As one of South America’s most intriguing cities, Cusco deserves at least two days out of your Peru itinerary to be explored. By dabbling in the top things to do in Cusco, you will get a comprehensive feel of this colorful Andean city, from its historical role to its contemporary intrigue. During your time in Cusco, Peru— be it before or after your visit to Machu Picchu—, consider visiting major sites, such as the Cathedral and the Temple of Qorikancha, as well as hidden gems as outlined in this Cusco guide.
– Plaza de Armas
When you travel to Peru, you will swiftly learn that every small town and major city has a main square. Even before the Spaniards’ arrival to Cusco in 1534 (and the subsequent restructuring of the main square), the Plaza de Armas was center stage for cultural, political, and economic interactions between indigenous cultures. Today, Cusco’s main square continues to see a lot of foot traffic (especially during holidays and local festivals) and is a great place to sit for an hour or two and take in local life.
Surrounded by cafes, restaurants, and shops, the Plaza de Armas is anchored by a beautiful water fountain topped with a statue of the Inca ruler, Manco Capac. On the eastern side of the square sits the Cusco Cathedral and to the south is the ornate Church of the Jesuit; both can be explored and provide insight into Colonial times.
Just around the corner from the Plaza de Armas is the Museo Inka, which showcases the history and culture of the Incas. If you need a break from historic attractions, head one block from the Plaza de Armas to the Plaza Regocijo and try the Choco Museum, which examines the history of cacao through interactive workshops and demonstrations.
– San Pedro Market
Within walking distance from the city’s Plaza de Arma is the San Pedro Market. Built in 1925, this shopping center offers one of Cusco’s most unique and immersive experiences. Although the market is an increasingly popular tourist attraction, it has managed to maintain its authenticity. On a typical morning, you’ll see plenty of locals picking up groceries and eating at food stands.
There are five principal sections at San Pedro Market: handicrafts; fresh produce; meat and poultry; juice bars; and snack stands. Mixed in are stands selling goods for healers and ceremonies. Practice your Spanish with the vendors and try your hand at bartering. When haggling, keep in mind that a few extra soles may not make a difference to you, but it can make a substantial difference for local residents and their families.
– Sapantiana Aqueduct
San Blas has become Cusco’s trendiest neighborhood (more about that in the following section), yet there is a relic in this very vicinity that goes unnoticed by many visitors. The Sapantiana aqueduct is believed to have been built between the 16th and 17th centuries. Before 1950, water continued to flow through the multi-level stone arch; today, only a small amount of water from the Pújru stream trickles its way through this colonial aqueduct.
The Sapantiana Aqueduct is just a few blocks from the main square, at the end of Choquechaca street.
– San Blas Neighborhood
Perched on a hill just beyond the Cusco Cathedral, the San Blas neighborhood is one of the most visited areas of the Inca city. Absent of the fast food joints found in the nearby Plaza de Armas, San Blas has at once preserved the charm of old-school Cusco while inviting a slightly bohemian and contemporary vibe. After all, San Blas is known as the artists’ barrio.
Storefront doors are all painted the same shade of bright blue and many of the adobe buildings are a bright white. And like most of Cusco, the streets can get incredibly narrow, which may not come as a surprise if you knew this was Cusco’s oldest neighborhood.
After lunching at a cute vegetarian restaurant and window shopping at any of the plethora of concept stores, be sure to check out the Church of San Blas. Presenting one of the country’s most exquisite examples of colonial architecture, the inside of this church is also stunning, especially the Baroque pulpit carved from cedar.
– Cusco Planetarium
In the evening, head to the Planetarium for the best views of the night sky. A relatively newer attraction, this facility offers insight into how the Inca interpreted the stars, as well as the opportunity to do some of your own stargazing. High up in the mountains only make the experience that much more memorable.
And why is a planetarium something particularly special to visit in Cusco? The Inca capital is said to have been laid out according to the stars, as the Incas were devoted stargazers. And honestly, who wouldn’t be with the amazingly clear skies that cover Cusco? Take the time to appreciate the natural world that surrounds us upon visiting Cusco’s planetarium and see if you can get in touch with the Inca belief that everything is connected.
Just over a mile from the central plaza, a visit to Sacsayhuaman is one of the top things to do in Cusco. Extending over 3,000 hectares, the purpose of this Inca site remains a mystery though experts believe it may have served military or ceremonial purposes. A zig-zag of rock walls protects Sacsayhuaman, built in typical and exquisite Inca tradition.
Much of the ruins have been fortified as the Spaniards took stones from nearby sites to build their churches in the various Cusco plazas. It is believed that less than half of the original fortress remains today.
That said, this impressive archaeological site continues to amaze visitors with the standing stone towers and impeccable views of Cusco’s apus (sacred mountains). Not far from Sacsayhuaman is the ceremonial site and labyrinth of tunnels referred to as Qenqo.
There are numerous variations for spelling Qorikancha, but its importance to the Incas is popularly agreed upon. Also referred to as the Temple of the Sun, Qorikancha is translated from the indigenous Quechua language to mean “Golden Courtyard.”
Now a hybrid of Spanish and Inca culture, the Qorikancha was one of the most lavish Inca buildings when it was first built in the mid-15th century. Said to have been covered in gold, the temple was built in honor of the Sun god and was a place to carry out ceremonies for the highly regarded deity.
With the Spanish invasion, however, the temple was quickly ransacked of all treasures and all but completely demolished. The conquerors soon after built their own cathedral atop the Inca foundation, which today can be walked through by visitors for a fee. You will see a courtyard hugged by Inca chambers (perhaps used as temples devoted to the stars and Moon), an ingenious curved stone wall, trapezoidal doorways, colonial paintings, and much more.
– The Twelve-Angled Stone
The famed twelve-angled stone can be seen on your way to the San Blas neighborhood from the Plaza de Armas. Located on the narrow Hatunrumiyoc Street, the geometric stone is a prime example of the Inca’s ability to work with what they have and deliver exceptional quality.
As with other Inca stonework, each rock in this wall (which belongs to the Palace of the Archbishop) fits together seamlessly like a puzzle. The twelve-angle stone sticks out not only for its shape but also for its large size. And don’t worry about having trouble finding this curious rock: just keep your eyes peeled for tourists snapping photos at a rock wall or even a street performer dressed up as an Inca.
– Siete Borreguitos Street
Travel isn’t always about visiting the most photogenic of places, but every now and then we need to indulge in the human desire for beauty. Of course, Cusco’s main square and surrounding neighborhoods are quite striking, but the street known as Siete Borreguitos just may be the most photogenic of them all.
Side-by-side buildings have seemingly squeezed their way into this quaint alley. Colorful flowers in pots will pull you into Siete Borreguitos, which can be reached by a quick walk from the Plaza de Armas. The name translates to “Seven Little Lambs,” a title likely given because locals accompanied by these farm animals would traverse the street to reach the Sapantiana Aqueduct.
Did you know: There are seven streets in Cusco with the number seven? See how many more you can track while touring the imperial city!
– Enjoy Cusco By Night
For something more active, make the hike up to the Cristo Blanco, a statue often compared to Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer. Located next to the Archeological complex of Sacsayhuaman, the Cristo Blanco is set on a hilltop and offers fantastic views over the city. It was donated in 1945 by a group of Christian Palestinians living in Cusco. The statue is also visible from the city’s Plaza de Armas, and it looks particularly beautiful at night when it’s illuminated with lights.
– Craft A Unique Itinerary To Peru With Kuoda
Kuoda Travel can help you plan an unforgettable time in Cusco, Peru. The imperial city is full of historic and natural wonders, and our team of expert travel designers can help you craft an itinerary to Peru and include the top things to see and do in Cusco that suit your interests. Our goal is to be the best travel agency in Peru, and we’re always available for questions you might have during any stage of your planning and trip. Contact us to talk about your private Peru vacation!