Things to Do in Quito’s Historic District

Plaza de San Francisco sits at the heart of Quito's historic district
Plaza de San Francisco sits at the heart of Quito's historic district | Photo by Andrés Medina on Unsplash
Photo of Rick Segreda
Cultural Activist15 October 2021
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A carnival of classicism, a city within a city, the historic center of Quito is the crown jewel of Ecuador’s colonial heritage. With one of the densest concentrations of colonial architecture in South America, dating as far back as the early 16th century, it was declared a Unesco site in 1978. Here’s our guide to making the most of your visit.

Encompassing many streets, avenues, and plazas, just about anywhere you look in Quito’s historic center provides a study in civilization and style. You’ll see religious structures ranging between baroque, mannerist and Renaissance design, which were introduced by Spanish and Italian architects who arrived following the Spanish conquest, as well as neoclassical buildings that became popular towards the end of the 19th century. Between these two periods, movements such as the baroque school of Quito emerged, the influence of which is visible in many of the city’s cathedrals and churches. Combining European and indigenous motifs in a singular style that influenced architecture across the continent, the school gave much of Quito its distinct aesthetic.

You can enjoy a guided walking tour of Quito’s historic center as part of Culture Trip’s exclusive eight-day Ecuador adventure, led by our Local Insider.

The plazas

If you’re visiting Quito’s historic center for the first time, the various plazas are useful reference points for exploring the city. Almost every one of them has at least one beautiful church of historic importance, and either contains, or is close to a few museums and galleries, plus many restaurants and shops.

Plaza del Teatro

Architectural Landmark
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QUITO, ECUADOR - AUGUST 4, 2014: Unidentified people sitting and walking on the Plaza del Teatro (Theater Square) in front of the Sucre Theater
© Sven.Travel.Ecuador / Alamy

On Calle Guayaquil & Esmeraldas, the Plaza del Teatro is home to the 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, and Broadway musicals, as well as modern theater. The plaza itself is of classical design, popular with locals, and has several small cafés and restaurants.

Plaza de la Independencia

Architectural Landmark
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In the heart of Colonial Quito is the Main Square: Plaza Grande or Plaza de la Independencia in the city of Quito, Ecuador.
© Wolfgang Kaehler / Alamy

Continuing north, towards Calle Venezuela and Chile, the Plaza de la Independencia (otherwise known as Plaza Grande) 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 Presidential Palace, and the luxury Hotel Plaza Grande, built in 1930.

Plaza de San Francisco

Architectural Landmark
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Church and Convent of St. Francis, ( El San Francisco ), Plaza de San Francisco, Quito, Ecuador, South America
© Kumar Sriskandan / Alamy

Head northwest on Chile and then south on Cuenca, and you’ll arrive at the Plaza de San Francisco, whose church and monastery, with its curved steps, is one of the city’s most renowned architectural wonders. Construction began in 1534, making it the oldest church in Ecuador. At its base, there’s a café, restaurant, and artesian shop overseen by the fair-trade Tianguez foundation. The winding catacombs within the operation, showcasing indigenous art, are worth walking through even if you don’t plan to purchase anything.

The Museums

Within Quito’s historic center, there are more than a dozen museums. Here, we’ve picked out the most interesting ones to visit.

Museo de la Ciudad

Museum
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South America, Ecuador, Pichincha province
© Danita Delimont / Alamy

An excellent introduction to Quito, 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 the work of contemporary Ecuadorian artists.

Museo Casa de Sucre

Museum
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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.

Centro Cultural Metropolitano

Museum
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Library, El Centro Cultural Metropolitano, Quito, Ecuador
© Klaus Lang / Alamy

This resplendent work of architecture dates back to 1622 when Jesuits built a university on the corner of land where Quito’s Centro Cultural Metropolitano now stands. In the centuries that followed, it served as the setting for many momentous events, including the spot 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

Museum
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Adjacent to the Centro Cultural Metropolitano, this museum features numerous rooms 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 centuries.

Museo Numismático

Museum
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View to the Museo Numismatico in the Banco Central del Ecuador building at the historic center, Quito, Ecuador, South America.
© agefotostock / Alamy

Right behind the Centro Cultural Metropolitano on Garcia Moreno, this coin museum is housed in the former location of the Banco Central (Central Bank) of Ecuador. The building was constructed in the late 19th century by the Swiss-Italian Durini brothers in the neoclassical style of the 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.

Casa Museo María Augusta Urrutia

Museum
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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.

Museo Fray Pedro Gocial

Museum
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Pedro Gocial Museum housed in Saint Francis Monastery, Quito, Pichincha Province, Ecuador
© Karol Kozlowski Premium RM Collection / Alamy

The Fray Pedro Gocial is the official museum of the Church of San Francisco which faces San Francisco Plaza. It features beautiful works of religious art across the centuries from Ecuador’s Catholic past, including from the Quito School, which fused Baroque and native elements.

The Churches

Quito’s historic district features an abundance of colonial churches, which are impressive sights to behold both inside and out. These two, in particular, are essential stops when walking through the area.

The Basilica del Voto Nacional

Church
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Quito - Basilica del Voto Nacional
© Imagebroker / Alamy
Quito’s largest church was inspired by Bourges Cathedral in France and was constructed between 1887 and 1909. However, urban legend has it that it will only be fully completed shortly before the end of the world. For a small fee, you can go inside and climb to the top, where you’ll be rewarded with magnificent aerial views across the city.

La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús

Church
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With its elaborate gold leaf interior, the Church of La Compañía de Jesús (constructed between 1605-1765) is among the most striking in Ecuador. Mainly built in Spanish baroque style, it also incorporates French and Italian baroque influences, as well as elements of Moorish design.

Other areas of interest

La Ronda

Architectural Landmark
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Calle de la Ronda, World heritage UNESCO Centre,, Quito Ecuador
© Martin Lindsay / Alamy

Only recently restored to its original, colonial-era character, for many years La Ronda was a bohemian neighborhood inhabited by many of Ecuador’s most renowned poets, artists, and political activists. Now, its lantern-lit streets contain a flourishing mix of bars, restaurants, craft shops and art galleries.

La Virgen del Panecillo

Architectural Landmark
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Detail of the huge aluminium covered statue of the Virgin of Quito. The statue is sited on the top of the hill above Quito called El Panecillo. It was
© MichaelGrant / Alamy

Just south of the historic district lies Panecillo hill, atop which stands a gargantuan statue of Mary, the Mother of God – the only one in the world that features the Madonna with angel wings and a crown of stars. You can walk from Garcia Moreno towards a path that takes you up to the very top.

These recommendations were updated on October 15, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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