© Tierra Connor / Culture Trip

The Insider Guide to Cusco

Once the center of the Incan Empire, today Cusco is the launching point for one of the world’s most revered wonders, Machu Picchu. Discover more about this complex city, defined by ancient history and a heartwarming culture that you won’t forget in a hurry.

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The Main Attractions

If you’re here, Machu Picchu will likely be top of your list. But before you set off on your once-in-a-lifetime trek, take a look around: the walled complex of Sacsayhuaman and the Qorikancha temple, dedicated to the Sun God Inti, will whet your precolombino appetite for the grand finale. The contrast between the colonial-era buildings and these Incan sights is stark – Cusco Cathedral and the Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús loom over the Plaza de Armas as enduring symbols of the 16th-century Spanish conquest, adding another fascinating dimension to this timeless city. If you’re on the hunt for souvenirs, follow the rows of street vendors all the way to San Pedro Market. From alpaca jumpers and Chullo hats to wooden panpipes and hand-carved bottles of pisco sour, you’ll find it in abundance at this bustling bazaar. You won’t leave hungry or thirsty either – fried plantains, buttifaras (ham sandwiches served on French bread) and lomo saltado (stir-fried beef served with onions, tomatoes, french fries and rice), plus plenty of freshly squeezed juices to wash it down, are readily available from numerous stalls. North of the city, the lower-lying Sacred Valley is home to more Inca ruins; it’s a great place to acclimatize to the altitude of the Andes mountains before heading to Machu Picchu. Book your spot with a licensed guide on the Inca Trail, where some campsites offer gourmet meals and, if you’re lucky, hot showers. Or join a cheaper, more modest trek such as Lares or Salkantay, which includes an overnight stay in Aguas Calientes, before an early-morning ascent to witness sunrise over the Lost City of the Incas. To find out more about the ancient site and see excavated relics up close, be sure to visit the Museo Machu Picchu on your return to Cusco.

Neighborhoods in Cusco