Cusco is Peru’s most compelling city, combining layers of history from the days of the Incan empire, through the Spanish colonial period and right up to modern times. It is a place of grand monuments from the Spanish period juxtaposed with atmospheric Incan alleys. A city imbued with an almost tangible sense of history and a special mystical charm.
In no particular order, here are the top 12 things to do in Cusco from visiting ancient ruins to attending weaving classes!
If you’re staying in Cusco for any length of time, you will want to take advantage of the Boleto Integral, a ticket that is valid for ten days and which gives you access to most of the attractions around the city. It can be bought at any of the sites for which it is valid. Another similar combined ticket, the Boleto Religioso, gives you access to several of the city’s religious sites.
Cusco’s Sun Temple was once the most important temple in the Incan empire and should feature high on the list for any visitor. Qorikancha means ‘golden enclosure’ and was practically destroyed by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century and the Santo Domingo church was built in its place, reusing much of the original stonework and foundations. The amalgamation of the two constructions is still visible.
Before its destruction, the temple would have been a stunning sight to behold, with walls covered in gold sheet and courtyards filled with gold and silver statues. A guided tour is available to help visitors understand and visualise the temple as it once was.
Note: Qorikancha is a great site to visit, but you'd have to pay separately, even if buying the Boleto Integral ticket.
A tough but rewarding 2km hike up from Cusco city brings visitors to the imposing ruins of the Saksaywamán citadel. The fortress is constructed of huge blocks of stone and it defies the imagination to think about how the stone blocks were brought to the site. It is thought that the place was occupied from as early as around 900 but the Incas began the construction of the megalithic defences here from the 13th century.
- Note: Included in the Boleto Integral ticket.
A fascinating part of town to explore is the charming and picturesque San Blas artists’ quarter. You can hunt down the Hathun Rumiyoq, the famous ancient Incan alley which contains the twelve-cornered Inca Stone and you may also wish to pay a visit to the Chapel of San Blas. Saturdays play host to a lively and fun market where you can pick up local handicrafts, and the whole area is lined with artists’ studios and workshops. The neighbourhood also affords some spectacular views of the rest of the city.
- Note: Chapel of San Blas is included in the Boleto Religioso.
This is a quick and easy day trip for those wishing to escape Cusco city to explore the surrounding countryside. A short half-hour bus journey takes you to Pisac, a small town with four groups of Incan ruins as well as a bustling local market and photogenic Incan agricultural terraces that are still in use today. The ruins can be reached by foot from the town and for those interested in the market, the best day to visit is Sundays when it is at its busiest, and hence has a good vibe – although this is also when the most tourists are present.
Cusco is the only town in Peru that can rival Lima’s nightlife and many visitors don’t leave without heading out to some of its bars and clubs. Clubs are open from around 9 pm but things don’t really kick off until after 11 pm. One of the more unique places to seek out is the Museo de Pisco, not a museum at all but a specialist pisco bar. Pisco is Peru’s famous grape brandy. This place is a live music venue which offers the chance to taste different types of pisco as well as light snacks and heartier meals. Some tours can even teach you how to make pisco yourself!
This is the place to head if you are interested in learning about the artistic expression of the area before the arrival of the Spanish. The building itself has been through various incarnations, first as an Incan ceremonial court and then as a mansion for Spanish conquerors. In 2003, it was opened as the Museo de Arte Precolombino and includes fascinating galleries showcasing the artistic heritage of the native Peruvians. This museum is thoughtfully presented and the exhibits are well explained, providing a stimulating introduction to native Peruvian art, prior to the arrival of the Europeans.
- Note: Not included in the Boleto Integral ticket
The Plaza de Armas is the heart of Cusco and you will inevitably end up here at some point during your stay. Once the central square of the ancient Incan city and now home to colourful gardens and colonial era buildings, here you will find bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. It is an attractive place to while away an hour or two drinking a coffee or a beer and indulging in some serious people watching. This is also where major festivals take place and at those times, you will see the square come alive in a riot of colours and boisterous exuberance.
For those interested in learning more about the Inca as well as seeing collections of their artefacts, the best place to head is the Museo Inka. Although the museum is a little chaotic and the displays are not so well explained, there is a good collection of objects, pottery and metalwork for visitors to peruse and the museum is still worth a visit.
- Not included in the Boleto Integral.
The imposing edifice of Cusco’s cathedral on the Plaza de Armas took almost 100 years to complete. The architecture is mainly Gothic-Renaissance in style but also shows Baroque influence. Inside are housed fine examples of Escuela Cuzquña artworks including a painting depicting guinea pig, a local speciality, served at the table of Jesus and his followers. Visitors can also look out for examples of Incan symbolism in the Cathedrals’ imagery, as in the carved head of a Jaguar.
- Included in the Boleto Religioso.
With so many places of interest in Cusco and its surrounding area, guided tours will be able to provide a greater depth of information. One such example is an architectural and archaeological coach tour of Cusco and the surrounding areas of Qorikancha, Sacsayhuaman, Qenco, Puca Pucara, and Tambomachay. Note that entry to Qorikancha is not possible on Sundays and can only be viewed from outside.
Another possibility is a guided historical walking tour of Cusco. You can walk around the Plaza de Armas, San Pedro Market, Plaza San Francisco, Inca Streets, the Inca palace wall remains and many more places of interest with a knowledgeable local guide who can offer you fascinating insights into Cusco and its history. This would be an ideal option for a first-time visitor to Cusco. Total walking distance is around 1.5 km.
For those looking for something more exciting, plenty of possibilities exist. Instead of visiting the surrounding area on the usual tour bus, a more original option is to discover the countryside on horseback. This tour allows you to escape from the noise of the city for a day to ride out to sites such as Qenko, Puca Pucara, Tambomachay and Sacsayhuaman in the open air.
Another option is to join a tour to the colonial town of Maras, the Inca agricultural terraces at Moray and the ancient salt mines riding ATVs. This tour gives you the chance to take to the mountain paths in a procession of quad bikes as you pass through traditional Andean villages and mountain scenery on the way out to visit these key sites. Entrance to the sites must be paid separately but Maras is included in the Boleto Integral.
Textile production has always been an integral part of the traditional way of life in the Peruvian Andes. Well-made textiles are essential in protecting against the harsh mountain conditions but the unique and beautiful patterns also serve to reaffirm the identity of the peoples who create them.
A visit to the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco (CTTC) museum offers an insight into the world of traditional Peruvian weaving. You can learn about local weaving techniques that exist nowhere else in the world. Money from any purchases in the shop goes to help local communities. For those interested in gaining a deeper understanding, courses in spinning, weaving, knitting and braiding, lasting from one day up to three days, are also available.
When in Cusco, sometimes the best thing is to have no plan! Aimless exploration will be rewarded by the discovery of atmospheric lanes, quirky bars and intriguing neighbourhoods. Sometimes it pays just to put the map away and see where your feet might take you! There is far more to do than is included in this short list and this is just a start. Find out what are the top 12 things to do in Peru to know more about this beautiful country. If you are visiting Lima, you might want to read the top 10 things to do in Lima as well. Peru is also a premier destination for trekking, check out 10 best treks in Peru that does not include the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.