The capital city of Peru and the ancient Incan city of Cusco are both fantastic places to visit. But often travellers are short on time, so if you can only visit one, which one is worth it? Our guide compares the two on nightlife, things to do and food so you can decide which one suits you best.


If you are on a tight schedule such as two weeks, then the simple answer is 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.


There’s much more going on in Cusco, and the town caters towards backpackers with cheap food and accommodation as well as to adventure enthusiasts looking to go trekking in the Andes and culture buffs looking to learn more about Incan history.

Things To Do• Surf
• Explore the bohemian district, Barranco
• Wander around Miraflores
• Machu Picchu
• Rainbow Mountain
• Sacred Valley
• Salkantay Trek and many other hikes
NightlifeBigger bar and club scene with fun
cocktail bars in Barranco, more locals
than backpackers
Backpacker focused with party hostel
bars and a square surrounded by small
bars and clubs
FoodA 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
ElevationSea level3,399m above sea level
FlightsDirect international flights
from Europe and America
No direct international flights from
Europe or America. Internal transfer from
Lima needed


There isn’t much going on in the capital for backpackers. 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 some better places in the country to surf. If you are a culture or history nerd, there is also a distinct lack of museums and ancient Incan history on offer, and the historical centre is a nice place but nothing to write home about.


Cusco, on the other hand, is overflowing with things to do with a wealth of ancient Inca sites to explore in the city and the Sacred Valley outside the city.


For hiking enthusiasts, there’s the Rainbow Mountain 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 here and not scratch the surface. Cusco wins this one.


For more information on both, check out:



Both cities are relatively safe at night if you are staying in the right area (Miraflores or Barranco for Lima, and around Plaza de Armas for Cusco).


The nightlife in Lima is a lot bigger and louder, with streets lined with bars some big clubs full of locals partying the night away. There are tonnes of backpacker hostels in the city which will be full of people starting their Peru trip so it won’t be hard to find other travellers.


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 crazy.


The backpacker hostels in Lima also have locations here as they are chains, but 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 for a good club.


Neither is better. Simply different. So Lima and Cusco tie this one. 


For more information on both, check out:



For some incredible restaurants with world-famous chefs at a fraction of the price – Lima is the place for you.


You will also find 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.


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 dish.


Due to the influx of backpackers to the town, this is also the best place to find cheap eats, a wealth of cafes with good 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 both, check out:



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.


If you are flying into Peru from North America or Europe, then you will land in Lima.


There are no direct international flights (from Europe or America) to Cusco. Therefore, most people tend to spend at least one or two days in the capital then fly to Cusco.


Cusco only has a couple of international flights to Bolivia and Chile which is useful if you are going to either of these two countries after your Peru trip.


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.


If you have the time and decide to do both, then two days in Lima is more than enough. For Cusco, 5-7 days is a reasonable amount of time to see what the city has to offer as well as fit in Machu Picchu.

Lima 2 Day Itinerary

  • Day 1 – Arrival, Explore Miraflores, Night Out
  • Day 2 – Old Town Walking Tour, Explore Barranco Neighbourhood

For our full Lima guide – along with the best things to do, head here.

Cusco 5 Day Itinerary

  • 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.

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. 



Or if you are still unsure of your route in Peru, then our 1 month, two week and 7 day itineraries will help you plan. 

For more on backpacking in Peru and South America, check out our itineraries and travel routes:


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