10 Best Things To Do In Cuenca, Ecuador

Top Things To See And Do In Cuenca Ecuador

Cuenca is one of the most charming historical cities in all of Ecuador. Filled with soaring cathedrals, cute colonial streets, and well-preserved architecture, Cuenca is often considered the cultural treasure of South America.  

The most surprising part of Cuenca is that it’s often skipped by international tourists – but it shouldn’t be!

The European-influenced style, beautiful green spaces, and meandering rivers have earned Cuenca the title of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best places to visit in Ecuador.

If you’re planning a trip to this beautiful city, use our guide to discover all of the top things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador!

Table Of Contents:

10 Best Things To Do In Cuenca, Ecuador:

1. Double Decker Bus

Things to do in Cuenca Ecuador double decker bus tour
On the top level of the Cuenca double-decker bus.

We first had Cuenca listed on our travel itinerary as a quick lunch spot while traveling through Ecuador. After strolling around the downtown area we were mesmerized by it and we realized that there was so much more to Cuenca than we originally thought!

We decided to stay for a few days to explore the Old Town but we had no idea where to start – the Historic Centre of Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca is huge!

To get better bearings of Cuenca we hopped on a double-decker bus tour that took us around through different districts and neighborhoods in the city. The bus also stops at the Turi viewpoint overlooking Cuenca before heading back to the historical center.

The double-decker tour bus is a great way to get a little taste of Cuenca and its layout, narrated by a tour guide explaining fun little facts about the city. Even if you don’t plan to spend a whole lot of time in Cuenca, I highly recommend hopping on the bus for a tour.

The bus tours cost $8 per person and leave every 30 minutes from Calderon Park in the downtown area. The entire tour is around 2 hours long including a 30-minute stop at the Turi viewpoint.

2. Cathedral Of The Immaculate Conception

Things to do in Cuenca Ecuador Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Cuenca is home to 16 different churches and cathedrals in its metropolitan area, a notable number for a city its size. Most of the churches can be seen by walking around the historical center and to our surprise we somehow managed to visit them all!

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (also known as the New Cathedral) is one of the most impressive churches in Cuenca. It’s impossible to miss it as this cathedral takes up an entire street block and is one of the largest churches in South America.

Cuenca Ecuador Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Views of the cathedral from Seminario San Luis Plaza.

Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción construction originally started in 1880 but now over 100 years later it is still being worked on. The architecture of the New Cathedral is mesmerizing with a mix of Romance and Baroque styles. The orange exterior is well-complimented with blue accents in its doors and roof domes.

I highly recommend checking out the charming Seminario San Luis Plaza behind the cathedral which is home to charming cafes, shops, and restaurants. This plaza offers one of the best views of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and beautiful courtyard gardens that can’t be seen from the street.

3. Go On a Walking Tour

Things to do in Cuenca Ecuador Free Walking Tour
Colorful buildings in Old Town Cuenca.

During our time in Cuenca, we were pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the historical center is. We loved the double-decker bus tour but we also wanted to explore the bustling cobblestone streets by foot.

On our second day in the city, we joined a free Cuenca walking tour to learn more about the Old Town. When the days are warm and cozy, a walking tour is the perfect way to explore Cuenca and soak in all it has to offer.

Things to do in Cuenca Ecuador Iglesia San Francisco
Iglesia San Francisco in downtown Cuenca.

The free walking tour focuses on architecture and styles used in the various buildings that you can see in the historical center in Cuenca.

During the walking tour, we stopped by colorful colonial buildings that share space alongside elaborate churches and modern cafes, a competing mashup of the old and the new.

Our tour guide took us through the downtown area describing the history and origins of the different buildings and neighbourhoods. Many of the buildings were influenced by styles used in Europe and in some cases, materials used in Cuenca’s buildings were brought from overseas.

Our tour guide also took us through courtyards, plazas, food markets, and lesser-known museums that we would have otherwise missed. We even got to visit a small shop and watch a local as he made handicrafts, one of the biggest economy drivers of Cuenca.

Things to do in Cuenca Ecuador Walking Tour
Local artist creating handicrafts in downtown Cuenca.

The walking tour is free but tips for the guide are highly recommended. The tour starts at 10 am at the Seminario San Luis Plaza and takes about 2 hours to complete.

For a more intimate tour option, I recommend booking this Cuenca Half-Day City Tour Including Panama Hat Factory. This 4-hour long tour will take you to explore all of the best parts of Cuenca’s city center!

4. The Panama Hat Museum

Things To Do In Cuenca Ecuador Panama Hat Museum
Inside the Panama Hat Museum

The making and exporting of the Panama Hat is one of the leading industries of Ecuador. Although the name might indicate otherwise, The Panama Hat originated in Ecuador.

The toquilla straw that is used to weave the hats only grows in Ecuador. The straw hat falsely earned its name as the ‘Panama Hat’ after President Roosevelt was seen in a photograph wearing it. When President Roosevelt was asked where he got his hat, his answer ‘Panama’ marked the hat as the Panama Hat from there forward.

Although the Panama Hat is made in Ecuador, for years it has been exported up the Panama Canal to other countries. Its shape and flexibility offer the perfect protection from the sun which can be quite harsh so close to the Equator.

The Museo Del Sombrero De Paja Toquilla (Panama Hat Museum) is a fun place to stop by and learn more about the origins of this hat. You can also see the different styles of hats that are being made and sold here.

Hats made in the basic weaving style cost around $30 and take 3 days to make. More complicated weaving techniques can take up to 6 months to complete and those hats can cost anywhere from $800 to $2000 – quite a steep price for a hat!

5. Mercado 10 De Agosto

Things to do in Cuenca Ecuador Mercado 10 De Agosto
Inside Mercado 10 de Agosto

If you have an hour to spare, make your way to Mercado 10 de Agosto to try out some cheap, local food.

On the second level of Mercado 10 de Agosto, you will find food stands selling dishes made of local ingredients like corn, rice, potatoes, and pork for less than $2 per plate.

If you are in the mood for something a bit more adventurous, try Ecuador’s specialty dish Cuy, a grilled guinea pig.

The farming of guinea pigs in Ecuador dates back thousands of years. The remnants of the farming practice can be witnessed at many of the archeological sites and ruins throughout Ecuador.

For an authentic experience book this Cooking Class & Market Tour in Cuenca. During this tour, you’ll pick out the ingredients from the Mercado 10 de Agosto market and head to a home in Cuenca where you will learn how to prepare traditional dishes with locals!

6. Calderon Park

Things to do in Cuenca Ecuador Abdon Calderon Park
Abdon Calderon Park

What separates Cuenca from other South American cities are the many parks and green spaces throughout the city center. The streets are also filled with cherry blossom trees making it a wonderful place to go for a stroll and enjoy its scenery.

After roaming the charming cobblestone streets, take a break at the tranquil Calderon Park in the city center where you can relax and enjoy a bit of nature.

The park centers around a monument devoted to Abdon Calderon, a war hero known for his bravery in an independence battle against Spain.

The Calderon Park is the central park of Cuenca. The scent of the pine trees and birds chirping in the air will make you forget that you’re in the midst of a major city! The area surrounding Calderon Park offers lots of restaurant and bar options.

The Calderon Park is also the starting point for the Double Decker Tour Bus. If you’re new to the city, this area has lots of information for tourists and visitors.

7. Old Cathedral Of Cuenca

Things To See And Do In Cuenca Ecuador Old Cathedral Of Cuenca
Old Cathedral of Cuenca

Cuenca was originally founded in 1557 as a Spanish settlement in Ecuador. That same year Old Cathedral of Cuenca was built, now one of the oldest standing churches in Latin America.

The long existence of this church has earned it the name of the Old Cathedral of Cuenca. This church is no longer used for service and now functions as a museum showcasing religious artwork.

The Old Cathedral of Cuenca is well preserved with European-influenced architecture and an ornate interior. The Old Cathedral is located by Calderon Park, just a block away from the New Cathedral of Cuenca.  

8. River Tomebamba

Things To Do In Cuenca Ecuador River Tomebamba Todos Santos Church
Todos Santos Church across the Tomebamba River.

A short walk from the main city center you’ll discover the meandering Rio Tomebamba (Tomebama River) that divides the Old Town from the newer residential neighborhoods.

The Tomebamba riverfront is a scenic area where you can go for a relaxing walk, passing the Church of Todos Santos along the way, one of the oldest churches in Cuenca.

The meandering rivers lazily weaving through the town, old ruins, and walkways make Cuenca one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in all of Ecuador.

9. San Sebastian Plaza & Church

Things to do in Cuenca Ecuador San Sebastian Plaza
San Sebastian Plaza

Plaza de San Sebastián (San Sebastian Plaza) is a lovely spot to visit while roaming around the Old Town.

This plaza separates the four borders of the historical center and in colonial times was used for bullfighting and trade.

The main attraction of the plaza is the simple yet elegant San Sebastian church built in colonial style. The church has a single tower and features wood in the door and window panes.

Across from the San Sebastian Plaza, you can find Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art).

The building that now houses the museum has over the past 150 years served as a prison, recovery center, and orphanage. Since then it has been restored and now showcases the contemporary art of Cuenca.

10. Plaza Merced

Things to do in Cuenca Ecuador Goza Espresso Bar
Goza Espresso Bar at Plaza Merced

For one of the best breakfast options in Cuenca head to Goza Espresso Bar at Plazoleta de la Merced. With a cute outdoor terrace overlooking the plaza, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a delicious breakfast and some people-watching.

Known for its cool vibe and friendly service, Goza Espresso Bar outshines its competition in the area for its awesome food and drinks. For breakfast, the eggs benedict was my favorite!

Other Cuenca Travel Tips

Where To Stay In Cuenca

Cuenca has a lot of amazing hotels and vacation rentals to choose from. The lack of international tourists in Cuenca has kept the hotel prices pretty low to accommodate local travelers while the standards for hospitality remain high.

Here are some of the most popular hotel accommodations for travelers in Cuenca:

  • Hotel Carvallo – a luxury hotel at a value price. This beautiful colonial-style hotel features a lush courtyard, elegant rooms, and canopy-style beds. The location is also a major plus, located just a block away from Calderon Park in the historical center!
  • Itza Hotel Boutique Internacional. Staying at this boutique 5-star hotel will make you feel like royalty! The hotel has recently renovated rooms with plush bedding and upscale furniture. Located at the heart of the city, you’ll be within walking distance of all the major attractions.
Photo by Itza Hotel Boutique Internacional
  • Hacienda Hostería Dos Chorreras – if you’re looking for something a bit more off the grid, you will love Hosteria Dos Chorreras. Located outside of Cajas National Park this hotel offers amazing mountain views with an interior that mimics that of an upscale ski resort. Perfect for those who like to stay outside of the downtown area close to nature and fresh air. Did we mention that the rustic rooms come with jacuzzis and fireplaces? It doesn’t get more romantic than this!
Photo by Hacienda Hostería Dos Chorreras

Day Trips From Cuenca

Cuenca has a few great day trip options in its proximity. The two main day trip options from Cuenca are to thermal hot springs in Baños and Cajas National Park.

Baños is a town just 15 minutes outside of Cuenca offering several relaxing thermal spas. Piedra De Agua is a beautiful and well-kept spa in this town where visitors can soak in volcanic hot springs waters, mud baths, steam baths, and outdoor pools.

Parque Nacional Cajas is a beautiful outdoor area located a 30-minute bus ride from Cuenca. The park offers short day hikes that can be done in an hour or two making it the perfect day trip while visiting Cuenca.

Cajas National Park is well worth a visit but make sure to bring cold-weather clothing, waterproof shoes, and extra socks in case trails get rainy and muddy.

To visit Cajas National Park I recommend booking this Cajas National Park Small-Group tour from Cuenca. This day trip includes transportation and a private tour guide for a hassle-free experience!

Currency Used In Ecuador

The currency used in Ecuador is the US Dollar (which makes things very easy for travelers). Most restaurants, hotels, and bars in Cuenca accept VISA credit cards, but you should always keep a bit of cash on you for snacks, cabs, and museum entrance fees.

Weather In Cuenca

During our time in Cuenca, the weather was just perfect with sunny and mild days.

On average, the weather in Cuenca stays pretty consistent throughout the year. The day temperatures stay in the high 60s and low 70s while the night temperatures drop to around 50F.  The nights can get a bit chilly so pack some sweaters and jackets to keep you warm.

The rainy season in this region starts in the winter and typically lasts through the spring. When traveling to Cuenca during these months make sure to bring a good rain jacket with you to prevent you from getting soaked.

Cuenca Ecuador Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Cuenca Old Town
Ornate church door in downtown Cuenca.

Is Cuenca Safe?

Overall we felt that Cuenca was very safe.

We walked around the city during the day and grabbed drinks at a local bar after dinner. Even at night, we felt safe walking around but as in any major city, caution should always be used.

The neighborhoods in Cuenca are well-kept and clean. From what we could tell, Cuenca’s economy is quite strong bringing in a lot of money and jobs from exports like the Panama Hats, textiles, and various handicrafts while keeping poverty and crime out of its streets.

Is Cuenca Worth Visiting?

Yes, in our opinion Cuenca was worth a few-day visit! Although we hadn’t planned on staying that long, this city took us by surprise and we didn’t want to leave.

The beautiful architecture mixed with cobble-stone streets and lush parks left a lasting impression on us and we can’t wait to return to explore more of it!

I hope this guide has helped you plan a wonderful visit to Cuenca City in Ecuador. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comment section below!

If you’re looking for more South America travel inspiration, be sure to check out these related posts next:

This post is written by Laura Sausina. Hi, I’m the founder of the Fun Life Crisis travel blog and I’ve been traveling full-time for the past 7 years. Here I share my experiences and tips to help 100,000 people a month plan their adventures around the world! Read more about me here.

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