Which Is Better – Lima or Cusco?
If you are backpacking Peru for the first time, which city should you choose to visit if you can only pick one? Lima or Cusco?
The simple answer – Cusco.
There isn’t much going on in Lima for backpackers; there’s a lack of cheap restaurants catering to travellers and a lack of activities to keep you entertained.
Cusco is the better city to visit as a backpacker. There’s much more going on and the town caters towards backpackers with cheap food and budget accommodation. There’s a wealth of easily accessible activities for adventure enthusiasts looking to go trekking in the Andes. And don’t forget, Cusco is the starting point for journeys to Machu Picchu!
Here’s a quick TL:DR comparison of both:
Table Comparing Lima and Cusco
• Explore the bohemian district, Barranco
• Walking tour of the city
• Machu Picchu
• Rainbow mountain
• Sacred Valley
• Salkantay Trek and many other hikes
• Lots of museums and Incan history
Miraflores and Barranco are safe areas. Avoid staying anywhere near the airport or in the centre (near Plaza de Armas).
Everything is within walking distance and centered around the main plaza. This is a safe area for backpackers.
Bigger bar and club scene with fun cocktail bars in Barranco. More likely to meet locals than backpackers
Backpacker focused with several party hostels and a main square surrounded by small bars and clubs. A good mix of locals and backpackers
A wider range of restaurants from small local spots to high-end dining, local cuisine is easy to find but more expensive.
More local style restaurants focusing on Andean cuisine but also a good range of restaurants catering to backpackers, with home comfort breakfast cafes, coffee shops and vegan restaurants
3,399m above sea level
Direct International Flights
Yes, from most countries outside of South America
Not outside of South America, so you need to transfer from Lima if coming from America or Europe. Some direct routes to Bolivia and Chile
Which City Has Better Things To Do – Lima Or Cusco?
There isn’t much going on in Lima for backpackers. It’s mainly used as the first port of call for backpackers flying in from North America or Europe before they depart on adventures around the country.
Apart from the trendy Barranco district and the waterfront area of Miraflores, activities are limited. Surfers will be able to get out into the waves, but even then, there are better places in the country to surf such as further north up the coast or the party town of Mancora.
If you are a culture or history nerd, there is also a distinct lack of museums and ancient Incan history on offer. The historical centre is a nice place to explore on a walking tour for a few hours but after this you are limited with what you can do.
Cusco, on the other hand, is overflowing with things to do with a wealth of ancient Incan sites to explore in the city and the Sacred Valley outside the city.
For hiking enthusiasts, there’s the Rainbow Mountain trek or the multi-day treks to Machu Picchu such as the Inca Trail or Salkantay trek to consider.
Machu Picchu will, of course, be on everyone’s list and you have the many ways of reaching this fantastic site by trekking or taking the train or bus. You could spend two weeks in Cusco and not run out of fun things to do.
For more information on both, check out our backpacker guides for Lima and Cusco detailing the best activities for backpackers:
Is Cusco Safer Than Lima?
Cusco is a small town compared to Lima and tends to be safer due to this. Lima is a big city and there are some areas where it can be unsafe for backpackers.
However, both cities are relatively safe if you stay in the right area.
If you decide to stay in Lima than make sure you stay in either Miraflores or Barranco. These areas are the safest in the city and backpackers won’t have any trouble here. There are several hostels close to the main square in Miraflores and it is a safe at night. Avoid staying near the airport or close to Plaza de Armas as these areas aren’t as safe for backpackers.
Cusco is much smaller place, and everything is situated around Plaza de Armas. All the hostels are close to the main square, and you will never need to walk far to get what you need. At night, the streets are busy with locals and backpackers, and they are safe. Just avoid booking any accommodation that’s outside of the centre of town.
Which Has Better Nightlife – Lima Or Cusco?
The nightlife in Lima is a lot bigger and louder, with streets lined with bars and big clubs full of locals partying the night away.
There are lots of backpacker hostels in the city (mainly in Miraflores) which will be full of people starting their Peru trip, so it won’t be hard to find other backpackers to party with either.
For great cocktails, try Ayahuasca in Barranco and for a good club check out Bizzaro or LimaBar in Miraflores.
The Cusco nightlife feels smaller but is just as fun.
The backpacker hostels in Cusco are some of the best in all of South America. The Wild Rover and Loki hostels have a reputation for being the craziest in the country.
Locals are often out in abundance too, as many travel internally. Imagine less queuing in line for a club and more bouncing from hostels to dive bars to small underground club dancefloors. Head to Mama Africa or Changoes if you are looking for a good club.
Neither Lima or Cusco has a better nightlife in our opinion. Simply different. So Lima and Cusco tie this one.
For more information on nightlife in both cities, check out these posts:
Which Has A Better Food Scene – Lima or Cusco?
In Lima, you will find a multitude of great places cooking traditional Peruvian cuisine.
Make sure to try ceviche in Lima instead of in Cusco as comes straight out of the ocean and is fresher. In Barranco, you will find some classy cocktail bars whipping up Pisco sours.
Lima is also home to some incredible restaurants with world-famous chefs. You will be able to eat at Michelin star restaurants for a fraction of the price.
Central restaurant is one of the most well-known around the world. You can check out “Chefs Table” on Netflix for a while episode dedicated to it or the video from munchies below:
The indigenous population of Cusco means your food choices will have an Andean spin on them, and it’s a great place to try alpaca or another famous dishes infused with potatoes and quinoa.
Due to the influx of backpackers to the town, Cusco is is also the better place to find cheap eats for backpackers. Cusco also has a wealth of cafes with incredible coffee and some ex-pat hangouts providing home comfort grub such as burgers, pizza etc.
If you don’t mind shelling out a bit extra and prefer some high dining, then stick with Lima, but if you are a backpacker on a budget then Cusco is the one.
For more information on the best restaurants, bars and cafes in each city, check out the posts below:
Which Has Higher Elevation – Lima Or Cusco?
Lima is at sea level so no issues with altitude.
Cusco is 3,399m above sea level. This shouldn’t stop you visiting unless you suffer terribly from altitude sickness.
If you’ve had problems before or are concerned, then gradually increasing your altitude experience before reaching Cusco will help you acclimatise. You can spend a few days in somewhere like Arequipa (2,328 metres/7,638 ft) above sea level) before to see how you fare.
The city of Cusco is obviously one of our many reasons to visit Peru. For more great reasons, check out the post below:
Is It Better To Fly Into Lima Or Cusco?
You don’t have much of a choice here. If you are flying into Peru from North America or Europe, then you can only land in Lima.
There are no direct international flights to Cusco from America or Europe. Therefore, most people tend to spend at least one or two days in Lima before taking an internal flight to Cusco.
Cusco only has a couple of international flights to Bolivia and Chile if you are going there afterwards.
If you are short on time and you’re only visiting Cusco, then either book an internal flight to Cusco the same day you land or stay the night and book one for early the next day.
Should I Spend More Time In Lima Or Cusco?
You should spend more time in Cusco over Lima. This is because Cusco has so much more to do there such as trekking in the Andes, the Sacred Valley and learning about the history of the Inca empire.
Lima is a big city with not much going on for backpackers.
How Many Days Should I Spend In Lima?
If you have the time and decide to visit Lima on your trip to Peru, then two days in Lima is more than enough.
This gives you enough time to land, get yourself settled and then explore the two best area of the city – Miraflores and Barranco. We would recommend one day exploring Miraflores and walking along the waterfront. On your second day, wander around Barranco and spend the evening trying cocktails in the old mansions that have been turned into bars.
If you are a big foodie, then two days is also enough to visit a variety of restaurants. Make sure you try ceviche in Lima as it will be freshest here.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the 2-day itinerary:
- Day 1 – Arrival, Explore Miraflores, Night Out
- Day 2 – Old Town Walking Tour, Explore Barranco Neighbourhood, Cocktails in Barranco
If you are wondering how to fit Cusco and Lima into your Peru backpacking plans as a whole then check out our extended itineraries here:
How Many Days Should I Spend In Cusco?
For Cusco, 4-5 days is the right amount of time to see what the city has to offer as well as fit in a visit to Machu Picchu (which takes 1 full day and night).
You may need to spend a day or two getting used to the altitude before you start exploring properly. You may also want a couple of days dedicated to single day treks such as Rainbow Mountain or to visiting the Sacred Valley which is just outside of Cusco.
Here is a suggested 5-day itinerary for Cusco:
- Day 1 – Walking Tour, Chocolate Museum and Dinner at Limbus Resto Bar
- Day 2 – Sacred Valley Tour
- Day 3 – Rainbow Mountain
- Day 4 – Travel to Aguas Calientes
- Day 5 – Machu Picchu / Return to Cusco
For our full ‘5 day Cusco itinerary’ – along with some alternative itineraries for those with less or more time, head here:
How Many Days Do You Need For Cusco & Machu Picchu?
You need 3 days minimum to visit Cusco and then Machu Picchu.
Here’s how it looks in a simple itinerary:
- Day 1 – Arrive in Cusco
- Day 2 – Travel to Aguas Calientes
- Day 3 – Visit Machu Picchu / Return To Cusco
Firstly, you need to reach Cusco from wherever you are travelling from in Peru.
Then to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco, you need one full day. You need to travel to the town of Aguas Calientes which sits at the base of Machu Picchu. From Cusco, you can either take the train or the bus. The train takes 3 hours but is a lot more expensive, and then bus takes between 8-9 hours.
Once you’ve reached Aguas Calientes, you stay in the town overnight. The next morning, you will trek up to Machu Picchu before coming back down and returning to Cusco.
To get a better idea of how to plan to visit Machu Picchu from Cusco, check out our guides here:
Where’s your next stop in Peru?
If you decide on Lima first and have the time, then you could stop off at the desert oasis of Huacachina or Parcas National Reserve.
If you start in Cusco, then why not stop off at Lake Titicaca as you make your way around to Arequipa.
For more on backpacking in Peru and South America, check out our itineraries and travel routes: