As a convenient starting point for all Ecuadorian adventures, Quito welcomes visitors all year round. Yet there are many reasons why this gorgeous capital should be on your must-see list. Following is your Insider’s Guide to Quito, to help you discover an amazing capital that offers more than just mere convenience.
Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, would have to be one of the most overlooked travel destinations in all of South America. Renowned mostly as just a springboard for Galapagos Islands cruises, it is often given a mere cursory glance by many first-time visitors to the continent. More often than not, guests on our Ecuador tours will request to add a few days in more famous cities like Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro, without realising that Quito is, in actual fact, one of Latin America’s most enticing hubs. Aside from the obvious convenience of being a capital city – where domestic and international flights abound – Quito is a powerhouse of attractions and there are about a million reasons why it consistently rates as one of Ecuador’s best highlights by all those lucky enough to have visited.
Quito is small enough to navigate on foot or by bus yet large enough to showcase some impressively eclectic architecture. It has a wicked nightlife and an avant-garde art and culture scene that take many by surprise. The gorgeous mix of architecture is delightful, as is the collection of impressive museums and plethora of delectable food. Plus, just a few steps outside the city you’ll find a host of attractions, with the mighty Andes Mountains to explore, ancient indigenous villages to meander through and a whole array of fantastic and varied destinations to discover.
With so much to see and do in and around Quito, you’d be crazy not to include a few days’ stay here when you first arrive in Ecuador.
Quito’s Top Attractions
Old Town Centre
One of the best-preserved colonial centres in all of South America, Quito’s Old Town is a pocket of architectural gorgeousness. The Plaza de la Indipendencia is a great focal point of city life and the best place to start your walking tour of the old quarter. The Metropolitan Cathedral is the square’s crowing jewel and is the resting place for the father of Ecuador’s independence, General Antonio Jose de Sucre. Originally built in the 16th century, the cathedral received many additions over the following four centuries. The square itself hasn’t really changed much since the Independence Monument was erected in 1906. It still remains the heart and soul of Quito, if not all of Ecuador, and is a wonderful place where buskers, artists, tourists and locals alike gather to mingle and enjoy the sunny days. Particularly lively and vibrant on Sundays, the square is a fabulous people-watching spot at any time. Head here on a Monday morning at about 11am and you could even catch a glimpse of President Correa waving from the balcony of the Presidential Palace.
La Basilica del Voto Nacional
The largest neo-gothic basilica in the Americas is a spectacular visual feast and deserves a special mention. Aside the striking façade, you can walk all the way up the clock tower for magnificent city views. It’s a vertiginous walk up a few steep ladders but so worthwhile if you can cope with the vertiginous height.
Calle La Ronda
This is the reputed oldest street in Quito and you’ll find it just a few blocks southwest of the Plaza de La Indipendencia. Brimming with quirky little shops and cafés, it’s a gorgeous street to explore at length, especially on a Saturday when all the artisan stalls and eateries are open. Especially busy on Saturday evenings.
Teleferico to Pichinincha
Quito lies in the foothill shadows of picturesque Pichincha Volcano which rises up 4,700m. The cable-car (teleferico) ride to the base, which is at a still head spinning height of 4000m, is a brilliant excursion to make on a crystal clear day. The views from the top are just breathtaking (as is the altitude) and although there’s a small shop and café, which is great for a hot drink, there isn’t much to do up except enjoy the stunning views. The cable-car ride itself is the highlight, it must be said, with comprehensive 360 views every single second. Rug up as it’s quite cold at the base and, whatever you do, don’t plan to head here as soon as you arrive in town. Give yourself at least 2 days to acclimatise to the altitude before you come up on the cable-car. If you’re feeling particularly active, you can take the trail from the visitor’s centre and hike all the way up to the peak of the mountain.
One aspect which makes Quito stand out from the crowd is its array of very interesting art museums. If you’re that way inclined (and you ought to be here) then make a beeline for the incredible collections at the Museum of Colonial Art and discover the magical talents of one of Ecuador’s most beloved contemporary artists, Oswaldo Guayasamin, at Capilla del Hombres, a hybrid of archaeological site, historical ruin and wonderful art museum.
Mitad del Mundo
Yes, the Mitad del Mundo equator museum grants a healthy dose of tourist kitsch, but if you’ve come all this way then you’ll surely want to ‘hop between hemispheres’, will you not? A lovely day out of town and a great chance to soak up some more startling views, the Mitad del Mundo Museum is just a half-hour drive north of the city. Although technically not quite the right location (which is a bit further north) the equator line here is still a great photo op nonetheless.
Quito as a Base for Fantastic Ecuador Adventures
The main reason Quito is often thought of as a fantastic base for Ecuadorian adventures is probably because it is. This is the best place to start no matter which corner of Ecuador you wish to explore, be that the stupendous archipelago of the Galapagos Islands, beautiful and historic Cuenca, the Ecuadorian region of the Amazon, the picturesque Andean town of Otavalo (with its remarkable indigenous markets) and a kaleidoscope of other destinations you can visit on an overland trip, including the serene thermal baths region of Banos, and charming seaside villages along the coastal strip of the Ruta del Sol.
Quito & Ecuador Travel Tips
Mind the altitude: While you certainly shouldn’t be gasping for air simply strolling around Quito, the 2,700m altitude will certainly be felt if you do anything other than walking on flat ground. Do give yourself time to adjust and take it easy, especially in the first 2 days in town.
If you have time, go for an overland itinerary: Ecuador’s added bonus is the fact that it is, at the end of the day, small and compact. If you love overland travel and relish drive days, but don’t fancy horrendously long days stuck in a vehicle, then Ecuador is probably your best compromise. You can go from the beach to the mountains in a day, and can make several stops in interesting locations no matter where you travel to and from. Although the country boasts a few well-placed airports, road-travel through Ecuador is immensely rewarding and if you have the time, is highly recommended.
Hike away: Quito is framed by no fewer than 8 volcanoes, among them Cotopaxi which rises up 5897m. The hiking in Ecuador is out of this world, especially in the western region between Quito and Otavalo. As Quito is the capital and city with best infrastructure, it is by far the best base for major multi-day trips into the high Andes.
Best time to visit Quito & Ecuador
Due to the eclectic mix of geographical highs and lows, you’ll find the perfect Ecuadorian destination no matter what time of year you visit. If you plan to include a cruise of the Galapagos then you should visit between December and April, also a great time to soak up the sun along the coast. The climate and temperature are dictated by altitude and not latitude here, so plan to visit in the summer months if you wish to hike the Andes from Quito.
Let us know when you wish or can travel to Ecuador, and we’ll help you plan the best itinerary to make the most of the climate which, it should always be noted, can fluctuate greatly in from year to year. Click here for more information.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 13 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now in the midst of a 5-year motorbike odyssey from Germany to Australia.”