Along South America’s western coast sits one of the most indelible countries on the planet. Thanks to its rich history, natural wonders and landscapes, and local dishes, Peru has transfixed visitors from near and far.
The country isn't just rife with biodiversity, curious history, and adventurous things to experience—it also has a rich, living culture that seamlessly weaves the past into the present and future.
From surfing sand dunes and trekking Machu Picchu to feeding llamas and alpacas, here are the top 20 things to do in Peru.
Explore Lima’s Cultural Center
In the capital city of Lima, you will be rewarded with well-preserved colonial architecture and a fascinating look at the country's past in the Historic Centre. Be sure to meander around The Plaza de Armas (a UNESCO World Heritage site), marvel at the Baroque-style San Francisco Monastery, and stroll through the courtyard of the Santo Domingo convent.
You can see a massive collection of pre-Colombian ceramics at Lima’s Museo Larco. While the Larco Museum does have a separate adults-only section for its erotic pottery gallery, the main museum is family friendly. In fact, kids can take part in a fantastic guided tour to learn about Ai Apaec, a Mochica hero.
Visit an Urban Park
Located in Miraflores, Parque del Amor (which translates to the "The Love Park") is, as the name suggests, arguably the most romantic place in the city. Surrounded by colorful mosaic walls reminiscent of Barcelona's Parc Guëll, locals and tourists flock here to kiss under the famous El Beso ("The Kiss") statue and watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
If you're not the romantic type (or you just really like urban parks), make your way to Parque Kennedy, a grassy garden full of trees and protected cats.
Surf on Sand Dunes in Paracas
Less than four hours south of Lima sits Paracas, a desert oasis that is unlike any other destination. Love wildlife? You can kayak with flamingoes or take a boat tour of the Ballestas Islands, which are home to thousands of birds and mammals like penguins, sea lions, and pelicans. Don’t miss a tour of the sand dunes in an off-road jeep. If you're feeling extra adventurous, you can even fly down the desert's peaks on a sand board.
Learn from Women Weavers in the Chinchero District
Located in the Urubamba province, Chinchero has a high population of indigenous Quechua people. The supposed birthplace of the rainbow, here you can see Incan ruins, shop in a lively Sunday market, and learn how women wash and dye wool with natural ingredients to create colorful textiles.
Unless you've booked your trip through an agency, you’ll want to purchase a Cusco Tourist Ticket for entrance into sites, ruins, plazas, and churches in Chinchero and throughout the Sacred Valley.
Taste Salt at Maras
Maras Salt Mines are home to thousands of individual handmade salt pools that date back to Incan times. To this day, people in the community harvest the salt from them. The color varies from pond to pond, depending on where the salt is in the production process.
Bear in mind that tourists are no longer allowed to walk directly by the salt mines due to contamination, so you can only view the plots from above. Afterwards, you can peruse the shops for wooden pan flutes, tchotchkes, or salt harvested directly from the mines.
Hike Through an Archaeological Site
A trip to Moray, just northwest of Cusco, is a real treat. Located on a high plateau at about 11,500 feet, the site is home to interesting Incan ruins. While you're here, you’ll see several terraced circular depressions, the largest of which is nearly 100 feet deep and has stone steps that take you to the bottom.
Experience Local Food in Urubamba
On the streets of Urubamba, vendors sell speckled quail eggs from tri-level carts and women serve ears of corn with cheese. You’ll see skewered barbecued Cuy (guinea pig), an Andean delicacy represented in art throughout Peru's history. There’s a daily indoor farmers’ market in Urubamba that is worth a visit as well. Women with tall Peruvian hats offer meat, spices, nuts, fresh vegetables, and hundreds of varieties of potatoes out of stalls.
Visit Awana Kancha, a living museum in the Sacred Valley, to get an in-depth understanding of the differences between llamas, alpacas, guanacos, and vicuñas. You can even feed these adorable creatures stalks of long grass by hand.
The cultural project also has a number of workshops, including weaving demonstrations (where you watch women weave wool on wooden looms) and an introduction to the Quechua language.
See Ancient Stones at Sacsayhuamán
On the northern tip of Cusco lies Sacsayhuamán. This gargantuan fortress is an architectural marvel, proving that the Incans were not just skilled at blending finely-cut polygonal blocks into the natural landscape—they were good at doing it with precision. It’s mind-blowing to imagine that the only tools used to carve these 100-ton stones were likely other stones and rudimentary tools.
Pro tip: Walk to the top of Sacsayhuamán and you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of Cusco.
Explore the Former Capital of the Inca Empire
Start by visiting the cultural center, where you’ll find Plaza de Armas, several coffee shops, eateries, and bars. Tour La Catedral, a Baroque cathedral with lavish altars; Museo Inka, housed in a colonial mansion; and Qorikancha, a temple from the Inca Empire. If you’ve adjusted to the altitude—Cusco is located at over 11,000 feet—walk to San Blas, one of the city's trendiest neighborhoods. It's full of unique shops and restaurants, art galleries, and twisting cobblestone streets.
Of course, no visit to Peru is complete without a trip to Machu Picchu, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The citadel, perched on a mountain ridge high above the Sacred Valley, is believed to have been constructed as a hidden estate for the Inca emperor in the mid-1400s. The Spanish—and the outside world for the most part—did not know its location until an American historian visited it in 1911.
If you're looking for a family-friendly hike, take the trail to Inti Punku (the "Sun Gate"). This archaeological site is located at the final section of the Incan Trail at what was once the main entrance into Machu Picchu. The sun passes through the gate each year on the summer solstice.
Most day visitors depart Machu Picchu before the site closes, so if you visit toward the end of the day, you’ll be rewarded with fewer crowds and a better experience. Bear in mind that there are are no bathrooms once you pass through the gates for Machu Picchu or Inti Punku. Take this into consideration as you hike and drink water along the way.
Stretch Your Legs at Ollantaytambo Fortress
Partly a temple, Ollantaytambo was one of the few fortresses where the Incas won in a fight against the Spanish conquistadors. Located northwest of Cusco, Ollantaytambo is en route to the popular four-day Inca Trail hike, and the infrastructure here is well-suited to tourists.
Hike to the Top of Rainbow Mountain
Vinicunca (also called Montaña de Siete Colores, or Mountain of Seven Colors) earned its nickname after the ice that used to cover it melted and mixed with minerals in the soil. You will need to be fit, though, as you have to hike nearly six miles at altitude to reach the top of this mountain in the Andes.
Pay attention to the weather forecast before you go: If it's overcast, you may not be able to see a contrast in the colors as much as you’d hope.
Journey to the Amazon Rainforest
For rich biodiversity, bird watching, jungle tours, and float trips, visit Peru’s Amazon Rainforest, which makes up 60 percent of the country. Visit the Reserved and Cultural Zones or Tambopata National Reserve, all home to vibrant wildlife, lush landscapes, and diverse plant life. Or, book a river cruise to see a beautiful—and rare—pod of pink dolphins.
Gaze at the Highest Navigable Lake in the World
High in the Andes, on the border of Bolivia and Peru, sits Lake Titicaca. The highest navigable lake in the world (the surface elevation is 12,507 feet), the lake is home to more than 530 aquatic species.
Visit the Uros Islands to see floating islands made out of buoyant reeds, or head to the Island of the Sun to see the Fountain of Youth. Alternatively, a homestay on Taquile Island will give you the opportunity to try traditional food and experience local culture.
Read Between the Nazca Lines
Between 500 BC and 500 AD, the Nazca culture created the Nazca Lines, a group of geoglyphs—created by removing top layers of rock to reveal lighter-colored sand underneath—near Peru's coastal plain. The designs are said to depict plants, animals, and shapes, though researchers are still unsure why they were created. Because they make up an area of roughly 19 square miles, these geoglyphs are viewed best from above on a flight-seeing tour.