Visit the Andean Inca Capital of the Ingenious Incas
1. Plaza de Armas
2. Cusco Cathedral
3. Cusco Carnival
4. San Pedro Market
5. Local market streets
6. Plaza San Francisco
9. Cristo Blanco
10. Inka Museum
11. Museo de Arte Precolombino
12. Coca Museum
13. San Blas
We have the ’menu del día’ in a small restaurant where we get two courses and a drink for only 5 soles. As always the starter is some kind of soup, often with a few, to us completely unknown, vegetables. Getting the choice of lomo Salavador, aji gallina or pollo for the main course, we opt for the latter, chicken.
Cusco Hotel Boutique has both family rooms and features a terrace and a garden. Located about 800 m from Cusco main square. Choice between continental or a la carte breakfast. A hot tub is available at the hotel for the guests.
Tariq Hotel Boutique is located in the heart of Cusco, just 300 m from the small San Blas Church. The hotel features a garden, a terrace and a bar. There is a restaurant at the property. Family rooms are available. Paid airport shuttle service available.
Don’t miss out on the small, authentic restaurants with no menu displayed outside. It is here that the local Peruvians in the Inca capital city have lunch during their workday. The restaurants only reveal that they are in fact restaurants with a simple ‘menu del día’ or ‘almuerzo’ sign in the street – you are actually lucky if there happens to be a written menu inside! Often today’s menu is just being explained at the table.
In addition to these original places you will come across here and there in Cusco, you will of course also want to visit all the famous top sights of the former Inca capital in Peru. Cusco is today a fascinating, vibrant Peruvian city with deep roots in the historic Incan Empire, something which is noticeable wherever you turn in the city.
Cusco is a real gem with all the well-preserved remains from the Inca period. The rich Peruvian Inca civilisation has left traces of both constructions, culture and language to posterity. As the former religious and administrative Inca capital, which flourished between the years 1400 and 1534, ancient Cusco is today an important cultural heritage from the Incas in Peru.
Plaza de Armas, one of the jewels in the heart of Cusco, was originally a significant ceremonial site where Inti Raymi or the Festival of the Sun was celebrated. It is today surrounded by the Cathedral (which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the Church of the Society of Jesus, the Museum of Natural History, small cosy colonial balconies, museums and a vast number of restaurants, hotels and tour operators.
The square is the heart and the soul of the city with a vibrant life all during day and night. Visitors relax on the benches enjoying the Andean sun and atmosphere, the local street vendors come round to sell their products, pieces of art, bamboo flutes, woven fabrics, refreshing drinks or whatever it might be. Stay for a while, rest on a bench and soak up the atmosphere and character of outstanding Cusco!
The impressive Roman Catholic Cusco Cathedral, also known as Catedral Basílica de la Virgen de la Asunción, was built on an old Inca site in Cusco, beginning in 1559 and completed in 1654. It was constructed on the foundations of the old Inca temple Kiswarkancha, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Cusco in the 1500s. The Spaniards wanted to replace the prevailing Inca religion with Catholic Christianity, and they forced the Incas in Cusco to participate in the erection of the Cathedral.
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Another smaller church, Iglesia del Triunfo, is built together with the Cathedral. On one of the other sides of Plaza de Armas, the other spectacular church, the Church of the Society of Jesus, Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, flanks the plaza. It was founded by the Jesuit Order (Saint Ignatius of Loyola). It has its own Saint Ignatius of Loyola University, which today constitutes the Universidad Nacional San Antonio de Abad.
Plaza de Armas is the focal point of many events. At one moment it is the centre of a vigorous demonstration parading with banners. The next it is a vibrant stirring carnival. Various schools participate – and it is a huge event! The spectacularly dressed carnival participants parade with each their group, accompanied by lively and rhythmic music. People gather to be part of the fascinating carnival procession and the watching crowd easily covers the stairs to the Cathedral.
Other famous festivals in Cusco include the Inca Sun Festival, Inti Raymi, in June, which takes places at the ruins of Sacsayhuaman.
Visit the immense, covered San Pedro Market or Mercado Central de San Pedro in Cusco. It is gigantic with a whole section for any type of product, whether it is potatoes, bread, cheese, chicken, flowers, street food or woven textiles. You will wish that you had reason to buy and try a wide range of these amazing products! The crowd in there is a mixture of locals shopping and fascinated tourists. It is also the place to find souvenirs like woven blankets, alpaca jumpers or hats. However, it is the tourist marketplace in Cusco. If you want to find the more local stuff (and pay more local prices), there are others streets and markets to go to.
The female vendors offer pineapple slices, bananas, snacks, corn and street food from their wheelbarrows and carts. Also freshly slaughtered meat, appetizing olives, rice and exotic fruits are to be found among multicoloured fabrics, woven dolls and an abundance of hats, socks and scarfs. There is a myriad of people in the street, a jumble of vendors, eager shoeshine boys and busy inhabitants. Not surprisingly the descendants of the Incas in Peru all contribute to the uniqueness and culture of the charming, ancient Inca capital.
Other markets to consider are the local Saturday Baratillo Market in Avenida del Ejército, the local Mercado Artesanal in Avenida Tullumayo or just the local streets south of the historic centre.
Inspiration for Peru: Local Cusco hotel and Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca Floating Islands
Besides historical Inca ruins and culture, one of the absolute top attractions in the Cusco Inca capital are the market streets south of San Pedro Market. It is notably not a market of weaved, colourful blankets and other tourist stuff as you see it in many other places in Cusco. It is the local market where people buy what they need for cooking and other everyday needs…. Freshly slaughtered chickens or hens with feet, tiny bird eggs, shoelaces, matches, empanadas, boiled giant corn cobs, glasses of squeezed orange or slices of pineapple can all be found. Every street vendor has her specific supply of something.
One street corner is the market for blue jeans. The women sit, colourfully and traditionally dressed, along the walls of the buildings with their supply spread out in front of them. You will pass heaps of avocados, sliced pineapples and selections of nuts. The women bend to feel the softness of the avocados to pick the best ones. The market is outstanding, bustling and intense, and honestly one of the more unusual highlights in Cusco.
Another lovely square is the Plaza San Francisco, also surrounded by shops and cafés, and not least, the fabulous Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asís, giving name to the plaza. Today the church is also a museum. The convent was constructed by the Francisco de Toledo order back in 1572. Plaza San Francisco is a vibrant plaza – ideal for people watching! You will see a mix of locals and visitors chilling out and maybe enjoying the Andean sun here!
Descendants of the Incas in Peru are still today dressed in traditional, vivid skirts, alpaca shawls and hats. The conventional, colourfully striped aguayo or manta, a rectangular piece of clothing, is used for carrying a variety of items on the back. It is associated with old Aymara and Quechua culture, but still widely being used in the Andean communities.
In particular, the women carry their children in aguayos on their backs. A Peruvian woman can do all daily duties with her baby or toddler on her back, and there is therefore no need for special daycare! Everywhere we see the women literally wearing their children, wrapped in an aguayo sling, as the most natural thing in the world. Close to the plaza you will find a courtyard which is the location of the Feria Artesanal De Productores El Marquez San Francisco. It is another small market in Cusco’s historical centre where you will find stalls with traditional Peruvian alpaca clothing, blankets, rugs and a wide variety of handicrafts.
Explore the traces of the Incas in Peru in the courtyard of gold. Korikancha, or Qorikancha in Quechua, was once the most significant and sumptuous temple in the Incan Empire with hundreds of gold panels and gold figures inside. In Quechua the name of the temple means ‘courtyard of gold’. The golden construction in the Inca capital was visible through the valley. The temple was dedicated to the worship of the sun, and there was even a golden sun disc reflecting the sun. Besides being the religious centre of the empire, it served as well as an astronomical observatory in the Incas’ Peru. During summer solstice the sun shone directly into a sacred room.
You can also visit the convent and church Iglesia de Santo Domingo built on the same site. Most of the original Inca temple here was destroyed after the 16th-century war against the Spanish conquistadors, who used the stones as building material for their own houses and churches. Some of it was precisely used as the foundation for the 17th-century Iglesia de Santo Domingo.
Plates of fine gold were later added to the temple by Pachakutiq Inca Yupanqui. Also the walls were once covered in pure gold, and the adjacent courtyard displayed a number of golden statues. However, when the Spanish in 1533 demanded a ransom from the Incas to spare the life of their leader Atahualpa, the whole lot of gold was removed from Korikancha! The Inca stonework was solid! Even earthquakes have over the years not been able to destroy the massive constructions! In general the Inca masonry is fabulous – precise and stable. In many places around Cusco you will be able to view the artwork of the old Inca capital. Don’t miss the Twelve Angled Stone in an Inca palace wall some streets away.
Sacsayhuaman, or Saqsaywaman, with the popular pronunciation association ‘Sexy Woman’, is another extraordinary Inca construction, founded on a steep hill overlooking the city. This means that there is quite a brisk walk up to the impressive citadel. It is like Korikancha dedicated to the sun, Inti, and is its counterpart in the upper part of Cusco. In the 13th century the Incas in Peru built the complex of huge stones, accurately cut and tightly fit together without any use of mortar.
You can hike up to this ancient Inca fortress overlooking Cusco. Once there you can easily spend a couple of hours diving into the details of the stacked stones and the history of the Incas in Peru. The construction is really amazing and it is believed that about 20,000 men transported the huge stones to this site from quarries located around Cusco!
Not far from Sacsayhuaman you will locate the large 8-metre high Cristo Blanco. It is a remarkable, white Jesus statue situated atop a hill (the Pukamuqu mountain) which can be viewed all across Cusco. It was a gift from Arabic Palestinians after World War II, and it is slightly resembling the famous Jesus statue in Rio de Janeiro. The artist behind the statue was the Peruvian artist Francisco Olazo Allende. For a magnificent experience and extraordinary views of the surrounding city you may decide to hike up here from colonial Cusco.
Cusco features a number of intriguing museum, among others the Inka Museum, Museo Inka, a cultural museum of the Inca heritage. It houses an interesting collection of Inca and pre-Inca artifacts, including skulls and mummies, as well as Inca artwork. You will find the museum within a stone’s throw from Plaza de Armas.
Just behind the Inka Museum, you will come across the Museo de Arte Precolombino. The museum is part of the Larco Museum in Lima and displays around 400 unique pieces of art belonging to the Lima museum. Through the exhibitions you will discover the art of the pre-Columbian civilisations existing in Peru.
A third museum you might find interesting is the Coca Museum at San Blas – also with traces to the Incas in Peru. It tells the story on the coca plant and its significance in Peru throughout the years, as well as today. The coca leaves have been used for centuries in the Andean communities for both medical and other purposes. Today, it is in particular known as ‘medicine’ to cure altitude sickness, and it will be offered everywhere in the city in hotels and the like.
The neighbourhood a bit above central Cusco, San Blas, is a lot quieter, picturesque and charming with artisans, local craft and cafés than the streets more centrally located. Often described as bohemian, the Plazoleta de San Blas is surrounded by narrow, steep cobblestone lanes and alleys, often pedestrian-only.
When the Spaniards arrived, the area changed name to San Blas, and little by little the architectural style was converted into colonial with a touch of Andean culture. The San Blas Temple by the quaint square is the oldest church of Cusco, rich in cedar woodcarving, cut from one single tree trunk. The construction is a fine example of colonial style. Today, traditional galleries, workshops, bars and restaurants encircle the square, and it has now become one of the favourite visitor spots in the old Inca capital!
The neighbourhood is a gem and a great place to wander around and even get prime views of entire Cusco from the ‘observatory’ and viewpoints popping up in between rustic walls and simple houses. Don’t miss the other great viewpoints on this side of the city, for example the Mirador de Plaza Sán Cristobal a bit further to the side. Up here in the narrow lanes you may also occasionally bump into vividly dressed Peruvian ladies accompanied by their alpacas – or catch a glimpse of a couple of them sitting on the doorstep for a chat with their animals around!
Read next: Things to Do in Peru – 8-Day Itinerary and Spectacular Colonial Style in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
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‘Cusco: Visit the Inca Capital of the Incas in Peru’
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