If you’re deciding whether to spend more time in Cusco or Lima before or after exploring Peru’s incredible archaeology and Amazon lodges, it really depends on your interests and what you want from the experience.
Lima is the city you will fly into and out of and is the country’s capital, which was also the base for the Spanish colonization of western South America. Because of this, there are some fantastic examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the Historic Centre of Lima. This is also the best option for different restaurants, bars, shopping, and nightlife.
However, Cusco can be regarded as the Incan capital of the country, as this was the hub from where the Inca dominated western South America to become the largest pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas. The mix of colonial and Incan architecture is a must-see in Peru. There are some excellent tours that combine both Cusco and Lima, such as a few of the top luxury tours in Peru.
Both Lima and Cusco feature on our list of the top cities to visit in Peru, and as Cusco and Lima are such different cities with their own unique charm and attractions, we recommend spending a day or two exploring both. Here, we will provide a summary of both cities to help you get a feel for what each city offers. Each city is a base for some of the best attractions and things to do in Peru.
Lima is where you will first enter Peru and the city has areas and attractions for everyone. See a few Inca remains, see the Historic Centre of Lima for colonial history, enjoy modern shopping malls, visit some of Peru’s best restaurants, enjoy lively nightclubs, and visit many beautiful city parks.
The tourist district is Miraflores and this is where you can also find some of the best restaurants, bars, and shopping areas. You can also head further south to enjoy the Peruvian coastline. This is where you find the district of Barranco for a relaxed area with cafes, restaurants, and fantastic ocean views.
There’s enough to see and do in Lima to keep you occupied for a few days, including different museums and city parks. Known as the garden city, some of the recommended parks to visit include the Park of the Reserve, which holds the world record for the largest fountain complex, the much-loved Kennedy Park in Miraflores with its iconic cats and beautiful cathedral, and Lover’s Park with its attractive lawns and bridges.
There are also different museums to learn about the country’s history and to see artifacts from the Spanish colonial period, the Incan civilization, and from the many pre-Incan cultures. A favorite museum is the Larco Museum to see a range of pre-Columbian artifacts from a 3000 year period, including preserved mummies and pottery. Another is the Museum of the Central Reserve Bank known for its gold artifacts from Incan and pre-Incan cultures, including sacrificial knives, death masks, and other treasures.
An interesting place in Lima is the Catacombs at the Monastery of San Francisco. The monastery displays some beautiful Spanish Baroque architecture, and on tours around the monastery, you will learn about the history, see beautiful artwork, visit the library, and venture underground to see the catacombs. The catacombs were discovered in 1943 and were used as a burial chamber. The area has many underground passageways with many of the skeletons laid to rest above ground.
For a shopping experience, you can visit Larcomar on the coast for fantastic ocean views and a range of international and Peruvian shops and restaurants. Another popular and modern mall is called Jockey Plaza in Surco. For a range of souvenirs, you can also visit the Mercado de Indios in Miraflores.
Cusco was the political and administrative hub for the Inca Empire. This is the most popular tourist destination in Peru because of the Sacred Valley where you can see many Incan archaeological sites. This is also your gateway to the famous Machu Picchu and is where you begin the Inca Trail, which are the most famous of Peru’s many archaeological attractions. However, there are many other things to do and see in and around Cusco.
Around Cusco, you can also find many great restaurants, cafes, bars, and fascinating architecture. The entirety of Cuzco city is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site because of its historical and cultural importance. When the Spanish defeated the Incan Empire, they built their colonial architecture on the ruins of the Incan city. This means that when you’re walking the cobbled streets, you can see walls of buildings made from giant Incan stone bricks that merges with the finer Spanish brickwork. This provides a fascinating and unique attraction as you explore the city.
Cusco is your base to explore many different Incan sites, events, and attractions, including Machu Picchu, but also the Vistadome Train, Choquequirao, the Salkantay Trek, Ollantaytambo Ruins, Moray, Sacsayhuaman, Pisac, Plaza de Armas, Inti Raymi Festival, the Cusco Planetarium, and Rainbow Hill. These are some of the most popular attractions in Peru. To read more about each one, you can see our guide on the 100 things to do in Peru or focus on things to do in and around Cusco.
In Cusco city itself, you can visit many different museums, art galleries, and markets. One of the most interesting foods on offer is ‘cuy’, which is the Andean word for guinea pig. The animals were first domesticated in the Andes then exported to other countries where they’re a favorite pet. However, the have been eaten in the Andes for thousands of years and supplied much-needed protein as one of only three domesticated animals. The other two are the llama and alpaca. Also, this region gave the world one of its favored food items, the potato. Unlike elsewhere, the Andes has thousands of different varieties on offer. There is even the Papa Museo (Potato Museum) to learn about this world famous vegetable.
From Cusco, you are also a short flight away from Puerto Maldonado, which is one of the best places in Peru to explore the Amazon Rainforest from some of the top rainforest lodges in Peru. This is also the best place for a short Amazon experience of 2 or 3 nights where you can enjoy a brief visit to the Sandoval Lake Lodge, which is a great add-on to Machu Picchu tours or the Inca Trail.
For another great Amazon lodge for short tours, you can consider the community-owned Posada Amazonas Lodge. If you’re interested in an Amazon cruise, you will need to visit Iquitos in Peru’s north (a short flight north from either Cusco or Lima). Iquitos is then home to some of the best luxury tours in the Amazon Rainforest. Remember that if you’re interested in seeing the Inca Trail but without all the hiking and camping, you can enjoy a short explore on the Short Inca Trail.
Cusco is also where you can explore the incredible and highly threatened cloud forest high on the Andes, which is one of the world’s most biodiverse places home to hummingbirds, orchids, spectacled bears, capuchin monkeys, and the national bird of Peru, the cock of the rocks.
To experience the cloud forest of Peru, you can enjoy a stay at the Cock of the Rock Lodge located near the bird’s dancing ground. If you would like to experience the most recommended nature tours in Peru, which start from Cusco, you can also enjoy the Bio Trip or Manu Explorer to experience the cloud forest and descend down the Andes to the incredible lowland rainforest of the Manu National Park region.
Cusco or Lima Summary
To summarize, both Cusco and Lima offer a fantastic experience for a few days exploring the cities. Given that they offer a slightly different experience, you can decide based on your own interests which one will be of more interest to you.
If you’re fascinated by history and architecture, Cusco would be where you might want to spend more time. However, Lima offers the Historic Centre, which can be explored on a day trip from Miraflores. On the other hand, remember that whereas UNESCO has added Lima’s Historic Centre to the World Heritage List, UNESCO has recognized the entirety of Cusco city as a world heritage area.
If you’re more interested in gastronomy, shopping, and nightlife, you may prefer to visit Lima, which has some of the country’s top rated restaurants. This is also where you find the best shopping experience. However, note that Cusco still offers delicious restaurants and bars. Cusco also provides a shopping experience to buy more traditional Peruvian products although the favorite items e.g. alpaca wool clothing can be found in both Cusco and Lima.
Cusco is where you will visit to see the main Incan structures and routes, such as Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. Because of this, it is definitely worth visiting Cusco to explore the city for at least a day as Cusco itself was of central importance to the Inca Empire. As you will be visiting Lima for your return flight, we also recommend exploring Lima for a day as the main attractions are easily reached from Miraflores, such as the top restaurants, Larcomar shopping complex, and the Historic Centre.