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 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best places to visit in Ecuador.
If you’re planning your trip to Ecuador, use our guide to discover some of the top things to do in this beautiful city.
10 Best Things To See And Do In Cuenca, Ecuador:
- Hop On A Double Decker Bus
- Marvel At Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
- Go On A Free Walking Tour
- Visit The Panama Hat Museum
- Relax At Calderon Park
- Stop By Old Cathedral Of Cuenca
- Stroll By River Tomebamba
- Visit San Sebastian Church & Plaza
- Grab Lunch At Mercado 10 De Agosto
- Enjoy Breakfast At Plaza Merced
Hop On A Double Decker Bus
We first had Cuenca listed on our travel itinerary as a quick lunch spot but after strolling around the downtown area we were totally smitten by it and we realized that there was so much more to Cuenca than we originally thought.
On a whim, we decided to stay for a few days to explore the Old Town but we had no idea where to start – Cuenca’s historical center was huge!
To get better bearings of Cuenca we hopped on a double-decker bus tour that took us around the different districts and neighborhoods in the city. The tour 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 USD per person and leave every 30 minutes from the Calderon Park in the downtown area. The entire tour is around 2 hours long including a 30 minute stop at the Turi viewpoint.
Marvel At Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
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 the historical center and to our own surprise we somehow managed to visit them all!
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, also known as the New Cathedral, is one of the most impressive churches of Cuenca. It’s impossible to miss it as it takes up an entire street block and is one of the largest churches in South America.
The church 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 reddish 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 with 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.
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Go On A Free Walking Tour
During our time in Cuenca, we were pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the historical center is. We loved the double-decker bus tour but to me, there is always something special about walking the narrow bustling cobblestone streets by foot.
On our second day in Cuenca, we joined a free walking tour to learn more about the Old Town. When the days are warm and cozy, it’s the perfect way to explore Cuenca and soak in all it has to offer.
Much of the free walking tour focuses around architecture and styles used in the various buildings that dominate the historical center in Cuenca. During our walking tour we would see colorful colonial buildings 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
One of the parts that I enjoyed about the walking tour is that our guide took us through
We even got to visit a small shop and watch a local as he made handicrafts, one of the biggest economy drivers of 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.
Tip: If you can’t make it to the free walking tour, Cuenca has a lot of maps and identifiers to help tourists navigate the historical center. We found a few maps along the Calderon Park highlighting all of the main churches, museums and parks to see in Cuenca. Save those highlights on your Google Maps, grab a good pair of walking shoes and explore the town at your own pace!
Visit The Panama Hat Museum
The making and exporting of the Panama Hat
The toquilla straw that is used to weave the hats only grows in Ecuador but 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 Channel to other countries. It’s shape and flexibility offers the perfect protection from the sun that can be quite harsh so close to the Equator.
The Panama Hat museum is a fun place to stop by and learn more about the origins of this hat and to see the different styles of the hat that are being made and sold.
Hats made in the basic weaving style cost around $30 USD 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 the steep price for a hat!
Relax At Calderon Park
One of the first things that we noticed about Cuenca is that it has a lot of really nice parks and well-kept green spaces. The city streets filled with cherry blossom trees and perfectly warm weather make it a wonderful place to stroll around and enjoy its scenery.
After roaming the charming cobblestone streets, take a break at the tranquil Calderon Park in the city center to relax and enjoy a bit of nature.
The park centers around a monument devoted to Abdon Calderon, a war hero and a legend for his bravery in an independence battle against Spain.
The Calderon Park is the central park of Cuenca but 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.
As the epicenter of Cuenca the area surrounding Calderon Park offers a lot of restaurant and bar options.
Stop By Old Cathedral Of Cuenca
Cuenca was originally founded in 1557 as a Spanish settlement in Ecuador. That same year a cathedral was built for worship in Cuenca, now one of the oldest standing churches of Latin America.
The long existence of this church has earned it the name as the Old Cathedral of Cuenca although this church is no longer used for service and now functions as a museum of religious artwork.
Despite its age, the Old Cathedral of Cuenca is well preserved showcasing European influence used in its architecture along with an ornate interior. The Old Cathedral is located by the
Stroll By River Tomebamba
A short walk from the main city center you’ll discover the meandering Tomebama river that divides old town from the newer residential neighborhoods.
The Tomebamba riverfront is a scenic area to go for a relaxing walk amongst old trees and Republican style buildings, passing Todos Santos church along the way, one of the oldest churches of Cuenca.
The proximity to nature and parks that Cuenca offers separates it from other major cities in Latin America that typically lack any type of green space.
The meandering rivers lazily weaving through the town, old ruins and lots of walkways add to the historical charm and make Cuenca one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in all of Ecuador.
Visit San Sebastian Plaza & Church
The 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 the 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 indicated by the single tower and wood used in the door and window panes.
Across from the San Sebastian Plaza you can also find the Museum of Modern Art. The colonial building that now houses the museum in the past 150 years served as a prison, alcohol recovery center and orphanage. Since then it has been restored and now showcases contemporary art of Cuenca.
With free admission, it’s yet another perfect example of how old architecture and modern ideas work so well in this forward-thinking city.
Grab Lunch At 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 the
If you are in a mood for something a bit more adventurous, try Ecuador’s specialty dish Cuy, a grilled guinea pig.
Through our travels in Ecuador, we have found this dish to be very popular with locals. The farming of guinea pigs in Ecuador dates back thousands of years and the remnants of the farming practice can be witnessed at many of the archeological sites and ruins throughout Ecuador.
Enjoy Breakfast At Plaza Merced
For one of the best breakfast options in Cuenca head to Goza Espresso Bar at Plaza Merced. With a cute outdoors terrace overlooking the plaza, its the perfect place to enjoy a lazy breakfast and some people watching.
Known for a cool vibe and friendly service, Goza Espresso Bar outshines its competition in the area for awesome food and drinks. For breakfast, the eggs benedict is a favorite!
Other Travel Tips For Cuenca
Where To Stay In Cuenca
Cuenca has a lot of amazing hotel options 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 accommodations for travelers in Cuenca:
- Pepe´s House Bed & Breakfast – a lovely hostel with dormitory style rooms and a charming courtyard starting at around $20 USD per person. Known for their friendly service, the owners of this hostel will welcome you with open arms and do everything possible to make you feel comfortable. The hostel also offers bike rentals and can help you arrange local tours.
- Hotel Carvallo – a luxury hotel at a value price. This beautiful colonial style hotel, completed with a lush courtyard, elegant rooms and canopy style beds, offers one of the best deals in Cuenca starting at $80 USD per night. The location is also a major plus, located just a block away from the Calderon Park in the midst of the historical center!
- Hosteria 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 in the midst of nature and fresh air. Did we mention that the rustic rooms come with jacuzzis and fireplaces?… it doesn’t get more romantic than this!
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 temps hover around high 60’s and low 70’s while the night temps 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.
Is Cuenca Safe
Overall we felt that Cuenca was very safe.
We walked around the city during the day and indulged in a bit of
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
Day Trips From Cuenca
Cuenca has a few great day trip options in its proximity. The two main day trips options from Cuenca are to Banos Thermal Springs and Cajas National Park.
Banos is a town just 15 minutes outside of Cuenca offering relaxing thermal spas. Piedra De Agua is a beautiful and well-kept spa where visitors can soak in its volcanic hot springs waters, mud baths, steam baths, and outdoor pools.
Cajas National Park is a beautiful outdoors area located 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. It’s well worth a visit but make sure to bring cold weather clothing, waterproof shoes and extra socks in case trails get rainy and muddy.
Is Cuenca Worth Visiting
Yes, in our opinion Cuenca was totally worth a few day visit. Although we hadn’t really planned on staying that long, it took us by surprise and we didn’t want to leave. The beautiful colonial 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!
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