Cuenca is a deeply historical city marked by long occupation by the Cañari culture, the Inca Empire, and the Spanish conquest and colonization. It is now also a cosmopolitan city with great restaurants, diverse art galleries, culturally lively cafes, and many bars that make for a vibrant nightlife. Continue reading below for what to see and do in this unique city which is a perfect addition to an Ecuador vacation.

An organized city tour is a great way to make sure you see the best of Cuenca’s attractions. The colonial center has cobblestoned streets lined with buildings that reflect the city’s rich architectural heritage with a concentration of construction from the 18th and 19th centuries, the republican era in Ecuador’s history. The Old Cathedral was one of the first buildings erected after the city was founded in 1557 and which is now a museum. The old cathedral was replaced by the New Cathedral, constructed in 1880, and one of the largest in South America, able to hold 9,000 of Cuenca’s 10,000 residents when it was completed. Other notable churches are San Blas, San Francisco, and Santo Domingo, all of which have beautiful and very photogenic façades.

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In addition to churches, Cuenca features an extensive list of excellent museums that provide the context and information needed to fully appreciate this historic city. The Museo del Banco Central has a collection of photographs of Cuenca from decades past as well as exhbitions of local art. The Museo de las Culturas Aborigenas showcases archaeological artifacts from the region’s pre-Columbian cultures. The Museo de las Conceptas gives visitors insight into religious life and its importance in the city’s history.

Cuenca is the unlikely primary source of authentic Panama hats. Ecuador is actually the origin of this iconic hat, which got its name because they were shipped from the Panama Canal. Visitors to Barranco, the Panama Hat Museum will gain appreciation for the history of the hat and don’t miss out on a chance to buy one by visiting the Casa de la Mujer in Plaza San Francisco where you can find a variety of hats to suit any taste.

Finally, Cajas National Park is just outside Cuenca, about 18 miles (30 km) to the northwest. The park is comprised of 110 square miles (29,000 ha) of land and is filled with 230 lakes as well as rivers and streams. Visitors here will find an abundance of unique fauna and flora and is an excellent place to spend an adventurous but relaxing day.