Updated: Jun 17, 2020
Oh I just left my sister's wedding in Lima, and got to Cusco. OMG I got sick instantly. I drank the tea the hotel provided and that helped a little, but I had to go straight to bed. The next day I went exploring and the town is amazing. Met a little boy while eating pizza, and he was hungry and I was alone so I shared it with him... funny kid.
Cusco, sometimes spelled Cuzco or Qosqo, in Peru is a place almost beyond comparison: Built in the shape of a prancing Jaguar, it has once been the capital of an empire spanning half of South America. In 1933, the ancient city of the Inca has been declared the “Archeological Capital of the American” and since 1983 it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now more than 430.000 people live here – most of them of indigenous origin and speaking Quechua. With an elevation of roughly 3.400 meters, it lies at the center of Peru’s famous Sacred Valley with its many tourist attraction, Machu Picchu being just one of them. As a result, there are so many things to do in Cusco.
But the rich history of Cusco can, in all honesty, be somewhat overwhelming. With more than 2 million visitors each year, numbers alone tell you that there are a lot of things to see in Cusco. So much in fact, that I compiled a very detailed Cusco itinerary you can download here loaded with further inspiration to plan your perfect stay in the former capital of the Incas. Anyway, here is my list of the top tourist attractions in Cusco you absolutely must see:
The Plaza de Armas, is, much like in a lot of other South American cities, the very hub of Cusco. Located in the very center of the historical town, it really is the place you should start your city tour. There actually is not a lot going on in the square itself (apart maybe from a few shoeshine boys), but the view of the surrounding buildings is quite spectacular.
In the very middle, you will find a statue of Tupac Amaru. Please also take note of the stone arcades the Spanish built around the Plaza de Armas. Some of them can still be seen. Mostly shops and tourist agencies line these arcades. Do go for a stroll!
Facing the Plaza de Armas are two major cathedrals. The Cathedral of Santo Domingo, simply called THE cathedral, was Cusco’s first cathedral. Constructions started in 1560 on the grounds of the Palace of the Viracocha Inca, the red granite blocks forming a more than impressive façade.
Right next to Cusco Cathedral you will find a similar Christian colossus: the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus. Often referred to as the most wonderful baroque-style church in the Americas, the cathedral has quite an exciting history. The Jesuits built it to outdo the splendor of the Cathedral next door – though ultimately they were forbidden to actually achieve it. Judge for yourself if they succeeded nonetheless!
If we are talking about ecclesiastical highlights, there is no way around mentioning Qurikancha. Known today as the Convent of Santo Domingo, this has once been the most important temple in the Inca Empire: The House of the Sun. All the walls have once been covered in solid gold, while courtyards and niches featured heavy golden statues. While the church building is, of course, a more recent addition, the foundations remain literally unchanged. Of all the Inca ruins I have seen through Peru, this one is arguably the most stunning. I’m quite convinced, that even today, producing granite blocks of such precision would be a formidable challenge!
It probably is no big secret I am a huge fan of authentic markets (check out my guide to beautiful Riga, for example). Cusco’s Market, however, is on a whole new level. It virtually spans over a whole quarter of the city and people from the whole region come to sell their wares here. The name of the market: San Pedro and should have a very high priority on your list of things to do in Cusco!
There really is anything you won’t find here, some of it probably a bit more grizzly – but nothing you can’t stomach. Also don’t shy away from treating yourself to some fresh fruit. They also have many booths selling fresh juices and quite a couple of street food vendors (will be chicken and pork).
San Pedro market is split into a huge hall and many, many stalls and booths in front of it and in the whole quarter around it. I do advise you to go exploring a bit – it really gives you the opportunity to breathe in the variety of the Peruvian culture!