The storied capital of the Inca Empire and gateway to the imperial city of Machu Picchu, Cusco (also spelled Cuzco and Qosqo) ★★★ is one of the highlights of South America. Stately and historic, with stone streets and building foundations laid by the Incas more than 5 centuries ago, the town is much more than a mere history lesson. It is also surprisingly dynamic, enlivened by throngs of travelers who have transformed the historic center around the Plaza de Armas into a year-round hub of South American adventurers. Yet for all its popularity, Cusco is one of those rare places able to preserve its unique character and enduring appeal despite its growing prominence on the tourism radar. Cusco’s beautiful natural setting, colorful festivals, sheer number of sights—unparalleled in Peru—and facilities and services organized for travelers make it the top destination in Peru and one of the most exciting places in South America.

History -- Cusco is a fascinating blend of pre-Columbian and colonial history and contemporary mestizo culture. It was the Inca Empire’s holy city, the political, military, and cultural center of its continent-spanning empire.

Sightseeing -- Spaniards razed most of the city, but found some structures so well engineered that they built directly upon the foundations of Inca Cusco. Along with the cathedral, the city’s top sights are the many perfectly constructed Inca stone walls, beginning with Quoricancha, the Incas’ Temple of the Sun.

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Eating & Drinking -- From Gastón Acurio’s creative take on Cusqueña cooking at ChiCha to the no-frills picanterías like La Chomba, Cusco has a vibrant dining scene for those who can look beyond the pizzerias and fast food. Don’t miss a flight of artisanal piscos at the Museo de Pisco or a creative pisco cocktail at the bar at Limo.

Arts & Culture -- Where Cusco thrives is in its vibrant expressions of Amerindian and mestizo culture: June’s Inti Raymi, a deeply religious festival that’s also a magical display of pre-Columbian music and dance, and raucous Paucartambo in mid-July, are the highlights.

Shopping -- The handicrafts center of Peru, Cusco’s streets and markets teem with merchants and extraordinary textiles, many handwoven in rural mountain communities using the exact techniques of their ancestors. Pick up stylish alpaca fashions, folk art, and silver jewelry at boutiques in San Blas.

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The Best Travel Experiences in Cusco

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* Drinking in the Plaza de Armas at dusk: In the early evening, lights cascading up the hills twinkle and street lanterns and the colored fountain glow against a blue-black sky and the silhouettes of the imposing Andes. Cusqueños (residents of Cusco) of all ages parade across the square, window-shop at boutiques under the arcades, and dip into bars with coveted balconies for people-watching.

* Catching a display of cultural popular: You don’t necessarily have to plan your trip to Cusco around Inti Raymi, one of Peru’s greatest pageants of Andean culture, to see a spontaneous display, parade, or deeply felt homage to the city’s Amerindian roots. 

* Marveling at Inca masonry: Cusco’s streets are a living history lesson, a mesmerizing mash-up of pre-Columbian and colonial cultures. The conquering Spaniards had the good sense to construct their mansions and churches right atop the Incas’ brilliant stone foundations. The finest example is Quoricancha, the Temple of the Sun.

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* Strolling hilly San Blas: Climbing the steep streets of atmospheric San Blas can feel like doing the StairMaster, but the city’s most bohemian district is chock-full of art galleries, bars and pubs, and squat, whitewashed colonial buildings with red-tile roofs.

* Touring Cusco’s Inca ruins: The circuit of fine Inca ruins on the outskirts of Cusco is a terrific primer before heading on to famous ruins in the Sacred Valley. The star is Sacsayhuamán, a fortress of immense granite blocks magnificently perched on a hill overlooking the city.

El Negrito

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A famous local figure is “El Negrito” (also known as “El Señor de los Temblores,” or Lord of the Earthquakes), a brown-skinned figure of Christ on the cross known as the protector of Cusco. Found in La Catedral, at an altar to the right of the entrance to the Capilla (in the right nave, next to the choir stalls), the figure was originally paraded around the city by frightened residents during the 1650 earthquake. When the earthquake finally ceased, locals attributed it to a miracle and transformed El Negrito into an object of devotion (locals still deliver fresh flowers in his honor daily). The figure’s crown was stolen a couple of years ago and not recovered; the one now adorning his head is gold, a gift of a parishioner.

The Air Up Here

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Cradled by the southeastern Andes Mountains that were so fundamental to the Inca belief system, Cusco sits at a daunting altitude of 3,400m (11,000 ft.). The air is noticeably thinner here than almost any city in South America, and Cusco, best explored on foot, demands arduous hiking up precipitous stone steps—leaving even the fittest of travelers gasping for breath and saddled with headaches and nausea. It usually takes a couple of days to get acclimatized. You’ll need to take it easy for the first few hours or even couple of days in Cusco. Pounding headaches and shortness of breath are the most common ailments, though some travelers are afflicted with severe nausea (others may little feel the effects of the altitude except when walking up Cusco’s steep hills). Drink lots of water, avoid heavy meals, and do as the locals do: Drink mate de coca, or coca-leaf tea. (Don’t worry, you won’t get high or arrested, but you will adjust a little more smoothly to the thin air.) If that doesn’t cure you, ask whether your hotel has an oxygen tank you can use for a few moments of assisted breathing. If you’re really suffering, look for an over-the-counter medication in the pharmacy called “Soroche Pills.” And if that doesn’t do the trick, it may be time to seek medical assistance; see “Fast Facts” below. Increasingly, travelers are basing themselves in one of the lower-altitude villages of the Sacred Valley, but there is so much to see and do in Cusco that an overnight stay (at a minimum) is pretty much required of anyone who hasn’t previously spent time in the area.