Plaza de la Independencia, colloquially known as Plaza Grande, is where Quito’s daily life and historic and national symbolism collide. Spiked with palm trees and dotted with locals going about their business, the central element of the square, and an icon of the city, is the monument to the independence heroes of August 10, 1809. This is the date celebrated as the First Cry of Independence of the Royal Audience of Quito from the Spanish monarchy, perhaps the most important event in the formation of the modern country. At the heart of both the political and religious ambits of the city, the square is worthy not only of a pass-through, but of a few hours spent soaking in Quito life. Here are six things to do in Plaza Grande.
Visit the Palacio de Carondelet
This great, pillared building, brilliant white against Quito’s bluest sky, is the seat of the government and official residence of the president (though modern presidents prefer to live with their families out of the public eye). In spite of its prestigious use as the base of the government’s authority, visitors can – and are encouraged to – have a snoop around the palace, sometimes stumbling in on official meetings. A highlight is the Yellow or Presidents’ Room, an illustrious space hung with paintings of former Ecuadorian leaders, where many a momentous decision has been made over the fate of the country.
Watch the Changing of the Guard
Guarding the palace are the Granaderos de Tarqui, a well-respected military squadron, dapper in brilliant blue dress coats with golden chords, red epaulettes, white trousers, black boots, and tall blue helmets known as a morriones. Each Monday at exactly 11 A.M., with glorious pomp and ceremony, Plaza Grande is filled with locals and tourists craning to catch the Changing of the Guard, a centuries’-old tradition involving horses adorned with pompoms, banging drums, marching soldiers and of course, the national anthem. With luck, the president will put in an appearance on the balcony of the Palacio de Carandolet. Make sure to arrive early to bag a spot, and to wear a sunhat!
People-watch with a Coffee
Filled with the larger-than-life characters from the city, Plaza Grande is a great place to people-watch and soak in urban life. There are street vendors hawking their wares, indigenous women in their traditional dress, pensioners sitting on benches in the morning sun and shoe shiners stationed along the Palacio Arzobispal. There’s also a chance there’ll be a pro-government political rally, flags a-waving under the palm trees.
Make like the locals and take a pew on one of the benches around the park, or venture into one of the cafes underneath the Catedral Metropolitana for a coffee and a traditional cake.
Admire the Catedral Metropolitana
Standing elegantly along the southwestern flank of Plaza Grande, the Catedral Metropolitana, or Metropolitan Cathedral, is the highest-ranking Catholic building in the city. Built in the 16th century, the cathedral stands apart from the multitude of religious construction in Quito’s Old Town with its pillars, arches and naves; its green glazed ceramic domes are easy to spot from the third-floor terrace of Casa Gangotena. Inside, the high alter made only of gold is a sumptuous feast for the eyes.
Shop in Palacio Arzobispal
The former bishop’s palace standing face-to-face with the cathedral, the Palacio Arzobispal has shrugged off its religious heritage and is now home to food courts and artisan shops. Within the charming inner patios and creaking balconies you’ll find everything from fast food all the way up to lavish national cuisine, as well as stalls sending handcrafted wears from the Andes, Amazon and Pacific Coast.
Get a Haircut
Of all the things you thought you could do in Plaza Grande, perhaps getting a haircut was not one of them. Placed in the heart of political life, the barber shop underneath the Palacio Carondelet is quitted out with old-school leather and steel chairs and equipment that might have been cutting edge in the 1960s. But there’s something interesting, satisfying even, about having a trim while the country’s most powerful people make decisions above your head.