Perched at 2,800 metres above sea level with a beautiful backdrop of the Andes Mountains, the city of Quito is a great place to spend a few days before discovering the rest of Ecuador’s mainland or the enchanting Galapagos Islands. Whilst three days is generally a good amount of time to see the city’s best bits, it is good to have some insider knowledge.
During my six months living in Quito, I explored the ins and outs of the city, and got to know the places that aren’t on the tourist trail. The thing I love about Quito is the variety of neighbourhoods – in La Floresta you can meet owners of local art galleries and have a coffee in a beautiful old cinema, whilst in Parque Metropolitano you can hike on nature trails with views of Quito. Ecuador is small so day trips from Quito are also a great option, whether it’s perusing South America’s largest indigenous market or spotting rare bird species in the cloud forest.
1. Admire colourful La Floresta
La Floresta is easily my favourite neighbourhood in Quito. Unlike the modern part of the capital, with its grid-like layout of wide and busy streets, La Floresta is made up of small, colourful roads with plenty to look at. The neighbourhood is renowned for its bohemian vibe and art, with lots of striking graffiti and tiny art galleries. There is also Ocho y Media, a small but well-known cinema with an attractive façade, showing less well-known films and documentaries, with a vibrant café serving delicious lunches, cakes and drinks.
2. Stroll down La Ronda
Our Colonial Quito excursion is a great way to orientate yourself and learn about the history of Quito. La Ronda is a famous street in Quito’s UNESCO historic centre, dating back to the Inca period. It is a narrow, pedestrianised street lined with galleries, bars and workshops making everything from artisan honey to spinning tops. The charming La Casona de la Ronda hotel is located on this pretty street.
3. Have an ice cream in Plaza Grande
Undoubtedly the first area tourists will explore in Quito is the historic centre, and rightly so. Known as ‘La Plaza de la Independencia’ or ‘Plaza Grande’, Quito’s main square is at the heart of the old town, surrounded by important buildings including the metropolitan cathedral, the former archbishop’s palace, the presidential palace and the gold-covered La Compañia church nearby. There are several cafés where you can grab a coffee, ice cream or lunch, or just sit on a bench and people watch, admiring El Panecillo in the distance.
Top Tip: Be sure to leave any valuable items in your hotel safe, and don’t have any expensive items (camera, phone, jewellery etc.) on show whilst walking around the city.
4. Get panoramic views from El Panecillo
Our Colonial Quito tour includes a visit to the Virgin of Quito which stands proudly at 3,016 metres, looking down on the city below. The statue can be climbed for one of the best panoramic views of Quito. There is also a small museum inside the base of the statue where you can learn more about how it was made from 7,000 pieces of aluminium, and the significance of the chained dragon and crown of stars.
Top Tip: When you arrive in Quito, you will probably feel slightly dizzy and lightheaded when you walk up a flight of stairs. Make sure you stay hydrated and wear plenty of high-factor sun cream even when it’s cloudy – the city’s altitude and proximity to the equator means that even the locals have to be very careful about the UV levels.
5. Walk through Guápulo
Definitely ‘off the beaten track’ in Quito is Guápulo, a bohemian barrio with steep cobbled streets and a leafy park with several viewpoints of the mountainous backdrop. You can look inside the historic church, galleries or sit on a café terrace sipping a coffee. There is not much to do in Guápulo but it is a pleasant place for a bit of tranquillity.
Top Tip: Whilst Quito is a relatively safe city for tourists, it is advisable to take licensed taxis to cross the city, particularly after dark.
6. Try the local fare
Most Ecuadorian food is tasty and very affordable. In Quito you can find anything from fresh fruit juices in the markets, to gourmet ‘cuy’ (guinea pig) in fine dining restaurants. There are several good restaurants around Plaza Grande. Most dishes are served with a side of potatoes and rice, often with some form of corn or beans too. Read our Ecuador restaurant blog for some further recommendations.
Top Tip: Whilst most places in Quito are used to catering to tourists, it’s worth asking your guide for Quito’s best restaurants, to avoid getting sick.
7. Ride the cable car up Pichincha Volcano
This is a great activity and can be done in half a day. The cable car, which takes around 10 minutes, starts at 2,950m and takes you up to 4,050m. At the top, you get magnificent views across Quito. You can sip a coca tea (a classic Andean drink said to reduce altitude sickness) in the café, go for a pony ride or have a go on one of the swings with a spectacular view. For the more serious adventurers, there is a challenging route which you can hike right up to the summit of the Rucu peak of Pichincha Volcano with a qualified guide.
Top Tip: It’s worth giving yourself some time to acclimatise to the altitude, rather than taking the cable car on your first day in Quito.
8. Take a daytrip to the cloud forest
Ecuador is sometimes described as a microcosm of Latin America – within a country approximately the same size as the UK you can find colonial cities, indigenous markets, thermal pools, snow-capped volcanoes, a pristine coastline and a biodiverse cloud forest brimming with rare species of flora and fauna. To make the most of your time in Ecuador, you can venture north of Quito to the Bellavista Cloud Forest. Here you can follow nature trails and visit beautiful waterfalls, spotting birdlife including up to 16 varieties of hummingbirds. Other activities at Bellavista include horse riding and watching the sunrise as the fairy-tale forest comes alive.
9. Visit Otavalo Market
Another classic daytrip from Quito is Otavalo. Famous for having the world’s largest indigenous market, the town of Otavalo is located 1.5 hours north of Quito, and is surrounded by volcanoes and picture-perfect lakes. The market spills out from the Plaza de los Ponchos, with hundreds of indigenous locals selling everything from high-quality textiles and jewellery to traditional food and even live animals. Nearby, the Cuicocha Lake is set in an extinct volcanic crater, with an island in the middle which is best viewed on a boat trip or half-day hike around the lake. The drive in itself is beautiful, passing rose plantations and snowy peaks.
Top Tip: The Otavalo market only runs on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
10. Hike through Quito’s parks
Despite being a bustling city, Quito is home to many parks that offer respite. Explore Quito on a Saturday or Sunday and you’ll find that many locals are out in the parks riding their bikes, playing volleyball or just out for a stroll. The beauty of Quito’s parks is that each one is completely different. La Carolina has children’s playgrounds, a botanical garden as well as sports facilities and food stalls. Parque Metropolitano is much wilder, on the outskirts of Quito with beautiful nature trails and panoramic views across the city. El Ejido has a very local vibe, with Ecuadorians coming to play volley each evening, and stalls selling paintings, alpaca clothing and traditional street food including salchipapas and cevichocho. Nearby Mercado Artesanal is a good option for those who want to stock up on souvenirs but don’t have time for a daytrip to Otavalo.