Once known as Qosqo, the capital of the Inca empire, Cuzco is now the epicenter of Peru’s tourist industry. It’s the gateway city to Machu Picchu, the country’s most spectacular site, but Cuzco itself is worth several days of exploration.
Start your visit at the pedestrian-only Plaza de Armas, the city’s beating heart, where you can tour two major churches, browse souvenir shops or simply relax and take in the scene from the cathedral steps. Then wander through the inviting cobblestone lanes of Cuzco’s historic center, passing gracious plazas, colonial balconies, brightly painted doors and market stalls full of colorful textiles. The city’s architecture is a fascinating mishmash of Incan and Spanish influences, with Dominican convents built on Incan stone foundations and the ruins of Sacsayhuaman just a short walk from the city’s colonial center.
Cradled by the Andes Mountains at an elevation of more than 11,000 feet, Cuzco might literally leave you breathless. Many visitors experience headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, trouble sleeping or other symptoms of altitude sickness (known locally as soroche).
Milder cases often resolve themselves after a few days, especially with some extra rest and hydration. While the locals swear by coca tea (or simply chewing coca leaves), and many hotels offer oxygen for guests who are suffering, we recommend visiting a doctor before your trip to discuss prescription-strength remedies. To make sure you see everything you’re interested in, you might want to schedule yourself an extra day in Cuzco in case you’re not able to explore as efficiently as you do in other cities.
The heart of the historic city is the expansive Plaza de Armas, a pedestrian-only area lined with restaurants, shops and two major churches, including Cuzco’s cathedral. It’s a fabulous spot to sit on a bench and do a little people watching (and dog watching — the city has countless roaming canines). But be prepared to ward off hawkers peddling tours, artwork, massages and selfie sticks; a firm “no, gracias” is enough to send them away.
The Cuzco Cathedral, which dates back to the mid-17th century, is actually three buildings in one, flanked by the Templo del Triunfo and the Templo de la Sagrada Familia. (Your entry ticket includes all three, as well as an audioguide.) The cathedral features a mix of Spanish and Andean artistic traditions; our favorite work was the painting of the Last Supper in which Jesus and the Apostles are enjoying cuy (guinea pig) and other foods from the region. There’s also a large painting of the earthquake that caused major damage to Cuzco in 1650.
The other church on the Plaza de Armas is the Templo de la Compania de Jesus, a Jesuit church first built in the mid-16th century and reconstructed after the 1650 earthquake. Its ornate main altar is almost entirely covered in gold. Be sure to climb to the choir for views over the Plaza de Armas.
The Convento de Santo Domingo — also known as Korikancha, Coricancha or Qurikancha — is a place where you can clearly see the city’s Incan and Spanish history side by side. During the Inca period this was Cuzco’s main temple, full of gold and treasures. After the Spanish arrived, they melted down the gold and used some of the building’s stones to erect their own Dominican convent. However, you can still see many of the original Inca walls alongside the picturesque colonial-era courtyard.
At the Inka Museum, located just uphill from the Plaza de Armas, you’ll see jewelry, weapons, tools, ceramics and other artifacts of Peru’s most important empire, plus photos of the excavation of Machu Picchu. You’ll also learn about several of Peru’s pre-Incan civilizations. The museum’s display rooms surround a lovely central courtyard where local artisans offer their wares.
The Pre-Columbian Art Museum is a well-organized collection offering striking displays of ceramics, gold and silver ornaments, seashell necklaces and other artifacts from 1250 B.C. to the Inca era. There are multiple gift shops on the premises where you can purchase handmade textiles, ceramics and jewelry.
A quick uphill walk from the historic center is the charming San Blas district, an interesting place to wander. The main plaza is home to the San Blas Church; its interior is relatively simple compared to some other churches in town, but its magnificent pulpit, carved from a single cedar tree, is well worth admiring. Have a seat on the plaza and watch the locals go by, and then browse the neighborhood’s galleries and restaurants.
The ChocoMuseo is a fun stop where you can take a two-hour hands-on workshop to learn how chocolate is made — or simply pick up a few sweet souvenirs for friends and family at home.
San Cristobal Church is worth the uphill walk for the views you can enjoy over Cuzco from its bell tower. Combination admission tickets are available for this church as well as the cathedral and a couple of other sights around town.
The most impressive Inca ruin in Cuzco is Sacsayhuaman, located within walking distance of the historic center (though it’s uphill, so many people take a bus, taxi or guided tour). In addition to the zigzagging stone walls of the ancient fortress complex, visitors can take in sweeping views of the valley.
The historic center is chock-a-block with travel agencies that can arrange day trips to sites all over the Sacred Valley, including Pisac (with its sprawling Inca ruins and colorful market), Ollantaytambo (a charming town that also has Inca ruins) and the salt mines of Maras. You can even take a day or overnight trip to Machu Picchu (we recommend the latter, as it’s a long drive from Cuzco, and you want to make sure you have enough time to explore this incredible site). Viator offers a number of Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu tours.
Peruvian cuisine is best known for ceviche — raw fish with lime or lemon juice, red onion, chile, minced garlic and cilantro — and you can sample it all over the city. Also worth trying is cuy, or guinea pig, though be warned that it’s sometimes served with the head still attached. We preferred alpaca meat, which tastes like deer or lean beef. If you’re feeling a bit under the weather due to altitude sickness or traveler’s tummy, Andean soup — made with chicken, quinoa and vegetables — is a satisfying comfort food.
Cuzco has a wide-ranging restaurant scene, offering not just Peruvian cuisine but also pizza, sushi and other flavors from around the world. Be warned that many eateries (especially on or near the Plaza de Armas) have staff waiting on the sidewalk outside trying to lure in potential diners. If you already have someplace else in mind, give them a “no, gracias” and keep moving.
If you love seafood, consider a meal at Barrio Ceviche, located right on Plaza de Armas. As the name suggests, ceviche is the specialty here; the menu also includes Japanese-influenced raw fish dishes called tiradito. Those who prefer their seafood cooked can choose the catch of the day or rice with mixed seafood. If you want a table next to the window with a view of the plaza, consider making an advance reservation.
As the name suggests, PER.UK offers a menu that fuses Peruvian and British cuisine, with dishes such as traditional chicken causa (a Peruvian potato appetizer), alpaca in three-cheese sauce and quinoa burgers. The restaurant is conveniently located on Calle Plateros, just off the Plaza de Armas.
For those who want to give cuy a try, Kusikuy is a good place to do it, with multiple preparations on the menu. If you’re not up for guinea pig, consider other regional specialties such as lomo saltado (beef stir-fry) or grilled alpaca.
Nonna Trattoria serves up some of the city’s best pizza, baked in a wood-fired oven. Also on the menu are soups, salads and pastas. Diners enjoy the cozy atmosphere and yummy pies; however, note that credit cards aren’t accepted.
Organika features organic products from the restaurant’s own Sacred Valley farm. The alpaca with gnocchi draws rave reviews, as does the ceviche, but there are plenty of vegetarian options as well, such as sweet potato ravioli and vegetable lasagna.
Shopping in Cuzco
Cuzco is the perfect spot to buy a sweater or scarf made from the region’s soft alpaca wool. While just about every souvenir shop claims to offer textiles made of baby alpaca, this isn’t always true; seek out reputable shops for any major purchases. Also, keep in mind that many of the bags and textiles on offer are not locally woven and dyed. How can you tell? Those made with natural dyes tend to have more muted colors, while fabrics in the brightest shades are likely synthetic. Handwoven fabrics also often have little hairs sticking out.
Some museums, including the Pre-Columbian Art Museum and the Inka Museum, have local artisans weaving, painting pots or creating other handicrafts right on site. You can purchase directly from the artisan. (Feel free to haggle.)
Inside a warehouse just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas is San Pedro Market, where you’ll find just about everything you can imagine — brightly colored fruits and vegetables, raw fish and sticky piles of orange fish eggs, salted meat, quinoa and corn, and plenty of Andean textiles and souvenirs. Locals sit down for a meal or a fresh juice, while children and dogs scamper among the stalls.
Unlike San Pedro Market, the Centro Artesanal Cusco (or Artisanal Center of Cuzco) doesn’t have any food items to speak of. Instead you’ll find stall after stall of handicrafts and souvenirs: sweaters, jewelry, bags, hats, pottery, knickknacks and much more. It’s a great place to buy gifts for all your friends and family at home (and don’t forget yourself!).
Plaza de Armas and the streets that branch off it are full of places to browse, from ticky-tacky souvenir shops to upscale boutiques peddling alpaca sweaters and fine jewelry.
The nonprofit Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco offers a place for traditional Andean weavers to demonstrate their craft and sell their wares, including bags, shawls, hats, tablerunners and more.