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Quito, Ecuador: Home to stunning architectural design

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Based on the hotels, fine dining, vibrant entertainment, and splendid architecture in the Ecuadorian capital, the American magazine Condé Nast Traveler highlighted Quito as among the world’s 24 best places to visit in 2024.

In terms of its architecture, Quito is a city where its history echoes through its streets and avenues. Anyone who has wandered these streets and marveled at the blend of architectural styles can tell you that Quito’s architecture is a tapestry woven with threads of Indigenous, Spanish colonial, and modern influences. It’s a feast for the eyes, with each structure telling a story of the city’s evolution from its pre-Columbian roots to its contemporary skyline.
To give the prospective traveler a better sense of this rich urban environment, we have selected just seven examples of compelling architectural designs that can be found here in the Ecuadorian capital, a city still on the rise. 

La Compañía Church: Quito’s most ornate church

The UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Quito’s “Old Town” is the jewel in the capital’s crown. Many believe this quarter to be the best-preserved historic center in Latin America, though it’s still a fully thriving neighborhood to this day. Here, one can find crowded thoroughfares, ethnic eateries and typically Ecuadorian market stands selling all manner of locally produced goods. Within this historic district, the Church of La Compañía is one of our favorite examples of the Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish, and Indigenous art fusion that characterizes this district.

Quito’s most ornate church, La Compañía is a standout among the baroque splendors of Old Town. Capped by green-and-gold domes, what sets La Compañía apart is its intricate façade, which is adorned with ornate carvings and sculptures, showcasing the skill of the artisans of the time. The exterior is a stunning example of Spanish Baroque architecture, characterized by its elaborate detailing and dramatic features.

When you enter the Compañia church, its dimensions will surprise you. It is a large structure whose central nave vault is 26 meters high. What will amaze you is seeing it completely covered in gold leaf cover, as thin 23-karat sheets on every centimeter of that area. This baroque church is also adorned with intricate carvings and detailed paintings.

The church has the characteristic Latin cross configuration composed of three naves; one central and two lateral ones consecutively. In the architecture of the Compañía church, symmetry prevails.

Construction on this marvelously gilded Jesuit church began in 1605 but wasn’t completed for another 160 years; the main altarpiece alone took 20 years. But the work was hardly in vain, as Quiteños proudly call La Compañía the most beautiful church in the country … and it’s easy to see why. 

Basílica de voto nacional: A Neo-Gothic gem

On a hill in the northeastern part of Quito’s “Old Town” looms this massive Gothic church.

The Basilica, or the Basilica de Voto Nacional, is a Roman Catholic church and is considered one of the most important churches in Quito. The church’s construction began in the late 19th century (1884) and is the biggest neo-gothic basilica in the Americas.

On the exterior, which was inspired by Notre Dame in Paris, rather than gargoyles, look for animals of the Ecuadoran jungle and the Galapagos Islands protruding from the church’s side. The two frontal towers are 375 feet high, making the church one of the tallest structures in the city! We suggest you climb one of its towers and enjoy a superb view of the city – especially Old Town.

Inside the church, you’ll find it adorned with intricate carvings and sculptures that depict the country’s traditional symbols and motifs, such as the sun, moon, and stars. These elements are a testament to the strong influence of the Indigenous cultures that have shaped the country’s history and identity.

The Basilica Voto Nacional Church is, of course, also a reflection of the Catholic faith that has played such an important role in Ecuador’s history. The church’s grand architecture and impressive stained-glass windows are a testament to the enduring power of this religion in the country.

The structure bridges the Old and New cities—literally, figuratively, and stylistically—but falls into neither. Its 115-meter (380-foot) towers are one of Quito’s best-known lookout points. In short, the Basilica makes for a spectacular visit that is worth experiencing while in Quito.  

Independence Square: A.k.a. ‘Plaza Grande’

Independence Square, colloquially known as Plaza Grande, is where Quito’s daily life and national historical symbolism collide. Topped with palm trees and dotted with locals going about their business, the centerpiece of the square and an icon of the city is the monument to the heroes of independence of August 10, 1809.

However, even more architecturally significant than the square itself are the institutional structures surrounding the plaza.

On the plaza’s northwest side with the national flag flying atop is the Palacio de Gobierno, also known as Carondelet Palace. This large columned building, bright white against the blue Quito sky, is the seat of government and the official residence of the president (although modern presidents prefer to live with their families out of the public eye). The Yellow or Presidents Room stands out, an illustrious space adorned with paintings of former Ecuadorian leaders, where the most transcendental decisions about the destiny of the country have been made.

Then too, rising elegantly along the southwest flank of Plaza Grande, is the Catedral Metropolitana, the highest-ranking Catholic building in the city. Built in the 16th century, the cathedral stands out from the multitude of religious buildings in the Old Town of Quito with its pillars, arches, and naves. Inside, the tall altar made only of gold is a sumptuous feast for the eyes.

Sitting face to face with the cathedral is the Archbishop’s Palace. Despite its name, it has ignored its religious heritage and is now home to restaurants and craft shops. Inside the charming interior courtyards and crisp balconies, you’ll find everything from luxurious national cuisine to fast food, as well as stalls for purchasing artisanal garments from the Andes, the Amazon, and the Pacific coast.

So, if you find yourself in Plaza Grande on any given Sunday, cancel your plans for the rest of the day. Do as the locals do and grab a seat on one of the benches around the park, sit down for an elegant lunch at Hotel Plaza Grande, take in the square’s alluring architectural designs, or venture into one of the cafes beneath the Metropolitan Cathedral for a rich Ecuadorian coffee and traditional cake. 

The modernistic IQON tower: Now the city’s tallest structure

Quito is getting taller by the year. Amid something of a building boom, Ecuador’s capital has welcomed high-rises designed by big-name architects from around the planet. But it’s perhaps the Danish design firm BIG that has had the greatest impact on the city’s once modest skyline.

In 2022, the architectural company completed work on the 436-foot-tall IQON tower, now the city’s tallest structure. The 32-story mixed-use development is broken into eight distinct volumes — or “buildings within a building,” as BIG puts it — that are connected by lush, elevated terraces. The reddish coloration is said to be inspired by the earth tones and herringbone pattern seen in Quito’s historic district, which itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But if IQON were not enough, BIG is returning with another four-letter development, “EPIQ,” on the southern tip of the downtown Parque la Carolina (often dubbed Quito’s Central Park).

Monument to the Equator: The heart of the Middle of the World City

Located just 16 miles north of the center of Quito, you can visit the amazing Middle of the World City (Ciudad Mitad del Mundo), which is a park that contains the Monument to the Equator (from which Ecuador takes its name).

Built between 1979 and 1982, this 98-foot-high structure was designed to mark the point where it was believed that the equator crossed the country. (However, thanks to the appearance of GPS technology, we now know that the entire structure is actually located some 240 meters south of the true equator). In any case, over the years, countless tourists have photographed themselves in front of the monument and straddling the yellow line that was thought to divide the two hemispheres.

As for the four-sided trapezoidal monument itself, each side points in a cardinal direction. The dominating iron and stone structure is covered with carved and polished andesite rock and topped by a 15-foot diameter, 5-ton brass globe. This monument consists of an exterior viewing platform, while inside the structure is the fascinating Middle of the Earth Ethnographic Museum (Museo Etnográfico Mitad del Mundo), which provides a good introduction to Ecuador’s Indigenous culture through dioramas, clothing displays, photographs, descriptions of the various ethnic groups, and samples of their activities.

As the monument also commemorates the eighteenth-century Franco-Spanish Geodesic Mission that figured out the equator’s approximate location, statues of the intrepid French scientific explorers line the boulevard leading to the main monument. 

El Panecillo statue: Quito’s winged guardian

The Virgin of El Panecillo, also known as the Virgin of Quito, is a monument in the city of Quito. It’s located in the heart of the city on the top of a mounded neighborhood called El Panecillo, which appropriately translates to “little bread roll.”

This site offers you a panoramic view over “Volcano Avenue” (two parallel mountain ranges home to eight of the country’s ten highest peaks) and serves as the backdrop to one of South America’s best-preserved historic districts.

At 135 feet high (if the base is included), the Virgin of Quito is the tallest statue in Ecuador and one of the tallest in South America, surpassing even the famous Christ the Redeemer in the city of Rio de Janeiro. It is also the tallest aluminum sculpture on the planet.

Legend has it that an immense treasure is hidden in El Panecillo, guarded by ancient spirits and the winged Virgin of Quito. 

The San Francisco Church: A masterpiece of Baroque architecture

Wandering along the cobblestone streets of this UNESCO-declared “World Heritage Site,” you’ll find Quito’s historic district packed with artistic and architectural treasures. Internationally considered “the best-preserved, least altered historic center in Latin America,” you should be prepared to discover picturesque colonial-era plazas, 17th-century churches, age-old monasteries, and beautifully restored mansions.

These experiences include the iconic San Francisco Church & Monastery, a guardian of a stunning artistic and cultural heritage. The church itself is a baroque wonder. Within its sanctuaries, you’ll find canvases, sculptures, murals, and devotional retablo paintings, as well as altars, pulpits, pillars, and arches adorned head-to-toe in gold leaf, allowing these elements to shine like jewels.

Such greatness wasn’t achieved overnight: starting in the early 1500s, the complex took almost 150 years to build. Covering over eight acres, it’s the most expansive religious complex of its kind in the Americas, encompassing one main church and two chapels, 13 cloisters, and an art museum that possesses some 3,500 works. In addition, you’ll find courtyards and patios, vegetable gardens, and catacombs, not to mention a soccer field, an old-fashioned brewery, and a radio station. Once home to 160 monks (and now to 27), today the center is something of a Catholic wonderland.  

Find a unique city of architectural diversity in Quito

Today, Quito stands as a city where the past and present coexist harmoniously. Contemporary structures like the modernistic IQON tower sit alongside centuries-old churches, while innovative new constructions continue to reshape the city’s horizon. The city’s commitment to preserving its architectural heritage while fostering modern design is clear in projects like the new Quito Metro, which seamlessly integrates into the urban fabric.

Quito’s architecture is unique due to its blend of Indigenous, Spanish colonial, and modern influences. Discover this and more during your stay or stop in the Ecuadorian capital city, itself a UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for its well-preserved Noe-gothic and Baroque buildings that incorporate both European and indigenous artistry.

Alfonso Tandazo

Alfonso Tandazo is President and CEO at Surtrek Tour Operator. Surtrek Tour Operator is a well-established firm, specializing in custom-designed luxury tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and throughout the rest of South America. If you would like to be a guest blogger on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.

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