With its narrow streets, restored colonial architecture and lively plazas, Quito’s Centro Histórico is a marvel to wander. Built centuries ago by indigenous artisans and laborers, Quito’s churches, convents, chapels and monasteries are cast in legend and steeped in history. It’s a bustling area, full of yelling street vendors, ambling pedestrians, tooting taxis, belching buses and whistle-blowing police officers trying to direct traffic in the narrow one-way streets. The area is magical; it's a place where the more you look, the more you find.
Churches are open daily (usually until 6pm), but are crowded with worshippers on Sunday. They regularly close between 1pm and 3pm for lunch.
The heart of the Old Town is the Plaza Grande, a picturesque, palm-fringed square surrounded by historic buildings and bustling with everyday life.
La Ronda – a completely restored narrow cobblestone lane lined with postcard-perfect 17th-century buildings housing festive restaurants, bars and colorful shops – comes alive on Friday and Saturday nights when canelazo (aguardiente with hot cider and cinnamon) vendors keep the crowds nice and warm and live music spills outdoors. Placards along the walls describe (in Spanish) some of the street’s history and the artists, writers and political figures who once resided here.
Best Old Town Sights
- Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús This fantastically elaborate church blends Spanish, Moorish and indigenous elements.
- Museo de la Ciudad Explores the city’s development and social history through engaging interactive exhibits.
- Catedral Metropolitana Curious paintings from the Escuela Quiteña are on display at this iconic church on Plaza Grande.
- Basílica del Voto Nacional The top of Quito’s largest church, reached via rickety ladders, has magnificent views.
- Casa del Alabado This small atmospheric museum explores the mystical side of pre-Columbian art.
- Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Cutting-edge gallery showcasing 20th- and 21st-century art.
- Casa Museo María Augusta Urrutía A beautifully preserved house museum offering a window into the 19th century.
Capilla del Hombre & Casa Museo Guayasamín
Perched at the top of a hill in the Bellavista neighborhood northeast of downtown, is this complex of two sites, the Capilla del Hombre and Casa Museo Guayasamín, showcasing the life and work of the prolific and extraordinary Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919–99), one of South America's most important artists of the modern era. The Capilla del Hombre, unfinished during his lifetime, is a giant monument-cum-museum displaying Guayasamín's massive murals depicting the suffering of Latin America’s indigenous poor and with something of the humanist's undying hope for a better future. Integrating pre-Columbian motifs and symbols, with echoes of Van Gogh, El Greco and Picasso, among others, these paintings are as moving as they are formally impressive.
One of the most outstanding works is Los Mutilados, a meditation on the Spanish Civil War; Guayasamín studied da Vinci for eight years and did 470 sketches to get it right. Another innovative work is the sculptural El condor y el toro, which represents the forced fight between a condor and a bull during Yaguar raimi (blood festival). During the festival, a condor was tied to the bull’s neck – if the condor won, it prophesied a good harvest.
Just up a ramp and no less remarkable, is Guayasamín's former home, converted into a wonderful museum. He was an avid collector and works by Picasso, Chagall and Goya hang on hallway walls. His outstanding collection of pre-Columbian ceramic, bone and metal pieces are arranged by theme – bowls, fertility figurines, burial masks etc; in the geometric designs and muted color schemes you can see the influence on Guayasamín’s work.
The museum also houses Guayasamín’s collection of religious art, including works by highly skilled indigenous artists from the Escuela Quiteña; there’s even a collection of bloody crucifixes (although Guayasamín was agnostic, he incorporated tortured and Christlike images in his own work). The highlight is a tiny crucifix with a pendulum heart inside that ticks against the chest cavity when touched (or breathed on, according to the caretaker).
The extravagantly decorated ranch-style house is preserved just as it was when Guayasamín was alive – his clothes still hang in the master bedroom closet. Guided tours take you through much of the house. Its luxury and the scattered mementos, like a letter from Pablo Neruda, are quite a tribute to the wealth and fame Guayasamín, who came from poverty, achieved. Guayasamín is buried alongside his friend, the writer Jorge Enrique Adoum, under a pine tree near the house.
Free, very worthwhile tours (in English, French and Spanish) of both museums are included in the price of admission; these depart regularly.
A taxi, about $3 from Mariscal Sucre, is the easiest way to get here. For those looking for a little aerobic activity, it's a long walk uphill; better to taxi it up and walk back down if so inclined.
If you follow Avenida 12 de Octubre up the hill from Mariscal Sucre, you’ll reach the Hotel Quito at the top. Behind the hotel, stairs lead steeply down the other side of the hill to the historic neighborhood of Guápulo. The views all the way down here are magnificent: ramshackle houses stand interspersed among colonial whitewashed homes with terracotta-tile roofs. The odd bohemian cafe makes for a welcome break.
Panoramas Over Quito
High up in the Andes and ringed by mountains, Quito does not lack for memorable views. Here are a few of our favorite spots to take in the sweeping panoramas while having a drink or a bite.
Vista Hermosa The aptly named ‘beautiful view’ is a top spot to take in the scenery without even having to leave the Old Town.
Casa Gangotena This historic hotel's terrace provides front-row seats to Plaza San Francisco.
Café Mosaico Nosh on Greek and Mexican fare while taking in the sunset.
El Ventanal This Old Town restaurant is one of the best spots to see the city's lights come on while enjoying meticulously presented haute Ecuadorian cuisine. Best to take a taxi to the hard-to-find entrance.
Pim’s Peacefully set inside Parque Itchimbia.
El Crater Outside Quito, this restaurant and guesthouse overlooking a verdant caldera has the most magical view of all – well worth the long trip out.
Ananké In bohemian Guápulo, a splendid setting for a night out.
Tandana Vegan cafe perfectly positioned for taking in those sweet views over Guápulo.
Techo del Mundo Hotel Quito's 'Roof of the World' restaurant and bar provides sparkling nighttime city and valley vistas.