Welcome to Cusco! This high-altitude city (3360m) was once the capital of the Inca Empire and has a very interesting history. Almost all backpackers who visit Peru pass through this city – and rightly so. Cusco is indeed an ideal base for excursions to Peru’s biggest attractions, and the city itself also has a lot to offer. Immerse yourself in the mysterious Inca culture and don’t miss these attractions.
- In this article
- Plaza de Armas
- Viewpoints in San Blas
- Mercado Central de San Pedro
- Inti Kancha temple
- Single or multi-day trips from Cusco
1. Plaza de Armas, starting place of the free walking tour
This large square is the heart of the city. You’ll find not one, not two, but three beautiful churches here. In the center of the plaza, well-maintained gardens surround a fountain with the statue of the greatest king in Inca history, Pachacutec. From the numerous balconies, you can observe the bustling activity of shoe shiners, artists, and other vendors while sipping on a cup of coffee.
A free walking tour meets at the fountain several times a day. We joined one and highly recommend it. We learned a lot about the life of the Incas and the tragic conquest and looting by the Spaniards. We discovered that Cusco was designed in the shape of a puma and that the Incas developed a very ingenious architectural style. They stacked massive rocks like Tetris to create temples that were earthquake resistant without the use of cement.
Although the Spaniards demolished most of the temples to build Catholic churches, you can still see remnants of the Inca walls in various places throughout the city. In a side street off the Plaza de Armas, Calle Hatunrumijoc, you can still admire their intricate stonework. On a hill just outside the center, you can even visit a complete archaeological site, Sacsayhuaman. We skipped this one because it costs 70 soles, which we found relatively expensive.
2. The San Blas neighborhood with its viewpoints (and restaurants)
Just past the Plaza de Armas is the charming neighborhood of San Blas. The streets can be quite steep, so you’ll notice your calves working as you enter the neighborhood. Take it slow as even the slightest amount of physical activity can leave you breathless at this altitude. So take your time walking through the alleys and enjoy the views, because once you’re higher up, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views of the city! The panorama from Plaza San Cristobal is especially worthwhile.
This is also where you’ll find the most souvenir shops and the hippest restaurants. Our personal favorite is Aura Restaurant, where you’ll be treated to delicious local dishes. Typical options include salchipapas, chicharones and choripan. Add in the beautiful patio setting and views of Cusco, and you’ve got the perfect lunch spot!
And how about trying another Peruvian specialty, guinea pigs? Yes, they eat guinea pigs in Peru! We tried them in San Blas at the popular restaurant Pachapapa. The guinea pigs are roasted for you on a spit. It’s quite an experience, but um… maybe a one-time thing!
3. Mercado Central de San Pedro
You’ll be amazed at this photogenic market, and your nose will be on an adventure, too. Literally everything is on sale: vegetables and fruits, fish and meat, cheese, rugs, tablecloths and other textiles, herbs, nuts, soap, countless souvenirs… you name it! You can also have lunch here for very little money. It may not be a romantic setting, but it’s what the locals do, so it’s very authentic. Plus, the food is incredibly cheap. Wash it down with a freshly squeezed fruit juice.
4. Qorikancha / Coricancha / Inti Kancha temple
The correct spelling remains a mystery to us, but we visited this temple in the center of the city with interest. For the Incas it was the holiest place on earth, because the temple was dedicated to the god of the sun. Here the connection between humans and gods was most tangible, so the whole place was covered with gold. The Spaniards claimed this gold very quickly, and large parts of the temple had to make way for a monastery.
Today, you’re essentially visiting the Santo Domingo Monastery. However, some Inca walls have been preserved and can still be seen. Once again you can admire the ingenious architectural style. The entrance fee is 15 soles.
5. Single or multi-day trips from Cusco
Cusco is the perfect base for exploring Peru’s top attractions. The city is just 140 kilometers (about three hours by road) from the famous and must-see Rainbow Mountain. Find out how to visit this Instagram-famous spot without a tour bus.
Another must-see in the Cusco region is the Sacred Valley, the holy valley of the Incas. It’s a valley that is fed by many rivers and is therefore extremely fertile. The Incas took advantage of this and you can still see remnants of their successful terraced agriculture. Visit the mysterious amphitheaters of Moray. We especially liked the salt mines of Maras.
Last and certainly not least: Machu Picchu. To visit this wonder of the world, you have to be in Cusco. There are many ways to explore Machu Picchu, and we chose the five-day Salkantay Trek. You can find all the information about this trek here.