Best things to do in Cuzco
Find out more about those top places in Cuzco
Nestled deep in an Andean mountain valley, Cuzco is one of the world’s most mystical cities. Founded in the 13th century and becoming the Incan capital two hundred years later, Cuzco was planned as a grand imperial capital that would stand the test of time. Today, Incan Cuzco remains intact with great stone palaces and religious complexes lining the city’s cobbled streets. However, Cuzco is no historical relic. It is the vibrant capital of Andean Peru and visitors are left enchanted by the city’s near-constant procession of religious festivals, which bring in colorfully dressed locals from the surrounding countryside.
The best-preserved Inca site within the city limits of Cuzco is the temple of Qorikancha, which forms the base for the monolithic colonial-era church Santa Domingo. While the temple was once the grandest in the Inca Empire (it was gilded in over 1400 kilograms of gold), today little is left bar the awe-inspiring masonry that stands as testament to the craftsmanship of the pre-Columbian era. Guided tours of the site also encompass Santa Domingo, which is a rich repository of colonial art.
One of the most popular day trips from Cuzco is to explore the Sacred Valley, which is filled with a myriad of colonial-era settlements, unspoiled weaving villages that hold onto pre-Columbian traditions and Inca ruins. Highlights include the Inca citadel of Pisac with its sweeping agricultural terracing and the fortress-cum-temple of Ollantaytambo, which was one of the few locations where the Incas won a battle against the conquistadors.
Cuzco’s newly opened Machu Picchu Museum holds an impressive collection of artifacts that were excavated during Hiram Bingham’s expeditions – many of which were until recently held by Yale University. Exploring the museum gives you the opportunity to get up close to Inca handicrafts, weaponry and ornate ceramics. The museum itself is housed in the spectacular colonial villa Casa Concha.
Built from the rubble of an Incan palace, Cuzco’s cathedral is one of the oldest in the Americas with construction beginning in the early 16th century. The most interesting aspect of the cathedral is its artwork, which fuses European ecclesiastic painting with traditional elements of Andean folk art. Guided tours of this spectacular building are regularly available.
To get a better understanding of how the Incas worshiped the constellations head to the Cuzco Planetarium. Set atop a hill overlooking the city, the planetarium explains how the Incas used the heavens to predict the weather and lay out the street pattern of pre-Columbian Cuzco. Guided tours of the complex sell out fast but are well worth advance booking.
If you are looking for an Inca experience without the crowds, the ruins of Tambomachay are the perfect excursion from Cuzco. Set in a narrow Andean valley, the ruins are all that remains of a vast temple complex that was part of an Inca water cult. Highlights of the site are the ceremonial stone baths, whose engineering is still impressive today, alongside its remarkable setting.
The heart of modern Cuzco is the Plaza de Armas, which in Inca times was named Aucaypata. Highlights of the atmospheric square include the cathedral and the 16th century Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús, which contains Peru’s largest alter.