While visiting the Inca citadel is certainly an extraordinary experience, Cusco is equally fascinating, intriguing, and definitely worthy of exploration.
If your travel itinerary allows, there are loads of Cusco attractions to discover and explore. A city tour is the perfect way to learn the basics about the history of this former imperial city, but it is just a start.
To get a real sense of the city, walk around Cusco, visit museums, eat the local food, and definitely take some time to people watch.
In 1533, Spanish conquistadors triumphantly entered Cusco as victors, having already captured the last Inca emperor Atahualpa in Cajamarca. Five centuries later, there is evidence everywhere of the clash of cultures that began with this violent encounter and that has continued into the 21st century.
With its population of locals who have lived here for generations, recent immigrants from the provinces, transient foreigners, and established expats, Cusco is a prime location in which to witness cultural mixing in action.
This phenomenon is ephemeral, forming and reforming in quotidian interactions, but it also finds a sort of permanence in the distinctive architecture of the city.
When the Spaniards entered Cusco, they found a city filled with magnificent temples and palaces, buildings constructed from enormous stones, so finely fitted together that they required no mortar and not even a knife blade could be wedged in between.
The Spanish destroyed the majority of these buildings and today, the monumental churches constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries visually dominate Cusco’s skyline; but some Inca walls are still standing and if you walk around Cusco you can see how they were incorporated into Spanish constructions.
One exemplary corner and among the most famous Cusco attractions is where the streets Triunfo (Suntur Wasi) and Santa Catalina Angosta meet, just across the street from the Cusco Cathedral. The bottom half of the wall is Inca stonework with finely fitted stones and curved corners. The top half features rectilinear Spanish pillars and arcades.
Housed on the second floor of this building is the world’s highest Irish-owned pub, Paddy’s. This corner is representative of the palimpsest of Spanish over Inca over everything else that has come since.
Continue walking through Cusco and you will see more examples of this fascinating architectural mixture. Also take time to hang out in the Plaza de Armas, either on the benches that line the paths crisscrossing the square or on the second floor balconies of the many restaurants, cafés, and bars that line the plaza.
Across Peru, a gastronomic boom is underway, and Cusco hosts top-notch restaurants that are contributing to the justly earned and increasing fame of the country’s cuisine. There are typical Peruvian dishes that no traveler should miss out on.
In meats, alpaca and cuy (guinea pig) are plates that will appear on most menus. Although locals eat these meats sparingly and mostly on special occasions, they’ve become widely available in order to satisfy demand.
Alpaca is a tender, albeit sometimes gamy meat, and is commonly served as a steak, in brochettes, or in a lomo saltado. This last is a favorite dish among locals, consisting of chunks of beef (or alpaca as a variation), sautéed with coarsely chopped red onion, tomatoes, and French fries.
The restaurant Nuna Raymi on Triunfo serves a tasty rendition. Meanwhile, locals relish eating a well-served cuy, prepared al horno (baked) or chactado (breaded and fried), but it has also earned a place on most tourist menus.
The meat on the guinea pig is scant and in either preparation it has a distinctive taste flavored with a blend of spices.
Other Peruvian dishes are: ají de gallina (shredded chicken served in a mild yellow pepper sauce); papas a la huancaína (potatoes in a cheesy yellow sauce, and rocoto relleno, a spicy pepper stuffed with spiced ground meat, a chunk of boiled eggs, and veggies).
Peruvians are also big on carbohydrates, and common accompaniments to most dishes are tallarines al horno (baked spaghetti), boiled white rice, and potatoes.
Most restaurants include vegetarian options on their menus.
Popular restaurants in Cusco include Chi Cha, Inka Grill, Cicciolina, Baco, and Pacha Papa. There are also excellent vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Cusco, most notably El Encuento and Prasada, both of which serve delicious food at prices that are super budget-friendly.
If you have the time and an interest in history and archaeology, make sure to the city’s museums, which are among the best Cusco attractions. It is a worthwhile experience that lends deeper insight into the history of the city from pre-Columbian times to the present.
The Museo Histórico Regional (included on the Cusco tourist ticket if you went on the city tour), provides a broad overview of the history of the region.
This typical casona (colonial house) is the childhood residence of the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a Spanish colonial administrator and an Inca princess.
He was one of the first mestizos in Peru and had access to both cultures. He was educated in Cusco’s best Spanish schools but also grew up speaking Quechua and hearing stories of the former glory of the Inca Empire.
Garcilaso de la Vega most famously wrote the "Comentarios Reales de los Incas" (translated into English) which recounts the details of Inca life before and during the Conquest.
At the museum, visitors will learn more about his life, but the exhibits also include pre-Inca artifacts as well as Inca textiles, tools, and musical instrument.
The museum also houses a representative collection of colonial-era artifacts and pieces from the Escuela Cusqueña (Cusco School of Art).
Most people will notice the Monumento Pachacuteq when coming to the historic center from the airport or the bus terminal, but few realize that it is also a museum.
A 38-foot (11.5 meter) bronze statue of the Inca emperor Pachacutec crowns a cylindrical kero (a ceremonial vase), which is itself 73 feet (22.4 meters) in height.
The monument has six floors devoted exclusively to Pachacuteq, the 9th Inca emperor responsible for the territorial expansion of the empire in the 15th century.
The museum successfully explains the significance of this legendary Inca figure, both in his own time and in the enduring post-conquest imagination of Cusqueños and Peruvians.
On the very top floor, a terrace affords amazing panoramic views of the city.
The historic center of Cusco is the Plaza de Armas. From here, the historic neighborhoods of San Blas and San Cristóbal climb up the hills.
The Cristo Blanco statue sits at the very top, adjacent to the archaeological site of Sacsayhuamán, and if you’re up to the challenge, you can get there by foot.
The easiest hike within Cusco is to Iglesia San Cristóbal. From the Plaza de Armas, take Calle Suecia or Ataúd to Arco Iris to Don Bosco.
All of the streets up to the church are fairly steep, and if you’re not acclimated, you’ll definitely feel the altitude, but the frantic pounding of your heart should subside after a minute or so.
Once you reach the church’s terrace you’ll be rewarded with excellent panoramic views of the city below.
The vista gets even better if you venture up to the Cristo Blanco statue. From San Cristobal Church facing down to Cusco, the statue will be on your left, and there’s a path that goes to the statue.
Another route is from San Blas - climb any set of stairs until you reach the road. Swing left onto the road and the statue will come into view. For both routes, be prepared for some Stairmaster-like action.
Cusco’s altitude will have your heart pounding, your lungs gasping, and your legs burning, but the views and experience are worth it.
If you are not up to the physical challenge, you can take a taxi from the Plaza de Armas for around S./5 or 6.
Peruvian currency is Nuevo Sol. At the time of this writing the exchange rate is: 1.00 USD=2.67250 PEN.
About the Author:
This article was written by Anabel Mota, expert travel writer for Peru For Less, specialist in fully customizable Peru tour packages.