In this article, you will find some amazing things to do in Quito, Ecuador, along with practical information for places to eat and advice on how to get around.
With the elevation of 2850 meters above sea level, Quito is the second highest capital in the world; La Paz in Bolivia is arguably the highest. Although Quito is not the most populated city in Ecuador – the port city of Guayaquil has a greater population – it is a true metropolis.
The city lies in a valley hemmed by volcanic peaks. The shape of the city resembles a sausage with a length of 50 km and width of 10km. Quito is known as a city of eternal spring. It is really interesting to be located only 20 km from the equator and at very high altitude at the same time; the result is a subtropical highland climate, which is neither too cold nor too warm.
We stayed in Quito for almost two months this spring, volunteering in a downtown hostel. During our free time, we explored the city independently.
Things to do in Quito, Ecuador
Explore the old town
The historical center of Quito, along with Krakow in Poland, was the first city to be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978. The old town is one of the best preserved and protected colonial centers in all of South America, featuring museums, cathedrals and parks.
Climb the Basilico del Voto Nacional
Once it was the largest church of its kind in the Americas. You can take a lift to the balcony and from there walk all the way up the clock tower for amazing views. It is a vertiginous walk up a few steep ladders but that breathtaking view above Quito is definitely worth it!
Explore Museo de la Ciudad
It’s located in the former Hospital building near Calle la Ronda. Learn more about the foundation of the city and different Ecuadorian regions.
Attend a mass service at San Francisco Church
It’s one of the oldest churches in the continent. The construction of the city’s largest colonial structure began in 1534, only a few weeks after the founding of Quito but wasn’t finished for another seventy years.
Watch changing the guards at Plaza Grande (Plaza de la Independencia)
The ceremony is held every Monday at 11am, and you could even catch the President waving from the balcony of La Carondelet palace. Or simply go to the plaza any other day and just observe the tourist and locals hanging around the main square in the city.
Walk along Calle la Ronda
Calle la Ronda is one of the oldest and most artsy street in Quito, which is full of bars and artisan eateries that open fully in the evening. Once completely neglected, since 2005 this has been nicely restored. Take a sip of canelaza – a hot alcoholic drink based on sugar cane – which warms you up during chilly nights out or try michelada – a spicy beer coctail.
Find your best vintage dress at a Flea market
The market is situated near Plaza del Teatro at Galapagos street or just enjoy observing the shoppers as they search for the best antique deal.
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Enjoy the views and the parks
Being surrounded by the mountains and the volcanoes, Quito offers amazing hilly views with abundant green places.
Climb to the El Panecillo
El Panecillo or bread bun, is the direct translation of the most significant hill over the city. The Virgin of Quito statue dominates its peak. From the top, you can admire great views and take a rest in a nearby park. When the view is clear, you can see Cotopaxi volcano from there.
Visit the park La Carolina
Sometimes called also “Central Park” is located in the north part of the city and offers a variety of activities. You can visit the Botanical garden and see many colorful flowers from all over the world. If you are a sport-addict, this is the place for you.
There are a plenty of sport fields, rubberized running tracks and outdoor-fitness equipment. For those who prefer a more relaxed approach, a walk in the park alleys enjoying ice-cream or cold juice from the park vendors might be satisfactory.
Explore other parks in Quito
Another option is to visit La Alameda or El Ejido; these parks are situated in between the old and the new town. Both have several food stalls, outdoor-fitness equipment and many green places to rest. You can rent a boat and row in the lagoon of La Alameda park. If you intend to buy some traditional clothes or souvenirs, aim for the market in El Ejido park. Don’t forget to bargain with the vendors – they will enjoy it!
Visit Itchimbia park
This place provides another great city views. This is located only 30-minutes by foot from the city center. You can walk the steep stairs from Los Rios street. When you get to the top, you will be amazed by the vistas over the city and the views of volcano Pichincha on the other side of the valley.
The architecturally impressive cultural center Crystal palace dominates the hilltop park. Just a street below the park lies a bunch of fancy restaurants with spectacular views and delicious food. They might be fully booked during the evening hours so it´s recommended to either book the best spot in advance or come during the day when it is usually less packed.
Take a cable car to Pichincha volcano
When you feel like escaping the hustle and bustle of the city, Pichincha volcano hill will definitely provide adequate relaxation and tranquility. The cable car takes you up to the Cruz Loma peak (4100 metres above the sea level) in about 10 minutes. From there, you can admire snow-capped volcanoes when the sky is clear or simply observe the sausage shape of Quito from above.
For those keen on hiking, there is a nice trail leading to Rucu Pichincha (4696 metres above the sea level). The hike to the top takes between 3 and 4 hours and requires some scrambling. Going down is obviously easier and takes about 2 hours.
Take into account that the weather changes rapidly at these heights and don´t forget to take plenty of water.
Explore the north part of the city
Quito’s historical center is unique and picturesque but one shouldn’t leave the city without visiting its north districts. The whole area of Plaza Foch, Mariscal and La Floresta have a completely different vibe. Everything is a bit more modern, dazzling and uncongested. High-rises, cafés, bars, fancy restaurants and discos are all around.
Check out the Bellavista neighborhood
Here you can observe three volcanoes on a clear day and splendid views over Quito new town. The art lovers can aim for Capilla del Hombres and admire the unique artworks of Oswaldo Guayasamín, undoubtedly the most famous Ecuadorian painter of the last century.
Visit equatorial line at Mitad del Mundo (Half of the world)
Ecuador got its name after the equatorial line. This imaginary strip lies about 20 km north of Quito and the famous monument dividing the two hemispheres is the most visited touristic attraction in the country. There are two museums worth visiting.
The first one, well-known Mitad del Mundo with the famous monument, lies at the original equator which was measured by French Geodesic expedition back in the 18th century.
The other one, lesser known Intiñan Solar Museum, is located about 200m further and has an equator marker that is closer to the actual spot. Both museums house a few exhibits of the different Ecuadorian cultures as well as fun facts about the equator.
Where to eat in Quito?
Feeling hungry? Head to Mercado Central, an indoor 2-floor market, which provides tasty meals and snacks for a good price. You can also do your veggie shopping here. There is an abundance of tropical fruits and green stuff stalls including healing herbs and a variety of coca products.
During city walks, you will encounter many local restaurants serving set breakfasts (desayunos) and set lunches (almuerzos) for very reasonable prices. The usual lunch consists of a soup and main dish; vegetarian options are rare and in most cases you will be served chicken. As a drink, you will be served jugo, which is a very tasty fruit smoothie and in some restaurants, there will be a small dessert too. Aproveche!
And these were some of the best things you can do in the second highest capital in the world. Be ready for some minor symptoms of altitude sickness if you will arrive from a lower elevation. Just take it easy for the first days – don´t rush – simply indulge yourself in the real Andean heights at a slow pace. Quito will definitely embrace you sooner or later! Enjoy!