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A UNESCO World Heritage site, the capital of Ecuador, Quito, makes for a good holiday destination. Compared to other world capitals, Quito is quite small. There are lots of great things to do in Quito. The top attractions in Quito can be easily covered in 3 days. Located in the Andean mountains, the city has unique varieties of flora and fauna, and the views from the hilltops are incredible. Quito is also known for its volcanoes, some dead, some active, spewing ash occasionally. Quito is among just a few places where you can simultaneously be in the northern and southern hemispheres. It is at latitude 0°, right on the equator!
Quito has a rich history dating back to the Inca civilization, following which the Spaniards invaded Ecuador. However, one thing you need to know before your visit is that English is not the locals’ first language, and most of them only understand Spanish. Some command of Spanish is helpful when visiting beautiful Quito.
Best Things to Do in Quito
Attractions of Quito
Quito has ticketed attractions as well non- ticketed attractions. The tickets are cheap, unlike the attractions in Europe and the USA. Look out for tours that are reasonably priced and are a great way to mingle with locals and learn interesting facts about Quito. However, if you want to enjoy the city at your pace, the following list is just what you need:
Ciudad Mitad del Mundo
The extremely popular complex of Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, aka ‘The Middle of the World City’ is built right on the equator. Right in the center of this complex is a monument that is 30 meters high with a globe on top of it. Climb to the top of the building to get an aerial view of the massive complex. Look out for the yellow line, marking the equator. People love to pose while standing on it. But the equator is in the Intinan museum, 200 meters from the marked line. Confusing right?
Located next door to Ciudad Mitad del Mundo is the Intinan Museum. It is a must-visit not only to step on the actual line but also for its interesting displays and experiences. Guests get to participate in various experiments showing how water and balance are affected by being on either side of the equator. There are eight more museums in the complex and a planetarium. You will come across pavilions displaying the artworks of many artists. Most prominent out of all is the Oswaldo Guayasamín pavilion, where on display are fine works of the very popular artist after whom the pavilion takes its name. Every weekend there are cultural programs.
Quito’s Old Town
Quito’s old town, aka Quito’s historic center, is the most well-preserved and probably the largest in South America. Criss-cross roads with various elevations and town squares make it charming. Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square) is the oldest town’s most popular square. The top attraction of the Old Town is the Presidential Palace, often called El Palacio de Gobierno or Palacio de Carondelet. Too many names for everything. I know! The changing of the guard ceremony takes place every Monday morning in front of the Presidential Palace, which is a grand spectacle and draws a big crowd. You will encounter numerous monuments, colonial buildings, churches, and museums.
Mercado Central, a shopping arcade, is a popular hotspot for tourists. Here, you can partake in a limpia – a traditional ceremony blending Indian and Christian beliefs to cleanse your spirit. Besides shops, Mercado Central has a few eateries. The food is delicious and inexpensive. If you want to taste some authentic Ecuadorian cuisine, Mercado Central is the place.
Museo Templo del Sol Pintor Ortega Maila
Dedicated to the Inca civilization’s heritage and ancient practices, your visit to Museo Templo del Sol Pintor Ortega Maila will compel you to think about the Incas and learn more about the rituals and practices of the Inca civilization. There are a lot of paintings and sculptures, many made by the world-renowned artist Ortega Maila. You will see stone carvings of humans and animals on the museum’s walls. They sell paintings, local essential oils, jewelry, etc., which are a bit expensive as it is a touristy destination.
Virgen del Panecillo
As the tallest aluminum statue in the world, Virgen del Panecillo is also the world’s tallest winged representation of the Virgin Mary. On top of El Panecillo hill, Virgen del Panecillo is visible from almost anywhere in the old historic town. The 360-degree view of the city from the top is breathtaking. The statue is surrounded by artisans selling various products, from food to souvenirs. To get to the monument, it’s better to hire a taxi rather than walk unless you are in for a moderate hike.
Republica del Cacao
At Republica del Cacao, a specialty museum in Quito’s Old Town, one learns about the history and what goes behind crafting the yummilicious Ecuadorian chocolates. You get to taste coffees and chocolates made from the finest cocoa beans. It is a small museum but worth a visit.
Cathedrals Worth Visiting in Quito
Cathedrals (or Iglesia in Spanish) are the heartbeat of Quito. You will come across many well-preserved churches within walking distance of each other in Quito’s historic center. Prominent churches charge for admission and also to climb to the top. Visiting a church should be a must-do on your trip to Quito. There’s even a street nicknamed “La Calle de las Siete Cruces,” or street with the seven crosses because there are seven churches nearby. The churches to look out for are:
Basílica del Voto Nacional
The dominating Basilica del Voto Nacional can be seen from different parts of Quito and is often referred to as Notre Dame of South America because of its gothic style architecture. The detailing on the outside walls of the basilica represents animals from the Amazon, Andes, and Galapagos. You can also climb the tower to enjoy some good city views.
La Compania de Jesus
The Baroque-style exterior of La Compania de Jesus is in total contrast to its plush glittering interiors. The local craftsmanship seen within the church is outstanding. Most of the church interiors are covered with thin 23-carat gold sheets. You will see a lot of paintings depicting religious scenes, but the most special of all is the ‘Virgen de la Dolorosa.’ The painting is known to have opened and closed its eyes for a couple of minutes while hanging at a boys’ hostel before being declared a miracle and placed at the church.
Other prominent churches in Quito are Catedral Metropolitana de Quito which has a breathtaking altar and the tomb of Ecuador’s prominent leader Antonio José de Sucre. Iglesia de El Carmen Alto, adjoining Convent Monasterio de Carmen, is a great complex to visit to witness the monastic way the nuns live. The museum within the complex itself will give you a good insight into their daily lives and routines. The oldest and extremely Spartan Iglesia de San Blas, the first church in the historic district, is also good to visit.
Experiences in Quito
If visiting monuments and museums are not your thing, Quito offers fun and unusual experiences. Quito has you covered from a relaxing experience to an experience that will get your adrenaline pumping. You might like to:
Take the Teleferico
Cable ride! Just sit back and enjoy a bird’s eye view of the majestic Andean mountains. Telerferico is one of the must-dos on your Quito trip. You will be taken to an altitude of 4000 meters. Once you reach the top, treat yourself to hot coffee and snacks. Don’t forget to wear a jacket; it gets really chilly at the top. Also, the air thins at the top which might be an issue for some visitors.
Walk the Old Town
Exploring Quito on foot is the best way to experience Quito. The terrain is hilly, so this one is for the fit. There are Free Walking Tours where the guides help you cover the most sights in a limited time. The Old Town has one of the best views of Quito. The roads are clean and pedestrian friendly. As you walk, you get to relish local food and purchase some artisanal products. Walking on a well-lit busy street is always better if you choose nighttime to explore the Old town. Some of the known streets of Quito’s Old Town are:
García Moreno – Also called the ‘street of seven crosses’ because of the seven churches on it with a prominent stone cross at their entrances. The street leads to the Plaza de la Independencia, the most popular square of the Old Town. The Presidential palace is also on Garcia Morena Street.
La Ronda– Cobbled La Ronda, with colonial-style colorful houses and windows, is one of the most Instagrammable streets in Quito. Any time is a good time to walk La Ronda. During the day the street offers great views; at night, it is lively with bars and restaurants lining the street.
Calle Junin is a pleasant street to walk on with shops and boutique hotels. Manuela Sáenz Museum and Museum of Architecture are on Calle Junin Street.
Parque Bulevar 24 de Mayo is a mix of concrete with a small patch of green. Parque Bulevar 24 de Mayo has graffiti on walls and a few statues of some prominent people of Ecuador.
Get a limpia
Limpia is a wellness treatment following which it is believed that one’s body and soul are spiritually cleansed. Only older Ecuadorian women who have enough experience carry out the treatment. Herbs, flower petals, oil, rosemary, and bunches of nettles will be gently sprinkled on you, accompanied by light chanting done by the lady. Overall it is a calming experience and will instill positive energy. However, if you are allergic to herbs and grasses, you should skip it. The Mercado Central is your best option for experiencing a limpia.
Hike a volcano
Ecuador boasts some great hiking trails and picnic spots. Many popular hiking trails are not within Quito but close to the city. Quito is the best place to use as your base if you are planning to hike
Cotopaxi– Hiking an active volcano is always exciting. Cotopaxi is one of the best hikes in all of Ecuador. Located in the Cotopaxi National Park, the hike is not for beginners. The volcano and the park are about 32 miles away from Quito.
Quilotoa- The bluish-green water with the gray mountains as its outline makes the Quilotoa Lake look like it is just out of a painting. Some trails are steep, but others are pretty enjoyable. Climbing can be challenging, but you will forget the exhaustion when you see the lake.
Antisana Volcano– About 25 miles from Quito, Antisana Volcano is pretty popular among hiking tourists.
Ilaló – At just 5 miles away from Quito, Ilaló volcano is not only the closest but one of the easiest hikes, making it a great option for beginners.
Taste Quito’s Breweries
Quito is home to several craft breweries. La Oficina Brew Pub hosts live bands and offers a small food menu and tasty beers. Bandido Brewing in the Old Town is similar to US microbreweries and worth trying. Remember that many craft breweries are closed on Sundays and Mondays.
Take a Free Walking Tour
One of the best ways to explore Quito is by taking a free walking tour. You’ll see the highlights while learning all about the history from a local guide. Our Free Walking Tour Ecuador was the perfect introduction to the city’s main sites.
Where to Stay in Quito
Luxury: The Plaza Grande Hotel is ideally situated on the Plaza de la Independencia. You can’t get more Old Town than this! Guests of this five-star property stay in one of 15 luxurious suites. The hotel even offers moonlight horse-drawn carriage city tours.
Mid-range: JW Marriott Quito, while not located in Old Town, is a fabulous hotel. The staff provides first-class service, and the hotel is very safe. Even the restaurants offer delicious Ecuadorian fare. You can even get more benefits with a Marriott Bonvoy Credit Card.
Budget: While many hostels are available, consider staying at the Friends Hotel & Rooftop in downtown Quito. The hotel is located within easy walking distance of many landmarks. The building is historic and offers a delicious breakfast on its rooftop.
Where to Eat in Quito
Cafe Mosaico: Located just down the hill from the Virgen del Panecillo, not only will you sample authentic Ecuadorian foods, but you’ll experience beautiful views of Quito. Make a reservation if you’d like a table with a view and don’t want to wait too long!
Chez Jerome: If you’re looking for one of the best restaurants in Quito, you can’t go wrong with Chez Jerome. The menu combines French cooking methods with Latin flavors.
Getting Around Quito
Most visitors arrive at Quito’s International Airport. But many don’t realize that the airport is about an hour away from Quito and don’t plan accordingly. To get from the airport to downtown Quito, travelers should expect to pay about $25 USD for a taxi.
Uber is also available in Quito and offers an inexpensive way to get around town. For those who are more adventurous, the public bus system is a cheap way to get to certain spots in town, such as Mitad del Mundo.
Final Thoughts on Best Things to Do in Quito
Quito, Ecuador’s capital, should be part of any Ecuador itinerary. The Old Town’s historic landmarks and the city’s modern buzz make for an exciting destination. Try some unique activities around town, including the limpia, sampling foods, and standing in the Middle of the World.
Would you include Quito in a future itinerary?
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Annick, The Common Traveler