After spending so many years dreaming about travelling through South America, landing in Quito was like a dream that had finally come true. The capital of Ecuador was the starting point for our long-awaited trip to South America. We couldn’t have been more excited!
Although many people only visit Quito briefly, before heading to the Galapagos or other parts of Ecuador, Quito actually has so many great things to see and do. Therefore, allowing a bit longer to explore it is not a bad idea at all.
Bear in mind that Quito is located at an elevation of 2,850 meters (9,350 feet). You may need a day or two to adjust to the altitude, especially if you arrive from somewhere at sea level. We didn’t feel too bad (apart from feeling a little lethargic) but everyone reacts differently!
What to do in Quito?
Take a free walking tour
Starting at the Community Hostel, there are two free walking tours every day (except on Sundays), at 10.30 am and 2.30 pm. A free walking tour is the best way to get acquainted with any city. You’ll also learn about local cuisine and get tips on the best places to eat and drink.
There are so many things to see and do in Quito and this walking tour is a great way to visit the main attractions and learn how they relate to Quito’s history. While the tours are free, the guides need to earn a living, so be sure to tip your guide.
Lose yourself in the Old Town
Quito’s UNESCO listed Old Town is the best preserved historic centre in the whole of the Americas, so as you can imagine, it is totally worth exploring. The bustling cobblestone streets are so colourful and pretty that you could easily wander around all day without getting bored. Make sure you have your camera handy because you are going to be clicking away!
While in the Old Town make sure you visit the following sights:
- Plaza Grande, Quito’s central square, home to the Presidential Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral.
- Plaza San Francisco, home to the city’s oldest church.
- La Compañía de Jesus, a Jesuit church with a stunning interior covered in gold.
- San Agustin, an old convent where Ecuador’s Independence Act was signed.
- La Merced, an old Catholic church.
Dare to climb the Basilica del Voto Nacional’s spire
I used to be quite the daredevil in my younger years but not so much anymore. When we were told just how scary the climb up the Basilica del Voto Nacional’s spire was, I had plenty of reservations. I always manage to get to the top of such climbs, only to have a major panic when it’s time to head back down. So I wasn’t sure at all about this one. But for $2 entry fee I thought it was worth a try. If I managed, fine; if not then well, we only lost $2.
You enter at the end of the basilica that has the two square towers. To climb the towers up to the height of the basilica’s ceiling, you have the choice of taking either the stairs or the elevator. We needed the exercise, so we chose the stairs (the elevator does not cost extra). Taking the stairs was easy enough and once there we walked along a wooden walkway, across the length of the basilica’s vaulted ceiling. That took us to the start of the climb up the spire.
After that, the fun (or not so fun) part began! There were three ladder-like sets of stairs to climb. The first started inside the roof and was the easiest one, taking us outside on to the roof and to the base of the spire. The other two flights of stairs were external and offered views all across the city as you climbed them. But if like me, you’re scared of heights, they present a real challenge. As always, I found the way up a lot easier. However, I managed to make it back down and it was totally worth it. You get some incredible views from up there!
After your climb the spire you can relax at the basilica’s coffee shop, enjoying a coffee or a beer with a view.
To enter the basilica there is another $2 charge. It’s worth the extra fee because its stained glass windows are pretty impressive.
One cool thing about this basilica is its gargoyles, or should I say the native animals in place of gargoyles. All around its exterior are statues of Armadillos, Iguanas and Andean condors looking down on you.
Head to Calle La Ronda for Canelazo
This small balcony-lined street is located right in the Old Town and is very popular with travellers. It has some stunning, colourful architecture and is one of the prettiest streets in Quito.
On Calle La Ronda you’ll find restaurants, yummy chocolate shops, and some fun bars where you can try the local speciality, Canelazo, a warm alcoholic drink popular in Ecuador.
You should visit during the day to take the best photos of the pretty buildings but you should definitely come back in the evening. In the evening, the street lanterns are lit, there is live music playing and many bars have happy hours.
Head up to El Panecillo
The viewpoint of El Panecillo is located right in the middle of Quito, dividing the north and south of the city. You can’t miss it, thanks to its very notable statue “La Virgen de Quito”, the Virgin of Quito, which dominates the skyline.
Locals recommend taking a taxi or Uber up to El Panecillo as people have occasionally been robbed walking up the hill. An Uber cost us $2 each way from the Old Town, making it an easy decision for us.
Ride the Teleférico up the Pichincha Volcano
After the Old Town, Quito’s second most popular attraction is its Teleférico. The Teleférico is a cable car that starts at 2,950 metres and takes you all the way up to 4,050 metres. The ride lasts about 15 minutes and covers a total distance of 2.5 kilometres.
The views from the top are incredible. There are a few viewpoints to walk to and a swing that’s made for Instagram-perfect photos!
If you are a keen hiker, there is a great hike to the summit of the Rucu peak. But we don’t recommend doing the hike if you haven’t had a chance to acclimatise to the altitude. You’ll need to stay in Quito at least 3 or 4 days before attempting it. The hike takes about 4 to 5 hours and is really tough, so bring good walking shoes, warm and layered clothing, snacks and plenty of water.
You’ll have a better chance to enjoy the Teleférico if you go up on a clear day. If it’s overcast, you might not get much of a view at the top. We’d also suggest going early, especially on the weekend, because it can get really busy. The cost of the Teleférico ride is $8.50 return per person and it’s open every day, from 9:00 am Tuesday to Thursday and from 8:00 am Friday to Monday.
The best way to get to the Teleférico base station is to take an Uber. It costs around $4 to $5 each way.
Climb the many steps to Itchimbía Park
Have you eaten too many empanadas and need to burn off a few calories? No worries, take a walk up to Itchimbia Park. It’s a fair walk up many flights of steps but the views at the top will be a great reward and totally worth all the effort.
Once there you will find the Crystal Palace as well as the Quito sign where you can, of course, stop for the obligatory selfie!
If you need a break, you can go and rest in the Crystal Palace, the Cultural Centre that is full of bean bags!
Have a night out in Plaza Foch
Plaza Foch is the place to go if you want to party. It’s packed with pubs, restaurants, night clubs and Karaoke bars. Quiet during the day, it comes alive late afternoon when you can enjoy pre-dinner drinks, followed by dinner and perhaps more drinks! We found it rather overpriced for Ecuador but I suppose that’s to be expected for such a touristy place in a big city.
Just be careful at night as the area around Plaza Foch can be a little rough. Take a taxi or an Uber back to your hotel late at night.
Do your souvenir shopping at the Mercado Artisanal
If you are looking to bring some artisanal products back home, head to the Mercado Artisanal. This market has stall after stall selling Alpaca jumpers, Panama hats, embroidered handbags, and all sorts of brightly coloured souvenirs. You’re pretty much guaranteed to find whatever it is you’re looking for but be prepared to bargain.
Take some day trips
There are some good day trips to be done from Quito, so allow a few extra days to make the most of them.
- La Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the world): This is the most popular day trip. You’ll visit the place where the equator runs through Ecuador.
- Cotopaxi National Park: The volcano of Cotopaxi is one of the world’s highest active volcanoes and you can climb it! Try to pick a good day or you may not actually see the volcano. However, there’s a lot of luck involved because it might be nice in Quito and not in Cotopaxi, or the other way around.
- The Quilotoa Lagoon: For more incredible scenery, head to the Quilotoa Lagoon. You can take a day trip, or you can choose to hike the Quilotoa loop, in which case you will need four days.
- Otavalo: Check out the world-famous Otavalo market, the biggest market in Ecuador.
- The Mindo Cloud Forest: Head to Mindo to see waterfalls, many species of birds and butterflies and some action packed activities such as zip-lining and river tubing.
Where to eat in Quito?
Some restaurant recommendations in the Old Town
- Bandido Brewing: For great craft beers and delicious pizza.
- Cafe Galleti: For your caffeine fix!
- Hasta la Vuelta: Ecuadorian food, set in a historic courtyard next to the Plaza Grande.
- Fabiolita: A great spot for lunch, right on Plaza Grande
Some restaurant recommendations in the New Town
- Miskay: Fancier Ecuadorian food with a view out over Plaza Foch.
- Suvlaki – Nice Greek food.
Where to stay in Quito?
New Town vs Old Town
As a first time visitor to Quito, you’re better off staying in or close to the old town. It’s the nicest part of Quito and has plenty to see and do. But it is rather quiet after dark since most people only work there and don’t live there. If you want to be close to the nightlife, your best bet is the area around Plaza Foch in the New Town.
Regardless of which area you choose, you’ll find that Taxis or Ubers between both parts of town are plentiful and quite cheap, so it’s not a big deal.
Where did we stay? On our first visit to Quito we stayed at Hostal Quito Terrace. We really enjoyed our private room at this hostel. The staff are friendly and our room was clean and quiet.
On our second visit we stayed at La Rosario. This hostel is slightly closer to the old town and has nice, cosy, immaculately clean rooms and friendly staff.
Here’s the best reviewed accommodation on in Quito on booking.com:
Great location: Hotel La Basilica Quito
Highly rated: Old Town Quito Suites
If none of those are suitable, you can search across all the major accommodation sites with hotelscombined.com, using the search box below. We use it all the time.
How to get around?
We found the Old Town and New Town of Quito to be perfectly safe to walk around during the day.
By taxi or Uber
Taxis in Quito are meant to use their meter and are supposedly safe. But we prefer to use Uber and that’s what we mostly used to reach the places we didn’t want to walk to.
With Uber, we paid just a couple of dollars to get from the Old Town to the New Town. It was easy to use, just like everywhere else in the world.
There are local buses in Quito but they always seemed packed with people. Be very careful with your belongings if you do take the buses.
How to get from the airport?
We recommend booking a hotel that can arrange a transfer from the airport for you. We stayed at the Quito Terrace and they organised our transfer. For $30, we had a taxi driver waiting for us at the airport. It was stress-free, which is always nice when arriving in a brand new city, especially late in the night like it was for us.
Otherwise, taxis are abundant at the airport and they appeared controlled. Depending on where you are headed in the city, taxi prices range from $35-$50.