Once considered to be among the world’s most dangerous cities, recent years have seen Ecuador’s volcano-circled, high-altitude capital gain popularity as a tourist destination, most notably for its rich Andean culture and impeccably preserved historical centre. In fact, Quito was the first ever city to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its colourful streets and dramatic neo-Gothic churches more than deserving of the honour.
And yet, travellers do still underestimate Quito. Despite high praise from those who’ve visited, the city typically only appears on itineraries as a necessary stopover en route to the Galápagos or the Amazon— but do not make the mistake of thinking there’s nothing to do in Quito. I actually loved this city and could have spent far more than just 4 days exploring its many scenic viewpoints, bustling markets, and traditional restaurants, not to mention the easily accessible day trips out to Laguna Quilotoa, Volcán Cotopaxi, or the Otavalo Markets. Here are just 12 of my top recommendations for exploring in and around Quito, each guaranteed to make you fall in love with this underrated destination.
1 | TeleferiQo & Volcán Pichincha
To truly get an appreciation for the size of the capital, as well as the dazzling beauty and texture of northern Ecuador, ride the TelefériQo (a portmanteau of teleférico, the Spanish word for cable car, and Quito) up to a dizzying 4,100m. This is one of the highest aerial lifts in the entire world, delivering eager passengers up to the Cruz Loma lookout on Volcán Pichincha, an active volcano forming the western border of Quito and from whose slopes you can see the entire city and numerous other volcanoes stretched out below. The air is thin, but the view is staggering!
Getting to the TelefériQo is incredibly simple from the centre of the city, and even from the outskirts won’t cost more than a few dollars in an Uber (which I’d highly recommend as the cheapest and SAFEST way to get around Quito). You can buy tickets for $8.50USD (return) on arrival.
From the top, it’s also possible to enjoy a number of hiking trails to other viewpoints on the volcano, including the summit of Rucu Pichincha (4,784m). Just make sure you’re properly acclimatised before setting off!
2 | Calle de La Ronda
Sitting below the Virgen de El Panecillo (#9) in the south of the historical district is the most enchanting street in Quito, Calle de la Ronda. Constructed in the typical Andalusian style favoured by the Spanish in the 1700s and perfectly preserved through the centuries that followed, this narrow, bohemian street is truly a step back in time, its cobbled lanes, brightly coloured façades, and flowered verandas a nod to the city’s colonial past.
Every night, La Ronda sparkles to life as both tourists and locals come to enjoy the live music, traditional restaurants, and festive spirit of this beautiful laneway. A few specific restaurant recommendations make the cut below (check out #8 on this list), but wherever you stop, make sure to try canelazo, a local hot spiced rum made from naranjilla, cinnamon, and aguardiente (“fire water”, a potent liquor distilled from sugar cane).
3 | Basílica del Voto Nacional
Quito’s most iconic church, and actually the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the all of the Americas, holds a central place in the historic district, its dramatic spires and ornate towers rising high over the rest of the city. The Basílica del Voto Nacional (Church of the National Vote) was commissioned in the late 1800s, largely completed by 1924, and finally consecrated by the Pope more than a century after its original inception in 1988— but officially, the basílica still isn’t finished.
It’s certainly not clear looking at the imposing structure what remains to be done, but local legend suggests that the true completion of the basílica will mark the end of the world. And I guess that’s reason enough to explore while you can!
Wander through the beautiful courtyard and admire the gargoyles representing endemic Ecuadorian animals, such as tortoises, iguanas, and condors. Inside the basílica, there’s also plenty to enjoy, including the impossibly beautiful stained-glass windows that scatter a kaleidoscope of colours around the darkened nave and a harrowing ascent up to the top of the tallest tower (so good it gets its own spot at #4 on this list).
4 | Climb the Tower of the Condors
Even if you’re not one for churches (and I’m usually not), the Basílica del Voto Nacional and the view from the top of its 115m Tower of the Condors is absolutely breathtaking, looking out towards the Virgen de Panecillo (#9 on this list) and over the rooftops of colourful Quito.
For just $2USD (payable across the courtyard from the basílica), climb endless stairs, rickety ladders, and through narrow passageways to reach this incredible vantage point. Probably not for those scared of heights, but for anyone else, this is one of my top recommendations, and something that can easily be squeezed into an already busy day around the city.
5 | Try Ecuadorian chocolate
Ecuador was once the world’s largest exporter of cacao, and although this was, admittedly, about a century ago, chocolate remains a strong local tradition in the country. Today, Ecuador is pretty far down the list of top chocolate (refined) or cacao (unrefined) exporters in terms of quantity, but still exports over $600-million worth of cacao, making the country the second largest exporter based on actual value, all thanks to its rare, top-quality Arriba cocoa beans.
In Quito, countless shops sell all variety of chocolate bars, varying in quality and intensity up to 100% pure cacao. Most will tell you all about the production from bean to bar before letting you sample different chocolates, and there are some particularly great shops located along Calle de la Ronda that merit a visit, including Chez Tiff, owned by a Swiss-Ecuadorian couple.
After sampling cacao from some of the local shops, wolf down decadent chocolate treats from the Republica del Cacao, a cafe with numerous locations around the city that is somewhat reminiscent of Max Brenner in Australia, or visit Kallari, whose hot chocolate is served with a few traditional slices of Andean cheese. Both will leave you in the best kind of chocolate coma.
6 | Plaza de la Independencia
An essential stop for those interested in Quito’s colonial history, or even just daily life in the city, is the Plaza de la Independencia, or Plaza Grande. This large central square is flanked by the Presidential Palace, Municipal Palace, Archbishop’s Palace, and the Cathedral of Quito, making it an incredibly significant place both in terms of modern government and local culture.
Perhaps one of the most interesting icons is the Monumento a los Héroes del 10 de Agosto, a large statue erected in the centre of the plaza to commemorate Quito’s bloody and hard-won independence from Spain in 1822.
Although always abuzz with activity, the absolute best time to visit the plaza is Monday morning for the festive “Changing of the Guard”, an extravagant ceremony marking the weekly shift-change of the President’s guard, presided over by the President himself.
7 | Free walking tour
One of my favourite ways to experience any new city is on a free walking tour, and this is definitely something I’d recommend on your first day in Quito. There is no better way to learn about Ecuador’s long history, the city’s vibrant culture, or its many significant buildings and works of art than with a knowledgable local— and Free Walking Tour Ecuador operated by friendly Ovi is seriously one of the best city walking tours I’ve been on.
Over the course of several hours, explore the Plaza de la Independencia and Plaza de San Francisco, visit the Museo de la Ciudad, learn about the national conversion from sucres to US dollars at the Banco Central de Ecuador, sample local cacao and chocolate in La Ronda, walk through the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus, and ultimately discover what makes Quito so special.
Although the tour is “free”, it’s expected that you’ll give a tip, and I think at least $10USD per person is appropriate considering how much information you get.
8 | Eat amazing Ecuadorian food
In addition to the obvious highlight of insanely fresh seafood along the coast, Ecuadorian cuisine is amazingly good, primarily consisting of mouthwatering grilled meat, aji for a bit of spice, and a lot of delicious starchy sides like patacones (fried plantains), potatoes, and rice. I would even go so far as to say Ecuador has some of the best meat I’ve ever had in my life, and that’s a big call with Argentina and Brazil also in the mix!
For some of my favourite food in Quito, check out these great restaurants around the city:
- Leña Quiteña: Charming rooftop restaurant serving traditional food and drinks like canelazo, a sort of spiced rum (plus wine by the bottle), overlooking the Virgen de El Panecillo
- Dios no Muere: Trendy cafe built in an old monastery serving local Ecuadorian fare and authentic Cajun cuisine, owned by a slightly eccentric man from Lousiana
- La Casa de Los Geranios: Located on Calle de La Ronda, this is an upscale restaurant that still has reasonable prices for incredible traditional dishes like llapingachos con fritada or seco de chivo
- Fried Bananas: Delicious local seafood dishes served in bustling Plaza Foch
9 | The Virgen de El Panecillo
Gracefully presiding over Quito from atop one of the city’s large hills, the Virgen de El Panecillo (also called the Virgin of Quito) is one of the most recognisable landmarks in the capital, a 41m-tall winged aluminium statue of the Virgin Mary that is both the largest aluminium statue in the world and one of the tallest statues in South America (amazingly even taller than Rio’s Christ the Redeemer).
Visible from most any spot in Quito, particularly the rooftop restaurants of La Ronda (#2 on this list) and the Condor’s Tower in the Basílica del Voto Nacional (#4 on this list), it’s also possible to visit the statue directly for views looking back at the city from Panecillo Hill. Take an Uber here for just a few dollars or walk from the southern end of Quito. There’s a $1USD entrance fee, but it’s well worth it!
10 | Day trip to Otavalo
One of the absolute best (and easiest!) DIY day trips from Quito is to the nearby town of Otavalo, famous for its bustling artisan market filled with alpaca sweaters, colourful scarves, and silky blankets. It’s an excellent place to stock up on inexpensive souvenirs, mingle with the locals, and even do some waterfall chasing out to stunning Cascada Peguche right outside of town. I was travelling with my mum at the time, and we both found it to be entirely safe making the trip on our own.
To get to Otavalo, take an Uber (about $10USD) from central Quito out to Terminal Carcelen, a 30min drive to the north. Proceed through the gates and find one of the bus companies operating out to Otavalo, such as Cooperativa Otavalo— they’ll either be shouting “Otavalo, Otavalo, Otavalo” or have flashing signs with the name. Tickets are less than $3 each way and buses run consistently throughout the day, taking a little over 2hrs to reach Otavalo. From the bus station, it’s a super simple 10min walk to the Otavalo Markets, and Cascada Peguche is a short 4km beyond that.
The Otavalo Markets are at their most extravagant on Saturday and Wednesday (in that order), so try to choose one of these days to see the market in full swing.
11 | Day trip to Cotopaxi
Snow-capped and burnt-red Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes, is an easy 2 hours from Quito, making for an excellent day trip from the city— that is, if you don’t have enough time in your schedule to dedicate a few days entirely to the National Park! Top activities include scenic horse rides, hiking to the Cotopaxi glacier via Refugio José Rivas (4,800m), and admiring the peak from Laguna Limpiopungo.
The best way to do this trip is with a tour company, as the park is quite large and poorly connected to public transport. Ecuador Hop has an excellent 1-day tour out to Cotopaxi for just $49USD, including a knowledgable local guide, amazing meals at Chuquiragua Lodge, and heaps of park highlights. There’s also a 2-day option that combines the visit to Cotopaxi with Laguna Quilotoa and includes an overnight stay at the beautiful Chuquiragua Lodge for $149USD.
12 | Day trip to Laguna Quilotoa
Slightly farther from Quito but undeniably worth the 4hr road time is Laguna Quilotoa, an impossibly-turquoise crater lake situated in the caldera of an active volcano. It’s one of Ecuador’s most impressive natural wonders and an undeniable highlight of my time exploring the country (even if I didn’t have time to complete the popular 4-day hike around its shores). With a single day, Laguna Quilotoa is still SO worthwhile.
On a day trip, the Laguna is definitely best explored with a tour group, and I’d again recommend Ecuador Hop as an excellent choice. For just $59USD, spend an entire day exploring the dramatic beauty of the Ecuadorian countryside, stopping to photograph Cotopaxi and rugged Toachi Canyon before arriving at Quilotoa and Shalala Viewpoint.
Read more: AN HONEST REVIEW OF ECUADOR HOP
Getting to & from Quito
Most travellers to Quito will arrive into Mariscal Sucre International Airport, from which a taxi into the city is a reasonable $25USD (the drive is about 1hr). Although it’s usually far safer and cheaper to order an Uber in Quito, taxis from the airport are generally considered to be safe and all operate a fixed-rate between the airport and the city, so in this instance it can be more convenient.
By public bus
If you’re arriving into Quito overland from another destination in Ecuador, or from neighbouring Peru or Colombia, you’ll most likely come into Terminal Quitumbe, the city’s large bus station located about 30min south of the centre.
Expect to pay around $15USD for a taxi, or if you have a local SIM card, definitely use Uber for a lower fare.
By tourist bus
Another option for getting between Ecuador’s main tourist attractions efficiently and safely is with Ecuador Hop, a new hop-on/hop-off bus service operating through Quito, Baños, Cuenca, Guayaquil, and Montañita with additional stops at Laguna Quilotoa, Volcán Cotopaxi, and Riobamba.
If arriving on an Ecuador Hop bus, you’ll be dropped off directly at your hostel (or at least very nearby), cutting out the need to take a taxi or Uber.
Read more: AN HONEST REVIEW OF ECUADOR HOP
Getting around Quito
As previously mentioned, Uber is typically the safest, cheapest, and most convenient way to get around Quito. Now, technically, Uber is illegal in the city, so you’ll usually have to sit in the front seat so it looks like you’re just a pair of friends, but I found Uber to be very reliable and consistently less expensive, so I’d recommend it over taking a taxi in almost every situation. Get a local SIM card when you arrive so that you’re able to use Uber, as well as Google Maps, to get around.
Movistar tourist SIM cards are available in the Arrivals Hall of the airport for $25USD, which includes 2GB of data, unlimited WhatsApp, and some calling/texting credit (which you probably won’t use). I found reception to be perfectly adequate, especially in and around Quito, and it was excellent peace of mind to know that I could always pull up maps if I got lost or call a car if I wanted to head back to the room!
Multiple locals specifically warned me against taking a taxi anywhere in Quito on my own in the evening, so definitely exercise additional caution as a solo female after dark. However, there are some situations, like to and from the airport, where a taxi might be simpler (given that Uber drivers are avoiding police due to local laws on ridesharing and therefore don’t usually want to go to the airport).
Wherever possible, get your hostel or hotel to call a registered taxi for you or use an app like Cabify instead of just flagging one off the street.
Quito is a large and incredibly spread-out city, but within the historical centre or specific neighbourhoods, it’s definitely possible to walk between attractions. During the day, I felt entirely safe in the city and had no problem with my camera or my phone being in my hand.
Use common sense, as with any city, but don’t feel as if you aren’t able to walk around at all. For solo travellers and young females after dark, probably keep the walking to a minimum.
Where to stay in Quito
My absolute FAVOURITE hostel in Ecuador is Community, a pair of simple hostels in Quito and Baños that really shine for their amazing, well, community vibes. Expect comfortable rooms ($10USD/night), incredible breakfasts, nightly events, and shared long-table-style dinners for just $5, which is such an excellent way to mingle with other travellers and make friends without having to go to a backpacker bar (although that does also happen). I met a bunch of wonderful people through Community, several of which I’m still in contact with, so I really can’t recommend it highly enough. The Quito location is also just a few blocks off Plaza de la Independencia, so very convenient to explore the city, and has a great rooftop!
If hostels aren’t your vibe, I can also highly recommend this 2-bedroom apartment ($35USD/night) on Airbnb within easy walking distance of La Ronda and Plaza de la Independencia. My mum and I spent a few days here and found it to be really convenient, comfortable, and well-appointed, not to mention hosted by a very friendly local who was always happy to offer recommendations and organise airport transfers over WhatsApp.
Ecuador travel tips
- Situated at 2,850m above sea level, it’s very possible that you will experience some minor symptoms associated with the altitude while exploring Quito. In most cases, it won’t amount to anything more than some shortness of breath walking up stairs and a bit of lightheadedness, but no two people react to altitude exactly the same. Check out this post for heaps more about travelling to high elevation cities in South America and how to avoid altitude sickness: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO ALTITUDE SICKNESS IN SOUTH AMERICA
- As with most everywhere in South America, there is a very real language barrier in Ecuador and I really wouldn’t recommend travelling here without learning some basic Spanish phrases. Any tour guides will speak English, but most waiters, cashiers, hostel staff, taxi drivers, bus station employees, and just general people on the street won’t speak a word. Yes, seriously, sometimes hostel reception will not speak ANY English.
- Ecuador uses the US Dollar as their official currency, although you will sometimes get change in a mix of Ecuadorian coins and US coins. To avoid exorbitant credit card fees, plan to pay with cash.