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 destinations such as the Amazon River, Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls and the Galapagos Islands. But there are plenty of things to do in Quito.
If you’re on your way to the Galapagos Islands, it’s worth spending some time in Quito. The city’s appeal is its well-preserved historic centre. There’s an exceptional collection of colonial churches, chapels, convents, monasteries and plazas.
Things to do in Quito
1- See 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 Pinchincha 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 (where a hero of South America’s liberation movement General Antonio Jose de Sucre is buried) and the Archbishop’s Palace (which houses an information centre, shops, cafes and restaurants).
3- Quito’s Old City walking tour
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- 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.
5- Esquela Taller Quito crafts demonstrations
Then, a visit to Esquela Taller Quito showed us how the historic district is being restored with the help of students who are learning traditional crafts like sewing, tailoring, embroidery, woodworking, metal work and gold-leaf techniques.
6- Explore Mital del Mundo
Ecuador 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.
7- 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.
What to do near Quito
While exploring historic 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.
8- 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 cara-caras 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.
9- Cloud Forest Day tour
The Cloud Forest is a rainforest reserve 80km northwest of Quito known for birds, orchids and rare flora.
10- Otavalo Indian market
The Otavalo India market, in the northern highlands, is famous for textiles, exotic fruit and herbal remedies.
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.