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).
Basílica del Voto Nacional
Basílica del Voto Nacional
Perched on a small hill on Calle Venezuela, eight blocks north of the Plaza de la Independencia, the Basílica del Voto Nacional is the tallest church in Ecuador, thanks to its two imposing, 115-metre towers plainly visible throughout the city. Built in a flamboyant, neo-Gothic style, it’s a wild concoction of spires, flying buttresses, turrets, parapets, arches, gables and elaborate stained-glass windows. Despite construction beginning in 1892, the church – which is built largely in concrete – is still not entirely completed. The gargoyles, based on Ecuadorian fauna such as monkeys and jaguars, are a contemporary departure from the traditional representations of mythical creatures.
Don’t miss the fantastic views from two vantage points accessed by lift and steep metal ladders: an unnerving buckling roof on the northern steeple, and a higher spot way up on the east tower, past the third-floor café, then on stairs and ladders past the clock machinery and belfry to an artificial floor made only of wide steel grille. From here, those with a head for heights can squeeze out onto tiny ledges on the spire’s exterior for a genuine thrill.