Old Town was the first colonial centre (along with Kraków, Poland) to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. The area covers about 320 hectares, so there are plenty of places to explore. There are about 130 monumental buildings, with architecture mostly ranging from the 1500s- 1800s. Below I will outline a few of the places worth visiting, but the list is by no means inclusive.
La Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square)
This is the central square of the historic centre with the following around its edges:
The Carondelet Palace – This is the seat of Ecuador’s government. The present building was constructed in 1801; however a palace on this site dates back to 1570. Simón Bolívar used to frequent the palace and was delighted with it.
The Archbishop’s Palace– Located opposite the Cathedral, this is no longer a Palace, but houses shops. The central courtyard has been converted into a food court, which caters for all price ranges. Mea Culpa, a famous Quito restaurant, overlooks the plaza from its first floor location. On Friday there is free entertainment in the courtyard, from dancers to singers.
The Plaza Grande Hotel – One of the first hotels to be constructed in the city. The building was original a Spanish colonial mansion owned by one of the earliest colonial inhabitants of Quito. The hotel has constantly been renovated and improved, and as such is one of the finest five-star hotels in the city.
The Municipal Palace – A modern, newly constructed building, with mediocre architecture. This building houses the council.
Monumento de la Independencia – This monument commemorates the heroes who helped achieve independence from Spain, on August 10th 1809. This date is remembered as the First Cry of Independence of the Royal Audience of Quito from the Spanish monarchy. The monument was unveiled in 1906, almost a centenary after independence was achieved.
The Cathedral of Quito – One of the oldest cathedral’s in South America, built from 1562-1567. With white walls and a green ceramic glazed dome it is certainly impressive. It is considered to be of the Gothic-Mudejar style. The catacombs are the final resting place of Antonio José de Sucre, and there is a plaque showing where Gabriel García Moreno was shot in 1875.
There are lots of restaurants, cafés, juice bars, shops and hotels in the surrounding area.
There are no shortage of churches to explore, each with their own unique paintings and architecture. The insides of many are covered in gold leaf and have gold statues.
The church of San Agustin – Has a 22 metre tall bell tower, with two bronze bells dating from the 16th-17th centuries.
The church of San Francisco – A colonial-styled church, construction started in 1534 and ended in 1605. It was built on land where the palace of Atahualpa, an Incan ruler, once stood.
The church of El Sagrario – Built in the late 17th century, in the Italian Renaissance style. Found on Calle García Moreno.
The church of Santo Domingo – Construction was completed in the early 1700s, with a neo-Gothic altar inside from the late 19th century. Covered in gold leaf within.
The church of La Compaña de Jesús – Construction started in 1605, and finished in 1765. It has a wide nave and is a notable example of Spanish Baroque architecture. There is a sarcophagus with the remains of Ecuador’s patron saint, Mariana de Jesús de Paredes, at the base of the altar. The church is made of volcanic grey stone, and has had to have restoration work due to earthquakes.
The Basilica of National Vow (La Basilica del Voto Nacional) – The largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas. Construction started in 1884, but technically it remains unfinished. When construction is finished, legend says the end of the world will come. It is 140metres long, and 35 metres wide.
Panecillo comes for the Spanish for ‘little roll’ or ‘little bread’. The name is given to a 200 metre tall hill of volcanic origin, with the peak reaching a height of 3,016 metres above sea level. The hill originally had an Inca temple to the god Yavirac, from which to worship the Sun, but this was reportedly destroyed by Spanish conquistadores. From here there are truly awe-inspiring views of almost the entire city.
A 45 metres statue called Quito’s Madonna (La Virgen de Quito) is situated on top of the Panecillo. Designed by the Spanish artist Agustín de la Herrán, and erected in 1976, it is made of thousands of aluminium pieces. The statue portrays the virgin with wings, atop a globe, standing on a snake. A placard on the monument states the statue represents the ‘Woman of the Apocalypse’, described in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 12:1-18). La Virgen de Quito is based on a painting of the same name by Bernardo de Legarda in 1734, which can be found in the Church of St Francis.
Below the monument, several metres to the North is la Olla del Panecillo. This is supposedly a cistern remaining from the Inca legacy, which was used to irrigate crops.
Museo Municipal Alberto Mena Caamaño – This museum has an impressive collection of colonial, republican and contemporary art, as well as waxworks of revolutionaries who were executed in a former army barracks. It also has an exhibition on the 1730s to 1830, when Ecuador became independent from the Spanish empire. Located on the South West corner of Independence Square, it’s open 9am – 5pm, all days of the week except Monday.
Plaza de San Francisco – This is a square where locals have sold their produce for centuries. It was also the location of the military seats of the chiefs of indigenous armies.
Next time: From Quito to the cloud forest.