Cusco city gathers some of the most exciting attractions within the region since it is home to several Inca ruins, a great cultural expression, and outstanding landscapes. Therefore, you cannot leave this destination behind while traveling through the Peruvian highlands.
The Historic Center of Cusco represents the fusion of two important eras in our country, where the Inca settlements served as the foundations of the current colonial buildings that rise in the heart of the Imperial City.
Nowadays we have such a visually striking hybrid scenery where time is portrayed in overlapping layers of history and culture. For that reason, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and it comprehends over 100 historical monuments.
The authentic old town has maintained a great part of its pre-Columbian distribution since the Incas had an impressive urbanistic knowledge that was in fact praised by the Spaniards. Also, they managed to build their structures keeping in mind the seismic activity of the region, where many of them have withstood centuries of earthquakes unlike the colonial constructions.
In other words, Cusco is one of the most complete travel destinations thanks to its vast diversity and the many adventures you’ll encounter. No matter what you do or which attractions you visit, Cusco will certainly take you on a back-in-time journey.
Since the famous Navel of the World is the starting point for most tours and treks, you’ll surely spend some time here, which is why we have written this special guide about the main attractions within the Cusco Historic Center, as well as some important historical facts gathered thanks to our local expert team.
According to the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the Incas migrated from the outskirts of Lake Titicaca by orders of the Sun God Inti. For them, it was long-promised land but little did they know that it was occupied long before they encountered it.
The Cusco valley was inhabited since 3000 years ago by many ancient civilizations. However, the Incas managed to incorporate them into their growing empire, except for a few of them that could not be subdued by the powerful Quechua civilization.
Nonetheless, they gained control over the lands and settled there. The valley was a flourishing territory, surrounded by mountains, rivers, and beautiful esplanades, which made it so special and significant for the Incas.
Later, they constructed the Imperial City of Cusco, which played an important role as the capital of the whole Tahuantinsuyo Empire. The city was initially shaped like a cougar, a significant figure of the Andean cosmovision, it also had a nearly perfect urban distribution, with administrative and military centers, temples, and residential areas.
During the Inca era, it was known as Q’osqo, a quechua word that means “Navel of the World,” A name that despite its origin was practically maintained by accommodating the word to the Spanish language.
When the Spanish conquerors arrived in Peru, they already knew that Cusco had to be conquered since it was the capital of the Inca Empire. Once they defeated the famous civilization and stripped them from their lands, the Spaniards dismantled the principal worship centers and other structures to build the Colonial Cusco.
However, a great part of its original distribution was preserved and some Inca constructions were used as the foundations of their buildings. Later, the colonial Cusco was founded by the Spanish Francisco Pizarro in 1534.
During this time, Cusco was an important administrative and economic center. However, the location wasn’t very favorable which is why the Spanish conquerors chose Lima as the capital, leaving Cusco as the virreinal administrative center of the southern part of the country.
Likewise, for being one of the first founded cities in Peru, it enjoys outstanding colonial structure, being the religious buildings the most popular through that time. Unfortunately, the city was struck by several earthquakes that almost destroyed every single colonial structure, being the Incan remains the ones that withstood such aggressive seismic activity.
Nowadays, Cusco has a colonial-inca architecture, a special combination of two significant transitions in our country. Some Inca structures remain in the heart of the city and in its surroundings, where the ancestral knowledge of the Incas can be fully appreciated.
Among the many historical monuments within the city of Cusco, here are some of the most important, characterized by their colonial and Inca features. If exploring the so-called city of the Incas, make sure to add at least one of these attractions in your itinerary:
1. Convent and Church of Santo Domingo: The Qoricancha Temple
Also known as the Temple of the Sun, it was a sacred place to the Inca civilization where gold ornaments adorned the whole structure in honor of the Sun God, Inti. Unfortunately, the temple was sacked and all of those relics were lost during colonization.
During Inca times, it was the principal worship temple of the region. Due to the spanish conquest, most of its structure was destroyed, and the site was designated to Juan Pizarro, who then donated it to the Dominicans that later built the Santo Domingo Convent on top of its remains.
The Qoricancha temple is one of the perfect examples of the Inca and Colonial fusion. Currently, this site remains as a paid tourist attraction and you can visit it with our exclusive tour through Cusco’s principal archeological sites. Learn more about this enigmatic structure with this special guide we have for you.
2. The Cathedral of Cusco
It is one of the famous religious constructions within the Historic Center of Cusco. It took over 100 years and thousands of natives to complete the structure, and it was assembled on top of the Inca palace Suntur Wasi.
The Cathedral of Cusco comprehends gothic and renaissance styles perfectly merged with the local baroque design. These styles are significantly represented in the cathedral’s massive carved doors, likewise, its impressive interior is complemented with beautiful altars.
One of its remarkable altars is covered in silver, dedicated to the Asunta Virgin. Most of its paintings and carvings were made by the Cusqueña School, being “The Last Dinner” painting one of the most recognized artworks due to the representation of the Andean Peruvian culture in the Christian religion imagery.
The Cathedral, in addition to its official status as a place of worship, has an excellent exhibition of Cusco’s colonial art, as well as holding many archeological artifacts and relics. For that reason, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 alongside the rest of the old town.
3. Plaza de Armas
As most historical centers, the main square in Cusco was the center of the administrative and religious part of the city. During the Inca Empire, it was known as “Huacaypata” a ceremonial center intended for the worship of the dead.
The palaces for the most renowned Inca rulers were built in its surroundings. However, during the colonization process, the Spaniards built churches, houses, and administrative centers on top of these ancient structures.
Currently, religious festivities are celebrated every year in Plaza de Armas, as it was during the Inca and Colonial era. The famous main square is considered as one of Cusco’s treasures due to its authentic urban scenery where the modern and ancient worlds collide.
4. La Compañía de Jesús Church
The Iglesia Compañía de Jesús was the first religious building of the colonial Cusco, it was constructed in 1571 on top of the Amaru Cancha, the worship center of the snake, a figure of the Andean iconography.
The structure is considered the perfect example of the colonial baroque style in the whole continent. The recognized church also holds an impressive collection of the colonial artwork of the Cusqueñan School.
5. La Merced Church
It is another significant catholic church within the Historic Center of Cusco, which holds the remains of Diego de Almagro el Viejo, Diego de Almagro el Mozo, and Gonzalo Pizarro.
It was founded in 1536, however, the church was significantly damaged due to an earthquake in 1560. The fully restored temple was inaugurated in 1996, which is the structure we have today.
6. Casa Garcilaso
As most of the structures within the Historic Center of Cusco, this colonial mansion was built on top of an Inca settlement. Casa Garcilaso was the birthplace and home to the chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the first native american to adopt both Spanish and Inca cultures.
Nowadays, this historical monument holds an exhibition of pre-Inca and Inca pieces, as well as colonial art and the life story of the famous writer. Get to know more about this important museum in Cusco on this blog.
Cusco’s old town is located in the heart of the city, it is the most touristy area of the region. If you want to visit the enigmatic Historic Center of Cusco, you can join a guided tour or do it on your own. However, it is not advisable to explore these attractions without an expert since there are so many details to be covered that you certainly can’t miss.
The aforementioned attractions are located in a walking distance, which is why many tour operators offer different options to visit these attractions. Luckily for you, we have an exclusive tour for all Viagens Machu Picchu travelers that include these and many other places.
From 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. – Enjoy the different sightings within the historic center with our local guide, where you’ll also get to know Cusco’s main streets, local markets, colonial neighborhoods, and more.
In the afternoon, you’ll start the Archaeological City Tour with a visit to the Cathedral of Cusco, recognized for its Baroque style made by the best sculptors of the Cusqueña School, and by the famous Italian painter and sculptor, Bernardo Bitti.
Then, you will continue towards the Coricancha Temple or Temple of the Sun, a sacred location for the Incas used for worshiping the Sun God Inti.
Following with a visit to the four archeological sites located in outskirts of the city: The Sacsayhuaman Fortress, famous for its huge carved stone blocks and the celebration of the Inti Raymi (The Sun Festival), continuing with Q’enqo, Puka Pukara, and Tambomachay.
We are always on the lookout, which is why our local expert team guarantees an exclusive and unique experience throughout your trip in Peru. If you’re looking to travel in comfort, then check our travel packages for Peru and Machu Picchu. Uncover the mysteries of the spellbinding Peruvian lands with Viagens Machu Picchu.
There are so many things to do in Cusco city that you definitely can't miss, we'd love to show you everything it has to offer so you can make the most of your experience while you're here!