Cusco, Peru is a charming city packed with ways to learn about the cultural heritage of Peru and its Pre-Columbian people. Here are the best things to do in Cusco, as well as where to eat and stay in this beautiful city.
Cusco was once the capital of the Inca Empire. Today it is the main base that tourists use to explore Peru’s Sacred Valley and the ruins of the Incan and other Pre-Colombian societies in the area.
We visited Cusco as part of 4 weeks in Peru during our Family Year Out, our kids were 4 and 7 at the time.
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Where is Cusco, Peru?
Cusco is located in southeastern Peru, near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range. It is the capital of the Cusco Region and was once the capital of the Inca Empire.
Today, it’s a bustling city with a mix of Inca and Spanish colonial architecture. In 2013, UNESCO declared Cusco a World Heritage Site.
What is Cusco Known For?
Cusco is one of the most well-preserved Spanish colonial cities in Latin America- as you wander the city you’ll see modern brands, and top-notch restaurants, all mixed in with ancient Inca stones and narrow cobblestone roadways. Cusco is also a gateway to Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The Altitude in Cusco
The altitude in Cusco is over 11,000 feet. If you fly to Cusco directly from Lima (sea level), it is highly likely you will experience some symptoms of altitude sickness.
Combine this with the strong sun in Cusco- a factor of both its place near the equator and the thin ozone, and you’ll want to be careful to take care of yourself.
It is highly recommended to acclimatize to the altitude somewhere a bit lower before spending time in Cusco. One of the easiest ways to do this is to fly into Cusco, then immediately take a car to a lower location in the sacred valley for a day or two.
Things to Do in Cusco
Here are the top things to do in Cusco for all visitors, though these are specifically family-friendly as well! Cusco has so much to explore, make sure you see these top highlights.
Plaza de Armas
This plaza is the center of the tourist area in Cusco. In the middle of manicured gardens is a large fountain with a statue of Pachacuti on top. Pachacuti (1418-1471) was emperor of the Inca Empire and oversaw a great expansion of the empire. Most archeologists now theorize that Machu Pichu was built for him.
Around the square, you’ll find beautiful cathedrals, local vendors, as well as MacDonalds, Starbucks, and a Patagonia store.
Hang out in the Plaza de Armas and people watch. The fountain in the middle is a gathering place, and you’ll often find vendors circling the fountain. Our kids bought bird flutes here and had a great time playing them and enjoying the sunshine.
Twelve Angled Stone/ Calle Hatunrumiyoc
Walk down this narrow pedestrian street to find souvenir shops of all sorts. In the middle of the street, you’ll find the Twelve Angled Stone. This stone has twelve corners, a great example of how the Inca fit their stones together like a puzzle, carving them exactly to the right shape, and using no mortar between them.
Don’t dismiss the shops on this narrow street, some of them have quite lovely, high-quality merchandise!
You are also likely to see indigenous women or children with baby alpacas on this street or nearby. They are wearing bright, traditional clothing, and pose for photos with the baby animals for just a few soles.
The Cusco Cathedral is one of two large churches on the central Plaza de Armas. This huge cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. It contains an impressive gold altar and a lot of Colonial art from the Cusco period.
Look for the Taytacha Temblores, or Lord of the Earthquakes, the patron saint of Cusco, that is paraded around during Holy Week. While the Christ figure looks black, it is supposed to be indigenous but has been darkened by years of soot from candles.
When we visited during Holy Week, the main altar was covered by cloth in preparation for Easter Services. Admission is 10 soles for adults and 5 soles for kids.
Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus
This church has impressive frescos and a large gold altar. The church was built in 1571, then reconstructed after the earthquake of 1650. You can actually hire a guide to take you through the interior.
There is a lot of gold in this church- the main altar is made of wood and then completely covered in gold leaf. This is the largest altarpiece in Peru, at 21 meters tall and 12 meters wide.
As you enter the church, on the left side is a small door. You can climb up to the balcony level to look down out over the Plaza de Armas.
No photos of any kind are allowed inside the church. Admission is 10 soles for adults, children are free. Open 10-11:30, and 1-5 pm.
Qorikancha/ Iglesia Santo Domingo
This complex is quite large. Qorikancha was the main temple in the capital city of the Inca Empire. At one time, it was lavishly covered in gold, with the main altar built in homage to the Sun. After the Spanish Conquest, all the gold was removed and the Iglesia Santo Domingo was built over the original temple.
Plan for a few hours here, you can see original Inca stones, a large number of Cusceño school religious paintings, contemporary art on the second floor, as well as terraces and gardens.
Make sure to get a pamphlet when you pay admission, the numbers throughout the complex line up with descriptions in the brochure. On the second floor, you’ll look over the Santo Domingo chapel. Continue past this and you can climb the bell tower for wonderful views. The bell tower closes from 12-1, so plan your visit accordingly.
Cost: 15 soles per adult, children under 10 free.
Explore San Blas
The neighborhood of San Blas stretches uphill beyond the Plaza de Armas. Known as the trendiest area in town, it’s full of shopping, cafes, and art galleries. Stroll up Cta. De San Blas to explore the area.
At the top of the hill, you’ll find Templo del San Blas, which was under construction when we visited. On the weekends there’s a lovely market set up in front of the fountain on the east side of the temple in Plaza San Blas.
Vendors here sell everything from jewelry to ceramics to artwork. There are a few nice stores edging the plaza as well. This is also a great place to pick up some postcards and stamps to send back home.
Further east you’ll find Mercado San Blas, which has a lot of food stalls. Cheap eats here are more extensive than in most markets- you’ll find such specialties as falafel among the more traditional cuisine.
We all enjoyed our trip to the Cusco Planetarium! This is a guided tour, you must reserve a spot ahead of time. The tour includes transportation both ways- they will pick you up in the early evening at Plaza Regocijo and drive you to the planetarium, and then return you to the center of town afterward. The site is not far from the ruins of Saqsaywaman, but it is down some rutted dirt roads.
There are three parts to the tour, you may experience them in a different order depending on your group. When we were there, they were running an English and a Spanish tour simultaneously, so we alternated locations.
First, we entered the domed planetarium where they showed us projections of the night sky in both the southern and then northern hemispheres and illustrated the constellations. The room is nicely padded, and they gave us blankets to wrap up with. Secondly, we sat in the outer main room and learned about Peru and the Inca traditions specifically.
Lastly, we stepped outside to view the stars. We started with a laser pointer tour of the stars above us, then moved to the telescopes. They had two high-powered telescopes set up so that we could split into two groups. They also had a stool for the kids so they could easily look through them as well. This was easily everyone’s favorite part of the evening!
We attended on a slightly cloudy, almost full-moon night. If you can, check the lunar calendar and try to book on a dark night. There is always a lot of light pollution from Cusco, but on a clear dark night, we would have been able to see a bit more.
We got back to town about 8:30 pm, and though I think we all got something a bit different out of the experience based on age, all of us had a good time.
You can reserve a time online, we were able to pay in cash on the day of the tour. Cost: 75 soles per adult, 60 soles per child.
Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino
Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino is a great museum for families! Our kids tend to roll their eyes when we suggest museums, but then often actually enjoy them. This museum was recommended to us by our tour guide for the ruins of Ollantaytambo. He believes this is the best museum in Cusco for seeing artifacts from this era.
The museum starts with a short video introducing the museum and its collection. The video is in Spanish with English subtitles. The kids actually wanted to watch it a second time after we explored the museum so that they could identify all the objects in the video that they had just seen.
Follow the arrows to visit 11 rooms spread over two floors. Each room has a theme, many of them around the material of the objects. We visited rooms dedicated to stone and wood before heading upstairs where a few of the rooms are dedicated to specific areas of the country (north, south, etc). The final rooms downstairs are the real crowd-pleasers- the silver and gold rooms!
We all learned a lot, and the size felt just right to absorb a lot of information, without losing focus before we had looked at it all. Admission is 20 Soles per adult, children are free.
Just up the hill from the Plaza de Armas, you can walk to this site. The walk is short, but (like much in Cusco), uphill. Waker visited in the early morning to avoid the crowds, while the kids played at the hotel. There were alpacas grazing around the site, wandering among the stones and unphased by the visitors.
You’ll need a Boleto Turistico to visit this site- you can buy one onsite if you don’t already have one.
Originally built as a military stronghold to protect Cusco from attack, Saqsaywaman was the most important military base of the Inca empire and was also used for religious ceremonies.
Once the largest Inca structure, after the Spanish invasion and conquest, much of the stones were removed from Saqsaywaman and used to construct the colonial buildings of Cusco. But the stones that remain are still stunning and give you a sense of their massive scale and function.
Day Trips from Cusco
Most people visit Cusco as a way to explore the greater Sacred Valley Area. There are several sites that make easy and fun day trips from Cusco.
To access these sites, you can book a tour, or arrange your own itinerary and Taxidatum. When traveling with our young kids, we find that having our own tour guide or making our own itinerary often works better than joining a larger tour group for the day.
With Taxidatum you can request a specific itinerary online, and they will reply to you with a price that covers the car and driver for your trip. The price is per car, rather than per person. The driver will wait while you visit each site, then drive you to the next stop on your itinerary. At the end of your day, you will pay the agreed price to the driver in cash. Tipping is always appreciated.
Check Prices: Taxidatum Car Service
There are many day trips you can take to explore the other parts of Peru’s Sacred Valley from Cusco, including Pisac, Chinchero, and Ollantaytambo. We’ve written a whole post on your options!
Don’t Miss: The Best Day Trips from Cusco, Peru
Where to Eat in Cusco with Kids
Cusco has a lot of food options- strangely, we had a hard time finding recommendations before our visit. Perhaps people pass through too quickly to sort out the food scene here, or perhaps much of what surrounds the tourist area is just overpriced for its quality.
Cusco will feel a bit more expensive than Ollantaytambo, but with more options, and not as expensive as Aguas Calientes.
Here are the places we found in Cusco that are family-friendly, fit a long-term travel budget, and were tasty enough to recommend.
Don’t Miss Treat: Qucharitas
This ice cream parlor also serves waffles, crepes, and more. Decorated in bright colors with umbrellas hanging from the ceiling, your kids will be delighted by the sweet options, and the coloring pages handed out when you arrive.
Known for their ice cream, you choose a base, then a flavor to be mixed in, and one topping. The ice cream is really high quality and comes served in an adorable adobe dish with a handle. Located at Procuradores 372.
This place almost lost points from us for not having edamame on the menu (a kid favorite), but when our sushi arrived on a sushi boat with sliced strawberries for separation, the kids’ eyes lit up.
Make sure to ask about the promotions advertised at the door. We all enjoyed the sushi here, the staff was friendly, and the price was reasonable. Located at Procuradores 379.
Arrive early at this coffee shop and restaurant – it fills up quickly. Located on the second floor, with the entrance just past the Plazoleta Santa Catalina, the food here is reasonably healthy, and delicious.
Breakfast is served all day, which is usually a hit with kids. Our kid shared a bowl of porridge, and we also tried the Huevos Rancheros, and the Banana, Oat, and Blueberry pancakes. They also have a selection of Acai bowls, Buddha bowls, and sandwiches.
You’ll see graphic prints on the walls, these are for sale, we couldn’t help but pick up a few to take with us! They close in the late afternoon, usually around 4 pm.
This plant-based café is a delight. Located back from the street in a convenient location in San Blas, it is set within a tree-filled garden with large tables. Great for groups, before noon, they serve a small breakfast menu and delicious coffee. After 12, they open up the rest of the menu.
The kids enjoyed their pancakes- the pancakes are served with fresh banana, peach, and blueberries and just a smear of whipped cream and chocolate sauce in between each level.
To enjoy dinner here, you’ll need to call ahead for a reservation: +51 993.824.045
There are several branches of this coffee shop in town. We shared coffee, a Lucuma smoothie, and a piece of moist chocolate cake in the one close to Plaza Regocijo before our trip to the Cusco Planetarium.
Located on the main strip right before the steep hill to San Blas, you’ll often see a line outside this café. Jack’s is best for breakfast and brunch- their menu is pretty extensive. We had brunch here- the kids ordered the pancakes with mango cream and fruit. They split the plate and still didn’t finish their portions.
Carpe Diem Cucina Italiana
This is a delightful Italian restaurant where you can watch them hand-making pasta as you enter the restaurant. We had two different kinds of pasta which were excellent. We liked the pizza crust, but the margarita pizza is more like a traditional cheese pie- tomato sauce and cheese rather than fresh tomatoes. They had some interesting pizza options, including one with pumpkin cream that sound intriguing.
Molly’s Irish Pub
This is the place to go if your family’s comfort food includes bangers and mash! They have two locations- one in Cusco just off the Plaza de Armas, and one in Miraflores in Lima. There is one other Irish Pub in town, but they don’t have bangers and mash on their menu.
We liked Molly’s Irish Red Ale- it’s expensive compared to local beers, but sometimes you need a break from the local Cusqueño brand beer. The evening we visited they had live music being performed.
Cercanía Pan y Café
This small café has excellent coffee, pastries, and a few sandwiches. But don’t miss their baguettes! We shared a fresh baguette and the kids loved it so much that they asked for a second one to take with us while we walked around. Located in Plazoleta Santa Catalina.
Where to Stay in Cusco with Kids
Everything in Cusco is up or down (usually up!) a hill. Plan to stay close to the Plaza de Armas which is the center of all the shops, restaurants, and cafes.
Recommended Hotel: Hostal Corihuasi
This hotel is just up the hill from the Plaza de Armas and has some of the nicest rooms we stayed in during our time in Peru. We had a family suite with a large bed in one room, and two twin beds in the second room.
There are in-room heaters for the chilly Cusco evenings and a bathroom with hot water and good shower pressure. To get to our room we went up a flight of stairs, down a flight of stairs in an outdoor courtyard, and then up more stairs.
Check Prices: Hostal Corihuasi
When is the Best Time to Visit Cusco?
June through September is the best time to visit Cusco. While this is the winter season, the weather is consistently in the upper 60s and the city sees fewer rainy days this time of year. But it is also the high season, so be prepared for lots of other travelers.
How Long Should You Spend in Cusco?
Two or three days is a great amount of time to explore the town of Cusco itself. If you’d like to use Cusco as a base for day trips, you should add on extra time to allow for that.
We spend a week in Cusco and were still discovering markets and neighborhoods around the city center.
What is the Weather Like in Cusco?
The weather year-round is typically cold at night and warm during the day, with temperatures ranging from 32°F to 66°F, and rarely going below 28°F or above 72°F.
When we visited in April, we wore light jackets in the mornings and again in the evenings, but were often comfortable in t-shirts during the day.
Even when the wind is chilly, the sun can still be quite strong, so be sure to wear sunscreen regardless of the temperature.
Is Cusco Safe to Visit with Kids?
Yes, Cusco is very safe for families to visit. There is a strong police presence in major tourist areas. We witnessed several protests and strikes while we were visiting, and there was a lot of security around to make sure everything stayed on plan.
We walked all over Cusco, including to less touristy areas of the city, and never felt uncomfortable.
There You Have It
Cusco is a wonderful city to explore and use as a base for the greater Sacred Valley of Peru. With this list of things to do in Cusco, as well as where to eat and stay, you should have a wonderful visit.