Things to See, Do & Eat in Cuenca, Ecuador

Travel Blogger named Jagsetter sitting in Turi Viewpoint in Cuenca, Ecuador
Cuenca, Ecuador has been the biggest surprise to me thus far in my travels. I expected Cuenca to be much like the other South American cities that I had visited in the past—and it is, but it’s a bit European, too. Its European influence comes from Spanish settlers that established Cuenca in the 16th century. 
The city is set in the Andes, which provides a beautiful backdrop from every vantage point. In Cuenca, there’s an infusion of European and Ecuadorian food, architecture, and activities. The architecture of the city is also cool—the streets are lined with Spanish Colonial-style buildings that were first built in the 16th century
The diverse cultures and jaw-dropping landscape that surround the city make Cuenca one of my favorite cities in the world. I plan to go back because, in addition to there being a lot to do in Cuenca, it’s also one of the best cities in South America for Digital Nomads. Below, you’ll find a list of my top 10 things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador—the list includes my favorite Ecuadorian architectural sites to see, activities to participate in, and local foods to eat. 

1. Visit the New Cathedral & Climb the Towers

The New Cathedral in Cuenca, Ecuador

Visiting the Interior of the New Cathedral

The New Cathedral is also referred to as The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The cathedral has become one of the most visually iconic places in Cuenca, Ecuador—thanks to the six blue domes that sit on top of the cathedral. The Cathedral is located in the Historic Center of Cuenca, Ecuador—next to Parque Calderón.
The construction of the New Cathedral took about 80 years to complete, culminating in the year 1975. The Cathedral is a catholic religious building. The architecture is influenced by Gothic, Renaissance, and Roman styles.
Inside the Cathedral, visitors can choose to take a guided tour or view the cathedral architecture & artwork on their own. There are also crypts within the cathedral that you can learn about. The Cathedral is currently active, and it is possible to attend mass there if you’d like—check with the Cathedral directly for mass times.

Touring the New Cathedral Towers

For a small fee, guests can take a tour of the New Cathedral Towers. I highly recommend this, as the views from the top are incredible (and offer great photo opps!). The tour will talk you through the Cathedral’s history, and then grant you access to a terrace that’s located on the roof of the Cathedral. Guests have to walk up a flight of 150 steps to access the terrace. From the terrace, you will see Parque Calderón and the surrounding areas of the city.

2. Learn about Cuenca's Religious History at the Old Cathedral

Old Cathedral in Cuenca, Ecuador

The Old Cathedral (Church of the Old Shrine) is located next to the New Cathedral, near Parque Calderón. The Church was established in 1557, which is the same year that Cuenca was settled by the Spanish. The Old Cathedral was once the central place of religious worship for the city but it’s no longer active today. Now, it functions as a Museum for Religious Art. The museum is open for those who are interested in exploring within its walls and learning about the history of religious practice in the city

Check out The Old Cathedral’s Facebook Page for information regarding current fees for entry & hours of operation.

3. Look at Cuenca from Above from Turi Viewpoint

Turi Viewpoint in Cuenca Ecuador

Turi Viewpoint is accessible from the historic center of Cuenca via a quick and affordable cab ride or bus ride. I highly recommend a visit to Turi Viewpoint, as it gives visitors the ability to see the Cuenca city-scape in it’s entirely from above. It’s a stunning view and will make you really appreciate the city. There are also quite a few great restaurants and churches that visitors can check-out in the area.

Dusk is a great time to visit Turi Viewpoint as the sunset looks beautiful over the city. It’s advised to leave before nightfall, as there is said to be increased crime in the area at night.

4. Learn about the History of the Panama Hat at Museo del Sombrero

Museo del Sombrero in Cuenca Ecuador

Contrary to popular belief, the Panama hat did not originate in Panama—it originated in Ecuador! The creation and original mass production of Panama hats started in Cuenca, Ecuador in 1836. Workers in the Panama Canal liked the hats because they were great for keeping the sun out of their eyes. The hats grew in popularity by workers in the Panama Canal, thus earning them the name, “Panama Hat.”

Visitors of The Museo Del Sombrero can go on a historic tour to learn about Panama hats and see replicas of the first machinery used to produce the hats.

After visitors are done touring the museum, they’re invited to purchase locally-made Panama hats of their own. If you don’t want to purchase a hat, then the museum/store also welcomes you to try them on for a photo opp.

For details on museum/store hours of operation, visit the Museo del Sombrero website.

5. Spend Some Time Relaxing Along the Rio Tomebamba

A blogger named Jagsetter at a river in Cuenca, Ecuador
The Rio Tomebamba streams throughout Cuenca, Ecuador. The water from the river connects with the Amazon River & the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s possible to walk along the river or ride a bike along a nearby pathway. There are restaurants and cafes lining the river that offer great views while dining. During my visit to Cuenca, I spent some time relaxing at Break Coffee and Art, and it was lovely.

6. Browse a Local Market

A woman standing at her stall, selling fruit at a market in Cuenca, Ecuador
Ecuador sells some great locally made items in their markets. The markets are geared towards the locals, rather than tourists, so visiting one will expose you to real Ecuadorian culture. The markets sell a wide variety of items: including Panama hats, straw baskets, and hand-made jewelry. You can also grab food & drinks in the markets—including fruits, vegetables, bread, sweets, and nuts.
There are markets all over Cuenca on varying dates/times. The two most popular markets are a market that opens in the Plaza de San Francisco on weekends, and the Plaza Rotary Market.

7. Check out Parque Calderón

Parque Calderon is a small park in the center of Old Town, Cuenca— located near The Old Cathedral and The New Cathedral. The park spans about one city block and is a hub for a lot of random activities, such as pop-up markets and concerts. The park also serves as a meeting space for many tour groups, since it’s so central and recognizable within the city.

8. Stroll through the Flower Market

A little known fact is that Ecuador is the third-largest flower exporter in the world. Cuenca has a large flower market located next to the New Cathedral called Mercado de las Flores. There are dozens of vendors that lined up in front of the cathedral selling flowers—including high-quality roses. This is a great activity to do before or after visiting one of the surrounding cathedrals in the area.

9. Try the Local Food & Drinks

Street food in Cuenca Picture
A post about the things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador wouldn’t be complete without a suggestion to try the local cuisine. I was just as surprised by the food in Ecuador as I was with the city itself—it’s delicious! Here are a few staple Ecuadorian foods & drinks that I recommend.
MONEY SAVING TIP!: When you’re at a local Ecuadorian restaurant, ask if they have a menu del dia—these are select meals of the day at lower than the norm prices.
  1. Agua de Pitimas: This is a traditional Ecuadorian drink that has been around for almost 300 years. It’s served as an elixir that cures nerves and headaches. They sell the drink in cups or bags, I bought it in a bag and tried it (we punched a hole in the bag and drank it out with a straw). It’s very sweet tasting, like liquid sugar.

  2. Arroz con Pollo (or Camarones): Rice and chicken, served up with lots of delicious spices. This is a classic Ecuadorian dish that I highly recommend.

  3. Huevos Chilenos: Ecuadorian version of the donut. They’re fried balls of dough. You can buy these in the market.

  4. Choclo: Dried corn, this is a great snack. Can be bought in the markets.

  5. Cuy (Guinee Pig): If you’re an adventurous eater, it might be worth trying the Cuy. I tried this in Peru, and didn’t love it … but some say that it’s great, so give it a go!
And, not Ecuadorian but the pizza was phenomenal in Ecuador! They sell $1 slices on the street. Delicious! If you’re a pizza lover like me, try it out. 

10. Take a Day trip from Cuenca to Cajas National Park

Cajas National Park Cuenca Ecuador - the picture shows hills, grass and a lake in the park

Cajas National Park is located 28KM from Cuenca, which amounts to a 1-hour drive to/from the city. The park is a breath of fresh air away from the city life. At the park, visitors can hike through Andean lakes and waterfalls. Visitors can either hike the park and return to the city of Cuenca within the same day, or camp at the National Park overnight.

There are several tours that leave from the Cuenca Historical District for day trips to/from the city. To find a tour, walk into one of the tourist offices near Parque Calderon and ask for information—they’re usually able to book you on a tour on the same day that you inquire barring the timing of your request.

Enjoy your time in Cuenca, Ecuador!

These are just a few of the best things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador. My trip was about three days long, and I was thankfully able to do a lot while during my time there. I loved the city so much, that I’d like to return one day and explore more. If you participate in any of these activities during your time in Cuenca, I hope that you enjoy! 

6 thoughts on “Things to See, Do & Eat in Cuenca, Ecuador”

  1. Great read! Cuenca has been on my list for a while. We had planned to spend a year or so in SA and CA but then COVID. Cuenca would have been one of the stops. Definitely going to bookmark this article for our future trip.

  2. Great post! I was in Cuenca last year, and it was my favorite city in Ecuador. It’s true that the flowers at the flower market are just stunning…did you happen to try the cleansing? I almost did, but the thought of being spit on was a bit too much for me. 🙂

    1. I didn’t try the cleansing, actually! We really wanted to do it but didn’t have the time. I am not sure if the spit part is for me, either hahah!

  3. Great article! I’m curious- how did you find the tour to take you to the rooftop of the new cathedral? I’ve been inside a couple of times but cannot figure out how to get to the stairwell. I’m wondering if maybe they’ve stopped doing the tours because of the pandemic…

    1. Hi Cyndi,

      When I went (pre-pandemic), they were selling tickets to go to the topic from inside the Cathedral lobby. They were selling them at a big desk to the left of the Cathedral lobby when you walk in. It was hard to miss, so if you didn’t see it they must not be doing it now due to the pandemic.

      Jess (Jagsetter)

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