After Quito, Cuenca is Ecuador’s most important colonial city. But don’t say that to the locals, who insist that their laid-back culture, cleaner streets and more agreeable weather outclass the capital, hands down.

Dating from the 16th century, Cuenca’s historic center, a Unesco World Heritage Site with its trademark skyline of massive rotundas and soaring steeples, is a place time keeps forgetting: nuns march along cobblestone streets, kids in Catholic-school uniforms skip past historic churches, and old ladies gaze upon this civic theater from their geranium-filled balconies.

The city is the center of many craft traditions, including ceramics, metalwork and the internationally famous panama hat – and the nearby villages offer many more handicrafts besides.

Top attractions

These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Cuenca.