If you visit Ecuador, you will sooner or later end up in Quito. International flights arrive either here in Quito or in Guayaquil, this is a great place to fly onward to Galapagos, and you can also cross the border to Colombia from here.
After a bit of research, I found out that it’s the perfect city to base ourselves for a couple of days. There are lots of things to do in Quito, both in the city as well as in the surroundings. You can easily spend a week or more here without getting bored.
Quito is the second-highest capital in the world (if you want to go higher, you have to go to La Paz) and the one closest to the equator. It is, in fact, so close that you can easily go to the equator on a half-day trip. The Old Town is full of cobblestone streets and ancient churches, you can try fantastic Ecuadorian food at Quito’s markets, and if you’re tired of being in the city, you can hike through Cotopaxi national park or take a day trip to the cloud forest in Mindo.
To give you some inspiration on why you should visit and what are the best things to see in Quito, here are the activities you shouldn’t miss:
Our favourite things to do in Quito
#1 Visit Quito’s churches
Did you know that Quito is a Unesco world heritage site because of its churches? It would be a shame to come to this city and not visit at least one of them. The most impressive one is the Compañia de Jesus, which is unfortunately also the only one with a steep entrance fee. Still, you can find many more beautiful churches around the city.
We don’t often recommend churches as the number one thing to do in a city, but the ones in Quito are special. Don’t miss out on their beauty! Even if you’re not a fan of them usually, you should at least briefly go into one to see the very golden, very sparkling interiors.
We managed to visit five churches in one day, which was overdoing it, but we did not have time to spread it out more. If you are here for a couple of days, I recommend you take your time. Otherwise, go to the Convento San Francisco to at least see one of them. This convent is not just interesting for its church. It also has a beautiful exterior, and the large plaza in front of it is perfect for people-watching.
I heard great things about the Basilica del Voto Nacional, too. You can climb to the top and enjoy the view of Quito. Plus, you can find a cafe hidden up there which serves cold drinks, making it the first church I’ve ever heard of in which you can enjoy a beer. I didn’t get the chance to visit myself, but it’s at the top of my list for the next time I return to Quito.
30min – 1d
#2 Take a free walking tour through Quito’s Old Town
If you have been following this blog, you will have seen me recommend a lot of free walking tours in South America. These tip-based tours are a great way of getting to know a city and I enjoy doing them. I’ve only ever been on one that I didn’t like that much; all of the others were great. Quito was no exception.
We had an excellent local guide who showed us around the city and told us about life in Ecuador. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know much about the country’s history. Hearing about recent events that have shaped the Ecuadorian culture and society was both interesting and eye-opening.
Plus, Quito is a beautiful city. The historic centre is full of pretty buildings and plazas. We did the tour on Carnival and arrived in the middle of the celebrations, which was a bonus, but I’m sure it is fantastic on every day of the week.
The tour leaves from the Community Hostel every morning and afternoon (except for Sundays). It is available both in English and Spanish. Take a look at their website where you can see the exact schedule and also book a spot.
#3 Watch the changing of the guards
The changing of the guards takes place on Plaza Grande, in front of the Palacio del Gobierno, every Monday at 11 am. The ceremony started at the beginning of the 19th century, shortly after Ecuador gained independence from Spain. Today, the soldiers still wear the same bright blue uniform as they did 200 years ago.
To get a good view, you need to arrive early and get one of the spots at the front. With the soldiers spread out over the whole plaza, it is impossible to see all of them at the same time, and it pays off to walk around during the ceremony. Make sure to look towards the palace when the national anthem plays because that’s when the president will show up on one of the balconies.
If you are not in Quito on a Monday, you can still visit the governmental palace. Free tours take place regularly from Tuesday to Sunday.
#4 Browse through the workshops at La Ronda
La Ronda is a beautiful street known for its colourful houses built in a Spanish colonial style. Rumour has it that its origins date back to the 14th century when this road was part of an Incan trail.
The street, as you see it now, was built in the 18th century. In the early 1900s, it then became popular with artists before it fell into decay. These days, all the houses have been nicely restored, and you can find lots of galleries, workshops and restaurants and bars here. If you want to buy arts and handicrafts in Quito, come to La Ronda.
While La Ronda is pretty during the day, it becomes fully alive in the evening. Police patrols the area to make sure that it’s safe for you to walk here at night as well. Quito gets very cold in the evening, which is why we recommend coming here for a cup of canelazo. This drink is made from sugar cane alcohol and various fruits and spices and will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.
#5 Have lunch at Mercado Central
Quito’s central market is the perfect place to try Ecuadorian dishes without busting your budget. I highly recommend locro de papa, which is a potato soup with egg and avocado. It might not look very appetising on the photo above, but I promise that it’s delicious. Llapingachos is also very good.
If you want to try the locro de papa, ask around. I did not see it advertised anywhere, but when asking, everyone wanted to serve it to us. Ít’s one of those dishes that you can never find on menus but that everyone eats.
Also, if you want to have a drink with your food, I can highly recommend the batido de mora. It’s a milkshake made with Andean blackberries and one of the most delicious shakes I’ve had in South America. Mora is also an excellent flavour for ice cream if you happen to come across it.
On the upper level, next to the food stalls, you can find fruit vendors where you can stock up on fresh fruit for dessert.
#6 Visit the equator in Mitad del Mundo
The equator is one of Quito’s strangest sights. It wasn’t my first time standing on the equator line. I had crossed it before in Uganda, where we had gotten out, taken pictures and then gone on.
Mitad del Mundo is very different from Uganda, not just because it’s more touristy. I also still don’t know where the equator is. Two places are claiming to have the correct location.
One of them holds a large monument in the spot where the first expeditions marked the equator line. Around the monument, you will find lots of shops and museums with a reconstruction of traditional houses, a chocolate museum, an exhibition about the city of Cuenca and so on. It all seemed very random to me.
Inside the monument, you can try some experiments related to physics, though to be honest, when we went, it was packed with people, and we could barely see anything. The exhibition on the upper levels, about Ecuador’s indigenous tribes, was more exciting and from the top, we had a great view of the surrounding mountains.
Next to the monument, you can find the Museo Intiñan. This museum claims to have the real equator line running through it. Just like around the monument, you will learn about Ecuadorian traditions, chocolate and indigenous tribes. And since the entrance fee includes a guided tour (ask for an English one if you don’t speak Spanish), your guide will do some experiments for you, all related to physics. I found this place more interesting than around the monument because we had a great guide and it didn’t seem as random.
It’s up to you which place you decide to visit. If you only have time for one, go for the Museo Intiñan. And then, try to squeeze in a quick visit on top of the monument so that you can enjoy the view.
To get to Mitad del Mundo, take the Metrobus northwards to La Ofelia. From here, regular buses leave to Mitad del Mundo. Expect the bus ride to take at least an hour to an hour and a half in total.
1/2d – 1d
#7 See Quito from above
There are two places from which you have a great view of Quito.
The first way of getting up into the mountains is by taking the TelefériQo. This cable car takes you to an altitude of almost 4000 meters and gives you a great view not just of Quito itself but also of the surrounding volcanoes.
The second option is going up to El Panecillo. This viewpoint is a hill with a statue of the Virgin on its top. In theory, it is possible to walk here from the city centre. Our guide on the free walking tour warned against it, though, since there have been robberies of tourists climbing up the hill. Stay safe and take a taxi.
When planning to visit any of the viewpoints, keep in mind that the weather constantly changes in Quito. You can experience all four seasons in one day. Make sure to take an umbrella and be flexible. If it looks too cloudy, it’s better to wait for a few hours.
1 – 4h
#8 Shop at the Otavalo market
The market in Otavalo is a great day trip from Quito. It originated in Pre-Inca times when indigenous people from the rainforest came to Otavalo to sell their goods. Over the years, the market evolved and has now turned into an attraction mostly aimed at tourists. If you want to buy souvenirs, no matter what, you can get it here.
The Otavalo market takes place every day of the week, but we recommend that you go on Saturday. That day, it grows until it spills out in the streets and alleys surrounding the central plaza. Bring your camera as you’ll find lots of fantastic photo opportunities of colourful fabrics, handicrafts and paintings.
To get to Otavalo from the Quito Old Town, you need to take the trole northwards. Get out at El Ejido and switch to line C5. Take it to the end to get to the El Carcelen bus terminal, from where you can catch a bus to Otavalo. The whole trip takes around three hours.
#9 Have fun in the Mindo Cloud Forest
While Mindo is a destination worth spending a night or two at, you can also visit it as a day trip from Quito. We went with one of the tours offered by Community Hostel and had a lot of fun. First, we visited a butterfly garden, then went on to do some ziplining (and a coffee tour for those who didn’t want to go on the zip lines) and finished in a chocolate museum where we had some of the best hot chocolate I’ve had in Latin America.
With its location right in the middle of the cloud forest, Mindo is famous for its immense biodiversity. Besides the butterflies in the garden, we also saw lots of colourful hummingbirds. And as you can guess from my description, you can also find exciting adventure activities here, like ziplining, tubing or mountain biking.
While you can get to Mindo by public transport, you should join one of those organised tours if you want to visit on a day trip. And maybe you’re luckier than us and can also hike to a waterfall, an activity that we had to cancel due to heavy rain.
How to get to Quito
With Quito being the capital of Ecuador, it doesn’t come as a surprise that you can find many international flight connections. From Quito, you can take a bus to either the Rio Coca Terminal or the Quitumbe Terminal. No matter which way you go, you can easily get to the city centre from either of those terminals.
An alternative is the Aeroservicios Bus, which can take you directly into the historic centre. You can buy your ticket online, but be aware that the website is in Spanish only.
If you’re already in Ecuador, you can easily reach Quito by bus. You’ll find regular connections from all big cities. The same applies if you’re coming from Colombia, from where you can take regular buses south to Quito. We recommend staying overnight in Ipiales. You can visit the beautiful cathedral there and it’ll also make your trip much easier.
How to get around Quito
As long as you stay in the Old Town, you can walk. Be careful in the evening and when leaving the touristic areas and, if in doubt, take a taxi.
If you want to leave the Old Town, you can find three major transport lines that all run north-south within Quito: The Trole, the Metrobus and the Ecovía. If you speak Spanish, you can look up more information about the bus networks online.
Right now, the city of Quito is constructing a metro network that was supposed to open in 2019. As of October 2020, it is still under construction, with the metro website announcing that the project is 96% done. No schedule is known for its opening, although it shouldn’t be too far in the future.
Besides those faster transport lines, you can also find local buses as well as taxis everywhere.
As far as safety is concerned, we never had any problems when travelling around the city by public transport. Take as few valuables as possible with you and keep them close to you, and you should be fine.
When to visit Quito
With its location at the equator, Quito doesn’t experience a classic winter and summer. Instead, the year is divided into a dry and a wet season. The dry season lasts approximately from June until September, which makes it an ideal time to visit Quito.
On the other hand, don’t worry if you want to visit during the wet season. We went to Quito in February and March and loved it. Yes, we had a few rainy or cloudy moments, but the weather changed so rapidly that it was never a problem.
Temperatures stay pretty stable all year round, with an average of around 19ºC during the day and around 10ºC at night. In the afternoon, it can get pretty warm when the sun comes out. Nevertheless, make sure to always carry a light jacket, in case the weather changes abruptly.
We hope you now have an overview of the best things to do in Quito. If you have any questions or remarks, please leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.
If you’re travelling to Ecuador, you’re in luck. We have lots of further travel resources for you that you should check out:
- The best things to do in Ecuador
- Budget-guide to visiting Galapagos without breaking the bank
- Our favourite things to do in Guayaquil
- Ecuadorian food you have to try
- What is it like to live in Ecuador? An interview with Jaime from Cuenca
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