Don’t be fooled: Peru has so much more to offer than just Machu Picchu, we promise. While tourism in Peru has exploded in the past years and decades as more and more travelers plan bucket list trips to the world-famous Incan ruins, startlingly few visitors venture beyond a few key cities in Peru to find what the rest of the country has to offer.
In our ultimate guide to the best cities in Peru that you just can’t miss, you’ll find the best highlights this unique, diverse country has to offer.
From tiny cities tucked among snowcapped mountains to sprawling metropolises filled with great food and enough things to do to keep you busy for a lifetime, this guide will help you plan an unforgettable trip to Peru.
Best Cities in Peru
Cusco is among the very best cities in Peru. Cusco is almost universally loved by the hundreds of thousands of travelers that pass through its streets each year, most headed out to its most famous neighbor, Machu Picchu.
However, there is much more to love about Cusco than just its proximity to some of Peru’s most impressive ruins. With its beautiful historic center, stunning views, great food, and enough things to do to keep you busy for weeks, Cusco is a traveler’s paradise.
Some of the best things to do in Cusco include simply exploring the historic center with its Incan stone walls, whitewashed architecture, markets, plazas, and churches. The neighborhoods of San Cristobal and San Blas in the historic center are charming, and both boast incredible views over the city from their churches. The view from the ruins of Sacsayhuaman is even better!
A trip to Cusco isn’t complete without taking at least one of two day trips from Cusco – and no, Machu Picchu doesn’t count!
Set aside a few days in your itinerary for options like visiting the sites of the incredible ancient ruins at Ollantaytambo and Pisac, scouring the market at Chinchero, hiking to the stunning aquamarine Humantay Lake, or snapping a picture of the famous Rainbow Mountain. Whatever day trip you choose will be a highlight of your time in Peru.
Located just four hours south of Lima, the small city of Ica is jam-packed with opportunities for an incredibly unique travel experience. Even if you’ve never heard of Ica before, you’ll find it is one of the most popular cities in Peru for travelers – and with good reason!
Many travelers are drawn to Ica for its unique sand dunes and the desert oasis of Huacachina. With its stunning blue lake surrounded by towering sand dunes and palm trees, the Huacachina oasis just outside of Ica feels like something out of a fairytale.
Whether relaxing by the water in this storybook landscape sounds good, or you’re looking for something more adventurous, you’ll find it here. Popular activities also include riding dune buggies or even sandboarding through the dunes. Glamping in the desert is another popular (romantic!) option.
Many visitors also use the city of Ica as a base for viewing the world-famous Nazca lines, the mysterious images “drawn” onto the desert landscape by the Nasca people long before the arrival of the Incan empire.
While you can take the two-and-a-half hour drive from Ica to Nazca to catch a flight to see the Nazca lines, you can also find flights that depart from Ica directly – the additional cost will save hours of travel!
Read More: 25+ Best Things To Do in Peru
Set among towering volcanoes, Arequipa exudes beauty and charm, from its historic architecture to its unique features and stunning natural surroundings. Any traveler who has had the pleasure of visiting Arequipa, Peru will know why it’s one of the best cities in Peru and even one of the best cities in South America!
Arequipa is known as Peru’s “White City,” for its abundance of beautiful whitewashed architecture. You’ll want to spend a few hours just exploring the city’s historic center and taking in the view. Make sure to visit Yanahuara for one of the best lookouts over the city and neighboring El Misti Volcano.
Ironically, one of Arequipa’s must-visit attractions is best known for its unique red and blue walls and architecture. Opened to the public for the first time in the 1960s, the Monasterio de Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina Monastery) feels like a city within a city, complete with a labyrinth of beautiful courtyards, chapels, and more.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can hike El Misti, among the most beautiful volcanoes in South America, though the journey is challenging. Even more popular is using Arequipa as a starting point for a multi-day hike through Colca Canyon, one of Peru’s highlights.
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Located deep in the heart of the jungle, Iquitos is the largest of the cities in Peru located within the Amazon Rainforest. Accessible only by river or air, you’ll instantly feel the remoteness of Iquitos when you arrive, making it the perfect city in Peru for a bucket list trip through the Amazon.
While you can find affordable hostels and hotels in Iquitos and take day trips into the Amazon, you’ll have an even better experience booking a multi-day tour through the jungle and staying at lodges along the way.
Starting at around $75-100 per day, you’ll find comprehensive and all-inclusive tours that will take you deep in the jungle to encounter unique wildlife and even experience daily life with communities living in the forest. For just a bit more, you’ll find truly excellent excursions, including even nice accommodations at some of Peru’s nicest Amazon lodges.
Just a tiny city on the edge of Peru’s stunning Cordillera Blanca mountain range, Huaraz has quickly transformed into a must-visit destination for adventure travelers and trekkers looking to explore some of the most beautiful mountainous areas in all of Peru. While some of the treks are quite challenging, don’t worry – even a beginner can enjoy the snowcapped peaks of Huaraz.
While there isn’t much to this tiny backpacker town, you won’t mind when you glimpse the towering snowcapped mountains that surround Huaraz. Set on the stunning Huascarán National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Huaraz is remarkably beautiful.
While there are plenty of hikes to choose from in Huaraz, some of the most famous are the Laguna 69 and Laguna Paron hikes, which take trekkers to some of the area’s high-altitude aquamarine lakes. These hikes can be completed in just a day; if you’re considering some of the area’s famous multi-day treks, opt for the Cordillera Huayhuash circuit or the Santa Cruz trek.
If you’re looking to get off the typical tourist path in Peru, add Cajamarca to your list. A thriving city in Peru’s northern highlands, Cajamarca manages to offer a great mix of fascinating attractions, great things to do, and charming beauty while still staying off the radar of most visitors. Plan your visit before that changes!
Cajamarca has a fascinating historic center with a mix of Incan ruins – including the “Cuarto de Rescate” where the Incan emperor Atahualpa was held for ransom by the Spanish conquistadores – and beautiful colonial architecture. Choose a boutique hotel or hostel in a restored building in the historic center for a memorable stay!
Cajamarca is also home to unique ruins and topographical features outside the city for unique day trips – Cumbemayo “rock forest” and the Ventanillas de Oruzco and Combayo pre-Incan necropolises are significant highlights.
I’ll be honest: I’m not a fan of Lima. I’m not alone in disliking Lima; many travelers have felt the same, and plenty speak openly about Lima just not living up to expectations.
With so many lively, historic, and even charming cities in Peru to choose from, Lima quickly begins to seem sprawling, congested, and lacking that certain something that makes many neighboring capital cities like Quito or La Paz some of the best cities in South America.
However, a list of the must-visit cities in Peru just didn’t seem fair without including Lima.
While this city isn’t my favorite, it does have a lot to offer. As the nation’s bustling capital of finance, culture, and government, there is a lot to do here, I’d admit it!
With Peru’s international fame as a culinary destination, Lima is home to several Michelin-star restaurants. The city is a great place to eat, whether you’re looking for fine dining or street food. Lima also has a small historic center to explore and lovely neighborhoods like Barranco and Miraflores with great shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars.
Lima won’t charm you, so get your bearings in Lima when you fly in, then move on in a day or two to another city in Peru. However, rest assured that whatever time you plan to spend in Lima, you’ll have plenty to see and do.
Located between Ica and Cusco, the small city of Ayacucho is a beautiful, well-preserved historic city home to a charming center, and nearby plenty of unique attractions, including the otherworldly Aguas Turquesas de Millpu. With its great location, beauty, and so many things to see and do, it’s shocking that very few travelers make their way to Ayacucho.
Spend a chunk of time exploring central Ayacucho and appreciating how you’ll feel at home among locals in what seems like a historical center for you alone to explore. This is what Arequipa and Cusco must have felt like decades ago, before tourism began to boom.
If you haven’t had your fair share of ruins, choose Vilcashuamán or Quinua as Ayacucho day trips. Head to the Cangallo waterfalls for a natural excursion. Of course, you also won’t want to skip out on visiting the Aguas Turquesas de Millpu, the gorges filled with bright turquoise waters that seem straight out of a fairytale.
If you’re traveling to Peru during Easter, Ayacucho is a must-visit. Ayacucho is known throughout Peru for having some of the country’s most important Easter celebrations, including processionals throughout the city for almost a week leading up to the holiday itself. It’s a fascinating way to experience an important part of Peruvian culture firsthand.
With so many travelers heading south from Lima to Cusco, much of the north of Peru is overlooked. If you make it to Trujillo, you’ll be shocked this vibrant city isn’t a must for every international visitor. With beautiful beaches, unique ruins, and a lovely historical center, Trujillo is teeming with things to see and do.
By far the biggest attraction in Trujillo is Chan Chan. The ruins of Chan Chan – the largest known pre-Incan city in the Americas – are stunning and unique, and make for one of the best things to do in Peru. Built by the Chimú people who were eventually conquered by the Incas, Chan Chan is totally different from the ruins you’ll see throughout the rest of the country.
Just a few miles outside of central Trujillo, you can easily spend a few hours exploring Chan Chan before heading onward to the beach in Huanchaco or enjoying lunch in one of the city’s fantastic seafood spots.
Last but certainly not least on this list, Puno is one of the country’s most unique cities and a highlight of a visit to Southern Peru. Located on the shores of the stunning, high-altitude Lake Titicaca that straddles the border with Bolivia, Puno is the best destination in Peru for exploring the lake’s many unique features.
Puno has a beautiful historic cathedral to explore, the lovely Deustua Arch, and a few charming buildings and plazas, but nothing as extensive as other Peruvian cities like Cusco. The draw here is the lake, so make sure to venture to Huajsapata Hill for a beautiful viewpoint over the lake.
Visitors can venture out to visit the floating islands made by the Uros people centuries ago to live on the lake. You’ll find tons of options for guided and private tours to the islands, and you can even sleep there!
You can also visit Taquile Island, a natural island in the lake known for the fine textiles produced by its inhabitants. Taquile Island makes for another excellent excursion and is far less touristy than the floating islands – and even more charming.
Whether Puno is just one stop on your Peru itinerary or your last glimpse of Peru before traveling onward to enjoy the incredible things to do in Copacabana, Bolivia, Puno will be a highlight. There are few places to better enjoy Peru’s immense history and unique culture than on the shores of Lake Titicaca, where the Incans believed their kingdom began.