Too many travellers rush through Cusco in a breakneck bid to get to Machu Picchu, but this wonderful city is well worth some exploration and a little bit of time. 

Julianna Barnaby.

A Travel Guide to Cusco - more than just a stopover

Cusco is a mandatory stop for anyone visiting Peru. The ancient capital of the Inca Empire is one of South America’s most fascinating destinations. Cusco has archaeological discoveries galore, a buzzing nightlife and is the gateway to Machu Picchu.

In Incan times it was the place people went to enjoy themselves (and the Incas definitely knew how to party – coca leaves and guinea pig anyone?). Today, it’s one of Peru’s most exciting destinations, filled with backpackers, well-heeled tourists and some of the friendliest locals you’ll find in South America.

Until recent years, too much focus has been placed on the city as a short stopover rather than a destination in its own right. It’s no wonder that many people come to Cusco for a two day trip and end up staying a lot longer. Cusco’s gorgeous spacious plazas, well-maintained Incan walls and narrow cobbled streets are a welcome change from the sandpits and congested roads of most cities.

Plaza des Armas

Plaza des Armas Cusco

South America’s oldest continuously inhabited city has a wealth of historical sites that will fill even the most ambitious of itineraries. If you’re looking for things to do in Cusco, you’d do well to start with the Plaza des Armas. Although the Plaza des Armas isn’t a historical site as such, it’s the thriving heart of the city. It also houses several of the city’s landmarks and is a beautiful spot to while away a few spare minutes in.

The eye-catching cathedral  on the Plaza des Armas is the largest in South America. The cathedral dates from 1559, when construction of the ambitious building began. It’s the perfect example of Catholicism-meets-Incan architecture. Some might say that it comes close to being a tad overdone, but is definitely worth seeing.

As a former Spanish colonial town, many of Cusco’s monasteries and churches show the unique fusion of traditional Inca and colonial Spanish cultures and ways of life. The Incan Pachamana (Mother Earth), sits side by side with iconic imagery of the Virgin Mary in many of the churches.

Museo Inka

Head one block north of the Plaza de Armas you’ll find the quaint Museo Inka. It’s also known as the Admiral’s House as it was first owned by Admiral Francisco Aldrete Maldonado. The museum has survived two major earthquakes in 1650 and 1950 and some intensive restoration.  It’s now regained its position as one of the city’s finest examples of colonial architecture.

The ghoulish skulls of those who underwent brain surgery before the days of anaesthetic might not be to everyone’s taste. Even so, there are enough Inca artefacts outlining the history of the Incan people to give you a grounding before you start exploring the rest of the sites.

Cuesta del Almirante 103, Cusco, Peru

Incan Ruins

Travel Guide to Cusco, Peru

The ruins in Cusco are some of the best to be found in Peru. If you only have time to visit one or two, then make the Qoricancha your first stop. While the Spanish conquistadors built the Church of Santo Domingo over the remains of the Inca site, you can still see the imposing walls of the original structure within the church.

Equally impressive, but a little out of town,  is the exquisitely built site of Sacsayhuaman.  The vast stone blocks were so well crafted that even after such a long period of time, they fit together without the need of mortar. Theorists believe that the site was originally a temple to the sun and its capture by the Spanish marked the death knoll of the Incas. Even so, it still manages to attract thousands of pilgrims each year who come to celebrate Inti Raymi, the festival of the sun.

Dining in Cusco

All that wandering around in the heat takes a lot of energy. Refuel at the city’s best restaurant, the Inca Grill. Their mouth-wateringly good food is complemented by the unmissable people-watching opportunities provided by the restaurant’s location on the Plaza des Armas.

A more traditional plateful can be had at Pacha-Papa on Plaza San Blas. You can even plump for the roasted guinea pig if you feel you’re up to the challenge!

Peruvian dancers at the parade in Cusco.

Where to Stay

At the high end of the scale Hotel Monasterio is built in a renovated 16th century monastery. The monastery in turn was built on the site of an Inca palace. It’s pricy, but entirely worth the extra spend.

On the other end of the scale, if you want somewhere that’s social and great for meeting people, The Point Hostel is a great choice. For those that feel like they’re past the dorm stage in their life, there are private rooms.

The hammocks in the garden at the back of the hostel demand at least a few hours of stargazing (or dozing whilst pretending to read a book). The staff are also the go-to people for the lowdown on the city’s nightlife, guaranteeing there’s never a dull moment if you don’t want there to be.

Have you been? What other things to do in Cusco would you recommend?

Explore Cusco, Peru with this epic travel guide to the best things to do, the best food and markets while you're in town. Click to read more.

The ultimate guide to Cusco, Peru. Cusco is one of South America's leading destinations full of historical sites and thriving culture. Here's a full guide to travelling to Cusco
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