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A virtual carnival of classicism, a city within a city, Quito’s historic center represents one of the crown jewels in South America’s colonial culture. Due to the fact that it contains the largest concentration of historically valuable architecture in Latin America, dating as far back as the early 16th century to the early 20th century, the United Nations has declared the region a World Heritage Site. So where do you begin to take it all in? Take this guide as a handy reference.
Encompassing many streets, avenues, and plazas, just about anywhere you look in Quito’s “centro historico” – north, south, east, or west – provides a virtual study in civilization and style. The latter includes everything from the Baroque, Mannerist and Renaissance design introduced by Spanish and Italian architects who arrived following the Spanish conquest, to the Neoclassical forms that became popular at the end of the 19th century. In between those two periods there evolved movements such as the Quito Baroque School, visible in many of the area’s cathedrals and churches, which combined European and indigenous motifs in a singular style that influenced architecture across the continent.
If you are visiting Quito’s historic center for the first time, the various plazas – each one a town square of sorts – are useful reference points for exploring the city. Just about each one has at least one beautiful church of historic importance, and either has, or is close to a few museums and galleries, not to mention many restaurants and shops.
Plaza del Teatro
On Guayaquil and Esmeraldas, the Plaza del Teatro is home to the landmark Teatro Sucre, completed in 1886, in the Neoclassical style that was fashionable at the turn of the century. The Teatro Sucre is known for its repertoire of ballet, opera, Broadway musicals, as well as modern theater. The plaza itself is of classical design, popular with locals, and has small cafés and restaurants.
Plaza de la Independencia
Continuing north, towards Venezuela and Chile, the Plaza de la Independencia is a magnificent square, featuring an impressive obelisk, designed in Italy, and flanked by monuments of notable historic value, such as the 17th century Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito, the Palace of the President, and the luxury Hotel Plaza Grande, built in 1930.
Plaza de San Francisco
By heading northwest on Chile and then south on Cuenca, you come into the Plaza de San Francisco, whose church, with its curved steps, is one of the city’s architectural wonders. It shares space at the base with the café, restaurant, and artesian shop overseen by the fair-trade Tianguez foundation. The winding catacombs within the operation, showcasing indigenous art, are fun to walk through even if you don’t plan to purchase anything.
Plaza Santo Domingo
If you depart from the Plaza de San Francisco on Simon Bolivar and head west five blocks, you will arrive at the Plaza Santo Domingo. Besides its 16th century church, this plaza also features the Fray Pedro Bedón Museum of Art.
Plaza Huerto San Agustín
Completed in 2016, this new plaza adds a modern touch to the historic district. Roughly midway between the Plaza del Teatro and the Plaza de Independencia, on Mejia, between Juan Jose Flores and Guayaquil, this features cafés and shops. It is a pleasant place to take a break while walking to and from the many tourist attractions in the area.
Within the parameters of Quito’s historic center there are more than a dozen museums. For the first-time visitor, the following are especially recommended:
Museo de la Ciudad
An excellent introduction to Quito for the new visitor, the Museo de La Ciudad – formerly a 16th century hospital – with its 10 exhibition halls, chronicles the city’s history, from the pre-Columbian era to the 19th century. There is also a new, modern art gallery showcasing contemporary artists.
Museo de la Ciudad, García Moreno, Quito, Ecuador, +593 2 2283 883
Museo Casa de Sucre
The former mansion of the great leader, along with Simon Bolivar, of the war for independence from Spain, this museum features the authentic furnishings that belonged to Marshall Antonio José de Sucre and his wife, Mariana Carcelén, as well as original period maps, firearms, and military equipment.
Museo Casa de Sucre, Venezuela, Quito, Ecuador, +593 2 295 2860
Centro Cultural Metropolitano
This magnificent work of architecture has history that goes as far back as 1622, when Jesuits built a university on the corner of land where the Quito’s Centro Cultural Metropolitano now stands. In the centuries that followed it served as the setting for many momentous events, including where Ecuador was officially recognized as an independent nation. It now serves as an anthropological and cultural showcase, with its multiple exhibition halls, as well as a library.
Museo Alberto Mena Caamaño
Adjacent to the Centro Cultural Metropolitano, this museum features room after room of wax figures in authentic period dress recreating important moments in Ecuador’s fight for independence, including massacres. Also displayed are many original works of art and weapons from the 18th and 19th century.
Located right behind the Centro Cultural Metropolitano on Garcia Moreno, this coin museum is housed in the former location of the Banco Central, or Central Bank, of Ecuador. The building was constructed in the late 19th century by the Swiss-Italian Durini brothers in the Neoclassical style popular during that time. It showcases the history of currency in Ecuador, from the Spanish colonial period to the last days of the Ecuadorian “sucre” before the country switched to the American dollar. The collection of coins displayed are priceless, as is the information as to their history and manufacture.
Museo Casa del Alabado
This is one of the best and most comprehensive displays of authentic Pre-Columbian art, pottery, and religious iconography in the city. For more about Pre-Columbian museums and exhibits in Quito, please click here.
Museo Casa del Alabado, Cuenca, Bolívar, Quito, Ecuador, +593 2 228 0940
Casa Museo María Augusta Urrutia
Born into a high-ranking aristocratic family in 1901, María Augusta Urrutia never had children, and after the death of her husband in 1931, as a devout Roman Catholic she dedicated her life to serving the poor in Quito, especially children. Her former home is now preserved as a piece of history, giving visitors an opportunity to see daily life in Quito in the first half of the 20th century, which in Ecuador was much closer to the 19th.
Casa Museo María Augusta Urrutia, Simon Bolivar, Quito, Ecuador, +593 2 258 0103
Museo Fray Pedro Gocial
The Fray Pedro Gocial is the official museum of the Church of San Francisco which faces San Francisco Plaza. It features breathtakingly beautiful works of religious art across the centuries from Ecuador’s Catholic past, including from the Quito School which fused Baroque and native elements.
Museo Fray Pedro Gocial, Cuenca N3-86, Quito, Ecuador, +593 2 295 2911
Museo de Arte Colonial
This museum of colonial art, as it is called, does feature art from the colonial period, most notably Manuel Chili, aka Caspicara, a 17th century Ecuadorian sculptor known for his florid, Baroque, and sometimes very bloody works. However, it also features an impressive display of work from the post-colonial era.
Museo de Arte Colonial, Cuenca, Quito, Ecuador, +593 2 228 2297
Quito’s historic district features a high number of impressive, ecclesiastical Roman Catholic landmarks, many from the 16th and 17th centuries. Many also have their own museums featuring religious art. For a comprehensive list of churches and cathedrals in this neighborhood, click here.
The La Ronda neighborhood
Only recently restored to its original, 19th century character, for many years this was a famous bohemian neighborhood that served as home to many of Ecuador’s most renowned poets, artists, and political activists. Now, on Friday and Saturday nights it comes alive as a romantic setting for art galleries, shops, restaurants, and taverns. Read more about “La Ronda” here.
La Virgen del Panecillo
A few miles south of the historic district there is the 650 foot (200m) high Panecillo hill, atop which stands a 150 foot (45m) high statue of Mary, the Mother of God, the only one in the world that features the Madonna with angel wings, not to mention a crown of stars. You can walk from Garcia Moreno towards a path that takes you up to the very top, but it is safer to pay four or five dollars for a taxi.