Almost all foreign visitors to Peru pass through Lima — the capital’s Jorge Chávez Airport receives the bulk of the country’s incoming international flights. But arguably more popular is Cusco, the historic Inca capital that provides access to nearby Machu Picchu. If you’re visiting Peru, you’ll probably find yourself in both of these cities.

However, if your schedule is tight and you don’t have time for both, you’ll have to decide which locale you’d prefer to fit into your itinerary. While Lima and Cusco both have a lot to offer, they’re contrasting cities that will appeal to different travelers depending on their individual interests. If you’re trying to figure out which Peruvian metropolis is right for you, use this handy guide.

Photo by @svargx

Looking For Nightlife?

Visit Lima

While hitting the club might not be the most surefire way to experience a local culture, nightlife may still play an important factor in your trip planning. And if you’re looking to party, Lima is the city for you. With its wild offerings of salsa clubs, bohemian cafés, and techno bars with coastal views, Lima comes alive when the sun goes down. Stick to the Miraflores and Barranco districts, which are constantly bumping with clubs that open at 9 or 10 P.M. and stay open until the early morning hours. If late-night clubbing isn’t your thing, you can still explore the city’s overwhelming array of shops, restaurants, and concert venues. However you choose to spend the evening, be sure to take a moment to step back and soak in the brilliant energy of this lively town.

History Buff?

Head to Cusco

It’s no secret that the former capital of the Inca Empire holds a lot of history. Just look at the site that attracts so many tourists to it — Machu Picchu. While it’s generally believed to have been either a royal estate or sacred site for Inca leaders, the exact reason for Machu Picchu‘s existence still remains unconfirmed, and its intricate construction and unique location continue to inspire a host of theories, from the plausible to the absurd. But, if learning about the past is what you’re passionate about, Cusco offers a whole lot more than the “Lost City of the Incas” to explore.

There’s Saksayhuamán, for instance, a beautiful walled complex on the northern outskirts of the city. First built by the Killke culture around 1,100 A.D., the fortress was expanded by the Incas in the 13th century and now features massive slabs of stone cut and fit together perfectly without mortar. Additionally, the city as a whole remains a reminder of Pizarro’s conquest in 1535, with some Inca temples still standing and other buildings featuring a unique blend of ancient Inca and more modern Spanish colonial architectural styles.

Photo by @erikwoolcott94

Want to Relax at the Park?

Go to Lima

For years, Lima suffered an ill reputation as a city that was crowded, dangerous, and simply unattractive. Tired of that classification, the city’s government has worked in recent years to better their image, cleaning the streets, revamping infrastructure, and adding to its green spaces. Today, it’s known as the “garden city.”

While definitely the more “urban” of the country’s two major cities, Lima does offer an array of parks and gardens, tranquil places where you can kick back, relax, maybe enjoy a picnic, or just breathe in the fresh air. Be sure to check out the serene lawns and bridges of Lover’s Park as well as the breathtaking cathedral in Kennedy Park, the latter of which is home to hundreds of cats that lie in the sun and play in the grass. And you can’t miss the Park of the Reserve, whose Magic Water Circuit (which holds the Guinness World Record for the largest fountain complex) orchestrates 13 fountains in a fantastical show of colors and patterns.

Photo by @rickegomes

Fascinated By Architecture?

Book Your Trip to Cusco

As we’ve discussed, Cusco is historically and culturally significant. In fact, the entire city is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But even if you’re not much of a history buff, you can still reap the benefits, as the city’s storied past had a lasting influence on its visual appearance today — most notably with regard to its architecture.

The buildings throughout Cusco feature a unique stylistic fusion found in few other places around the world. When Pizarro and the Spanish conquered the Inca Empire, they brought their trademark colonial style to Cusco and built their new settlement atop Inca ruins. The result is an awe-inspiring mélange of Spanish colonialism and ancient architecture, with thick-cut stone and fine European brickwork intermingling beautifully.

Photo by @rostrowski

Love the Outdoors?

Hit up Cusco

In addition to its rich history and fascinating ruins, Peru is a hotspot for outdoor adventurers. And, situated high up in the majestic Andes, Cusco acts as a base city from which one can explore the nation’s stunning geography. While trekking along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu might be the most popular outdoor excursion in the region, there are plenty of other options if you’re looking to get out and enjoy the fresh air.

You can descend to Manu National Park and discover the beauty of the lowland rainforest, or stay up high and hike the famous Rainbow Mountain, whose stratified rock formation paints the countryside like a spectacular watercolor. You can also trek through the region’s incredible cloud forest, a magical phenomenon in which tropical forests become cloaked in an eerie, dense fog. And, if you’d like to explore the Amazon, you’re only a short flight away from Puerto Maldonado, one of the best places in the country to visit the famous rainforest.

Photo by @lauraaaf

Not Good With High Altitudes?

Stay in Lima

Have you ever deplaned at Denver International and suddenly felt a bit woozy, maybe a little short of breath? That’s the effect of the altitude and, if you didn’t like it, you’re probably going to have some issues in Cusco as well. For comparison, Denver is situated at 5,280 feet (1,609 meters), while the Imperial City of the Incas clocks in at 11,152 feet (3,399 meters). Lima, on the other hand, is only 1,312 feet (400 meters) above sea level.

Don’t be too concerned. 11,152 feet is far from uninhabitable; it just takes some time to get used to the altitude. Generally, after a few well-hydrated days in Cusco, your body will adapt to the elevation and you’ll feel fine. But, if you don’t have the schedule to accommodate that kind of acclimatization period, you might want to opt for the coastal haven of Lima instead.

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Devon Shuman
Devon Shuman is a creator, a storyteller, and a traveler from Boston, Massachusetts. He caught the travel bug at a young age when his family would take camping trips in southern Maine and New York’s Adirondack region. Since then, his adventures have taken him all across the globe. His favorite journeys include island hopping in the Galápagos, thru-hiking Vermont’s Long Trail, and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. He currently works as an editorial consultant for Passion Passport, helping explorers from around the world tell their stories.