If you’re in Peru and heading to Macchu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Maras Salt Mines, Moray Ruins, Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca) or Humuntay Lake, chances are you will spend a significant amount of time in Cusco.
Cusco (or Cuzco/Qosqo) was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th until the 16th century. This “navel of the world” boasts a rich history, and showcases a remarkable clash of cultures from Inca ruins to Spanish churches. At 3,400 meters (11,200 feet) up, you’ll likely stay a few days here to acclimate to the altitude before going on any physically taxing expeditions—and lucky for you, it’s one of the most picturesque and unique cities ever to spend time in! So while you’re in Cusco, here’s what you must see:
- PLAZA DE ARMAS
The main square of Cusco is a picturesque plaza surrounded by a mix of churches, tourist shops and fast food chains. (Confession: I did go to the Starbucks…twice.)
Sure, it’s touristy. But also, you must go. In fact, it would be pretty impossible to visit Cusco without passing through here at least once. You can see the beautiful Catedral del Cuzco and the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús and get some lovely photos in front of these breathtaking buildings, and also try your luck at some snaps in the gardens or by the fountains. (In hindsight, all churches in Cusco are beautiful and many have an admittance fee, so I’m wishing we had gotten a Cusco Religious Circuit Ticket to combine our visits at a discounted price! But some of these churches will give you an entrance discount if you have a student ID on you.)
Where: PLAZA MAYOR CENTRO DE, Peru
When: If you want to miss crowds, you’ve gotta get there BEFORE Cusco Cathedral’s 6am mass. If this is too early for you (no judgment—it was hard for us, too), just try popping in periodically throughout the day. It’s usually quite busy, but you might get lucky!
- SAQSAYWAMAN (or Sacsayhuamán, Sacsahuaman and half a dozen other variations of spelling)
The ruins of this formidable citadel are just north of the city center (and what felt like a million steps up a steep hill from San Blas). This fortress was one of the last strongholds of the Incas against the Spanish Conquistadors, and following the Siege of Cusco, was sadly used as a source for stonework to build Spanish buildings. Now, this site is largely demolished, but even what’s left behind is rich in history and eerily beautiful.
(Side note, Saqsaywaman sits right near a field of alpacas to hang out with! But fair warning, they’re not super friendly. I saw one guy get kicked!)
Cost: There are a variety of tourist tickets you can purchase for Saqsaywaman, and most will include other destinations lumped into the price. We purchased partial tourist tickets (the most affordable option) that included Saqsaywaman, Q’enpo, Puca Pucara and Tambomachay for 70 soles (about $21 USD) each person. We unfortunately only had enough time to visit Saqsaywaman, but would love to visit the other sites someday when we have more time.
Hours: 7am – 5:30pm
When: This site is so large that it’s easy to find a clear photo spot, even if you’re here in the afternoon on a weekend (like us). I would say you should just visit at whatever point is most convenient for you during the day.
- MINOR BASILICA DE LA MERCED (CHURCH AND COVENANT OF OUR LADY OF MERCY)
Just a couple blocks down from the famed Plaza de Armas sits this beautiful, quiet monastery. Walking inside will fill you with a sense of wonderment, and we marveled at how empty the inside of the building was. There are no photos allowed inside the art exhibits, but you can take photos inside the beautifully manicured courtyard and feel yourself being transported to Europe.
Cost: 10 soles (roughly $3 USD)
When: We visited in the late morning (around 11am), and found the church empty and quiet, save for two other tourists.
- SAN BLAS DISTRICT
We spent our first Cusco evening in this part of the city, and we’re so glad we did because this turned out to be our favorite neighborhood! Boasting charmingly narrow streets, hipster coffee shops, trendy boutiques, old churches, delicious restaurants and amazing views of the city, San Blas is an incredibly unique part of Cusco. I highly recommend that you either stay or explore here.
When: I would advise roaming this area in the early morning. In the late morning to mid afternoon, it gets more crowded with both tourists and taxis. But any time you visit here will still be lovely.
- QORIKANCHA (CONVENTO DE SANTO DOMINGO)
Qorikancha was by far the most fascinating stop for us in Cusco. This was once the temple of the sun and the most important religious spot for the Incas, but was built over as the Santo Domingo church and convent for the Spanish. While the majority of this church looks European in design, some of the foundation is still the original Inca stonework.
In addition to the unique juxtaposition of architectural styles, Qorikancha has a beautiful outdoor garden that’s worth a look.
Cost: 15 soles (roughly $5 USD)
Open: 8:30am – 5:30pm
Where: Santo Domingo s/n, Cusco 08000, Peru
When: We went in the late afternoon, but found that they were just about to close and we had to rush through. Early morning would probably be the best time to visit here.
- L’ATELIER CAFÉ CONCEPT
This could have been lumped into the general San Blas bullet point as an aforementioned hipster coffee shop, but we went here multiple times and it felt cute enough to get its own paragraph. This café was one of our favorite spots for coffee, juice and snacks! And it has a beautiful view of the streets of San Blas.
Open: 8:15am – 7pm
Where: Atoqsayk’uchi, Cusco 08000, Peru
When: Whenever you’re on the street below, just look up and see whether the most ideal window seat overlooking the streets of San Blas is unoccupied. If nobody’s there, GO FOR IT!
- TWELVE ANGLED STONE
This stone is one of the most famous examples of Incan architecture, and is part of the wall for the Archbishop’s Palace in Cusco (a popular Moorish-style museum). Since the stone is on the outer wall, it’s worth walking by on your way from Plaza de Armas to the San Blas district.
Where: Calle Hatunrumiyoc 480, Cusco 08000, Peru
When: As is evidenced by my photo NOT actually with the 12-angled stone, it gets very crowded in this alleyway midday. If you want to get a good look at the stone, I’d suggest early morning.
- IGLESIA DE SAN CRISTOBAL
San Cristobal is another church located on a hillside overlooking the main square of Cusco. While it’s quite difficult to make the trek up if you’re not acclimated to the altitude yet, the views are really something spectacular. The bell tower in particular is a great vantage point!
Where: Resbalosa, Cusco 08000, Peru
- SAN PEDRO MARKET
This is one of the most vibrant markets in Cusco, and visiting will fill your eyes, ears and nostrils with so many different colors, sounds and smells. This is a fun place to peruse and could even be a one stop shop for food and souvenirs—as long as you have no issues with bartering!
Open: 9am – 6pm
Where: On Calle Santa Clara between Thupaq Amaru & Cascaparo
- CRISTO BLANCO
If I’m being honest, the only reason to stop by here is if you’re already headed to Saqsaywaman, since they’re a 5-10 minute walk from each other. The views are lovely looking down on Cusco, and it’s fun to see the 8-meters (26-feet) Cristo Blanco. However, it’s very difficult to take photos with him due to a fence that was put up around him.
(Fun fact—the statue was a gift from Palestinian Christians who sought refuge in Cusco after WWII!)
Open: 8am – 7pm (although I’m not sure how they’d moderate this since it’s on an open hilltop!)