Cusco is the main hub for visitors on their way to and from Machu Picchu, with flights to its small airport bringing in a steady flow of tourists from around the world. Though Machu Picchu is definitely the main attraction around, I would highly encourage you to spend some time in the city and check out some of these awesome things to do in Cusco, Peru rather than just passing through. It’s home to its own Incan ruins, plus a number of museums with historic artifacts. If you’re arriving from lower elevations, you’ll likely want to take it slow here as you adjust to the altitude sickness, so give yourself a little extra time.
Inca sites in Cusco
These Incan ruins are one of the top things to do in Cusco with their fantastic construction and great views of the city. Believed to have been constructed starting in the fifteenth century, Sacsayhuaman (also spelled Sacsaywaman among other variants) served as an important religious site and fortress. Like all the other Incan ruins in the Sacred Valley, the stones are cut impossibly perfectly. Visitors can explore the remaining structure, including towers and doorways and a polished stone throw. I also ducked through an old tunnel for the fun of it. From the Sacsayhuaman ruins, you can also see surrounding mountain peaks that were considered sacred. I visited in late afternoon and got to see the city at dusk, which was an extra bonus – it was definitely my favorite out of the list of what to do in Cusco. It’s possible to walk up to the ruins from the Plaza de Armas, but I took a taxi up to the top since I was still not fully acclimated to the altitude, and then made the walk back down on my own. Admission to Sacsayhuaman is included in the tourist ticket.
Korikancha (also spelled Qorikancha) was one of the most important religious sites in the entire Incan Empire. Dedicated to the worship of the Sun God, it was said to be filled with gilded carvings and statues of gold. Of course, when the Spanish arrived, they plundered the gold, melted most of it down, and shipped it back to Spain before constructing the Convento de Santo Domingo on top of Korikancha’s foundations. Nowadays, visitors can see the remains of the foundations and gardens, which, like seemingly all Incan structures, were exquisitely carved. Taking a guided tour is highly recommended.
Located on the side of what is now the Archbishop’s palace, this famous stone is a great example of the finesse with which the Incas cut stones for their construction. Its many angles align perfectly with the surrounding stones without any mortar. You can find the 12 Angled Stone on Hatun Rumiyoc Street near the Plaza de Armas – it’ll be easy to spot thanks to the tourists you’ll always find gathered around it. This is a quick stop on your list of things to do in Cusco and shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes to admire the work and snap a couple of photos. It’s also free to view.
Museums in Cusco
Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino
This museum near the Plaza de Armas features more than 400 pieces of artwork from (as its name would indicate) pre-Columbian times. A sleek, modern entrance gives way to an historic courtyard with entrances to different rooms housing collections of various artifacts. My favorite pieces on display were the jewelry. The craftsmanship of these items from centuries ago is absolutely incredible. The Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino is open until 10 pm, which makes it a great option for things to do in Cusco in the evening. It’s also associated with the Larco Museum in Lima, which is definitely worth a visit if you have some time to spend in the capital.
The Inca Museum is located just off the Plaza de Armas and features two floors of exhibits in a historic building focusing on the Incas. There is a variety of artwork and weaponry on display, but by far my favorite section featured real Incan mummies. The bodies are incredibly well-preserved and now reside in a dark room that somewhat resembles a tomb. It’s a good way to spend a couple hours, especially for those who are especially interested in Incan culture.
The Incas were very closely connected with the stars, sun, and moon, and a visit to the Cusco Planetarium is a great way to learn more about the night sky that they observed. It’s especially interesting for me as a visitor from the Northern Hemisphere as the southern constellations are different from the ones I grew up looking at. Seeing the Southern Cross for the first time years ago in South Africa was such a cool experience. Visitors to the planetarium here can reserve a spot for an evening program, which includes round trip transportation from the Plaza Regocijo very close to the Plaza de Armas. Your visit includes an introduction to Incan astronomy, a dome presentation of the southern sky, and a chance to do some stargazing through telescopes if the skies are clear.
Museo Histórico Regional
The Regional History Museum is a small collection in a historic building is included in the tourist ticket almost everyone visiting the region purchases, which is the main reason I included it. It has some cool exhibits featuring fossils and arrowheads from the region all the way up through Spanish occupation. There is plenty of artwork and some cool furniture to see. I wouldn’t allocate more than an hour or two to visit, but since it’s included in the ticket, it’s a great way to kill a couple hours without spending any more money.
Other things to do in Cusco
Plaza de Armas
The Plaza de Armas is Cusco’s central tourist area and the activity hub for many of the things mentioned in this post. Constructed by the Spanish atop a former Incan gathering ground, two sides of this beautiful plaza are taken up by religious buildings with the other two full of shops and restaurants. Some of the buildings are built on old Incan foundations, but the feel of the plaza is decidedly Spanish. It’s definitely worth paying a visit to with its central fountain and beautiful architecture. It’s also beautiful after dark. We ate a couple meals right on the plaza, and while it’s decidedly touristy, we enjoyed both experiences. Our lunch there was in a restaurant with a balcony and we loved sitting there watching people come and go below us while we ate. Be prepared to be approached by an endless stream of vendors selling trinkets, woven items, tours, and more.
Cathedral of Santo Domingo
Also known as the Cusco Cathedral, the Cathedral of Santo Domingo dominates the Plaza de Armas. Built on Incan foundations – in fact the Spanish construction suffered greatly during earthquakes while the older Incan foundations survived – this was the heart of the Catholic church in Cusco. For an admission fee, you can visit the cathedral and check out its artifacts and artworks. Most notable is the Peruvian version of the famous Last Supper painting with a guinea pig (cuy) substituted for the entrée in an attempt to appeal to the local population they were seeking to convert.
Mercado de San Pedro
This massive market is full of vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables and is a great way to get a taste of life in Cusco. You can also grab a fresh-made smoothie or light lunch from vendors during the middle of the day. (If you’re getting juice or a smoothie, check to see if they’re made with bottled water before ordering if you’re not accustomed to the local water) There are, of course, plenty of stands selling souvenirs to tourists. You can easily spend a couple of hours wandering the stalls and browsing the foods and goods for sale. Keep an eye out for the churro vendor right at the entrance because the custard filled ones were legit the best churros I’ve ever had. Regardless of what you’re looking for, this vibrant market place is well worth a stop on your visit to Cusco, and I was so glad we were staying right across the street from it.
Heading to Machu Picchu after your visit to Cusco? Check out these posts full of tips:
- Inca Rail vs. PeruRail: Picking the Best Train to Machu Picchu
- Everything You Need to Know About the New Rules for Visiting Machu Picchu
- Relax at the Hot Springs in Aguas Calientes, Peru
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I loved Cusco, such a beautiful little town