The capital of the Incan Empire, Cusco, was known during those times as “the navel of the world” due to its importance and location in its vast territory.
This is a city of contrasts, harmoniously blending Andean and European architecture and art styles, philosophy, and traditions. A city where, among so many highlights, even sitting on a park bench visitors and locals can immerse themselves in the heritage of the past combined with the cosmopolitan vibes of the present.
Cusco is a historical and bohemian city always celebrating traditional festivities in the streets, offering fine dining in world-class restaurants, or a Pisco sour at a quaint bar.
Welcoming you at 3,400 meters above sea level (11,000 feet), Cusco is sure to leave you breathless – literally! It is well worth a visit for its vibrant culture and warm-hearted people, certain to captive your soul.
Not only because it is a must, but because it is recommended due to elevation, you have to try coca tea. Besides the ancestral local spiritual perception, coca leaves have alkaloids that will help you to handle altitude sickness symptoms.
You can practically find everything made of coca: candies, cookies, chocolate, beer! However, the tea works better; just a few cups during the daytime will be good enough. Too much can cause dehydration, and that is basically what you should avoid with such dry weather. Too much of a good thing!
If you are not such a curious traveler, then you can try the muña tea instead, known also as the Andean mint tea that has medicinal properties too, good to fight the altitude sickness as well.
If, on the other hand, you are much more adventurous, then you can even chew the coca leaves the local way. More authentic, more effective, more fun!
What do you like best about your city?
Atmosphere! No matter what you do, even when just hanging out, you can feel the good vibes coming from every corner of the city. This is not only a common effect of a cosmopolitan city but also a result of a blended culture in every way. Cobblestones streets, local colorful markets, historical sites… every single Inca stone exudes energy!
Best walk in Cusco
The entire Cusco downtown is interesting to stroll through. Even drifting around is enjoyable. The best thing is that it is all within easy walking distance. Just remember to do it at a slow pace since part of the walk is uphill, and tends to be more demanding at that elevation.
The main square, Plaza de Armas, is one of the most beautiful in the country, surrounded by mountains and blessed by the White Christ statue overlooking the city from the Archeological Park of Sacsayhuaman, two kilometers (a bit more than one mile) away from downtown. A must!
Being the capital of a “pagan” Empire, Cusco had a huge catholic impact;
its more than twenty catholic churches are proof of that. They are jewels of colonial architecture, but the stand out is the Basílica de la Asunción Cathedral located in the main square. This impressive building houses goldsmith and woodcarving artwork, and a collection of religious paintings from the Cusco School, the most important of colonial America. Here, you can also attend a catholic service spoken in the Inca native language, Quechua.
Alongside the cathedral, plenty of craft and souvenirs stores will lead you to little Nazarenas square. If you are a museum lover, you should not skip the MAP, the Precolumbian Art Museum, located here; not far from another important museum, the Inca Museum.
Keeping walking uphill −steepy−, along the charming narrow streets you will see the locals working in their art studios, while heading to San Blas, the artisans’ neighborhood. Another must! Here you breathe art, history, culture, a hipster atmosphere, and eventually good fresh pastries from a cute bakery coffee shop.
On the way back down to the main square, going in the opposite direction towards the pleasant Regocijo square, is the Chocolate Museum. A visit here offers information, chocolate tasting, and workshops. They have a gift shop with all kinds of products made of chocolate.
Four blocks away to the southwest, there is probably the most picturesque place in Cusco downtown, the local market of San Pedro. Flowers, fruits, crafts, souvenirs, ritual items for Pachamama offerings, an explosion of colors all blended in a chaotically vibrant place.
Best Restaurants in Cusco
Due to the wide variety of Peruvian cuisine and being Cusco such a tourist destination, there is a huge diversity of restaurants.There is something to please all expectations related to ambiance and cuisine, from the most budget to the most luxurious ones.
If you are looking for a real experience, you are looking for a “picantería”, which is a traditional food restaurant.
A couple of good options where you can find Peruvian and international dishes are Nuna Raymi, and Hanz. This last one has a great view of the main square. Both restaurants are located alongside the cathedral.
Tunupa is popular for its live show of folk music and dances, its view of the main square, and its international buffet option.
Another Peruvian cuisine restaurant is Pachapapa, located in San Blas square, a bit more expensive but well worth it.
Craving for pasta? Cicciolina, located at the end of one of the streets next to the cathedral.
Now, if you don’t mind breaking the bank, Chicha, at Regocijo square, is well known abroad and has the best potato bread. Kion, next to the cathedral, is the best Peruvian-Chinese restaurant. Calle del Medio, located at the street of the same name, has an amazing view of the main square, facing the cathedral.
MAP museum has also a beautiful luxury restaurant, great food, excellent service, and a magical atmosphere surrounded by candle lights.
Best Music and Festivals
All over the city, practically all year long, there are festivals mainly related to popular traditions. The most important one takes place every June, the anniversary of Cusco, the celebration of the solstice, the Inti Raymi, dedicated to the Sun God.
The city is fully decorated with the colors of the rainbow, there are parades and street fairs for several days. The main day, hundreds of locals perform the ceremony the way it used to be during Inca times. They all dance wearing traditional costumes from the Temple of the Sun, Qoricancha to Sacsayhuaman, where the main ritual is performed.
Cusco never sleeps! Around the main square, there are good party places, the most popular ones are Mythology, Inka Team, Mama Africa, and Mushrooms. For a more local experience, Ukukus with live music, it’s a great option.
But if talk about having a drink, you can have it at the highest Irish-owned pub in the world, the Paddy’s, located right next to the cathedral.
Museo del Pisco and Republica del Pisco are the most loved by locals.
However, the bar with an extra benefit is Limbus in San Blas. It offers the greatest view of the city, so worth it after a breathtaking walk uphill!
Best day trip out of the city
If you don’t mind a packed itinerary, Machu Picchu is a mandatory destination. Around a four hour journey on car and train separates the Inca citadel and Cusco. It is a long journey, Machu Picchu is a place well worth it.
A more relaxing day trip will be the Sacred Valley of the Incas that you can reach in less than one-hour driving. You can visit the traditional town of Pisac with its colorful market and Incan archeological site. Alternatively, you can drive northwest, towards Chinchero, a Quechua descendants’ town popular for its ancestral weaving techniques used to make beautiful handmade tapestries.
Either through Pisac or Chinchero, if you keep driving 60 kilometers (around 37 miles) northwest, alongside the scenic Urubamba River, you will get to Ollantaytambo. This living Inca town, the only one in the world, houses the most important and impressive archeological site of the Valley.
What most travelers don’t know about Cusco?
Most people think that history in Cusco started with Incas; there were many civilizations way before them, later absorbed by the Incas who finally used all this previous knowledge strategically enough to turn a vast territory of South America into the greatest Pre-columbian empire of the region.
Regardless of what you chose to explore in and around Cusco, you’re guaranteed an amazing experience that will leave yoiu wanting more.