Quito’s unmissable historic center, or ‘Old Town,' extends over 320 hectares (790 acres) and is the largest historic center in the Americas.
Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, Quito has taken great pride in restoring its colonial buildings and sprucing up its public spaces to ensure that both locals and visitors continue to breath life into the old town.
Life is certainly not lacking in Quito Old Town. The streets and plazas constantly buzz with colorful locals and vendors selling everything from roasted peanuts to giant roasted pigs,. Tourists drink it all in as they shuffle between the overwhelming number of restored churches and chapels, convents and monasteries, mansions and museums.
And of course, there are plenty of bars and restaurants and shady plazas to rest in when sightseeing fatigue kicks in.
Plaza de la Independencia, known as Plaza Grande to the locals, was Quito’s main square in the 16th century, serving as central market and bullfighting area.
The plaza contains several important buildings: the Archbishop’s Palace to the north, City Hall to the east, the cathedral to the south, and the white, neoclassical Palacio del Gobierno (Government Palace) to the west.
The Government Palace (re-built in 1920 after its original 1650 building was destroyed by fire) is not open to the public, but you can take a peek inside the main entrance, which is a beautiful example of Moorish architecture. There is a tourist information booth just behind the entrance gate.
You’ll find more Moorish-inspired work in the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace (built in 1852) where there is also a small craft market and a few shops.
The Church of the Society of Jesus, (in Spanish, Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús), often called la Compañía, is a Jesuit church in Quito and is one of the most significant works of Spanish Baroque architecture in South America.
The company in question is the Jesuit order, a powerful religious group that exercised authority in Ecuador. The first Jesuit priests arrived in Quito in 1586 with the mission to establish a church, school and monastery.
Construction of this church began in 1605, though the building was not completed until 1765. It is considered Quito's most-ornate church is and often called the country's most-beautiful church. During the colonial period, the church’s bell tower was the tallest structure in Quito, but it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1859. Rebuilt within six years, it was again destroyed shortly after by another earthquake and was never rebuilt.
Squint south towards the old town from Quito center and you can’t miss El Panecillo, a hill that does indeed resemble a panecillo (bread roll), and the statue of the Virgin Mary standing on top.
At 9,895 feet (3,016 meters) above sea level, El Panecillo is Quito’s most popular lookout, affording 360-degree views over the city. On a clear morning (and mornings are the best time for cloud-free views in Quito) you can even see as far as Cotopaxi’s distinctive volcano.
The aluminum statue of the Virgin Mary was introduced to the Panecillo in 1976 and was inspired by the Virgen de Quito (Quito’s Madonna), which can be seen in the Church of St. Francisco.
In the Ecuadorian wilderness near Baños de Agua Santa lies a small seismic monitoring station that has capitalized on its perfect location on a mountain top 2,600 meters above sea level by installing a tree house with a swing. But the unique piece of playground equipment hanging from Casa del Arbol isn’t just like any other swing. It is often referred to as the swing at the end of the world and dares visitors to launch themselves out over a steep drop on nothing but a crude piece of wood. The adrenaline rush is worth it though, as the experience offers a breathtaking view the mountainous landscape and the Tungurahua volcano in the background.
Santa Domingo Plaza graces the southern edge of Quito’s Old Town and is easily missed by visitors. It’s an airy plaza, dominated by the imposing Santo Domingo Cathedral on its southeastern side. In the center of the square a statue of hero Antonio José de Sucre points towards Pichincha Volcano where he won the battle for Ecuador’s independence in 1822.
The Santo Domingo Cathedral dates back to 1581 and houses an impressive statue of the Virgen del Rosario in an ornately carved baroque-style chapel. If you visit the plaza at night, the cathedral’s domes look beautiful floodlit.
The Plaza comes alive on weekends when neighboring Quiteños converge on the square to watch the various acrobats, jugglers and magicians go through their routines.
A short stroll from Plaza Grande, the Museum of Colonial Art (or Museo de Arte Colonial) is in a restored 17th century mansion and includes a fine collection of 16th to 18th century paintings, sculpture and furniture.
Works by renowned ‘Quito School’ artists Miguel de Santiago, Manuel Chili (the indigenous artist known as Caspicara), and Bernardo de Legarda feature along with some of Quito's finest colonial art. The Museo de Arte Colonial is not open on Sunday or Monday.