Plaza Grande is the focal point of the Old Town. You can’t miss it and locals congregate there just about any time of day. Mornings are the least busy but you’ll never have it to yourself. Nice evenings are particularly busy. It’s a great place to relax and take in local life. It’s also particularly scenic with pretty landscaping and a few nice fountains and statues. Nothing is spectacular in its own right but the overall effect is quite satisfying. It’s lined on three of four sides with beautiful buildings that include an attractive cathedral, the exquisite presidential palace and the archbishop’s palace which now houses storefronts.
At the far south side of the Old Town stands the impressive Arco de la Reina, built in the 18th century to protect church goers and seemingly tourists of today as it more or less divides where you should and shouldn’t venture in the city. It certainly is not a sharp distinction as a very good museum lays just on the other side as well as the beautiful Monasterio de Carmen Alto. The monastery is a working one and the cloistered nuns cannot be viewed though do sell their wares (including traditional sweets) through a revolving door that keeps them hidden.
As if the Plaza Grande were not enough, Quito’s “other” square is perhaps Ecuador’s most spectacular man made sight. Coming across Plaza San Francisco is like stepping back in time with its massive cobblestone courtyard and the oldest church in Ecuador, the imposing Monasterio de San Francisco. I guess even the shoe shine boys realize this is the real deal as this is where they congregate to make a buck. Luckily they are not as persistent as in Cuzco and you can enjoy the square in relative peace. If it gets to be too much outside there is more than enough to keep you busy with the monastery including an extensive museum and one of the most beautiful altars in all of South America. Unfortunately, it was under construction while we were there so I guess that’s another reason to come back. The monastery dates back to the early 1500s and took nearly 70 years to complete.
La Compania de Jesus is to churches as gold is to rings. If you like ornate and you like gold, this is THE church to visit in Ecuador. Dating back to the early 1600s the green and gold dome of the main altar is visible from around the city, most notably Plaza San Francisco but it's real claim to fame is the gold laden interior which reportedly is emblazoned with seven tons of gold. They charge an exhorbitant $2.50 to enter but if you go on Sundays right after the mass you can get in for free.
La Compañia de Jesús is said to be the most beautiful church in Ecuador, and the most ornate church too. Construction of the church was begun in 1605 by the Jesuits, but it was not completed until 160 years later, in 1765. Since than it has been restored after damages caused by earthquakes and a fire.
The baroque façade is built with volcanic stone and it is full of stone carvings. Inside La Compañia de Jesús is decorated with gold in the ceiling, on the walls and at the altars. There are many paintings and sculptures. One famous painting is a large painting of The Final Judgment and Hell, others are the 16 paintings made by Nicolás Javier Goribar of prophets from the Old Testament on the pillars.
The admission to visit La Compañia de Jesús was $3 (June 2011).
The church is open between 9.30 - 13.30 on Monday - Friday, between 9 - 16.30 on Saturdays and between 13 - 16.30 on Sundays.
Plaza San Francisco is one of the most beautiful places in Quito. It is a cobbled square with the whitewashed church and monastery of San Francisco standing along its north-western side. Construction of the square and church begun shortly after the foundation of Quito in 1534 and it is built on the site where Auqui Tupatauchi, the son of the Inca ruler Atahualpa, had his palace.
Plaza San Francisco is sloping gently and you will therefore get a nice view over the rooftops of Quito. In the north corner of the square is Café Tianguez where you will have a great view over the square from one of the outdoor tables. It is not a cheap place, but the food is good.
The Gothic spires of Basilica del Voto Nacional are easy to spot from just about anywhere in town due not only to their height but also their vantage point high atop a hill on the northeastern side of the Old Town. Beautiful from afar the cathedral is stunning within as well with huge ornate stained glass windows galore. But its true calling card is the view from the top and perhaps more so the climb itself which involves some portions not advised for those with a fear of heights. Fear not, the whole thing is quite safe. Just don’t look down and enjoy the views from the top once there. Well worth the $2 entrance fee.
I found Iglesia El Sagrario when I looked for an entrance to the cathedral during my first day in Quito. El Sagrario was built as the main chapel of the cathedral, but it is now its own church. I passed many times during my visits to Quito and the church was often open
Iglesia El Sagrario dates from the 17th century. The ceiling and walls are painted to look like marble. Light is coming in through the windows in a cupola over the central nave. The façade is built in Renaissance Style.
Plaza San Blas is one of the city’s prettiest if simple squares and certainly one of the more quiet ones too. Its focal point is an unadorned white church dating back to the 16th century as a place of worship for indigenous people though rebuilt in the 18th century. In many ways it serves as the gateway to the Old Town. Heading north you'll go through the citiy's great parks en route to the New Town.
La Ronda is a narrow lane in Centro Histórico, lined by old colonial buildings from the 16th century. It is a picturesque place. On some houses you can read signs about artists and writers who once lived here.
La Ronda used to be a dangerous area, but it has now been restored and security has increased. It is a street for pedestrians only. Along the street there are restaurants, bars, art galleries and small shops. When I visited it was quiet, but at night, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, La Ronda gets lively with lots of people visiting the bars and restaurants. At many places live music is then played.
The whitewashed Quito Cathedral is situated on the southwest side of Plaza Grande. First I thought the cathedral was closed, but then I found out there is an entrance from Venezuela, and there you pay an admission of $1.50 (June 2011).
Quito Cathedral was built already in 1563, but has been restored a few times after being damaged by earthquakes. Inside you will find several paintings made by artists of the old Quito School. An interesting painting is the Last Supper where Christ and the Disciples have got cuy, humitas an chicha on the table in front of them. First I couldn’t find the Last Supper, but it is situated high up on the wall on the right side of the altar. In the cathedral you will also find the tomb of Mariscal Sucre, one of Ecuador’s heroes of independence. The Ecuadorian president Gabriel García Moreno died 1875 in the cathedral after he had been attacked with a machete outside the cathedral. Behind the altar there is a plaque indicating the place where he died.
When I visited there was a children choir practising and that was very nice listening to when I walked around in the church.
The cathedral is open for visits on Mondays - Fridays between 9.30 - 16.00 and on Saturdays between 10.00 - 16.00.
Plaza Santo Domingo is another huge scenic square that is a regular meeting ground for street performers as well as political demonstrations and parties. There is a general festive feel but especially so in the evenings when the square’s namesake 17th century church is a glow from floodlights as is the statue of Mariscal Sucre that stands sentinel.
The Archbishop’s Palace is one of the oldest buildings in Quito, but it has been rebuilt and restored several times. It is a two-story building with whitewashed walls and balconies. It is built in a neoclassical style and has a colonnaded passage facing Plaza Grande and several inner courtyards.
Inside the Archbishop’s Palace, around one of the courtyards, you will find many restaurants, serving both fast food and more expensive food. There are also souvenir shops and Internet places in the building.
Just off the western corner of Plaza Grande is Centro Cultural Metropolitano situated. It is housed in a beautiful restored colonial building which was a Jesuit school between 1597 and 1767, and later it was used as army barracks. At Centro Cultural Metropolitano there are usually temporary exhibitions on display. When I visited they were setting up a photo exhibition at one of the inner courtyards with photos from Machu Picchu. You can also walk around quite freely, just admiring the architecture.
In the building you can also visit Museo Alberto Mena Caamaño, but I didn’t.
Update 2012: When I visited in June 2012 there was a very nice photo exhibition in Centro Cultural Metropolitano with photos from all over Ecuador.
This year I visited Museo Alberto Mena Camaño and I will write a separate tip on that museum.
When I visited Quito I passed Iglesia San Agustin every day as it was situated only one block from where I was staying., but I only went inside once, for a short visit. It is a church that dates back to the 16th century, but after an earthquake much of it was rebuilt in 1880. The bell tower is 37m tall and on the top stands a statue of St Augustine.
I should definitely come back next time I go to Quito to visit the adjacent monastery. That is where Ecuador’s declaration of independence was signed on August 10 1809, and many of the heroes of the battle of independence are buried in the crypt. There is also a collection of religious art. The monastery was completed in 1627. From one of the windows at El Cafeto there is a good view over the courtyard.