It’s easy to see why San Francisco del Quito is a World Heritage gem and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Commonly known as Quito, the city tends to be overshadowed by other dazzling South American places such as the Amazon River, Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls and the Galapagos Islands. Yet, there are enough things to do in Quito to pique the interest of most travellers.
Most people go to Ecuador because it’s one of the best countries to visit in South America for wildlife. So, if you’re off to see the Galapagos Islands animals, it’s definitely worth stopping in Quito for a few days. The city’s appeal is its well-preserved historic centre, which has an exceptional collection of colonial churches, chapels, convents, monasteries and plazas.
15 Things to do in Quito
1- Admire the view from Al Parque Itchimbia
Our first stop was Al Parque Itchimbia, where we climbed steps to a hilltop view of the city.
The gentle hill left me feeling breathless and light headed as I admired the world’s highest capital city from afar.
2850m above sea level, Quito fills the valley floor and is 60km from end to end, with a picture-postcard backdrop of the 4784m Pichincha volcano.
Unfortunately, the volcano stayed cloaked in cloud during our visit.
2- Soak up Quito’s history at Plaza Grande
At Plaza Grande (Independence Square), our guide delivered a potted history of Ecuador while we gazed at the bronze and marble sculpture commemorating Ecuador’s independence from the Spanish in 1822.
The square is surrounded by historic buildings such as the presidential palace (its colonial patio is open to the public), Metropolitan Cathedral and Archbishop’s Palace (which houses an information centre, shops, cafes and restaurants).
The hero of South America’s liberation movement General Antonio Jose de Sucre is buried in the cathedral).
3- Go on a walking tour of the Old City
A walking tour of Quito’s Old City, which is the largest historic centre in Latin America, revealed Spanish and Moorish architecture built around ruins left by the Incas.
The city’s churches are decorated in a distinctive style that is a fusion of Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish and indigenous art known as the “Baroque school of Quito”.
I was struck by the contrast between the opulent interiors of La Compania church – which took the Jesuits 16 years to build and is adorned with gold leaf on its ceiling and walls – and the streets around it.
Around the streets, there were men selling coca tea and lollies; mothers walking the sidewalks with babies slung in crochet backpacks; women with long plaits peddling lottery tickets on street corners, and cloth shops advertising cheap tailored pants for $5.
4- Tour Catedral
Metropolitana de Quito
What makes the Cathedral of Quito so unique is that its grandeur is an unexpected treasure in this small city.
It was built in 1535 during Spain’s conquest of Quito and has an impressive baroque altarpiece and houses a priceless painting of the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin María by Manuel de Samaniego.
There’s also a museum, decorated halls, a library and a treasury.
5- Explore La Ronda
We walked to La Ronda, a traditional street with flags, flower boxes and a view of the Virgin Mary monument atop Panecillo hill.
This street is packed with historic buildings that house bars, restaurants, cafes and galleries.
It can be a bit quiet during the day bu La Ronda is the place to be in Quito at night.
6- See local crafts at Esquela Taller Quito
Visit Esquela Taller Quito and you’ll be amazed at how the historic district is being restored with the help of students.
These students are learning traditional crafts like sewing, tailoring, embroidery, woodworking, metalwork and gold-leaf techniques.
7- Explore Mital del Mundo
Ecuador is one of 12 countries that straddles the Equator and there are a couple of tourist attractions constructed around this quirky detail.
In the 18th century, an expedition from the French Academy of Sciences marked the equator 24km north of Quito at a spot called Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World).
Even though the French got it wrong (it’s close but not the real equator), Mitad del Mundo receives plenty of tourists who come to be photographed in front of the 30m stone trapezoidal monument topped by a brass globe.
8- Walk the Equator at Museo de Sitio Intinan
Not far away, Museo de Sitio Intinan also claims to straddle the Equator.
Walking the line that divides the northern and southern hemispheres is one of the fun things to do.
Here, guides entertained us with carnival-like demonstrations, such as water draining counter-clockwise north of the equator and clockwise across the line south of the Equator.
9- Ride the Teleferiqo
Quito’s cable car ascends to 4100 m (12,000 feet ) and is one of the best spots for a stunning view of the city.
Teleferiqo is one of the world’s highest aerial lifts and a 2.5km ride to the top of Cruz Loma.
From there, the hike to the Rucu Pichincha (4680m) summit is 4km and takes around five hours.
On a clear day, the panorama of Cotopaxi and surrounding volcanoes is amazing to see.
10- Visit Basílica del Voto Nacional
The basilica is a reminder of Ecuador’s Spanish Catholic roots and built with government funding as well as donations from followers who were keen to have their names engraved on stones.
It’s a beautiful basilica that sits on a hill regally above the Old Town.
11- Go on a Trolley Tour
One of the best ways to delve below the surface of any place is to let a local show you around and it Quito, there are plenty of locally-led tours.
A novel way to explore (while saving your back and feet from aching) is to choose a trolley tour that will take to you to all the famous sights.
This is especially helpful as Quito is hilly and located at an altitude that is high enough for most people to notice when exercising.
What to do near Quito
While exploring historical heritage is the highlight of all the things to do in Quito, venture away from the city and nature is the star.
From volcanoes to rainforests, there are natural areas that are relatively untouched.
12- Antisana Volcano day trip
Quito is located near the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a road through two rows of snow-capped peaks. Nine of them are over 5000m.
The 5700m Antisana volcano is Ecuador’s fourth highest.
On a fine day, visiting the volcano would have been the pick of excursions but grey clouds hung in the sky as our bus crawled out of the city.
In the 120ha ecological reserve, the road wound through the lush hilly countryside with pretty green valleys and steep-sided slopes while knowledgeable guide, Roberto, educated us on Ecuador’s volcanoes and the ecosystems around them.
We reached a stark treeless páramo (or plateau) at the foot of the glacier-covered peak.
It was cold, overcast and drizzling as we hiked along the flat road in a landscape reminiscent of the Scottish countryside on a grey autumn day.
The volcano hid behind cloud the entire time.
We searched for condors, black-faced ibis, carunculated caracaras and Andean gulls, which we saw flying in the distance.
Roberto stopped often to point out lichens, wildflowers, pillow moss and grasses that thrive on the windswept páramo.
Because of the strong winds, nothing taller than grass and low-lying succulents are found in the open.
Plants in this type of habitat are pollinated by beetles or by birds, as the winds are too strong for flying insects.
Later, a couple of chagras (Ecuadorian cowboys), stole the show when they galloped down a steep slope in pursuit of wild horses.
13- Cloud Forest Day tour
The Cloud Forest is a rainforest reserve 80km northwest of Quito known for birds, orchids and rare flora.
14- Otavalo Indian market
The Otavalo India market, in the northern highlands, is famous for textiles, exotic fruit and herbal remedies.
15- Explore Colonial Architecture at Cuenca
If you love Quito, you’ll also like Ecuador’s third-largest city, Cuenca, which is about 470km from Quito.
A historic Spanish city founded in the 16th century, Cuenca has both Spanish and Inca architecture.
Spanish colonial architectural gems include La Concepción convent, El Carmen de la Asunción church and two cathedrals.
Cuenca is the place to stock up on Panama hats, which is a souvenir you must take home. The city is also a shopping haven for textiles, lace and leather.
You can get to Cuenca by taking an organised tour or, if you’re up for an adventure, catch a local bus (see local timetables here).
Where to eat in Quito
La Belle Epoque
Dinner at La Belle Époque was a highlight, mostly for its glittering views of the historic centre lit up at night and masked opera singers who entertained us as we dined.
Octava de Corpus
For me, the day’s highlight was lunching at Octava de Corpus, an atmospheric restaurant hidden in a colonial terrace in the historic centre.
The walls were chock-a-block with Ecuadorian and South American art and it had an enormous wine cellar, with more than 230 bottles of wine from around the world.
Swissotel Quito was our comfortable base for three nights, with entry-level rooms (they comfortable but could do with refurbishing). The hotel’s recently opened La Locanda restaurant offered an inventive menu of Peruvian Mediterranean fusion cuisine.
For more things to do in South America see:
- 15 Incredible Things To Do In Brazil
- 20 Incredible Things To Do In Argentina
- 15 Incredible Things To Do In Buenos Aires
- 15 Incredible Things To Do In Ushuaia
- 15 Things To Do in Peru
- 15 Things To Do in Lima
- 15 Things To Do in Patagonia
- 15 Things To Do In Santiago
On a budget? Check out this backpacking guide to Ecuador.