From cultural and artistic places to nature and high mountains. Passing by Andean constellations until landing on delicious local dishes, Cusco has much to offer, and this list of 20 things to do in Cusco, designed by local people, will ensure you a complete experience in Cusco, the Rome of America. That is why, together with Machu Travel Peru and Cusco local people, we have prepared a small article for when you decide to visit the Imperial City, and we will ensure your future remembers of this great city.
Cusco is recognized as the navel of the world by the Inca Culture and was the home of the Empire of the same name, from where it was headed. This destination will not only leave you wanting more, but it will also take a few days to contemplate it fully. In the time of the Incas, the city had a huge main square where all the protocol ceremonies were held. There were many ornate temples around it, with narrow alleys and rivulets among others.
But the Spanish arrived there, sending most of the gold, metals, and luxury decorations to Spain. Of course, they dismantled the majority of the temples and build over them for catholic edification. Nowadays, you can only see the foundations of the Inca buildings, and each excavation or City renovation reveals more Inca walls and facilities of a millennial city that never ceases to amaze us.
20 great things to do in Cusco during your next vacation
- Visit Machu Picchu
- Enjoy Plaza de Armas
- Quaint Cathedral of Cusco
- Coricancha temple tour
- The Sacsayhuaman complex
- Visit the San Pedro Market
- Look at the twelve angled stone
- The Cristo Blanco statue
- San Blas neighborhood
- Sapantiana aqueduct postcard
- Constellations in Cusco planetary
- The viewpoint of San Cristobal
- The illustrative Inca museum
- The Qosqo Center of Native Art
- The Inti Raymi festivity
- Tasty the Picanterias
- Nightlife in Cusco
- The Sacred Valley of the Incas
- The Rainbow mountain
- The Humantay Lake
1. Visit Machu Picchu
One of the new seven wonders of the world. The icing on the cake in any South American tour package. We are talking about Machu Picchu. Being able to visit the amazing Inca Citadel is a unique experience in life. The conquerors Spanish never could find it, and the citadel remained intact to this day. To get there, you can walk the pilgrimage route that the ancient Incas used to do, called Inca Trail. However, if you prefer a luxury route with more commodities, you can take a tour on the many scenic trains to Machu Picchu. Whatever your decision, both options will take you to the magical Inca citadel.
2. Enjoy Plaza de Armas
The Plaza de Armas or Cusco main square is located in the center of the city. Before the Spanish invasion, it was already an important center for the Incas. It was twice the size, only divided by the Saphy river into 2 little squares, Cusipata or rejoicing square in the Quechua language, and Huacaypata or crying square. The last one is the current Plaza de Armas. When the Spanish arrived they built their houses and churches around the plaza and over the Saphy river (previously channeled) Today, it is one of the top attractions in Cusco, where most tourists and locals take a break and enjoy the outdoors.
Along the square, you will find different bars, restaurants, and cafes where you can spend the afternoon and enjoy a spectacular view of the city. Not to mention, the great hotels in Cusco, like Marriott, Hilton, Monasterio, or Nazarena`s Palace that are close to it. Returning to the topic, spending a sunny afternoon in the banks is a perfect pretext to meet new people or simply marvel at the simplicity of things.
3. Quaint Cathedral of Cusco
The main church of Cusco took more than 100 years to be built, from 1559 to 1669. Spanish built it over an ancient Incas temple belonging to Wiracocha Inca, to impose the Catholic religion over their pagan one of them. With a Renaissance style inside, 14 giant pillars, 24 vaults, and a Baroque facade, the Cathedral represents a real palace for the Catholic religion in southern Peru and the main art museum of an artistic trend that achieved worldwide fame between the 16th and 17th centuries, the “Cusco school”
The “Cuzco School” artistic trend was a conjunction of mannerism style (imitation of high European renaissance) and the tenebrism, the initial phase of western baroque over local paintings with Catholic thematic. In this form, Jesuit, and Dominican friars among others taught European painting techniques to the Inca descendants, in a way of instilling in them the Christian faith. However, they painted virgins, saints, and angels with some Andean traits, such as virgins with Andean hill forms, brown saints, and inter alia. In this way, the “Cusco school” was born.
Separate note, we have to mention the Triunfo (Triumph), a church situated on the left side of the Cathedral. History says that the Triunfo is situated inside old churches in Cusco list, if not the oldest. In 1536, after the siege of the Incas against the Spaniards, the Europeans took refuge in this church, asking the Blessed Virgin for help and witnessing her appearance in the church, to later win the battle against the Incas. In this form, Triunfo Church was used as a Cathedral until the construction of the new one in 1669. Another important mention is the La Sagrada Familia (The Sacred Family) chapel, which is located on the right side of the Cathedral, it was used as a place for Catholic weddings and minor masses. But, rest assured, both attractions are included in the Cathedral of Cusco tour, the entrances cost 25.00 Soles.
As we said previously, the architecture of Cusco is something you cannot lose sight of since you will find it everywhere, especially if you can visit its imposing churches. These amazing buildings remind of the relentless Spanish conquest and its invasive way of imposing its religion. Even so, they are a spectacle for the eyes of any tourist to be able to contemplate the wonderful architecture.
If you have planned to do a city tour in Cusco, you cannot miss its main churches. The most known are:
- La Compañía de Jesús
- San Francisco
- The Minor Basilica of La Merced
4. Coricancha temple tour
Walk along Av. Sol away from the Plaza and you will arrive at the Coricancha complex, also known as the Convent of Santo Domingo. This was the most important temple of the Inca Empire: La Casa del Sol. It is believed that all the walls were once covered with solid gold, while the courtyards and niches featured heavy gold statues. When the Spaniards arrived in Cusco in 1533, they were amazed at the gold that covered the walls of the temple. Of course, they dismantled it, used its stones to build the city’s Cathedral, and on its foundations, they also built the current convent of Santo Domingo. Nowadays, you will find the Inca foundations remain unchanged. Admiring architecture is one of the best free things to do in Cusco.
5. The Sacsayhuaman complex
On the outskirts of the city are four Cusco archaeological sites that you should take the time to visit. These are Sacsayhuaman, PukaPukara, Tambo Machay, and Qenko. Of course, all of them gathered in only one Archaeological park called Sacsayhuaman. Each one was of significant importance to the Incas until the Spanish arrived. Who destroyed them to take their stones and to build the Catholic churches in the new city of Cusco. If you choose to take a Cusco city tour, these ruins will always be included as part of your tour. The ruins are worth a visit, so take some time to discover them. The fortified complex of Sacsayhuaman is one of the must-see places in Peru.
To get to the well-known complex, you have a 45-minute walk from the city center, or much less if you go by bus. According to historians, Sacsayhuaman had a religious and military function, serving as a fortress, a place of surveillance, a barracks, and a center of worship for the god Lightning (Illapa). The form of construction of its giant walls is a great mystery to this day, with stone blocks weighing up to 300 tons each. Being able to visit the place is an incredible experience for the varied and beautiful views that you will be able to observe. One of the best things to do in Cusco, don’t miss it for anything.
- Qenqo: An Inca center of worship to Sun and Pacha (Earth) gods. Qenqo means labyrinth in the Quechua language and its name is due to the large carved stone with small grooves in the form of corridors of a labyrinth, which is located in the center of the place. In addition to a large table for preparing animal sacrifices for the gods.
- Puka Pukara: It was an Inca military headquarters with large walls, terraces, and big stairs among others. The building was used as a surveillance center for threats emerging from north of Cusco, like the Chankas (a rebellious town in the Abancay area). Puka means red in the Quechua language and was due to the color red reflected by its stones in the sunsets during the Dry season.
- Tambo Machay: Its name means place of rest, and this was its function. The Inca sovereign passed a large time there with its entourage, haunting or taking walks. The place is the farthest of the same Sacsayhuaman. It has complicated systems of small aqueducts that end in two small waterfalls of pure water. Therefore, it could also serve as a worship center for water.
6. Visit the San Pedro Market
Very close to the Plaza de Armas, you can enjoy one of the most principal and busy markets in Cusco, the San Pedro market. This market is a carnival for the senses, and you will see everything from tourist souvenirs to medicinal herbs. The Mercado de San Pedro is a perfect opportunity to meet the tastes of the locals and marvel at everything they offer. When you first enter, there are a variety of beautiful souvenirs on offer for sale. Walk further down the market, and you’ll find stalls selling fresh juices of any variety you choose.
Following, you’ll see the people who sell all kinds of fruits and vegetables and even meat and chicken. For an inexpensive meal, you can try a menu that includes an inexpensive soup, entrée, and drink. These food stalls will be packed with locals having lunch, so look for the most popular ones. Among all the famous places in Peru, this market occupies an important position, so you cannot miss it.
7. Look at the twelve angled stone
Hidden among the narrow streets of the city’s historic center is the stone of the twelve angles. This architectural marvel has 12 perfectly carved angles that fit seamlessly into the Inca wall of Hatunrumioc street. It is located one block from the southeast of Main Square. The stone itself is relatively large and forms part of the wall of the current Archbishop’s Palace. You will be able to see it by an actor dressed as an Inca sovereign located on the side of the stone and a large crowd that, generally, surrounds the area, trying to take a photo with him and the stone. Please note that it is strictly forbidden to touch the walls and the stone itself as a conservation issue.
8. The Cristo Blanco statue
If Rio de Janeiro in Brazil has its Christ the Redeemer statue, Cusco has its own. The Cristo Blanco or white christ of open arms is a giant statue of 8 meters large, covered with marble and plaster. It was a gift from the Palestinian Arab community to the city in 1945, due to its hospitality once began the second world war. It is located in the surroundings of Cusco (North part) and you can get amazing views of the City from there.
9. San Blas neighborhood
The San Blas area in Cusco should be on your list of places to go. This unique place is located on the hill behind Cusco Cathedral and is a popular tourist hub for locals and newcomers, where one can relax, eat and have a beer. Known as the local artists’ neighborhood, the area has a small square surrounded by restaurants, and bars and is frequented by non-locals who want to know about the local life of Cusco inhabitants. There, you will find many vegetarian restaurants, art workshops, souvenir shops, bars, and much more. Not mentioning its viewpoint, which offers amazing views of the Historic Center of Cusco and is located behind the neighborhood main square. Many years ago, there was the meeting point and flirting of local youth.
What stands out the most in Plaza San Blas is the Church. It is quite simple from the outside. But inside, you will see one of Cusco’s main attractions: an intricately designed wooden pulpit, Baroque. There are many myths about its creation, and there is an audio guide available that will tell you a few of them. If you are looking for things to do in Cusco, San Blas is an obligatory stop, undoubtedly!
10. Sapantiana aqueduct postcard
Since now, if you want to take a perfect photo of your Cusco journey, Sapantiana Aqueduct is your place. This aqueduct was built in 1565 and was promoted by the Jesuit order and the council of Cusco to provide water to the downtown area of the city, where the wealthy Spanish class lived. This is a colonial wall formed by 4 levels of arches, which contain carved stones brought from Sapantiana quarry. Until 1950, the water still flowed by the canal above. However, today, you can still see a slight flow of water running down over its stone steps. This quaint site is located at the end of Choquechaca street, 2 blocks from the main square.
11. Constellations in Cusco planetarium
For the Incas, astronomy played a very important role in everyday life. So much so that it influenced the planting and harvesting of crops, religious ceremonies, and architecture. And all of this can be fully explored at the Cusco Planetarium, where visitors learn about Inca astronomy, in addition to stargazing and the constellations. The family-owned and operated planetarium is located on the main surrounding highway of Cusco, called “Circunvalación”. From here, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the stars from the top of Cusco. In our Cusco travel tips, we recommend that you visit this fascinating place. Among all the things to do in Cusco, this is one of the best.
12. The viewpoint of San Cristobal
Another great thing to do in Cusco is to be able to enjoy the breathtaking views of the city, among them, is located San Cristobal’s point of view. You’ll find it walking by 15 minutes from the main square, taking the “Suecia” street and continuing the “Don Bosco” street. This is a little plaza located on one side of San Cristobal Catholic Church, where you’ll find a great view of Cusco city, besides stone benches and 11 giant Incas niches located behind the complex. These belonged to an ancient Inca Palace, the Qolqampata. Many scholars suggest, according to the imperial bloodline, that Qolqampata was the palace of the first Inca called Manco Capac. Later, the palace was used as a royal cemetery for the Inca nobility.
When the Spaniards arrived, they decided to build Catholic churches over ancient Incas palaces (in case, they could not destroy a palace, they built their Christian buildings next to them, as is the case of San Cristobal). All this was a form to impose quickly the European religion over the pagan. The San Cristobal church is a modest building that does not have the beauty and decoration of its peers in the city. Highlights of it are a high altar decorated with embossed silver, a gigantic sculpture of San Cristobal, and an Ushnu Inca (Place where the Incas made payments to mother earth). Its architect was a relative of the last Incas Huascar and Atahualpa and the son of Huyana Capac Inca, Paullo Inca Yupanqui. Who, once converted to Christianism, decided to adopt the name of its Spanish godfather, Cristobal Vaca de Castro, beginning the San Cristobal church construction.
Nowadays, its bell tower of the XVII century offers another great view of the city besides the viewpoint. The entrances cost $3 per person and are one of the best things to do in Cusco.
13. The illustrative Inca museum
One of the best things to do in Cusco is to learn the history of the Incas’ empire before visiting its archaeological rest like Machu Picchu. This museum represents a complete, illustrative, and exact of all periods of Cusco, from the Stone Age until these days. It is almost a complete Cusco tourist map to see before beginning your activities in the ancient Incas capital. It is run by the national university of the city, called San Antonio Abad of Cusco, with more than 300 years of existence, this university is the fourth oldest in Peru and the fifth in all of America. Undoubtedly, a museum with a great backrest.
It has a huge collection of artifacts located in the equally impressive colonial home of a Spanish admiral, where the museum is situated. You will be able to tour twenty-four exhibition rooms that are filled with information dating from pre-Inca societies to the height of the Inca Empire and the Spanish conquest. One of the things that stands out the most is the mummified bodies in the museum, as well as the courtyard where Andean women weaved textiles. Fortunately, the information is presented in both English and Spanish. But it is also advisable to hire a guide for a small fee, as it makes visiting the huge museum easier. If you buy a Touristic Ticket of Cusco, the entrance to one of the best museums in Cusco is completely included!
14. The Qosqo Center of Native Art
Qosqo means Cusco in the Quechua language (The native idiom of the Incas). Its meaning refers to the navel of the world or the center of all. And Cusco, the capital of the Incas, was the center of all Tawantinsuyo (Incas territory). From Cusco, the paths to the 4 Tawantinsuyo sides (east, west, north, and south) began. In this form, in 1924, a local cultural group wanted to recall the importance of the city, rescuing native dances, typical costumes, traditions, and festivals in Cusco from oblivion. The oldest cultural group in Peru had born, the Qosqo Center of Native Art.
Nowadays, they have a continuous work of research and rescue of dances, and typical costumes among others that the Incas left to towns surrounding the city and in the Andes highlands. The cultural group offers a theatrical proposal of 20 native dances of Cusco and the Andes every night. From 7 pm, the spectacle begins and lasts 1 hour and 30 minutes in its own theater, and the visitor will have the possibility of appreciating the music, dance, and costumes of the dancers. Without a doubt, this is an obligatory stop on your trip to Cusco. The entrance fee is included in the General Tourism Ticket of the city.
15. The Inti Raymi festivity
However, if you want to see a staging throughout all of Cusco City, outdoors, with more than 300 local dancers and actors, dressed in Inca clothes, fabrics, and jewels, you will have to see the Inti Raymi. This Inca festivity was recovered in 1944 by a group of Cusco scholars. The festivity was the most important for the Incas, and it was dedicated to the Sun god. In this form, each June 24, in the Winter Solstice, when the sun is located farthest to the earth, the Incas called it through dances, music, and even human sacrifices.
The Qoricancha or Sun Temple (Current Santo Domingo church), the Main Square, and the Sacsayhuaman fortress are the chosen places where the Inti Raymi is staged. The two first places are free to enter, however, the last place has a cost ticket of around $100 and the same municipality sell these. Therefore, we suggest you contact a local travel agency to get your entrance in advance because these usually are sold out.
16. Tasty the Picanterias
One of the best things to do in Cusco is to try the famous and renowned Peruvian and local cuisine. Believed it or not, Cusco has its own traditional cuisine and during your city trip, you can take the opportunity to try different of these traditional dishes. No need to go to fancy international restaurants (that do exist in the city).
You will find Andean flavors throughout the city, in the famous Picanterias (places where spicy food is served). These traditional restaurants are formed by one big local with long tables and benches, where totally unknown people could share a table while enjoying different delighting local dishes like the Chiriuchu (Cold dish based on pieces of chicken, beef, pork. All of them boiled and accompanied by a fried corn cake, toasted corn and edible seaweed), Cuy al Horno (Guinea pig roasted accompanied by boiled potatoes) or a Capchi de Zetas (Stew of local mushrooms called Zetas). All of them are accompanied by the Chicha (specie of local beer on a base of fermented corn) and the famous Picante (Stew of Andean legumes mixed with boiled potatoes pieces and red chili)
The kitchen is a wood-burning stove open to the public, at the depth of the premises. If you’re worried about your stomach, don’t worry, as Cusco municipality does sanitary condition supervision, regularly.
A separate note deserves the Chocomuseo (Chocolate museum), the most important Chocolate factory in Cusco, where you will taste the cacao beans cultivated in the Jungle areas of Cusco and recognized as one of the most delights around the world. We encourage you to try it.
17. Nightlife in Cusco
If Las Vegas, in the United States, is the city that never sleeps. Cusco, a tourist city too, is its equivalent in Peru. The city has a very active nightlife. You know, not everything is guided tours and museums. You can enjoy the many bars and clubs in Cusco. With different thematics. In this form, you can find an English bar (The Cross keys) located on Triunfo street, on the southeast side of the main square. The Paddys Pub (Irish bar) is situated at the beginning of Triunfo street, among others. Regarding discos, you will find many and for all types of public, the discos are an excellent opportunity to relax with friends and drink or dance for a while, and maybe, found the love.
If you are wondering if Cusco is safe to travel to, the answer is yes. Even at night, you don’t have to worry as you keep an eye on your belongings. If you were wondering, what are fun things to do in Cusco, Peru? This is definitely one of them.
18. The Sacred Valley of the Incas
For years, the visit to the Sacred Valley of the Incas was one of the best things to do in Cusco. This zone is located outside the city, at 73 kilometers of distance, and it is called Sacred because the Incas found there, fertile lands for their crops, in addition to an excellent warm climate and a crystal clear river like El Vilcanota. Therefore, the Sacred Valley zone is formed by 5 important Incas attractions:
- Pisac: Was an ancient Inca settlement with Andean terraces, temples, plazas, fortresses, watchtowers, and even a cemetery. All of them over a hill called Pisac (the name of a native bird that abounds in the place). It is located at the beginning of the Valley, over the south part, at 33 km from Cusco. Over its slopes, a little town with a quaint handicraft market is located today. An obligatory stop in your Sacred Valley tour.
- Ollantaytambo: It is located on the opposite side of Pisac, in the north zone of the valley, 90 km from Cusco. It was the last refuge of the Incas in the Andes, during their escape from the Spanish invaders. After the invasion, the Incas moved, completely, to the Jungle area. The fortress received the name of its regent, the famous General Ollanta (protagonist of the colonial theatrical play, love, and betrayal). Nowadays, the local town is located on the feet of the Ollantaytambo fortress and maintains Incas buildings and squares, without changes or modification, being considered a living Inca village. Therefore, if you travel to Ollantaytambo, you travel back in time, undoubtedly.
- Chinchero: The local town of Chinchero is located over an alternative route to get to Sacred Valley, to the west side of it. 28 km from Cusco. Chinchero stands out more for being a colonial town than for an Inca one. Its colonial church is a synonym of a picture museum with invaluable pieces of art belongings of “Cusco school”. In its main square, each Sunday, people of surrounding towns come to interchange their products like potatoes, corn, and even animals, in a practice of many years ago, Inca’s legacy called the barter. Without mentioning its textile demonstration centers where visitors can see the process to extract wool from the llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas, its dyeing process, and the production of clothes. With the possibility of buy of these products!
- Maras: The salt mines of Maras are more than 3000 salt wells located over the slopes of Qaqawiñay mountain, 50 km from Cusco, near Chinchero. These mines have producing salt since the Incas times and today, these are worked by the local people of close town Maras. Visiting them and enjoying their whiteness, walking between the Welles, is a unique experience inside your list of the best things to do in Cusco. We recommend you visit Cusco and include this great place in your itinerary. Just in case, recognized Peruvian chefs recommend the salt of Maras to season the beef for perfect grills, and you can buy them, there.
- Moray: If you were wondering, how the Incas were able to obtain a high level of agricultural knowledge to cultivate in the wildlands of the Andes, Moray can be the answer. Moray is a series of circles that go into the earth, a spectacle for the view! Each circle represented a level of altitude in the Andes. Consequently, they planted one type of corn and potato in each circle, from the outermost to the innermost, to see the type of planting and product they obtained. Choosing only the best beans. Therefore, Moray is considered like an Inca Agricultural Research Center. These circles are located near Maras, 38 km northwest of Cusco. Another inevitable point inside your list of the best things to do in Cusco.
19. The Rainbow Mountain
If you knew that China has the only rainbow mountain in the world, you are mistaken, Cusco has its own one, too! Due to climate change and global warming, the snow that covered the mountain melted, discovering a colorful landscape in front of the local people of Pitumarca. Precisely, the rainbow mountain is a mineralized mountain of different tones, similar to a zebra, that goes from orange to green color, located in Vinincunca hill, over 2500 meters above sea level, in the district of Pitumarca, Canchis province, department of Cusco (Yes, the one which contains Machu Picchu, too)
At 100 km southeast from Cusco. To go there, you need to take bus transportation from Cusco to Pitumarca (03 hours), once there begin to walk (trekking) for around 3 hours, and finally, get to the amazing colors of the mountain. We recommend you do this tour through a travel agency, you will not regret it!
20. The Humantay lake
At 4200 meters above sea level, the Humantay lake is another nature jewelry that climate change and global warming unveiled to the world. In the ’80s the lagoon was totally frozen but little by little, the ice cap melted until obtaining today’s lagoon. It is located over the slopes of Humantay, a small snow-capped mountain at the foot of the famous snow-capped Salkantay. This lagoon is close to the first camp zone of Soraypampa (the beginnings of the Salkantay trek) In the district of Mollepata, Anta province, department of Cusco. Precisely at 122 km from the ancient Incas capital. To get there, you’ll have to take transportation from Cusco to Mollepata (03 hours), after that, take transportation again to Soraypampa (45 min), and finally, begin the trekking to Humantay (01 hours). Again, we recommend you enjoy this experience through a travel agency.
“A JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND MILES BEGINS WITH ONE STEP”
As you will see, there are a lot of things to do in Cusco, and many of them cost absolutely nothing. So there are no excuses to enjoy this magical city full of history and culture. We hope we have been of help together with Machu Travel Peru. Remember that you can do much more in the beautiful Imperial City. These are just a few examples that are very popular with tourists and newcomers. If you want to know more about the different tours around the city, you can consult with our qualified advisers. Our team of qualified advisers will be happy to help you with everything.