Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is so much more than a Galapagos stopover. The city’s historic center was the first place on the planet to be conferred with UNESCO World Heritage status and it’s the biggest and best-preserved example of Spanish colonial architecture anywhere in the Americas. Quito’s Old Town is so jampacked with incredible experiences, that it can be hard to choose which ones to visit. We’ve done the legwork for you and handpicked 5 of the very best.
Although it’s formally known as Plaza de la Independencia, locals refer to Quito’s main plaza as Plaza Grande. The plaza is flanked by some of the city’s most historical and imposing buildings including the cathedral, the Palacio de Carondolet (the president’s palace and seat of government) and the Palacio Arzobispal.
Although the cathedral isn’t the most ornate church in town, it does have an excellent collection of art from the Escuela Quiteña or Quito School. Especially interesting is the painting of the Last Supper which features a feast of cuy asado (roast guinea pig), chicha (corn beer) and the traditional maize dumplings known as humitas.
The plaza itself is worth tarrying in too: it features sculptured gardens, a famous statue, and a lovely fountain. It’s a great place to people watch, and just take in the bustling vibe of the city. If you’re there at 11.30 on a Monday morning you might even catch a glimpse of Ecuador's president checking in on the changing of the guard from one of Palacio Carondolet’s balconies.
The sight of the Iglesia de San Francisco and its accompanying cobbled plaza against the magnificent backdrop of Volcán Pichincha is one Quito’s most iconic images. San Francisco is Quito’s oldest and largest church, and it’s actually the biggest religious building on the continent. Although it’s quite an imposing structure from the outside, the internal courtyard is verdant and welcoming, and the baroque decorations on the ceilings and altars are florid and delicate in the extreme.
Only one block away from San Francisco, la Compañía is the most ornate church in Ecuador. Construction began in 1605 and was only completed in 1765, and the 160 years of painstaking effort are writ large on the interior of the church. Highlights include the intricate carvings and liberal use of gold leaf; the perfect symmetry (all the way down to the trompe l’oeil staircase at the back); and the inclusion of Ecuadorian plants and animals in the motifs. This all adds up to what is arguably the most beautiful church in a city filled with beautiful churches.
It may be a few centuries younger than any of the other buildings on the list, but this massive neo-Gothic basilica on a hill in the northeastern corner of the Old Town is the largest of its kind in the New World. The basilica’s two frontal towers are 377ft high and – if you have the stomach – you can climb the main one. The ascent entails crossing a slightly rickety (but reassuringly low) wooden walkway and climbing several sets of very steep stairs and ladders which, fortunately, are extremely sturdy. The views from the top make it all worthwhile.
By day this quaint cobbled street is an atmospheric and evocative place which captures the essence of the Old Town experience. The entire street was done up about a decade ago and its colonial houses are home to some of the city’s best galleries, cafes, bars and craft and souvenir shops. By night the calm and serenity is left behind as talented performers, musicians and street vendors come out of the woodwork. On a nippy Quito evening, it’s the ideal spot to savour a canelazo: a warm cocktail of cinnamon, sugar and a cane spirit known locally as aguardiente or "fire water."
Keen to see Quito for yourself? Check out our Ecuador itineraries here or speak to one of our Destination Experts about crafting the bespoke vacation of your dreams.
Credit to Rein Ketelaars for his photo of the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús at dawn which was used as the cover image for this blog. Originally published July 2016.