Commanding its place in the city’s center, the Plaza de Armas is perhaps the best place to start exploring the city. You can access all the essential attractions of Cusco spread throughout the city and the four cardinal points.
Within the Plaza de Armas, the Portal de Panes, the Cusco Cathedral, the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, the Chapel of the Lord of the Earthquakes, the Inka Museum, and the Church of the Company of Jesus, following Callejon Loreto west of the Plaza de Armas, you will reach the spectacular stone walls of the old Acllahuasi, or Temple of the Virgins of the Sun, where the Spanish built the Convent of Santa Catalina in 1610. Today, some thirty sisters continue to live and worship here; inside it is the Museum of Art and Monastery of Santa Catalina. At the intersection of Avenida El Sol and Calle Santo Domingo, southeast of the convent, is the Qoricancha Temple of the Sun and Santo Domingo complex, an excellent example of the city’s usual mix of Spanish and Inca cultures. A three-minute walk away is the Qoricancha Site Museum, which offers an exciting display of various archaeological artifacts.
To the southwest of the Plaza de Armas are the Iglesia y Convento de la Merced and the Plaza de San Francisco, where the Museo y Convento de San Francisco is located. Further south is Mercado Central, known for its quality alpaca products and vintage textiles. Another area of interest is near Plaza Regocijo, just one block southwest of Plaza de Armas. In the southwest corner of the plaza is the Regional Historical Museum, the residence of a prolific half-Inca and half-Spanish poet and author, and now home to pre-Inca pottery and Inca artifacts and numerous examples of Cusco’s historical art.
If you need a drink but don’t want to stray too far, follow Calle Santa Teresa from Plaza Regocijo to Casa de los Pumas, a small café with six pumas carved by the Spanish during Cusco’s reconstruction. The Iglesia de Santa Teresa is not far from the café, which has beautiful paintings of Santa Teresa, usually lit by candlelight. Stroll northeast of the Plaza de Armas, along Calle Córdoba del Tucmán. You’ll come across Plaza Nazarenas, a quiet little section of the city that features the Chapel of San Antonio Abad, the Ceramics Museum, and the Hilario Mendivil Workshop Museum. This area also has four other essential attractions: the Museum of Religious Art, Hatun Rumiyoq, the most famous Inca passageway in the city, and the Iglesia San Blas y San Blas, a bustling artisan neighborhood whose steep cobbled streets offer fantastic views of the city. NOTE: Whether you plan to visit all of Cusco’s attractions, it’s worth purchasing the Cusco Tourist Ticket (BTG), which covers many historical museums, cathedrals, and ruins in the Cusco area.
Located in the center of Cusco on the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s massive stone cathedral is well worth a visit. Construction began in 1560, bringing much of the stone used to build the Sacsayhuaman cathedral and other Inca sites. Time and earthquakes took their toll on the cathedral. Between 1997 and 2002, he carried out an ambitious restoration project. Check out the Maria Angola bell in the belfry, made from over fifty pounds of gold.
The Misericordia Church and Convent were initially built in 1535, making it one of the oldest religious institutions in South America. After an earthquake destroyed it in 1654, what was rebuilt still houses the priesthood of the white-robed Order of Mercy. The impressively designed courtyard and select rooms, filled with centuries-old religious art (including a 16th-century menorah), are open to the general public. The murals were originally reproductions of Catholic iconography from the order’s home in Seville, Spain, and include what can be considered a highly controversial depiction of the Virgin Mary.
San Blas is just one of Cusco’s attractions in the bustling artisan neighborhood of San Blas. Built in 1563, Iglesia San Blas is believed to be one of the oldest parish churches in Cusco. Although inconspicuous, this small whitewashed adobe church is one of the world’s most exquisite examples of wood carving. The famous cedar pulpit features intricately carved images of the Virgin Mary, apostles, cherubs, a sun disk, and bunches of grapes cut from a single tree trunk.
Perhaps as interesting as the pulpit is the story that goes with it. According to legend (you’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s true), the carpenter who created the pulpit’s skull was placed inside the masterpiece, on top, under the feet of Saint Paul. Check out the baroque gold-leaf high altar as you search for the crown.
For art enthusiasts and architecture fans, the Religious Art Museum is one of the city’s most exciting sports.
The museum is in the Archbishop’s Palace, adjacent to Hatun Rumiyoq, a magnificent pedestrian alley lined with Inca stone masonry. Hatun Rumiyoq means “Street with the Great Stone,” which refers to the enormous 12-sided stone ideally situated in the center of the wall. Originally the site of Inca Roca’s palace, the building has also served as the residence of the former Spanish Marquis and Archbishop of Cusco. Today, this building houses a collection of colonial religious paintings. One room, in particular, is filled with illustrations by Marcos Zapata, an 18th-century mestizo artist whose work often mixed indigenous elements with religious themes. In addition to the artwork, he will admire the Moorish-style doors, carved cedar ceilings, and spectacular stained-glass windows. Step out onto the patio for fresh air, adorned with blue and white tiles from Seville.
Formerly the residence of one of Peru’s most famous Inca writers and historians, Garcilaso de la Vega, the Regional Historical Museum now offers an excellent overview of Peruvian history, from pre-Inca civilizations to the Inca colonial periods. Although the museum is not well labeled, it has exciting displays of Inca farming tools, colonial furniture, and paintings, including a 1.5m long braided mummy and photos of damage sustained after the 1951 earthquake.
This area is an excellent place to stay regarding Cusco attractions. It provides a comprehensive archaeological description of the Chavín, Moche, Chimú, and Chancay cultures and exhibits that trace the evolution of the Cusco School of Painting. Whether you’re an avid historian or want to learn more about Peruvian culture, plan to spend a couple of hours exploring the exhibits.
Located under the garden below Santo Domingo, the Qoricancha Site Museum consists of three small rooms containing a pre-Columbian collection, 18th-century Spanish paintings, and photos from the Qoricancha excavation. Although it is one of the smaller attractions in Cusco, this museum also has a decent collection of ceramics, metalwork, and textiles dating back to the Inca and pre-Inca civilizations. Avenida El Sol (in front of Qoricancha)
Perched forebodingly on the slopes above Cusco, the fortress of Sacsayhuaman constitutes some of the area’s most impressive and nearby ruins. Few structures remain inside, but the massive 20-meter-high outer walls zigzag together like razor-sharp teeth and have held their own against past battles, earthquakes, and time.
Emperor Pachacutec began building the hillside citadel in the 1440s; the massive complex was not completed for nearly another 100 years. Every Inca citizen had to spend at least a few months building it. This technique involved dragging the huge stone blocks (one block estimated to have weighed 300 tons) through a system of sleds and log levers from 20 miles away.
Legend has it that 3,000 people died while dragging a single stone to its place. During the great rebellion of the Manco Inca, the fortress was the scene of a massacre of some 1,500 Inca soldiers who were trapped inside the three stone towers. Rather than face death at the hands of the Spanish.
The next day, the condors feasted on the pile of corpses, which forever captured the image of Cusco’s coat of arms. Even today, engineers marvel at the scope and scale of the ruins’ masonry, which fits together perfectly without mortar. Like other ruins in the Cusco area, Sacsayhuaman exemplifies the extraordinary architectural prowess of the Incas. A massive trapezoidal door leads to the ruins from the walkway. You can explore the interior of the ruins from here, which once consisted of an intricate network of small streets and buildings dwarfed by three main towers. Today, Sliding Place stands alongside the grassy esplanade in front of the main defensive walls, an intricately carved volcanic outcropping where the Inca throne once stood. In ancient times, they probably used this area for ceremonial gatherings.
Even today, you may be lucky enough to attend one of the many sun ceremonies that still occur throughout the year—plan to visit the ruins around the Inti Raymi festival in June during the summer solstice. You can also reach the Inca ruins of Qenqo, Puca Pucara, and Tambomachay from Sacsayhuaman, 2 kilometers from Cusco. How to get there: The Plaza de Armas is a steep 45-minute climb of 2 kilometers uphill. Follow Calle Sweden to Calle Huaynapata, or Calle Pumacurco, which winds uphill; it is about a 10-minute walk following the signs.
The temple ruins and amphitheater of Qenqo lie east of the giant white statue of Christ, perched on the hill next to Sacsayhuaman, and are only about a 20-minute walk from the famous fortress ruins. The Qenqo ruins derive their name from the Quechua word for “zigzag,” referring to the perfectly carved canals that adorn the upper western edge of the temple’s stonework.
In ancient times, these canals likely flowed with chichi, sacrificial llama blood used by priests during annual fertility festivals and solstice and equinox celebrations. In addition to the channels, Qenqo sports some intricately carved designs, including steps, seats, geometric reliefs, pumas, and condors. The hollowed-out limestone outcrop, which comprises the main altar, emphasizes the importance of the Cult of the Rock in the cosmological beliefs of the Incas. Similar rock carvings can be found in the surrounding foothills. The complex also allows visitors to explore caves and tunnels under the rock.
If you feel like walking, you can also access the ruins of Puca Pucara and Tambo Machay. Close to the Sacsayhuaman ruins, follow the signs posted on the main Sacsayhuaman Road to get there.
Although perhaps the least impressive of the ruins around Cusco, Puca Pucara offers remarkable views of the Cusco valley and the southern glaciers. Located about 11 kilometers from the city, just off the main Cusco-Pisac highway, one can also reach the ruins via a one- to two-hour cross-country hike uphill from Sacsayhuaman and Qenqo. In Quechua, its name means Red Fort, and the emperor Pachacutec probably used the complex as a Tambo or inn outside the city. The emperor’s court was probably stationed here when the emperor visited the nearby baths of Tambo Machay. Beneath the complex are several chambers to explore; the platform at the top offers spectacular views. You have to travel 11 kilometers from Cusco along the Cusco-Pisac Highway.
Tambomachay is just a 15-meter walk along a marked trail from the main road passing through Puca Pucara. The Tambomachay ruins are among the most impressive examples of Inca baths found in almost all critical Inca temples, including Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu. The Incas worshiped water as a vital element of life, and the network of intricately carved aqueducts and canals that make up these baths reminds them of their fascination with water. The complex consists of three-tier platforms that cleverly channel the spring water into three impressive waterfalls.
All the waterworks are still working today. The quality of the stonework indicates that the site was probably restricted to the high nobility, who might have used the baths only on ceremonial occasions. The site also has an impressive Inca wall above the proper niches near Puca Pucara.
Much of the organizational expertise and urban planning skills of the ancient Incas originated in the pre-Inca Empire of Huari, which ruled the lands of Peru from AD 500 to 1000 C. An exciting example of Huari engineering is Rumicolca, an ancient aqueduct suspended from the highway, about 32 kilometers (22 miles) from Cusco.
After their rise to power, the Incas converted this ancient water channel into a massive gateway to Cusco. Not far from Rumicolca are Pikillacta, the largest provincial outpost built by the Huari, based in Ayacucho, and one of the only pre-Inca sites near Cusco.
San Blas is one of Cusco’s oldest and most picturesque neighborhoods, characterized by steep cobblestone streets with spectacular city views. A thriving arts community lives here—some families have been operating in San Blas for decades—and is known for producing traditional and contemporary artwork. As many streets pedestrianize, San Blas is a great place to explore on foot. Strolling through the streets lined with studios and workshops is a great way to soak up the art scene and window shop.
While in the neighborhood, you may want to head to Iglesia San Blas, home to one of New World’s most famous wood carvings. As you wander, search for your belongings, as tourists aren’t the only people exploring the area; thieves operate here, too.
North of Cusco’s Plaza de Armas towards Cuesta San Blas, you will come across one of the most haunting symbols of a civilization: the foundations of the former palace of the 14th-century Inca ruler, Inca Roca. Throughout Cusco, the Spanish tried to establish their hegemony by demolishing a century of physically impressive architecture from the Inca and pre-Inca civilizations. But they couldn’t destroy everything. The stone blocks were too big, heavy, and, above all, too tight. The Hatun Rumiyoc street wall is particularly fascinating; the locals will come up to you and point out how the Inca could provide irregular blocks of stone with such strength, a mystery that archaeologists and architects have yet to solve. The rocks have the distinctive outline of a puma, an animal considered sacred in the Inca religion. The original city of Cusco is also supposed to resemble this animal. On the wall, the animal is seen in a crouched position. The smaller stones at the wall base serve as a reminder of Inca ingenuity. They functioned as shock absorbers for the wall itself, which explains how it withstood all the earthquakes in the region’s history.
Located 23 kilometers southeast of Cusco, these ruins are not particularly popular with travelers who want to visit some of the more famous ruins in the Sacred Valley area. Despite its location off the beaten tourist track, this sprawling temple complex is one of the finest examples of Inca masonry.
Some might say that it equals the more famous ruins of Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero. The temple includes well-preserved agricultural terraces, baths, irrigation canals, and aqueducts that emphasize the skillful construction technique of the Incas. What can reach the ruins via a steep hour-long climb on a beautiful trail or dirt road by car? If you feel exceptionally agile, you can visit the ruins about 2 hours above Tipon. Note: It is practically impossible to see the Inca ruins during the rainy season. 23 kilometers (14 miles) southeast of Cusco
Of the many attractions in Cusco, this one should be on your list. Once home to nearly 4,000 of the Empire’s highest-ranking priests and attendants, Qoricancha was an extraordinary display of Inca stonework and wealth. Dedicated to worshipping the sun, the Temple of the Sun was the major astronomical observatory of the Incas. The complex also included smaller temples and shrines devoted to worshiping fewer essential deities: the moon, Venus, thunder, lightning, and rainbows. The light enters a strategically placed niche during the summer, where only the Inca Cacique can sit.
The Qoricancha was granted to Juan Pizarro, Francisco’s younger brother, who bequeathed it to the Dominicans after being wounded during the siege of Sacsayhuaman. Eventually, the carefully constructed stones of the temple were used as the foundation for the Santo Domingo Convent, a Baroque church built in the 17th century.
Today, the sites of Qoricancha and Santo Domingo are magnificent testimony to the cultural collision that occurred when the Spanish descended on the Inca Empire. Recent excavations have uncovered five chambers that once belonged to the temple and some of the most delicate stonework visible in Cusco. The six-meter curved wall below the west end of the church, which withstood repeated earthquakes, is perhaps the best example of this site’s Inca stonework.
Excavations under this wall have uncovered a garden of gold and silver animals, corn, and other plants. Another notable stretch of Inca stonework extends from Calle Ahuacpinta, located outside the temple, to the east of the entrance.
The Spanish rebuilt it between 1601 and 1610 on the “Selected Virgins of the Sun” of Acllahuasi. The convent and museum house an exciting collection of colonial and religious art. Like other attractions in Cusco, the museum has several pieces from the Escuela Cuzqueña, an art movement emphasizing the union of Inca and Spanish culture. In addition to elaborate frescoes depicting Inca vegetation, the chapel is home to macabre statues of Jesus, beautifully painted arches, and 17th-century tapestries. Perhaps the highlight of this site is a series of 3-D figurines recounting the life of Christ. Objects like this were popular devices used by the Catholic Church’s “peddlers,” responsible for converting many indigenous people throughout Peru.
This recently renovated colonial house, managed by the San Antonio de Abad University, is located in an alley to the left of the Cusco Cathedral. The museum focuses on developing pre-Inca and Inca cultures. The museum contains an intriguing collection of jewelry, ceramics, textiles, mummies, trepanned skulls, and some metal and gold pieces. The explanations are in English. Look at the impressive collection of miniature turquoise figures, among other examples of offerings to the gods.
You may also have the opportunity to participate in the weaving demonstrations in the courtyard. Among the attractions of Cusco, this museum is famous for housing the world’s most extensive collection of wooden keros, which the Incas once used for drinking. Allow 1 ½ to 2 hours to see the entire group. Cuesta del Admiral 103