifa cuisine: a unique marriage of Chinese and Peruvian flavors rooted in the 19th century arrival of East Asian immigrants to Peru.

Piedra y Sal restaurant in Cusco, Peru
Still dreaming about this ossobucco from Piedra y Sal. / Photo: Under the Palm
Best Restaurants and Bars in Cusco: San Blas

In San Blas, make a reservation at Pachapapa to enjoy authentic Andean cuisine by candlelight in a relaxed yet lively outdoor setting. Nearby, Piedra y Sal – intimate restaurant of Antigua Casona San Blas – serves creative takes on local and international dishes alike. Tip: Order the ossobucco. Tucked further into the San Blas hillside you can also find Masha Charcutería Andina, purveyor of Andean cheese and charcuterie plates, pasta and Peruvian wine in a decidedly romantic setting – with a view.

Chicharronería La Estación, Cusco
Hearty adobo stew (and a heaping plate of chicharrón in the background) at Chicharronería La Estación. / Photo: Under the Palm
Best Restaurants and Bars in Cusco: Cafés and Chicharronerías

Those looking for a caffeine fix in a charming café setting should wander over to Three Monkeys Coffee, L’atelier of Instagram fame or the absurdly cute Llama Café.

At lunchtime, stop into popular local eatery Chicharronería La Estación to try lomo saltado (stir-fried beef), adobo (pork stew) and of course, chicharrón (fried pork). Bonus points if you can find space on the tiny two-table balcony upstairs.

Cocktails with a view at Limbus Restobar in Cusco, Peru.
Cocktails with a view at Limbus Restobar. / Photo: Under the Palm
Best Restaurants and Bars in Cusco: Sunset Cocktails

For sunset you’ll no doubt want to head to the San Blas hillside, where locales like Limbus Restobar serve up creative libations and bar bites paired with sweeping Cusco views. Tip: Even with a reservation there’s no guarantee you’ll snag a coveted balcony seat, so best to arrive early – we suggest a solid hour before sunset.

Cocktails at Museo Del Pisco in Cusco, Peru
The Encantoni, a Peruvian take on the Negroni, at Museo Del Pisco. / Photo: Under the Palm
Best Restaurants and Bars in Cusco: Pisco and Local Spirits

A few blocks off the Plaza de Armas, Museo Del Pisco is your spot for a pisco-based aperitif or nightcap. Pisco aside, this cozy cocktail bar also carries a nice selection of unexpected local spirits, like an Andes-distilled agave or an herbal Andean digestíf.

Cusco Travel Guide: Nearby / Best Day Trips and Overnights from Cusco

As the gateway to the ancient Inca empire, it should come as no surprise that a myriad of bucket list adventures await just outside of Cusco.

Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Things to Do in and Around Cusco: Machu Picchu

The primary reason you’re in Peru no doubt, Machu Picchu’s a given. From Cusco, it’s possible to do a day trip by riding up and back on PeruRail or IncaRail, though we highly recommend spending at least one night in Aguas Calientes. Also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, Aguas Calientes is the verdant mountain town from which you ascend – via this shuttle – to the Lost City.

Note it’s no longer possible to spend a full day at Machu Picchu on a single ticket, nor wander around the site freely. These days, you must pre-purchase your ticket online for a specified date and entry time. From this entry time, you have up to four hours to explore Machu Picchu. What’s more, you must choose from one of five, one-way circuits – no backtracking allowed. Circuit 2 is by far the most thorough and covers the upper viewing decks for those iconic Machu Picchu views.

Machu Picchu, Peru
A misty Machu Picchu. / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Machu Picchu: Suggested Visiting Strategy

Our suggested itinerary? Visit Machu Picchu twice. First in the afternoon upon arrival to Aguas Calientes – when we also recommend going with a guide – then again the next morning when you can explore at your leisure. Late afternoon entry at 2pm or 3pm (the site closes at 5:30pm) and first entry at 6am are your best bests to avoid peak midday crowds.

Not only will this strategy give you a chance to explore two different circuits, you will also have two wildly different experiences at Machu Picchu. In the afternoon the clouds have typically cleared for a bright, sunlit experience with full visibility. In the morning, the scene is moody, misty and mysterious until the fog starts to lift.

This said, weather can be unpredictable at any time of day. Banking on a single entry is arguably risky – especially during rainy and shoulder seasons – which is why visiting twice is a simply a smart move to land that legendary Machu Picchu experience.

Sacred Valley, Peru
Aguas Calientes, Peru / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Where to stay in Aguas Calientes?

Check into our top hotel picks: Tierra Viva, SUMAQ or Inkaterra, or go all out at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge – the only hotel sitting Machu Picchu-adjacent.

Related: 14 Best Hotels in Peru: Boutique Stays to Bucket List Overnights in Cusco, Lima & Beyond

A PeruRail train in Aguas Calientes
A PeruRail train in Aguas Calientes. / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Machu Picchu: PeruRail or IncaRail?

If you’re wondering which set of tracks to take into (or out of) Aguas Calientes, know that both PeruRail and IncaRail offer similar train experiences. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, and which one you choose will likely come down to simple logistics: your schedule and available train times. The only exception is PeruRail’s luxury Hiram Bingham train. If you’re itching for a splurge, you don’t need to look anywhere else.

Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain, Peru
Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Things to Do in and Around Cusco: Rainbow Mountains

On the other side of Cusco, you can visit either, or both, of Peru’s spectacular Rainbow Mountains. Battle the crowds at IG-famed Vinicunca or enjoy a surreal, near empty experience at under-the-radar Palccoyo. The Andean experts at Exploorperu offer guide-led adventures to both, and we have your comparison of the two – plus our top pick – in this Rainbow Mountain guide.

Related: Peru Has an Alternative Rainbow Mountain, Palccoyo. Here’s How to Visit – Before Everyone Else Does!

Best Hotels in the Sacred Valley, Peru: Starlodge
Starlodge / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Things to Do in and Around Cusco: Sacred Valley / Starlodge

There are countless ways to explore and enjoy Peru’s Sacred Valley, the enchanting stretch of ancient Inca highlands running between Cusco and Machu Picchu. But how about elevating your experience – literally?

You can at Starlodge. A bucket list stay for the books, this hanging hotel happens to be anchored 9,500+ feet (2,900+ meters) into the sky-high Sacred Valley cliffside. Rooms here – 6 total – take the form of futuristic glass pods, reachable by crossing a Tibetan-style suspension bridge followed by ascending (and later, descending) what can best be described as a cliffside floating staircase.

The hanging suites are impressively comfortable, equipped with insulated glass and aluminum walls, comfortable bedding, hot tea and yes, even an ensuite bathroom with-a-view.

The adventure and wellness lodge further counts cliffside high tubs: a set of Onsen-style wooden soaking tubs effectively taking the hot tub experience to an entirely new level. Completing the unforgettable stay? Included three-course dinner with a bottle of wine, nighttime stargazing like you’ve never experienced it before, and breakfast the next morning.

Related: How to Spend 2 Days in Paracas: Peru’s Windswept & Wildlife-Rich Seas

Best Hotels in the Sacred Valley, Peru: Mountain View
Mountain View / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Things to Do in and Around Cusco: Sacred Valley / Mountain View Experience

Cozy cabins, hot tubs, boho picnics, and alpaca encounters all create a memorable stay at Mountain View: an enchanting Sacred Valley lodge set amidst rolling fields and breathtaking mountain backdrops. A series of idyllic A-frame cabins dot the property, equipped with cozy bedding, wood-burning stoves, ensuite bathrooms, outdoor patios, fire pits and some – jacuzzi tubs. You can even time your soak with an unforgettable visit from the property’s adorable alpacas and llamas.

Gourmet breakfast is included daily from the on-site restaurant, an all-day gathering place for Andean cuisine, excellent cocktails – don’t miss trying any of their housemade piscos macerados (infused piscos) – and the opportunity for up-close encounters with the lodge’s free-roaming alpacas, llamas, goats and horses.

To round out your Sacred Valley stay? A number of optional, additional experiences ranging from sunset horseback rides to wine, cheese and painting picnics to guide-led ATV tours and DIY bicycle expeditions.

Las Salineras de Maras, Sacred Valley
Las Salineras de Maras, Sacred Valley / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Things to Do in and Around Cusco: Las Salineras de Maras

Sloping down the Sacred Valley hillside just past Urubamba, a shimmering patchwork of terraced salt pools make up Las Salineres de Maras (Maras Salt Mines). These ethereal pools – numbering in the thousands – have been fed by a natural, underground hypersaline spring since pre-Inca times. Today, the shallow salt pools are owned, mined and passed down from generation to generation by local Maras and Pichingoto families.

You can DIY your visit by driving in, or book this guide-led day trip from Cusco that includes a stop at nearby Moray, an Incan archaeological site famed for it’s circular, manicured terraces, and Pisac: a traditional Andean town with a colorful market and sprawling Inca ruins. Prefer your day trips with a side of adrenaline? You can also visit Las Salineras de Maras and Moray on this epic ATV adventure.