20 Things to Do in Cuenca, Ecuador [2023]

Cuenca is a colorful colonial city situated in the southern half of Ecuador. The city is the third largest in the country, and home to a thriving digital nomad and expat community in addition to friendly locals.

A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are plenty of things to do in Cuenca to satisfy your sense of adventure for a few days.

Whether you choose to explore the city’s churches, relax in its parks, or wander through its cobblestone streets, you are sure to find something that appeals to your sense of exploration.

Here are 20 things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador.

1. Discover charming colonial architecture

The Historic Center of Cuenca was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, largely due to its dense concentration of ornate, vibrant colonial architecture and orthogonal town plan.

The ornate facades found throughout the cobbled streets of Cuenca’s Historic Center are enough to keep you fascinated for a few hours at least.

Around every turn you’ll find beautiful, iron balconies, thick, stucco-clad walls, marble details, and gorgeous carved wood.

2. Take in the beauty of the Cathedral de la Inmaculada

The magnum opus of Cuenca is undoubtedly the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, a stunning example of an architectural mélange.  The building has characteristics of Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance composition. 

Also known as the New Cathedral, this gorgeous building boasts beautiful Spanish stained-glass windows, Italian marble, and its iconic baby-blue domes.  Its construction lasted over one hundred years, but the resulting building was well-worth the wait.

While many people coming to Cuenca are familiar with the cathedral, few know that you can visit the towers, which provide epic views of the whole city

Even if you don’t plan on ascending the 150-step spiral staircase to the towers, the cathedral’s interior is open to visitors daily, with hours from 8:00-13:30 and again from 14:00-16:00.

view of the top of Cuenca’s architecture and New Cathedral. scalloped roof designs with small turrets and the iconic baby blue domes can be seen with the mountains in the background

3. Take a day trip to Cajas National Park

Located just an hour outside of Cuenca, Cajas National Park is a must-visit if you’re looking to get out of the city and into nature. It’s a popular day trip and a great spot for hiking.

This stunning park boasts over 250 lakes, many of which are surrounded by lush forests and jagged mountain peaks.

You can visit yourself, or take a guided tour from Cuenca. The tour visits two altitude areas within the park, where you’ll hike for a few hours while enjoying the beautiful scenery, including the Polylepis Forest and then in the lower area of the park, you’ll hike for an hour in the forest.

4. Get panorama views at the top of Mirador de Turi

At Mirador de Turi, you’ll find unimpeded views of gorgeous Colonial Cuenca set over the Tomebamba river. 

Turi Viewpoint is located just ten minutes outside of the city center.  Here, you can also visit Aventuri, which gives you an epic swing ride over the gorge

I didn’t dare take the swing ride, as heights aren’t really my thing.  Still, the views are worth it, even without the swing ride.

view of Cuenca’s rooftops as seen from above at the Mirador de Turi
Cuenca as seen from Mirador de Turi

5. Enjoy a fresh breakfast at Café Fractal

I happily stumbled upon this place on my very first morning in Cuenca. 

They have a wide variety of breakfast meals to choose from, each fit for a king.  Ranging from $2-$4.50 USD, each breakfast meal is nearly enough for two people. 

I ordered the Desayuno Continental on my first day and never looked back, ordering it daily until I was due to return to Quito. 

For $3.50, I got a coffee, fresh juice, eggs, pan del dia, and a large portion of local, fresh fruits. 

It was superb, and perfect to give me enough energy to sightsee for hours on end.

6. Admire Iglesia Sagrario

Iglesia Sagrario, or the Old Church, as it is commonly known, is one of the most popular things to do in Cuenca. 

The Iglesia Sagrario is now home to a museum filled with religious artifacts from throughout Cuencan history. 

One of the rooms is covered wall-to-ceiling in religious murals, in addition to a depiction of the Last Supper with life-sized sculptures.

a long white church with a 2 story tower above the entrance. trees stand in front of the church and a person on a bicycle is riding past the church.
Iglesia Sagrario

7. Sample local goodies at Mercado 10 de Agosto

There are tons of covered markets located throughout Cuenca, but by far the biggest market with the most offerings is Mercado 10 de Agosto.

You can find expected staples such as fresh produce, herbs, more meat than you can imagine, and local spices.

However, you can find some much more interesting offerings here as well.

On Tuesdays and Fridays you can get a traditional cleansing from Limpia women if you are in need of good fortune, love, or money (who isn’t?). People from all walks of life come for the cleansings. From businessmen to indigenous teenagers (and of course, gringos), but pregnant women seem to dominate.

The market is so big and has so many vendors that you have to explore the surrounding streets outside as well, as the vendors tend to overflow on particularly busy days. If you like sour things, try some Super Hiper Acido candy, a local candy from Ecuador.

8. Try mote pillo

Corn is life in Ecuador, so it should come as no surprise that hominy (dried corn kernels soaked in an alkali mixture) is a staple in traditional recipes.

Mote Pillo is a traditional Cuencan dish made with hominy and scrambled eggs, onions, garlic, and achiote.

It’s traditionally served alongside fresh bread and slices of cheese.

You can also find this filling breakfast dish at Café Fractal, my personal favorite breakfast spot in Cuenca.

a plate with the mote pillo - hominy, scrambled eggs, onions, garlic and achiote
Mote Pillo

9. Learn about Panama hats at Homero Ortega Museum

Despite its name, did you know the Panama hat was actually invented in Ecuador?

That’s right.

Among the best things to do in Cuenca is to visit the Homero Ortega Museum.

Here, you can learn about the famous hats’ origins, how to make them, and maybe purchase one to take home as a souvenir.

The museum offers free, guided tours available in Spanish and English. The museum is located at the production headquarters of Homero Ortega, a well-known brand of Panama hats. This means that your visit to the museum is fully interactive, as you’re directly involved in the production process.

Definitely a place worth checking out while in Cuenca!

10. People-watch in Parque Calderón

Take a seat in Parque Calderón to watch passersby and bask in the warm Ecuadorian sun.

The park is centrally located and served as my focal point throughout my time in Cuenca.

After a big meal, or a few glasses of wine, I really enjoyed sitting here with a book or just my headphones to spend some time simply doing nothing.

With the shade of the palm trees and the trickling fountains, you’ll find the perfect ambiance to just sit and chill.

a short but large circular fountain with fence border sits in the middle of a square. leafy trees can be seen overhead and a white building with arched walkway is to the left and a yellow building with arched walkway and arched windows on the 2nd floor
Parque Calderón

11. Try the ceviche at Raymipampa

Following my day of hiking in Cajas, this was my first stop. I was starving, sun burnt, and exhausted.

I had yet to sample Ecuadorian ceviche, and my skin was so hot (and already blistering, despite slathering on sunscreen all day), that I wanted something chilled. A crisp, refreshing glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and a bowl of fresh ceviche was just what the doctor ordered.

Raymipampa is located on the perimeter of Parque Calderón. It’s consistently touted as one of the best restaurants in the city. It’s very affordable (as are most places in Cuenca) and the ceviche was to-die-for.

If you’re visiting Ecuador and eating ceviche, you might be confused as to what to do with the little corn nuts it’s served with (as was I). Instead of eating them like an appetizer, like I did (what can I say, I was starving), you add them to the ceviche for a bit of texture. This is one of many things you need to know before visiting Ecuador.

12. Take in the views from a rooftop terrace

The best rooftop bar to get picture-perfect views of the Cuencan rooftops was by far Hotel Cruz del Vado.

You don’t need to be a hotel guest to visit their rooftop restaurant (I wasn’t).

Admittedly, it’s a bit pricer than other bars and restaurants in Cuenca.

Still, with views like this, it’s totally worth it – especially considering how much you save with the cost of living in Cuenca.

3 small hamburgers sit stacked on a three level step display beside a glass of beer and a bowl of chips. yellow cushions are placed on the bench behind the food and behind the bench is the view of Cuenca
View of Cuenca from the rooftop bar

13. Get a little weird at Museo Pumapungo

Want to check out something completely morbid and unique to Cuenca?

Go to Museo Pumapungo to see their macabre collection of shrunken heads.

This is a huge, free museum in Cuenca whose highlight is unquestionably their shrunken head exhibit, from the Shuar people of Amazonia.

In addition to the shrunken heads, they also display indigenous art and artifacts, all of which gives more insight into the area you’re visiting.

The museum is not open on Mondays.

14. Stroll the banks of the Tomebamba River

Cuenca has the benefit of being the confluence of four rivers, most notably the Tomebamba River.

The Tomebamba flows through Cuenca, converging with the Amazon, and ultimately making its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

The river banks are a popular place for young couples to find privacy and warmth in each other’s arms.

Pack a picnic (solo, with a friend, or paramour) and settle in to the peace that comes with the sounds of the babbling river and chirping birds that make the banks of the Tomebamba their home.

a rock-filled river with green grass on the banks and the side of a rectangular White House can be seen at the edge of the photo

15. Take a wellness day at Piedra de Agua

Need a little R&R during your travels in Cuenca?

A great option after a day of hiking in Cajas is to visit the America’s only underground spa facility.

With various treatments, including red and blue thermal muds, mineral salt therapies, thermal shock experiences, and Turkish baths, you can enjoy the different spa services for two and a half hours starting at $57.00, which is super cheap if you’re coming from the States!

The spa offers a variety of packages, but this is the one I went with.

You are provided with a towel, robe, and mask upon arrival.

There is also a small shop that sells bathing wear and accessories in case you forget yours. If you get hungry afterward, you can check out the on-site restaurant.

Book your time here by reservation only – COVID restrictions are in place, but the spa is still open.

16. Admire the world-class street art

Among the best things to do in Cuenca (and Ecuador in general) is roam the streets in search of some of the best street art around the world.

The depictions in the epic murals range from local customs to indigenous portraits, and are as moving as they are beautiful.

After exploring the street art in a few different cities throughout Ecuador, I found the street art in Cuenca to be my favorite.

You can easily spend a few hours taking photos of Cuenca’s street art, perfect for a leisurely afternoon. The street art alone makes Cuenca worth visiting!

colourful street art depicting an indigenous women with brown eyes and large dangling earrings, set amid a background of red and black designs inside a circle of light blue with black and white zigzag edging
Street Art in Cuenca

17. Learn about local indigenous culture

Visit Museo de las Culturas Aborigines to explore Ecuador’s indigenous history.

The museum, which is closed on Sundays, showcases over 5,000 different archeological artifacts from pre-Inca indigenous cultures.

Because the museum offers guided tours in English, you can fully immerse yourself in the ancient pre-Hispanic civilization.

18. Discover the local flower market

La Plaza de las Flores is located near Plaza San Francisco in the historical center of Cuenca.  It’s a beautiful, sweet-smelling outdoor market ideally located.

Simply watching locals make their purchases is as exciting as discovering the wide variety of flowers found there.  There is a lot you can learn from the flower market as well.

Did you know that Ecuador is the world’s third-largest exporter of cut flowers? Visiting Flores Square is a great way to experience the industry on a smaller scale, first-hand.

19. Check out some of the coolest doorways in Cuenca

In addition to the stunning architecture that decorates the streets of Cuenca, the doors are equally (if not more) breathtaking.

I owe my love for doors and doorways around the world to my mother, who is constantly stopping for photo ops on all of the trips we take together.

Cuenca has some of the most beautiful doors I’ve seen in all of my travels.

a large blue door with a rounded top and white rectangular insets with ornate designs. the door is set in a marble doorway and small columns surround the doorway.
Doorways in Cuenca

Where to Stay in Cuenca

Itza Hotel Boutique Internacional

Located in the historical centre of Cuenca, this 5-star boutique hotel is a great choice for exploring the city. Rooms feature a terrace or garden view, as well as an onsite restaurant and bar, and an excellent breakfast. If you prefer to eat out, there are many restaurants nearby to choose from. Itza Hotel Boutique Internacional is a great location and easily within walking distance to explore the city. 

👉 Check rates and availability on Booking.com | Expedia | Hotels.com

Hotel Raymipampa

For a more modest accommodation, Hotel Raymipampa is a good choice. Rooms are comfortable and clean, and some have a patio or garden view. Breakfast is included and the hotel is within walking distance to Calderón Park and the Straw Hat Museum. 

👉 Check rates and availability on Booking.com | Expedia | Hotels.com

Hotel Posada del Rey

Located in an excellent location, this budget-friendly hotel is steps away from the New Cathedral. The friendly staff and cozy atmosphere make this a great place to stay in the city centre.

👉 Check rates and availability on Booking.com | Expedia | Hotels.com

Selina Cuenca

Conveniently located next to the river and close to many attractions in the city, Selina Cuenca is a stylish hostel with private rooms. Breakfast is included and there’s an on-site restaurant, as well as a co-working space, perfect for digital nomads.

👉 Check rates and availability on Booking.com | Expedia | Hotels.com

Things to do in Cuenca: FAQ

Is Cuenca Ecuador worth visiting?

Yes! Cuenca is a Unesco World Heritage Site and a major cultural center in Ecuador, known for its colonial architecture and stunning scenery.

What is Cuenca Ecuador known for?

Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador and is known for its stunning colonial architecture, as well as its textile making, including the famous Panama hats, which are actually made in Cuenca.

How many days do you need in Cuenca Ecuador?

If you’re short on time, three nights is enough for all the top things to do in Cuenca, but if you wish to do a few day trips or fully explore the town, a week in Cuenca would be ideal. 

When is the best month to visit Cuenca Ecuador?

Cuenca has great, spring-like weather year-round, and as it’s close to the equator, there’s not much variation in temperature throughout the year. June through August are the driest months in Cuenca, but it’s also the coldest time of year, with temperatures dipping to 15. 

Is English spoken in Ecuador? 

You’ll hear English spoken quite often in Cuenca. While speaking a few words of Spanish is always appreciated, most young people will speak English, as well 

Things to Do in Cuenca: Final Thoughts

Cuenca is one of the most fascinating cities in Ecuador and has something for everyone.

From admiring its colonial architecture to exploring nearby nature parks, or learning about some unique things that Ecuador is known for, there are plenty of interesting activities in Cuenca to enjoy.