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Things to do in Quito: A Travel Guide to Ecuador’s capital

Here's our guide to the many interesting things you can see and do in and around the wonderful city of Quito.

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All about Quito: table of contents

  1. El Centro Historico
  2. El Panecillo
  3. La Basilica del Voto Nacional
  4. La mariscal or “Gringolandia”
  5. Parks in Quito
  6. Shopping in Quito
  7. El TeleferiQo and the Pichincha volcano
  8. La Mitad del Mundo
  9. The Otavalo Market and the Cuicocha Laguna
  10. Learn Spanish in Quito
  11. Things to do around Quito
  12. Where to eat in Quito
  13. Where to stay in Quito
  14. Transport in Quito
  15. Weather in Quito

El Centro Historico

300 years of Spanish colonization transforms a city. Imposing their religion, the Spaniards built churches, monasteries but also palaces and squares. In Quito, the Spaniards saw things big because the city has the largest (and best preserved) historic centre in all of South America. In other words, there are things to see.

Historic Quito

Our advice to you is to get lost in the narrow and colourful streets of old Quito. The architecture of the buildings, the sculptures and frescos in the churches. Everything is very beautiful and superbly maintained. The city of Quito is making great efforts to preserve its historic centre.

Our favourite spots in the historic centre

We can recommend the Independence Square, located just in front of the Government Palace. Back then, If you were lucky enough to be there on a Monday morning at 11:00 am, you could see the very popular President Raphael Correa greeting the inhabitants from the balcony of the palace. Keep in mind that you will be asked to leave your passport at the entrance for the visit, thus make sure to have it with you. Next to the entrance to the palace, there is also an interesting museum about the history of the city of Quito. If you have to wait to enter the palace, it can be a useful distraction.

San Francisco Square, Quito

We can also recommend the monastery and San Francisco Square. There is also a very nice terrace to have a drink on the square.

A great stop in this area is La Ronda (one of the oldest streets in Quito). Have a drink (or a caraffe) of Canelazo de mora. There are several very nice bars in La Ronda. They are small, full of charm, and all offer Canelazo. We suggest paying your visit at the end of the afternoon because although this drink is quite sweet, it is rather strong and after one or two, you may find it challenging to walk back to your hotel.

El Panecillo

El Paneceillo is the hill that sits in the middle of Quito. At the top you will find a 41-metre-high aluminium virgin that can be seen from absolutely everywhere in Quito (it is a bit like the symbol of the city). And since it has wings, one could say that it is in a way the guardian angel of the city. The view from the top of the panecillo is breathtaking. It’s really worth the trip. For $1, you can also climb inside the virgin to have a superb 360° view of Quito.

You should know that it is possible to walk up to the Panecillo, but we have heard a lot of stories of theft there and even some locals have advised us not to walk up alone. If you are travelling alone and wish to avoid taking risks, take a taxi.

La Basilica del Voto Nacional

Even if it is located in the historical centre, we decided to dedicated it a paragraph because it is the visit that most marked us of old Quito. The basilica is of an impressive size, 140m long and 115m high for both towers, it is also visible from all over Quito. Its Gothic style is particularly interesting and you can observe gargoyles representing the animals of Ecuador (Iguanas, turtles, toucans…) everywhere on its facades. It is still quite peculiar to see this kind of animals on a religious building of this size.)

Climbing up the towers of the Basilica

The highlight of the visit is that for $2/pers you can go up the towers of the basilica. The good thing is that it is even possible to go inside the clock and climb to the top of one of the 2 towers as well as the 3rd, which is a little less high than the two main ones. Prepare yourself to climb a lot of stairs and even to climb ladders. When you make it to the top you are rewarded with an absolutely incredible view. A rather improbable thing for a basilica, , is that there is a café practically at the top of one of the two towers… for $3 you can enjoy a coffee and cake with the craziest view of the city… not bad either?

Basilica de Quito

La mariscal or “Gringolandia”

This district, located just north of the historic centre, is considered the most festive place in Quito. It is also where most of the city’s backpacker hostels are located. If you want our opinion, this place doesn’t have much to offer. If you’re going to be in Quito, you might as well stay in the beautiful historic centre rather than waste your time in another backpacker district, which, by the way, are all the same all over the world! However, you will probably have to go through it because most of the travel agencies are located in La Mariscal.

The parks in Quito

Although we can’t really say that Quito is a green or a “clean” city there are several nice parks that are worth a visit.

Parque Metropolitano

Located behind the Olympic Stadium in the northern part of Quito, it is the largest park. It will take a solid 3 hours at a goodlamas pace to walk around it. (the park is twice the size of New York’s Central Park to give you an idea). Parque Metropolitano is the perfect place for a jog in the forest or a barbecue with friends. The entire park is covered with forest and trails.

There are also grills installed in several places, a kind of fitness trail, football and basketball courts. In addition, the park is located on a hill and it is possible to see the Cotopaxi and Cayambe volcanoes from several places.

Parque Carolina

This park is located in the city centre, in front of the Quicentro shopping center. Many people come here during the weekend to play football, basketball or Ecuavolley (a popular variant of volleyball in Ecuador, with a much higher net). There are a lot of different sections and the atmosphere is great! You can also have a bite to eat and drink fresh fruit juice.

The botanical Garden in Quito

Located in the middle of Carolina Park, the concept of this botanical garden is to reproduce the typical environments that can be found in Ecuador (the coast, the Andes, the Amazon). In addition it has two magnificent greenhouses filled with orchids and a lots of carnivorous plants.

Other parks

There are also other interesting parks in Quito such as the Bicentenary Park, which is located on the site of the old airport. The old airstrip has been transformed into a place of relaxation and sports. More than a million trees have been planted. Otherwise there is also “El Ejido“, known for its painters which is worth a visit.

Shopping in Quito

quicentroSo for shopping, Quito is not as good as Bangkok or Hong Kong but you can find everything you are looking for. If you need brands from home, you will find these at Quicentro, located just in front of the Olympic stadium. It is the largest and most chic shopping centre in Quito. But be careful because the prices are rather high. Taxes on items imported into Ecuador are very high so don’t be surprised if a computer or mobile phone is more expensive in Quito than back home!

If you want to buy cheap clothes, shoes or other small random things, then go to the historical centre, near the panecillo. You will find a huge market with a lot of choice. If you have more time, take a day to go to the Otavalo market, located 2 hours from Quito. It is the largest market in the country and you will have a huge choice with very good prices.

Buying local is much cheaper in Quito!

To buy food, as usual, there is nothing like the market to find the best quality at the best prices. You will find fruits and vegetables, bread, meat, cheese… and often cheap almuerzos. If you don’t have the time or courage to go to the market, you can find fruits and vegetables in the fruterias (small shops that are absolutely everywhere) and bread in the panaderias. Otherwise there are obviously the big chains like Super Maxi or Mega Maxi where you can find everything but the prices are generally 20% more expensive.

El TeleferiQo and the Pichincha volcano

This is highly recommened when the weather is very nice! As you may know, Quito is partly located on the eastern slope of the Pichincha volcano. As a result, it is possible fto take a cable car that climbs up the slope of the volcano to an altitude of 4000m. The view from the top of the cable car is unbelievable. You will of course have a breathtaking view of the whole city of Quito but in good weather you can even admire the majestic Cotopaxi volcano and the Cayambe which are a little further away.

le volcan Cayambe le volcan Cotopaxi

If you are in good physical condition or want to train to climb one of the big equatorial volcanoes (Cotopaxi, Cayambe, Chimborazo…), you can then climb to the top of the Ruku Pichincha (4696m) from the top of the cable car. You can’t get lost, there’s only one path and it’s very well marked.

Hiking to the top of Pinchincha

Allow between 4 and 7 hours for the round trip depending on your speed (with altitude, breathing gets harder). Be aware that the last part is quite difficult and is more like climbing than walking. If you are used to walking in the mountains it won’t be a problem.

Rucu Pichincha

The Mitad del Mundo

mitad del mundoThe Equator passes 35 km north of Quito, so it would be a shame not to go there, wouldn’t it? Well, as you can imagine, the line also runs elsewhere, such as in Brazil, Africa and Indonesia. Historically speaking, it was there that the first group of the French Academy of Sciences went to measure the exact shape and size of the earth (this was back in 1736). On site, there is a large memorial and a museum that tells a little more about the difficult task of these scientists. But the joke is actually that the monument is not in the exact location of the equator!

The Intinan Museum

In order to get to the “real” point, you will have to leave the monument grounds and walk another 500m beyond the roundabout. On your left will be the Intinan Museum. For $4/pers, you will be entitled to a guided tour. You’ll discover a little more about the culture of the indigenous people of Ecuador, the different tribes and their rites. We found the guide super competent and very interesting.

You Should Know…

To get there, simply take the blue metro bus line ($0.25) to the Ofelia Bus Station and take the bus to the mitad del mundo ($0.30-0.40) which is well signposted. From the historical centre, it takes a good hour and a half.

The Otavalo Market and the Cuicocha laguna

Located 2 hours by bus from Quito, the Otavalo market is renowned for the quality of the textiles and crafts that can be found there. Frankly, if you have a small “souvenir shopping” budget for your trip to Ecuador, we advise you to save your money for this market. You will find absolutely everything you can find in Quito (and more) at a better price. So if you wanted to buy a nice wool sweater, a hat, a poncho or basically anything else this market is for you. There is also an interesting part of the market dedicated to live animals. Go early enough in the morning if you want to see as much as possible. By noon it will be almost over. To get to Otavalo it is extremely easy. First you need to go to Quito’s northern bus station (Carcelen). This ride in the city costs 0,25$. From there, there is regular service to Otavalo. The journey takes 2 hours and the ticket costs 2,5$.

The Lagoon of Cuicocha

And if you’ve finished shopping quickly enough and want to take a walk, go to Cuicocha’s Lagoon. Located not far from the market (½ taxi hour for $10), it is an excellent alternative for getting some fresh air in the afternoon. In fact, this lake is located inside a crater at the foot of the Cotacachi volcano. Frankly, the landscape of the lake with the imposing volcano in the background is superb.

Lagoon of Cuicocha

Learn Spanish in Quito

Quito is an excellent city to learn Spanish! There are many reasons for this, but the main ones are probably the charm of the city but also the Spanish spoken there. The Ecuadorians have a beautiful, “clean” Spanish and in Quito the inhabitants have the particularity to speak rather slowly. This is a significant advantage for learners.

Things to do around Quito

As Ecuador is a small country and Quito is quite well located in its centre, there are many possibilities for short weekend trips from the capital. Here are some examples.

Banos

Banos is in a way the capital of extreme sports in Ecuador (located 3-4 hours by bus south of Quito). On the program, waterfalls, volcano (the Tungurahua), rafting, mountain bike, zip lines, canyoning, trekking… the list is long.

Cotopaxi

It is one of the symbols of Ecuador. The volcano has a perfect shape and always snowy at the top (5897m)! It is located just 60 km south of the city. If you want to reach the summit, it will take 2 days with a guide (about $200). The first day is used to go up to the refuge and the second day for asencion which is done at night.

quito cotopaxi

Mindo

mindoLocated in the tropical forest 2 hours by bus west of Quito (and not on the Amazon side), this small village is known for the incredible diversity of birds, butterflies and insects that inhabit it. There’s lots to do here. Activities such as rafting, zip lines, mountain biking are all readily available.

Quilotoa Laguna

Another lake in a crater! To get there, simply take a bus from Quito to Latacunga (1h30 bus for $2) and then take a bus to Quilotoa. The particularity of this region is that it is possible to trek from village to village (there are hostels in all villages) for several days without the need to take a bus or taxi. It is unique in Ecuador and the landscapes are worth it!

Where and what to eat in Quito

Gastronomy is not the strong point of the city of Quito. The typical lunch (Almuerzo) consists of chicken or fish soup (often served with popcorn), followed by a rice dish with potatoes and meat (and a very small amount of salad) accompanied by a glass of fruit juice.

Afterwards, it is also possible to enjoy the market in Ecuador. They have fruits that are not found elsewhere and that are delicious such as arbol tomatoes, pomegranates, taxos and others. On average, we found the fruit to be really tasty! But otherwise, the Ecuadorian people are rather carnivorous.

Where to stay in Quito?

Quito is a big city, so you will have no trouble finding accommodation! There are options for all prices and all standards. Check out our extensive selection of both Hotels and Apartments here on our site. Our advice would probably be to take up accommodation in or near the historic centre or towards the Mariscal. This is where most of the guesthouses are located and it is also a relatively safe place to go for a walk.

Transport in Quito

The cheapest way to get around Quito city is to take one of the 3 bus lines that cross the city from north to south (you can also walk but the city is really large and the distances are fast).

There is the green line (el trole), the blue line (metrobus) and the red line (ecovia) and an entrance ticket costs only $0.25 with no distance limit. Unfortunately, these 3 lines are not enough to serve the whole city and the bus stations are rather dangerous from 19:00 onwards. As a result, you will have to take taxis. There are an impressive number of taxis in Quito (officially more than 10,000) and you will never have any trouble finding one. taxi quitoDuring the day, they all run on taxometers and the price is really low in comparison with Europe. From 7pm to 8pm, most taxis no longer use the meter and you will have to negotiate the price of your trip. To get an idea, it is about twice as expensive at night as during the day.

Getting out of Quito

To get out of Quito and travel in the region, the best way is to do it by bus. A bus ticket usually costs about $1 per hour of travel. For example, to go to Banos, it will cost you $3.5 dollars for 3-4 hours of travel.

For most destinations on the coast (Guayaquil), the Amazon (Banos) and the Andes (Cotopaxi), you will have to go to the Quitumbe Bus Station, located just south of Quito (you can take the ecovia bus there).

However, for the Otavalo market, you will have to go to the north station of Carcelen. And if you want to go to the mitad del mundo or Mindo, you will have to go to the Ofélia Bus Station, which is at the end of the blue bus line.

Weather in Quito

As Quito is very close to the equator (no joke), there are no seasons strictly speaking. Temperatures vary between 10° and 20° throughout the year with an average of about 14°.

On the other hand, there is a rather humid season between October and May (10-15 rainy days per month) and a dry season from June to September (5-7 rainy days per month). And having lived through the month of May, we can assure you that it is better to visit Ecuador between June and September. During the wet season, the weather can change very quickly in Quito.

The weather is often quite sunny in the early morning, then the sky quickly gets overcast and it rains in the afternoon. And since we had Spanish classes in the morning, our month of May was a little frustrating. On the other hand, we had a wonderful month of June with very little rain. But be careful, don’t forget that you are at an altitude of 2800m and that the sun is stronger than at sea level.

Safety rules to be observed

  • Never dress in a conspicuous way and never expose wealth.
  • After 19:00, always take a taxi, and avoid crossing the parks after dark.
  • Always follow the recommendations of the locals because they know the dangerous neighbourhoods (e.g. panecillo or teleferiqo).
  • Have nothing in your pockets on the bus and always carry your backpack in front of you. Don’t laugh, but all locals do the same!
  • Just carry cash and a copy of your passport. Avoid taking your credit card (unless you really need it) and the original of your passport.
  • Take as many pictures as you want, but put the camera back in your bag when you’re not using it to avoid snatching.