Cusco, once the capital of the Inca Empire, is a city steeped in history, culture, and architectural splendor, nestled high in the Peruvian Andes. For those considering things to do in Cusco, wandering through the Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square surrounded by colonial buildings and ancient churches, and exploring the Qorikancha, the most important temple in the Inca Empire that’s now overlaid with the colonial Convent of Santo Domingo, are top activities.
The city’s San Pedro Market offers a sensory feast, with stalls selling traditional Peruvian foods, handicrafts, and vibrant textiles. Not far from the urban center, the archaeological site of Sacsayhuamán stands as a testament to Inca engineering and design, with its massive stone walls and panoramic views of Cusco.
Beyond its rich historical tapestry, Cusco is the gateway to the Sacred Valley and the world-famous Machu Picchu. Cusco’s blend of ancient wonders, colonial heritage, and Andean beauty makes it an unforgettable destination for those seeking the best places to visit in Peru.
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Attractions & Things to Do in Cusco, Peru
This vast Incan complex overlooks the city of Cusco, offering breathtaking views of the urban landscape below. Its massive walls and intricate stonework demonstrate the exceptional engineering skills of the Incas. Sacsayhuamán is not just a testament to architectural prowess but also a site of historical significance, as it played a pivotal role during the Spanish Conquest.
Travel Tip: Wear comfortable shoes, as there’s quite a bit of walking. Arrive early to avoid the midday sun and crowds.
2. Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun)
Originally a significant temple in the Inca Empire, Qorikancha was once coated in gold. After the Spanish conquest, the Convent of Santo Domingo was built over its foundations, but the impressive Incan stonework remains visible. This unique blend of Incan and Spanish architecture makes it a must-visit.
Travel Tip: There’s a small museum on site worth visiting. It provides additional context to the history and significance of the temple.
3. San Blas
San Blas is Cusco’s bohemian quarter, home to artists and artisans. Its narrow, steep streets are lined with galleries, workshops, and cafes. The San Blas Church, located in the main square, is famous for its beautifully carved pulpit.
Travel Tip: This is a great place to buy authentic souvenirs and handicrafts. Bargaining is expected in many of the smaller shops.
4. Cusco Cathedral
Located in the heart of Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, the Cusco Cathedral is an architectural and historical gem. It houses an extensive collection of colonial art, including the famous painting of The Last Supper depicting Jesus and the apostles dining on guinea pig, a traditional Andean dish.
Travel Tip: Respect the religious customs when visiting. Avoid taking photos during mass services and dress modestly.
5. Maras Salt Mines
Located a short drive from Cusco, the Maras Salt Mines have been in use since Incan times. Thousands of shallow pools filled with salt water eventually evaporate and leave behind crystallized salt. The terraced pools against the green valley backdrop make for a picturesque sight.
Travel Tip: The ground can be slippery, so wear good walking shoes. Also, consider purchasing some of the high-quality salt as a unique souvenir.
6. Moray Archaeological Site
Close to Maras, Moray is an archaeological site consisting of several terraced circular depressions. The purpose of these structures remains a mystery, though some believe the Incas used them for agricultural experiments due to the different microclimates created by the terracing.
Travel Tip: The site is often less crowded than other attractions, so it’s an excellent place to explore leisurely. It can be combined with a trip to Maras Salt Mines.
This ancient Inca fortress and town is a vital stop for travelers to Machu Picchu. Ollantaytambo’s terraces rise majestically above the plaza, and the town retains its original Incan walls and street layout, giving visitors a true sense of what an Incan town once felt like.
Travel Tip: If heading to Machu Picchu, consider spending a night here to acclimatize to the altitude and experience the town’s unique charm without the day-trippers.
Best known for its lively market and impressive Incan ruins, Pisac offers a mix of culture and history. The market is one of the most colorful in the region, selling everything from souvenirs to fresh produce. Above the town, the Pisac ruins provide a sweeping view of the Sacred Valley and intricate stonework to explore.
Travel Tip: The market is busiest on Sundays, so if you’re looking for a vibrant atmosphere, that’s the day to go. However, weekdays are a good choice if you prefer a quieter experience.
9. The Sacred Valley
Stretching from Pisac to Ollantaytambo, the Sacred Valley is a lush and fertile valley that was an essential settlement area for the Incas. Dotted with ancient ruins, traditional villages, and bustling markets, it’s a place of serene beauty and rich history.
Travel Tip: Consider hiring a guide or joining a tour to get the most out of your visit. They can provide context and insights that you might miss on your own.
10. Barrio de San Blas
A short walk from Cusco’s main square, Barrio de San Blas is a historic neighborhood known for its narrow streets, artisan shops, and the San Blas Church. This area is a hub for local artists, and you’ll find numerous galleries and studios displaying and selling handcrafted goods.
Travel Tip: The streets are steep, so consider exploring, especially if you still acclimate to Cusco’s altitude.
11. Twelve Angled Stone
This famous stone is located near the Plaza de Armas and is a testament to the Inca’s architectural skill. It fits perfectly with the surrounding stones without any mortar, highlighting the precision of Incan craftsmanship.
Travel Tip: While it’s just a stone in a wall, it’s a popular site. Visit early or later in the day to avoid larger tour groups and get a clear view.
FAQ About Things to Do in Cusco, Peru
What is the most famous attraction in Cusco?
The most renowned attraction in Cusco is the historic Incan site, Machu Picchu. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the World’s New Seven Wonders.
Are there any cultural experiences to explore in Cusco?
Absolutely! You can visit the Sacred Valley to immerse yourself in the rich Incan history, explore local markets like Pisac, and participate in traditional weaving demonstrations in Chinchero.
Can I take a train ride to Cusco?
Yes, you can take the scenic train ride from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. The journey offers breathtaking views of the Andean landscape.
What local dishes should I try in Cusco?
Cusco offers a variety of traditional Peruvian dishes. Some must-tries include “Cuy” (guinea pig), “Lomo Saltado” (stir-fried beef), and “Chiriuchu” (a cold dish with various ingredients).
Are there any festivals or events I should look out for in Cusco?
Cusco is known for its vibrant festivals. The most famous is the “Inti Raymi,” or Festival of the Sun, which takes place in June and celebrates the Incan god of the sun.
Can I explore the Andes Mountains while in Cusco?
Definitely! Numerous trekking opportunities, including the Inca Trail, Salkantay Trek, and Lares Trek, offer stunning views of the Andean peaks and valleys.
Is there any nightlife or entertainment in Cusco?
Cusco boasts a lively nightlife with numerous bars, clubs, and live music venues. The Plaza de Armas is a popular spot for evening entertainment and dining.
Are there any museums worth visiting in Cusco?
Yes, Cusco is home to several museums that showcase its rich history. The Inca Museum and the Qorikancha Museum are among the most visited, offering insights into the Incan civilization and colonial history.