Once the capital and crown jewel of the Inca Empire, Cusco sits high up in the Andes, hemmed in on all sides by soaring mounts. Much more than just a gateway to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, it has lots of interesting archaeological sites and impressive colonial-era buildings to check out.
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the continent, it is sometimes called the ‘Rome of America’ due to all the age-old ruins and monuments littering its streets. Still an important center of Quechua culture, it was completely transformed when the conquistadors sacked it in 1535. You can, however, still marvel at the strong, interlocking stones of the Inca’s opulent palaces and temples. All these now instead form the foundations of the decadent Spanish churches and cathedrals.
See also: Best Places to Stay in Cusco
Other than seeing the tourist attractions in Cusco and learning more about the country’s history and culture, you can enjoy some fabulous Peruvian food and fun nightlife here. Of course, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas are must things to do in Cusco, with numerous companies running trips there.
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22. La Merced
Exhibiting some exquisite Baroque architecture, the charming church and convent of La Merced lies just southwest of the Plaza de Armas. Full of priceless religious paintings and carvings, its cloisters are particularly captivating to wander around.
Rebuilt in 1670 after an earthquake destroyed an even earlier one, the minor basilica is the third most important colonial church in the city after the cathedral and La Compania. Aside from its elaborate entrance portal and pretty bell tower, its exterior is otherwise quite understated.
Inside is another matter entirely as shiny chandeliers, a silver tabernacle and glittering golden altars decorate the church. After admiring the astounding architecture, carvings and murals of its cloisters, make sure to visit its small museum.
Here you can see all kinds of expertly crafted artifacts like its majestic monstrance, made from gold and covered in jewels. The tombs of the two famous conquistadors – Diego de Almagro and Gonzalo Pizarro – are also located in the church.
21. Qenqo Ruins
Although quite small in comparison with all the other incredible ruins found nearby, this mysterious archaeological site in the Sacred Valley is still well worth exploring. At Qenqo, you can clamber about its hulking great rock formations and venture into atmospheric underground chambers. Legend has it that the whole huaca – an Incan holy place – was clad in gold before the arrival of the Spanish.
Carved out of a single giant rock, the sacred site has small steps, tunnels and what is thought to be a sacrificial altar hewn out of it. While its former use is still unknown, archaeologists believe sacrifices and mummification took place here.
Although its carved stones, hilltop setting and sweeping views over Cusco are quite dramatic, try and go with a guide if you can. They’ll teach you more about its history and point out various features of the massive monolith you may otherwise miss.
20. Museo Maximo Laura
Back down in the center, right next to the cathedral and La Compania, is the small but superb Museo Maximo Laura. A must for art lovers, it displays a stunning collection of the award-winning Peruvian artist’s contemporary tapestries.
Founded in 2013, it now exhibits over forty of his unbelievably colourful, creative works. One of South America’s most unique and imaginative textile artists, he draws on the symbols and geometric forms present in pre-Inca cultures to inspire his eye-catching artworks.
Absolutely amazing to see, its brightly-woven scenes all include abstract shapes, animals and other human-like figures. Very much a hidden gem, the museum sometimes has weaving demonstrations to watch with Maximo Laura himself often appearing to explain his inspiration and technique.
19. Hike Rainbow Mountain
Very fittingly named, the multi-colored Rainbow Mountain (Cerro Colorado Vinicunca) boasts some of Peru’s most bewitchingly beautiful landscapes (and that’s really saying something!). Since being discovered in 2015 after the melting snow revealed its rainbow hue, hiking up Vinicunca has been one of the most popular things to do in Cusco.
Located three hours drive southeast of the city, the ‘Mountain of Seven Colors’ is one of only a few such sites in the world. Due to the mineralogical composition of the mount, its striped slopes sparkle spectacularly in the sun. Vibrant pinks, reds, yellows and browns all pop out at you from the summit overlooking it.
As it towers around 5,200 meters in total, the three-hour hike is quite challenging due to the altitude and sudden weather changes. Once you arrive though, you’re greeted with spellbinding views over the rainbow-colored range which makes the climb worth it. It’s again best to take a guided tour with numerous companies running excursions here from the city center.
In the mountains just north of Cusco is another awe-inspiring archaeological site to visit. Consisting of aqueducts and waterfalls channeled through terraced structures, Tambomachay can be reached in just twenty minutes from downtown.
Very interesting to see, the intricate hydraulic system again highlights the engineering prowess of the Incan Empire. Its use is still uncertain with some arguing it was a sacred site or spa and others that it was a military outpost guarding the approach to their capital.
Built into the side of the hill, its weathered stones and still-functioning waterways make for some great photos. Some llamas and women dressed in traditional clothing can also often be found here. After inspecting its ancient architecture, you can always continue to the Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary.
17. Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary
Home to loads of incredibly rare and exotic species, the sanctuary is set in a scenic spot amidst lush valleys and mountains. A firm favorite with families, its spacious enclosures lie just fifteen minutes drive from the ruins.
Since being established back in 2007, the rescue center has taken in hundreds of injured and abused animals and birds. Nursed back to health, they now live in large aviaries and enclosures that replicate their natural habitat.
At the Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary, visitors can see everything from spectacled bears and pumas to parrots, monkeys and coati up close. Watching condors soar about overhead really is a spectacle you won’t forget anytime soon. Fun feeding sessions and exciting animal encounters can also easily be arranged.
Also enthralling to explore are the monumental terraces, canals and fountains found at Tipon, some forty minutes’ drive southeast of town. As well as admiring its impressive irrigation system, you can also enjoy phenomenal views here over the surrounding mountains.
Thought to have been an imperial Inca estate, the early fifteenth-century site is protected by a sturdy defensive wall, about 6 kilometers long. What is most arresting though are its precise terraces that are still fed by their carefully-planned waterways today.
As you amble about the sprawling site, you can examine all its small canals and sparkling fountains. Artifacts unearthed amidst the ruins indicate it was an important administrative and religious center for the Incas. Both cleansing and purification rituals were probably also carried out here.
15. San Pedro Market
If you want to immerse yourself in local life, then make sure to hit up the vibrant San Pedro Market. A treat for the senses, its colourful stands and food-laden stalls are lots of fun to wander around.
Despite lying only a short walk from the Plaza de Armas, all its cluttered rows of vendors feel a world away from its wide open spaces and attractive colonial buildings. Seemingly selling everything under the sun, the covered market’s stalls are packed with fresh fruit, vegetables and local food products.
San Pedro is also a great spot to pick up handicrafts and souvenirs or sample tasty dishes and fruit juices. Very popular with locals and tourists alike, the market buzzes with life with all its picturesque stands also making for some fantastic photos.
14. Inti Raymi
One of the most memorable times to visit the Andean city is in June when the exuberant Inti Raymi festival takes place. Over nine action-packed days, dances, parades and processions featuring colourful traditional costumes all celebrate the sun god and welcome the winter solstice.
Banned for countless centuries by the Spanish colonists, the ancient festival dates back to the times of the Incan Empire. Since being revived in the mid-1940s, the cultural celebration has proven hugely popular with vast crowds flocking here each year.
Now remarkably the second-largest festival in South America, all its elaborate marches, dances and music performances are amazing to witness. The highlight is the reenactment of ancient Inca rituals at the Sacsayhuaman site on the outskirts of the city. This captivating ceremony looks very dramatic set amidst the atmospheric ruins of the old fortress.
13. ChocoMuseo Cusco
For those with a bit of a sweet tooth, a tour around the ChocoMuseo Cusco is hard to turn down. At their shop and museum just off the Plaza de Armas, you can learn about the history of chocolate and its cultural significance. You also get to touch and smell some cacao beans and try some tasty bars yourself!
Although quite small, its well-done displays cover how cacao beans are cultivated and transformed into sweet-tasting chocolate. Their fun workshop from ‘bean to bar’ where you prepare and try frothy chocolate drinks the Mayans made also examines its interesting history.
Other than taking one of their excellent cooking classes or plantation tours, you can sample Peruvian chocolate, pisco and coffee. Its store has plenty of enticing local products to purchase as either gifts or souvenirs.
12. Humantay Lake
Although it lies around three-and-a-half-hours drive west of Cusco, Humantay Lake is certainly worth visiting if you have time. Backed by massive, snow-capped mountains, its twinkling turquoise waters and rugged shoreline make for quite the spectacular sight.
Nestled high up amidst the Andes, the teardrop-shaped lake is located at an altitude of around 4,200 meters. Once you arrive, you can either hike or horseback ride the seven kilometer out-and-back trail to its reflective shores. While not all that long, the elevation and altitude make it quite challenging.
After the steep, sweaty climb, you’re greeted with absolutely astounding views of the sparkling lake and snowy mountains. From downtown, several companies run unforgettable – if arduous – day tours up to the handsome Humantay Lake.
11. La Compania
Often confused with the colossal cathedral alongside it, La Compania almost outdoes its even larger and more lavish neighbor. This was the source of considerable consternation and controversy when it was erected along the Plaza de Armas in 1673.
One of the best examples of Spanish Baroque architecture in the whole country, its enormous facade is impressively ornate. Flanking all its eye-catching carvings, arches and Corinthian columns are two short belltowers, both just as richly decorated.
Inside is arguably even more astonishing as a gigantic golden altar standing over twenty metres high occupies the end of its central nave. A couple of important historic paintings and sculptures can also be found in its chapels. At night, the outside of the ginormous Jesuit church is magically lit up along with the rest of the square.
10. Museo Inka
Travelers who want to know what life in Peru was like before the Spanish arrived should head over to the Museo Inka, one of the city’s top museums. The Museo Inka is filled with Inca artifacts; and is especially famous for its collection of Inca mummies and drinking vessels. Other exhibits cover jewelry, ceramics and textiles.
The museum, which was built on top of an Incan palace, is housed in what is known as the Admiral’s House, after the first owner, Admiral Francisco Aldrete Maldonado. In the sunny courtyard, Andean weavers demonstrate their craft and sell traditional textiles directly to the public.
9. Hatunrumiyoc Street
One of the best-preserved Incan roads remaining in the city is that of Hatunrumiyoc, just behind the cathedral. Lined by intricately constructed stone walls, the narrow alley highlights their incredibly high level in both engineering and architecture.
Still tightly packed together, without any space between them, the mortarless walls were once part of an important Incan palace. Much of it was sadly dismantled though after the Spanish invaded to help build their colonial residences and churches.
Besides admiring its architecture and taking in its ambience, many people come here to snap pics of the Twelve-Angle Stone. A perfect example of their mastery of stonemason techniques, it is wedged in between umpteen other ancient stones. Souvenir sellers often set up here with the Archbishop’s Palace and its Museum of Religious Art also being of interest along the cobblestone alley.
8. Planetarium Cusco
Aside from being outstanding architects and engineers, the Incas were also great astronomers with the stars and constellations playing a large role in their everyday life. At the Planetarium Cusco on its northern outskirts, visitors can learn about their mythology and peer through powerful telescopes up at all the planets swirling about the heavens.
At their secluded site, just past Sacsayhuamán, a couple of rooms explain more about how Andean people understand the skies. It details how the Incas tracked the stars, predicted weather events and planned religious ceremonies based on their readings.
Engaging talks and presentations by enthusiastic staff members provide you with more information on the southern skies and constellations above Cusco. On clear nights, you can sometimes even see Saturn’s rings and other star clusters through its state-of-the-art telescopes.
7. Pre-Columbian Art Museum
One of the major tourist attractions in Cusco, the Pre-Columbian Art Museum contains a phenomenal collection of ancient artifacts and artworks. Dating to between 1250 BC and 1532 AD, its ceramics, jewellery and silverwork take you back to the times of the early Peruvian peoples.
Lying alongside the Museo Inka and cathedral, its exhibits occupy what was once a fifteenth-century Inca ceremonial courtyard. Transformed into a colonial-style mansion by Spanish conquistadors, its ten galleries cover countless Pre-Columbian cultures. These include the Nazca, Moche, Paracas and Viru civilizations that once thrived in various valleys throughout Peru.
Very well-presented, its 400 or so ancient objects really are amazing to see with explanations usually accompanying them in both Spanish and English. You can also capture some brilliant photos here of all its unique sculptures and ceramics, wooden masks, weavings and jewellery.
6. Barrio de San Blas
One of the most picturesque parts of the city, San Blas is home to loads of art galleries and artisans’ workshops. Set just northeast of the Plaza de Armas, its steep, narrow, cobbled streets are also lined by tons of little local bars and restaurants.
Sprawling across the hillside, the historic neighborhood is mostly made up of centuries-old houses built by the Spanish atop even older foundations laid down by the Incas. Cusco’s oldest church which dates to 1563 also borders its small, scenic square which boasts lovely views over downtown.
While simply walking about, exploring its old streets is a wonderful way to pass the time, the barrio’s colourful art studios and cozy restaurants are sure to entice you in. You can pick up some awesome handcrafted souvenirs here and try some delicious Peruvian dishes.
5. Cusco Cathedral
Dominating one side of the Plaza de Armas is the colossal Renaissance-style Cusco Cathedral; one of the city’s main symbols and sights. A must-see when in town, its cavernous interior is decorated with hundreds of impressive engravings, canvasses and sculptures.
Slowly erected over almost a hundred years, the cathedral was finally completed back in 1654. To symbolize the triumph of the Spanish over the Incas, its big bell towers and finely crafted facade were built atop the Incan ruler Viracocha’s palace.
Absolutely humongous, its vaulted ceilings and dome are propped up by fourteen massive pillars. As well as ogling up at its gigantic, golden altar, there are plenty of interesting paintings from the Cusco School to inspect. The most remarkable of these depict the city during the devastating earthquake of 1650 and the apostles eating guinea pigs at The Last Supper.
4. Qoricancha & Santo Domingo Church
The Coricancha, originally named Inti Kancha (‘Temple of the Sun’) was the most important temple in the Inca Empire. The walls and floors were once covered in sheets of solid gold, and the courtyard was filled with golden statues. The Spanish ransacked and looted the temple before building the 17th century Baroque church on top of it while using the Inca foundations for the new construction. Just a short walk southeast of the center, the convent’s church, gardens and courtyard are fascinating to amble about.
Considered to be the very center of the Inca world, the religious site was so resplendently decorated that the Spanish themselves described it as ‘fabulous beyond belief’. The walls of its courtyard were covered in solid gold with other invaluable artworks adorning the rest of the temple. All of these rare, religious objects were sadly melted down by the colonists who shipped the gold back to Spain.
The only part of Qoricancha still remaining are its formidable foundations which were too sturdy and well put together for the Spanish to dismantle. Other than seeing the Inca and Spanish architecture, fine paintings and sculptures are displayed in its museum and church. You can also enjoy sweeping views over Cusco from both its bell tower and the gardens.
3. Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
One of the most famous hikes anywhere in the world, traipsing along the epic Inca Trail is sure to be an unforgettable experience. After tiring days spent scaling steep mountain passes and vast valleys, you’ll finally arrive at the iconic hilltop ruins of Machu Picchu – the fabled ‘Lost City of the Incas’.
An adventure like no other, the classic version of the arduous trek usually takes around four days to complete with the rambling route stretching over forty kilometers in total. While that may not sound all that much, the lofty elevation and altitude mean you’re in for a tough time! Help is always on hand though as each hiking group has to be accompanied by a guide, chef and porters.
It is well worth the effort though for all the stunning scenery and over thirty other Inca ruins you pass on the way. Your guide will also explain more about their history and culture while the chefs cook up some incredible local dishes.
Finally seeing the legendary Machu Picchu appear before you on the last day is a feeling you’ll never forget. Exploring the atmospheric remains of the hilltop citadel feels even more special after all the painstaking effort you’ve put in. One of the most spectacular sets of ruins in the whole world, Machu Picchu is the highlight of almost everyone’s time in Peru!
On the northern outskirts of Cusco is yet another enormous archaeological site that is definitely well worth checking out. Easily walked to from the historical center, the vast fifteenth-century fortress of Sacsayhuamán was the largest structure ever built by the Incas.
Considered one of the world’s greatest walled complexes, the sheer size and intricacy of all its stonework still stuns researchers today. As the Inca capital was laid out in the shape of a puma with the citadel as its head, its zigzagging walls are thought to represent its sharp teeth.
Strolling about the site inspecting its three massive terrace walls made of megalithic stones really is a must in Cusco. Already huge, its ruins remarkably only represent around twenty percent of its original mass. This is because the Spanish carted off most of the rest of it to construct their houses, cathedral and churches.
All that remains are the humongous blocks that were too heavy and difficult to take apart. Weighing up to 200 tons and measuring more than eight metres high, it’s easy to see why they gave up!
1. Plaza de Armas
Humming with energy at any time of day, the Plaza de Armas is certainly the heart and soul of life in Cusco. Known as the ‘Square of the Warrior’ during Incan times, it is now overlooked by the cathedral and La Compania. The countless other old colonial buildings lining the plaza only add to its charm.
Now home to paved stone paths and bright, blooming flowerbeds, the wide-open square has served as the center of the city for centuries. Aside from admiring the fine architecture of its two important churches, you can also take in the elegant arcades of the other equally old buildings around it.
From its cafes’ balconies, you can people-watch and enjoy wonderful views over the square and its central fountain. Make sure to head back here at night when all its buildings are delightfully lit up and a lovely, laidback ambience settles over the entire square.
Where to Stay in Cusco
As it is within walking distance of most main attractions, the historic center around the Plaza de Armas is one of the best places to stay. Barrio de San Blas is particularly popular with numerous hotels lying along its narrow, cobblestone streets.
One such option is the outstanding Antigua Casona San Blas which is located in a restored colonial property. Very stylish, comfy and cozy, its tastefully decorated rooms and lounges are set around a lovely courtyard. With delicious breakfasts, cocktails and Peruvian dishes all available, the four-star hotel makes for a great stay. To top it off, it has a relaxing spa and yoga classes for guests to enjoy.
Just a ten-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas, is El Balcón. Very pretty and peaceful, the three-star hotel occupies a rustic seventeenth-century house with some rooms’ balconies providing superb views over Cusco’s skyline and the surrounding mountains. As well as providing quaint, quiet rooms and complimentary teas to help you acclimatize to the altitude, El Balcón has a gorgeous garden and an informal restaurant to make use of.
How to Get to Cusco
Situated in the south of the country, high up in the Andes, the city is served by the Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport. Fairly small, it has flights to Lima, Arequipa and a couple of destinations in Chile and Bolivia.
Once you arrive, you can walk around most of the city or take short taxi or colectivo journeys to some sites a bit further away. For some of the ‘nearby’ mountains, lakes and archaeological sites, it is best to book a tour. Not only do these take you directly there without any hassle, but you’ll learn all about their history, nature and culture from your knowledgeable guides.