Quito’s chief attraction is the old town and its dazzling array of churches, monasteries and convents dating from the early days of the colony. Known to Quiteños as el Centro Histórico, the old town falls into a fairly small area that can be comfortably covered on foot in a day; trying to take in the forty-odd churches and assorted museums will quickly leave you feeling swamped and exhausted, so try to single out a few highlights. These should definitely include the three main squares – Plaza de la Independencia, Plaza Santo Domingo and Plaza San Francisco – as well as the charming little Plaza del Teatro. Of the city’s churches, the most impressive are San Francisco, La Compañía and La Merced, along with El Sagrario and San Agustín.
The old town’s most rewarding museum is the excellent Museo de la Ciudad, while the Museo Alberto Mena Caamaño and its waxworks set in evocative surroundings is also worth a visit. A short walk away, the Museo Manuela Sáenz, part shrine to the love between two of South America’s heroes of the Independence era, and the Museo Camilo Egas, a permanent retrospective of one of Ecuador’s greatest-ever artists, are fascinating. For a glimpse inside the best-preserved old-town houses, head for the Casa de María Augusta Urrutia or the Casa de Sucre, while for sweeping views of the city, a short taxi ride up to the summit of El Panecillo is highly recommended, or to the Parque Itchimbía – though the panoramas from the precipitous ledges on the spires of the Basílica del Voto Nacional can hardly be bettered.
Orientation in the old town can sometimes be confusing, as many streets have two different street names: the official name on green plaques, and the historical one painted on ceramic tiles; Calle Sucre, for instance, is also signed as Calle de Algodón (Cotton St).