You’ve climbed and climbed. It seemed like the stairs would never end. Gasping you pause to catch your breath, your head a little dizzy from the altitude and the ascent. You emerge suddenly into the fresh air at the top of the cathedrals’ tower; one of the top things to do in Quito. Tantalizing hints of Ecuador’s unique cultural heritage mingled with the pulsing, busy threads of a vibrant city greet your eager eyes. Looking out from your perch, you get your first sense of what shape your time in Quito will take.
Quito is Ecuador’s capital. This lofty jewel of a city is located high in the Andes mountains and is the second highest capital city in the world. Quito’s 17th century Old Town has the distinction of being made the location of one of the first designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978, with a wealth of heritage things to do in Quito Ecuador. Quito got its name from the indigenous tribe of the same name that inhabited the area in the first millennium. When the city was officially founded in 1556, the name “Quito” was incorporated into its new regal title, “Very Noble and Loyal City of San Francisco of Quito”. This was later shortened to just Quito, as is is called today.
You have many good choices when making your bucket list of things to do in Quito. A walking tour of The Plaza Grande and surrounding area with its beautiful colonial architecture is sure to be a highlight. (See our Things to do in Quito: Walking Tour Map) El Panecillo offers expansive views of the city and the star crowned statue of the Virgin de Quito. Another photo worthy view of the city and surrounding countryside can be obtained by taking the Telerifico cable car. From the top, you will have views of Quito as well as the rolling hills and snow capped volcanoes in the distance. Finally, La Mitad Del Mundo marked the ancient understanding of the location of the equator.
Quito has an international airport, and there are a number of easy and cheap options to get from the airport to the city. You have the choice of a public bus (cheapest), an express bus or a taxi to get you in. Following the same theme, transportation within Quito is cheap and readily available. An interconnected web of buses can get you almost anywhere for .25/ride. If fussing with local bus schedules isn’t your thing a taxi ride will only set you back only a little more.
Visiting Quito is almost an inevitable part of a visit to Ecuador. There are enough things to do in Quito to make it the focus of your whole trip. Alternatively, you can see the highlights and use it as a jumping off point for delving into the many other impressive sights and adventures that Ecuador has to offer.
Plaza Grande from the Cathedral Roof
The Plaza Grande is the focal point of Quito’s Old Town, and it is one of the “must see” things to do in Quito Ecuador . It is a worthy starting point for tying together the diverse threads of Quito’s history and culture. The plaza itself is a point of historical significance as the seat of Ecuador’s government is housed here. It is also the home of the Tomb of Mariscal Sucre (an important figure in Quito’s independence).
When planning your trip around the must see things to do in Quito Ecuador, the Plaza is an easy place to touch base and regroup throughout your day. It is surrounded by cafes and restaurants where you can take a break and watch the constant ebb and flow of locals and tourists through the square. There is also a convenient tourist information center located in the square to help point you in the right direction should you need help.
The Quito Cathedral is on the Southwest side of the plaza. If you are up for some stair climbing you can get your first eye opening view of the Old Town from the top of the tower.
Walking the Old Town
A walking tour of the old town is a great way to begin your explorations of Quito. The highlights of the Old Town will unfold before you as you explore the hilly, narrow streets. You will see many examples of well preserved 17th century architecture. This should be at the top of your list of things to do in Quito. It is a great way to begin acclimating to the high altitude of the city in your first days in the city. Start your walking tour at Plaza Grande, Independence Square (1).
Palacio Del Gobierno (2): This is the seat of Ecuador’s government. You can take a free 45 minute tour by obtaining tickets at the booth at the southwest corner of Plaza Grande (you will need your passport).
La Compania de Jesus (3): Construction of this well known Quito church began in 1605 and it took 160 years to complete. This church is one of the most well visited in Quito and it is known for the ornate central nave profusely adorned with gold leaf and beautiful carvings.
Plaza and Monaster of San Francisco (4): This is a Roman Catholic Monastery complex built in the 16th century. It is the home of the Virgin of Quito, a famous religious sculpture from the 1700’s.
Museo de la Ciudad (5): The Museo de la Cuidad is located in an old city hospital. It is a great place to delve into the history of Quito from ancient times to modern day. If you are a history lover, this should be at the top of your short list of things to do in Quito Ecuador. The exhibits may include limited English translation, but free tours are available.
La Ronda (6): One of Quitos’ oldest streets, La Ronda is simultaneously an example of well preserved traditional colonial buildings and a focal point for shopping, traditional crafts, foods and evening entertainment.
Plaza and Church of Santo Domingo (7): This church is in itself an impressive example of 17th century architecture, as well as a museum filled with noteworthy artwork. The exterior of the church is floodlit at night and is a great photo opportunity. If you go at night, take a tour or go with a group as the surrounding area gets a little dicey after dark.
Basilica del Voto Nacional (8): Building started on this church in 1883 and it is still unfinished. It is the largest neo-gothic basilica in the Americas. The main draw here is the view from the top of the towers. From here you can get another view of the old town and the Virgen de Quito in the distance.
Quito Observatory (9): The Quito Observatory was built in 1873. It is one of the oldest in South America. It will be a welcome respite if you need a change of scenery from the many beautiful churches in Quito. This bright yellow building houses the observatory. Its large telescope continues to scan night sky even today. The observatory also features a number of smaller antique telescopes and other items of astronomical interest.
This is a quiet park that the locals like to hang out in on the east slopes of Quito. Your visit will yield some respite from the busy, sometimes narrow streets of Quito as well as picture-worthy views of the city. Gazing out from the green lawns in the park high above the city, you will gain a higher perspective on the historical buildings that you just walked among in the Old Town. As a bonus, there is a statue here spelling out the letters of “Quito”. It is one of the more kitschy, touristy things to do in Quito that is just too good to resist!
Read more about ecuador in our top things to do in Ecuador article.
You can see impressive views of Quito from a number of different locations. What makes this hilltop view from El Panacillo unique from the others is the noteworthy statue of La Virgin de Quito. The Madonna-like statue is crowned with stars and is said to be the only Madonna statue with angel wings in the world. Do not walk up. You should take a taxi or other form of transport as the surrounding area is generally considered not safe to walk through.
The Telerifico is a cable car that will take you up the side of the Pinchincha Volcano to a height of 4,100 meters. From here, you will be awash in the best views of Quito. You will be surrounded in the rolling green hills around the city and the snowcapped Andes mountains further afield. This is truly one of the top things to do in Quito Ecuador and it is sure to be a highlight of your trip.
The base station for the Teleferico cable car is easily accessible from within the city by taxi cab which will cost you only a few dollars. The ride to the top will take about 10 minutes and costs $8.50.
At the top, you can elect to relax and enjoy the view or choose to engage in a variety of activities and top things to do in Quito; including hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding.
The altitude at the top is 12,943 feet. At this altitude, the oxygen is spread even more thinly than in Quito. You should take this into account when planning your activities at the top. Simply walking around and enjoying the beautiful views might be satisfying enough. Take it slowly and be sure to drink plenty of water.
You should plan to go earlier in the day to have the best chance of good weather and clear, blue skies. This is one of the top things to do in Quito, so the lines at this popular attraction get longer in the afternoon. You should dress in layers, as the temperature and weather can fluctuate greatly at this high altitude.
La Mitad del Mundo
The Mitad del Mundo (or ‘middle of the world’) is located approximately one hour outside of Quito. To get there by bus, catch a bus to ‘Ofelia’ and catch the bus from there to Mitad del Mundo. Another option is a taxi which will set you back approximately $30 round trip. Once you take your obligatory photos with one foot on each side of the equator line, take time to explore the many museums on the site. Be sure to send some postcards from here as they will be stamped with a special commemorative postmark.
Some visitors have reported feeling scammed by the tour guides here who do cheesy “equator” tricks which may or may not be real or scientifically based. If you visit, you can decide for yourself whether you feel scammed or more like it is just a part of this cheesy tourist trap. Cheesy though it may be, it is still one of the most popular things to do in Quito Ecuador.
As an additional note of trivia, the location of the Mitad del Mundo was set in stone long before the advent of modern GPS. Once modern technology became available, it was discovered that the ACTUAL equator line is about 150 meters away from where it was originally measured.
One of the most noteworthy museums nearby is the Intian Museum. This museum is located a short walk away on the “REAL” equator line. A visit to the Intian museum will offer you a less touristy, more authentic feeling experience than La Mitad del Mundo. Plan for an hour to visit this unique museum. Here you will find a blend of physics, culture and folklore related to the equator line. The museum offers a half hour tour as a part of your admission and another opportunity to take your photo with one foot on each side of the equator.
La Mariscal Sucre is a convenient part of Quito to designate as your home base. There are a wide range of hotels, restaurants, outdoor outfitters and nightlife here to choose from. The area (affectionately referred to as “Gringolandia”) is considered one of the more touristy parts of Quito. This can work to your advantage as it also serves up easy access to booking tours of Quito and other parts of Ecuador.
The Hotel Andino offer’s simple, clean and budget friendly accommodation in the Mariscal Sucre area of Quito.
Though convenient and central, the area is heavily patrolled by police. Some tourists have reported an unsafe level of crime and robberies. If you choose to stay here, take reasonable precautions, try to stay in a group and keep your valuables close.
The Top things to do in Quito
You will almost certainly pass through Quito when visiting Ecuador. Though there are enough things to do in Quito to fill up a whole trip, Quito is just the tip of the iceberg of all of the great things to do in Ecuador. It is an easy place from which to arrange further exploration of some of Ecuador’s sights including the Galapagos islands and the Mindo Cloud Forest (one of the top things to do in Ecuador).