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There is a fascinating array of things to do and see when you visit Cusco, Peru. It was once the capital of the Inca Empire and then an important city in the Spanish colony. Today, Cusco is a treasure trove of Incan and colonial architecture, as well as modern culture. With so much to see, it may be hard to decide what to do while in Cusco. To help you plan, we have put together a list of our top ten things to do in Cusco. You are sure to find them to be incredible additions to your journey before visiting Machu Picchu.
UNESCO recognized Sacsayhuaman as a World Heritage Site in 1983. The site sits on the top of a hill a short drive or an invigorating hike from the center of Cusco. The Inca Empire used Sacsayhuaman as a ceremonial fortress. Then, the Spaniards took stones from Sacsayhuaman to construct their own buildings.
Today Sacsayhuaman attracts many local and foreign visitors. It is also the culminating point for the reenactment of Inti Raymi, or the “Festival of the Sun,” every June 24th. The Incan ceremony celebrates the winter solstice.
Sacsayhuaman is an impressive archeological site to see during a trip to Cusco. The architecture is a great example of the Incas’ ashlar technique. This technique stacks perfectly cut stones without using any mortar. From the edge of the complex, the site also affords incredible views over the city of Cusco. Not only is Sacsayhuaman one of the best things to see in Cusco, but also one of the best things to see in Peru. You will need a Visitor’s Ticket (boleto turístico) to enter. With this ticket, you can also visit nearby Qenko, Tambomachay, and Puka Pukará.
Its official name is Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin. However, most people refer to this beautiful colonial building as Cusco Cathedral. It sits atop a set of stone steps looking over the Plaza de Armas, a bastion for the Roman Catholic religion.
The construction took place from 1560 to 1654 on top of the former location of an Incan temple. The dominant style is Gothic-Renaissance, but the façade also holds hints of Baroque. Keen eyes will also notice the head of a jaguar carved into the Cathedral’s doors, an important symbol of the Incas.
Visitors to Cusco would be remiss if they didn’t visit this historical and religious place. The Cathedral also holds renowned colonial paintings from the Cusco School of Art. A well-known piece is Marcos Zapata’s Last Supper. What makes this rendition of the Last Supper special is its main dish. Sitting in the middle of the table is a typical regional meal of roasted cuy, or guinea pig.
Coricancha (also spelled Koricancha, Qoricancha, or Qorikancha) means “Golden Temple” in Quechua. For the Inca Empire, it was one of the most important temples as the Incas dedicated it to their sun god, Inti.
The conquering Spanish often built churches on top of Incan temple foundations. The Santo Domingo convent is yet another example. Now the building is striking because of the combination of architectural styles. The Incan walls form the base of the convent. From the seam, the Spaniards’ Renaissance architecture continues upward.
Inside the convent, tourists will see religious art and embellishments decorating the chapel. There are many colonial paintings and religious statues. There are even displays of modern works of art.
The San Blas neighborhood is well known for its many artisan ateliers and boutiques. It is only a few blocks from Cusco’s main square. However, those few blocks are up a steep incline and can be tough to get to when still acclimating to the altitude.
Once you have acclimated and are ready for the climb, barrio San Blas is definitely worth a visit. The hilly streets have picturesque cobblestones with white-painted colonial buildings on either side. Here you will also find Cusco’s oldest parish church, the San Blas Temple. Inside you will see a very beautiful, ornate, hand-carved cedar pulpit.
Wandering its narrow streets, you can shop for unique handmade jewelry and crafts. Locals also sometimes refer to it as Cusco’s balcony, as it has an incredible view of Cusco’s historic center below. You can either admire the view from a bench in San Blas’s main plaza or from a cozy seat in a restaurant or bar. Those hoping to explore a bit longer can stay in a San Blas hotel, one of the most charming places to stay in Cusco.
The Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s main square, has been the heart of the city since its days as the former Incan capital. A multitude of shops, tourist agencies, and restaurants surround the square. Vendors for almost anything you can imagine wander its historic streets. They offer photos for 5 soles and selfie sticks, as well as ponchos and umbrellas when it rains.
National and international tourists intermingle as they admire the surrounding structures. As mentioned above, you have the Cusco Cathedral standing watch over the Plaza de Armas. There is also the smaller, but still impressive colonial Church of the Society of Jesus. Perched on top of a centuries-old fountain in the center is The Inca statue, added in 2011. The golden figure stretches his arm out over Cusco’s historic center. He is there as a reminder of the Incan foundation where the Spanish built their colonial square.
The Plaza de Armas is lively during the day. But crowds remain throughout the evening, too. If you want to see the historic square in the full throws of revelry, you must visit during the New Year. New Year’s Eve in Cusco is one of the most animated events of the year. Locals wishing to travel to exciting destinations sprint around the square with suitcases. Others set off fireworks that cover the entire city with sparkling light.
The Maximo Laura Museum is unique among the Cusco museums. It holds over 200 pieces from the Peruvian artist Maximo Laura. Laura specializes in ancestral Andean weaving and dying techniques. This museum has one of the largest collections of Peruvian textiles in the world.
His intricate tapestries are a modern twist on an ancient tradition. The vivid colors of his pieces speak to Peruvian traditions and themes. Laura is a fifth-generation weaver, learning the craft from his father in Ayacucho. However, Maximo Laura has taken the craft from cultural tradition to an expression of contemporary art.
Maximo Laura has won many international prizes for his work. You can buy his hand-woven tapestries (with prices starting around $750). Or, you can admire his vibrant work in the museum. Through his art, the artist hopes to spread an appreciation for Peru’s cultural heritage.
No Cusco vacation is complete without a local experience in one of the best markets in Cusco. The San Pedro market is a great example of traditional Cusco markets. Since many tourists now visit, a few stands will sell souvenirs. But most still sell local products grown and produced near Cusco. You can find native fruits and vegetables, as well as grains, cheeses, and chuta, a local bread.
If you’ve recently arrived, you can pick up some local fruits and cheese to snack on during day trips from Cusco. Or you can bring some specialty grains like quinoa and chia home with you at the end of your journey. Even if you’re not looking to buy anything, it’s well worth wandering around the market’s many aisles. You can discover all the many colors, smells, and textures of the local fair.
A trip to the San Pedro market can also be a great moment to take a break from hiking Cusco’s hilly streets. Let your taste buds do the exploring instead by trying some local preparations. Plates of fresh lomo saltado, a stir-fried beef dish, and hot quinoa soups are pretty cheap here. They also have an irresistible homemade quality. You can also try fresh juice made from unique fruits from Peru, like lúcuma, granadilla, and chirimoya.
Many northern travelers are familiar with Orion and the Big and Little Dippers. But what shapes did the Incas see when they looked up at the stars? You can find out by visiting the Cusco Planetarium on the hillside past Sacsayhuaman.
Like Western astronomy, the Incas saw constellations by “connecting the dots” between stars. However, they also saw shapes in the dark spaces between the stars. Within the celestial river Mayu (the Milky Way), they saw a llama, serpent, and fox, among other creatures.
The Cusco Planetarium is a family-owned and operated business. In the tour, you first learn about Incan astronomy in the interpretation center. Then, moving onto the dome, you compare projections of Western and Incan constellations. Afterward, if the weather permits, you will check out real constellations through telescopes.
You will find the MAP, or Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, in the Plaza Nazarenas. Once known as Casa Cabrera, the museum occupies a 500-year-old restored colonial house. During most of the 20th century, Casa Cabrera was a school. In 1981, Banco Continental bought the house with plans to transform it into a cultural center. In 2003, the MAP made its debut.
The art and artifacts in the MAP will transport you through 3,000 years of Peruvian history. The 400 pieces that are on display are, in fact, part of the much larger Larco Museum collection held in Lima. (Anyone disappointed by skipping Lima and its world-famous museum can find solace here). The museum has 10 rooms, each with its own specific theme based on the artifacts’ materials and geographic origins.
Much like the Larco Museum, the MAP also has its own on-site cafe in its central courtyard. The kitchen specializes in traditional Peruvian cuisine brought out by flavorful local ingredients. The MAP Café is a more high-end dining establishment and one of the best restaurants in Cusco.
The twelve-angled stone is a great example of the Incas’ architectural perfectionism. The entire wall has perfectly cut stones. But this particular stone is the only one with an astounding 12 angles.
The wall was once part of an Incan palace. Then, during the conquest, the Spanish destroyed parts of the structure and built over it. Today, it forms part of the wall to the Archbishop of Cusco’s palace. In any case, Peru considers the twelve-angled stone a Cultural Heritage of the Nation. It is a source of pride for many locals in their ancestors’ history.
The twelve-angled stone is easy to see since it is less than a block and a half away from the Plaza de Armas. The street is only accessible to pedestrians. During the high tourist season, scores of people will wait to get their picture taken in front of the stone. You can even have your picture taken with a man dressed in a historic Inca costume.
The ten attractions listed above are the most impactful and must-see sites that Cusco has to offer. Of course, there are many more things to do in Cusco, and around it, for the curious and intrepid travelers among us.
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