12 Historic Places to Visit in Cusco, Peru
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there’s so no shortage of historic places to visit in Cusco, Peru. Cusco tells the tales of two civilizations – the Incas and the Spanish. The city once sat as the capital of the Inca Empire before the Spanish conquered the Inca in the 16th Century. Today the streets are lined with 16th and 17th century feats of Spanish colonial architecture mingled with traces of the once mighty Inca Empire.
Continue reading to learn about what to see in Cusco, Peru.
Historic Places to Visit in Cusco
Plaza de Armas
The Inca knew Cusco by Q’osqo, which translates to belly button in their native tongue of Quechua (still spoken today in the Andes). The Plaza de Armas is the belly button of the belly button, sitting at the middle of the historic center of Cusco. The Inca built the original square and called it Huacaypata and revered it as the heart of the puma-shaped sacred city of Q’osqo. The original Huacaypata was more than double its current size and served as a venue for ceremonies and festivals.
Today the square goes by a different name, Plaza de Armas, a common name for Spanish main squares. Spanish-built churches and haciendas now flank the square, including two of Cusco’s most famous architectural landmarks: the Cusco Cathedral and La Compania.
In the middle of the Plaza de Armas, you’ll find a fountain crowned with a statue of the Inca King Pachacutec. However, he did not always stand atop the fountain. A company in the US decided to create three fountains – one to sit in Central Park, one to go to Mexico, and one to come to Cusco, Peru. The Mexico fountain had an Apache atop of it, while the Peruvian version would feature a Sapa Inca (Inca King). By mistake, the company shipped Mexico’s fountain to Peru and the Apache-topped fountain ended up sitting in the Plaza de Armas.
One night in the 2000s, a group of students from the nearby University of Fine Arts decided enough was enough. The Apache stood as an insult to their culture and had to come down. They toppled the Apache and brought it back to the University of Fine Arts where it still remains today. Pachacutec only took up the position in 2011 amid controversy when the mayor of Cusco commissioned the creation of the fountain statue.
Located on the Plaza de Armas, the Spanish built the Cusco Cathedral as a demonstration of power and dedication to the Catholic religion. Built from the stones of former Inca temples the message rang clear, there’s only one God and one religion to follow in Cusco. Even the mortar that holds the stones together comes from sacred sand that once occupied the Inca main plaza of Huacaypata.
Construction of the Gothic-Renaissance cathedral took over 94 years and the cathedral officially opened in 1654. The Spanish used the Inca as labor to build Cusco Cathedral. Though carefully watched over by one of the Spanish priests, you’ll notice some nods to the Inca’s former religion built into the Cathedral, including a carved jaguar in the head of the door.
Despite efforts to suppress the Incas’ religion, the people of the Andes found ways to integrate Catholicism with their local customs. You’ll notice this especially in the painting of the Last Supper that sits in the Cathedral. Instead of the typical lamb, you’ll see a roasted cuy (or guinea pig) sitting at the center of the table.
When the Spanish arrived in Cusco, more than 300 temples stood in the sacred city of the Inca. The Inca worshipped many gods but none as important as the Sun God. The Sapa Inca descended from the Sun and as such the Sapa Inca reigned with supreme and mystical powers granted by the Sun God.
Due to its importance, the temple of the Sun God had to shine above all the rest. The largest and most grand of the Inca temples, gold lined Qorikancha’s walls to mirror the golden color of the sun. Jewels decorated the walls and sacred ceremonies took place for only the most elite of the empire.
Today, very little of the grand temple remains. The Spanish removed the gold and jewels as loot for themselves to take back to Europe and dismantled the stones for construction of the Santo Domingo Church that sits atop the once majestic Inca temple. You can still visit what remains of this historic place in Cusco today.
Tucked away in the streets of Cusco you’ll find the remains of a former Sapa Inca palace. Though once covered by a convent, an earthquake revealed the foundations of the palace of Kusicancha.
Each Sapa Inca lived in his own palace, which was ordered to be constructed upon the day of his birth. They would continue living there even after death, with servants employed to care for the mummy and possessions of the former Inca king.
This particular palace featured many rooms and courtyards that the Inca constructed in a tic, tac, toe type style. Rooms surrounded an open air courtyard and archaeologists believe that this palace included main greeting rooms, quarters for rooms and storerooms for food.
Sacsayhuaman and other Inca Ruins near Cusco
While the Spanish tried to destroy all of the former Inca structures, not all could not be moved or demolished completely. On the outer limits of the city you’ll find some of the best Inca historic places to visit in Cusco and a must-see if you’re visiting the town.
Grouped together under the Sacsayhuaman Archaeological Park are four impressive feats of Inca engineering: Sacsayhuaman, Q’enqo, Puka Pukara and Tambomachay. Though destroyed in many areas by the Spanish and some of the locals over the years, these ruins give impressive insight into Inca building, daily life and religion.
For more information on Inca Ruins to see in Cusco, check out this guide.
Twelve-Angled Stone and Inca Trail
Calle Hatunrumiyoc marks the beginning of one of the many Inca trails that connected Q’osqo (Cusco) with the Sacred Valley and other areas of the Inca empire. Theoretically, if you were to follow this particular trail you would eventually wind up in the Inca city of Ollantaytambo (a popular stop over before going to Machu Picchu nowadays).
However, this particular street also demonstrates the architectural feats of the Inca. The stone walls here are original from the Inca times and each stone carefully carved and shaped to fit into the other stones. The Inca created stones with many angles in order to make sure that all of the stones would fit perfectly together as they did not use mortar to seal the stones together. The twelve-angled stone remains a famous example of this as the Inca carved 12 different sides to this large stone in order to make it fit with its other pieces in the wall.
San Pedro Market
Though it may not stand out as the most beautiful work of architecture in Cusco, the architect of this market is known around the world as the creator of the Eiffel Tower. That’s right, Gustave Eiffel designed Cusco’s San Pedro Market. Seeing the potential wealth of Peru due to its growing guano business, the French government encouraged Eiffel to take on some contracts in Peru. These included works not just in Cusco, but in Arequipa and Iquitos as well.
Despite its historic developer, you’ll not spend much time actually taking in the architecture of San Pedro Market as you will the colorful stalls of fruit, vegetables, textiles, and more at this local market. Try to come here around lunch time to feast on the delicious (and cheap) food that you’ll find in the market. Oh, and keep your eye out on the corner of some of the stalls. Many people in Cusco still practice some of the old ways of the Andes, including hanging up the bones of a baby llama as an offering to the Pachamama (mother earth) for success in their business.
The White Christ (Cristo Blanco)
You’ll find the White Christ spreading his arms wide above the city of Cusco. Visible from most points in the city, this huge statue offers breathtaking views of the historic city. But that’s not what makes it one of the historic places to see while in Cusco.
When violence and war set in on Palestine following World War II, many Palestinians left in search of refuge in other countries for protection. Cusco welcomed them with open arms. As a thank you, the Palestinian refugees built the White Christ to be a smaller version of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil.
Historic Museums to Visit in Cusco
The Inka Museum contains one of the largest collections of Incan artifacts in all of Cusco. This museum does a wonderful job of educating you on the known history and culture of the Inca and Pre-Inca civilizations through the hundreds of idols, tools, and ceramics that make up the museum.
Run today by the San Antonio Abad University, the museum was once the home of a Spanish admiral who had built his house on the remains of an Inca temple. Though a beautiful example of Spanish colonial architecture, it’s significant to think of its construction as you walk through the relics of the conquered Inca civilization and learn about how the Inca tried to cope with the conquest.
Museum of Pre-Columbian Art
This art museum in the center of Cusco displays historical artifacts and examples of, you guessed it, Pre-Columbian Art. The museum’s exhibits focus on ceramics and other artwork created by civilizations that existed before the Spanish arrived in South America. Some of the works in the museum date back 3,000 years. The Museum of Pre-Columbian Art in Cusco serves as an extension of the famous Larco Museum in Lima, borrowing nearly 500 pieces from the Lima museum each year.
Machu Picchu Museum
Hiram Bingham is known for bringing Machu Picchu to the international spotlight. He also brought thousands of historical artifacts from Machu Picchu and other important Inca ruins back to the United States with him upon completion of his expeditions. The Peruvian government at the time allowed Bingham to leave with these artifacts under the expectation that they would be loaned and returned back to Peru when asked.
Yale University, where Bingham taught, did not want to let go of the loot once they had it. After years of legal battles, though, the university returned hundreds of the artifacts back to Peru, which are now housed at the newer Machu Picchu Museum.
This historic place to visit in Cusco is a must see for anyone continuing the trek on to Machu Picchu. Not only do you get to see the archaeological artifacts that once lived up on the old Inca city, but you also learn more about Machu Picchu itself and Bingham’s expedition that brought the historic site into international attention.
Museum of Regional History
The Museum of Regional History in Cusco details the history of the the Andean people from pre-Inca times up until modern times. Though a little haphazard, the collection covers Pre-Columbian civilizations of the Wari, Chanapata, Killke, Lucre and Inca civilizations and include mummies, ornaments, ceramics and weavings. The Cusco Tourist Ticket covers entrance to this museum.