It’s easy to write off Cusco as that place you fly into to get to Machu Picchu. But this sky-high city is so much more than just the gateway to the famous Incan citadel. Once the capital of the entire Incan empire, Cusco is a hub of archaeological and architectural treasures. Its UNESCO-listed downtown tells the story of centuries, from pre-Columbian civilizations to the impacts of Spanish colonial conquest.
The next time you find yourself in Cusco, order a plate of alpaca steak or haggle for guanábana in a local market. Whatever you do, be bold, be curious, and embrace the total Cusco experience. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
San Pedro Market
Who’s up for some empanadas and tamales? What about granadillas, cherimoyas, and a whole bunch of other fruits that you probably think we made up? Whether you’re looking for a bag of coca leaves to soothe your altitude sickness or can’t wait to try some candied hibiscus, the San Pedro Market is the place to be! Meats, pastries, gigantic loaves of bread, and around 30 fresh juice stalls are among the offerings at this market. (It’s so large, by the way, that it spans an entire quarter of the city!) Keep in mind that the market has no refrigeration, so get there early if you’re planning on purchasing anything perishable. Also note that many vendors will raise their prices when they see a foreigner, so don’t be afraid to haggle!
During Incan times, the stars influenced everything from architecture and religious ceremonies to the planting and harvesting of crops. Head to the Planetarium Cusco to learn about Incan astronomy and hear stories about the history of star observation. Plus, you’ll have a chance to get up close and personal with the southern hemisphere sky using the planetarium’s state-of-the-art telescopes.
Plaza de Armas
Built on a stretch of what was once the Great Inca Square (“Huacaypata”), this colonial hub is one of the main gathering places in Cusco. The plaza features wide stone pathways, well-tended gardens, traditional Peruvian restaurants, and an array of street vendors. In addition, it’s the site of many of the city’s most important gatherings. Take some time to admire the plaza’s two most iconic structures: the Cusco Cathedral and the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús.
Museum of Pre-Columbian Art
Hop in the ol’ Cusco time machine for a journey to the start of civilization. The Museum of Pre-Columbian Art displays artifacts made by the inhabitants of the land over the past 3,000 years. Exhibits include relics made from everything from shells and wood to gold, silver, and ceramics.
Built in the 15th century, this ancient Incan fortress-temple complex is just a 45-minute walk from the center of Cusco. Very little remains of what was once one of Peru’s greatest palaces, but the trip is still worthwhile. When the Incan empire collapsed after the Spanish invasion, most of the fortress was dismantled and the stones hauled away for use in Cusco’s colonial buildings. The giant rocks that remain today were likely too large to be transported.
San Blas District
The hike up to the artisans’ village of San Blas may be steep, but if you’re already at 11,000 feet, what’s a few more? Your reward at the top is a colorful array of boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, bakeries, and shops selling handmade souvenirs. The 16th-century Iglesia de San Blas is also worth a visit. It may appear nondescript from the outside, but its intricate wooden pulpit is considered among the best examples of wood engraving in the world. When hiking up to San Blas, be sure to make the trek along the ancient Incan road Hatunrumiyoc, or “Great Stone Street.” This will take you past the famous 12-Angled Stone—an archaeological artifact used in construction of the Archbishop’s palace.
Qorikancha (or Temple of the Sun) was not only the most sacred Incan site but the center of the whole empire. In honor of the sun god, Inti, in Incan times the temple was bedecked in gold. It featured gold-lined walls, solid-gold artifacts, and a garden filled with gold flowers, gold trees, and a gold fountain. Unfortunately, looting by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century means that you won’t find any of this opulence today. What you will find is the architectural framework of the heart of Incan civilization.
Ready for your trip to Cusco? Check out our Cusco with Machu Picchu Day Trip package!
Familiarize yourself even more with Peruvian culture with our Insider’s Guide to Peru!