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I spent four days in Quito, Ecuador earlier this fall and had a magnificent time exploring the city solo. Although Quito is often seen as a stopover point on the way to another destination (namely the Galapagos Islands or the Amazon Rainforest), Quito is a lovely South American city that is fully deserving of its own trip. There are so many things to do in Quito that I recommend spending at least two or three full days in the city.
Visit Quito’s Old Town
The first stop on the list of things to do in Quito should be a visit to the area known as the Old Town. Quito is generally divided into two districts – the Old Town and the New Town. While the New Town boasts modern buildings, shopping, and restaurants, the Old Town is where Quito truly shines. Walking around Quito’s Old Town during the day feels like stepping into its colonial past. Cobblestone streets, ringing church bells, and beautiful plazas make up South America’s best-preserved colonial region.
Start your morning in Plaza Grande, the central square of the Old Town. Here you’ll find a charming square perfect for people watching and soaking up the Andean morning sun. The white building on Plaza Grande’s northwest side (with the flags along the balcony) is where the the president lives! The changing of the guard takes place at 11am and if you are there on a Thursday, the president himself will actually come out to the balcony to wave to his people.
Pop into Dulceria Colonial, a tiny coffee shop located in the square for the a delicious cup of coffee and traditional pastry. Dulceria Colonial is literally a hole in the wall – that wall just happens to be the principal cathedral, which dates back to the 1500’s! There are a few tables outside, perfect for taking in the morning before the real exploration begins.
Dulceria Colonial is the oldest coffee shop in Quito, and they made me the absolute best latte I have ever had. Perfectly creamy and made with local coffee beans, I only wish Starbucks tasted half this good. Like most places in Quito, this shop is cash only so be sure to bring a few dollars for your purchase.
Basilica del Voto Nacional
The Basilica del Voto Nacional was one of my favorite things to do in Quito. This stunning church is the oldest example of Gothic architecture in the Americas, completed in 1924. The church looms over the city and can be seen throughout Quito. The entrance fee is $1 for the main chapel, plus another $2 to visit the towers. This is a $3 well spent, I assure you!
The interior of the church is lit up by gorgeous stained glass windows. A walk around the chapel will reveal windows with scenes dedicated to several saints or depicting moments from the Bible. Instead of traditional gargoyles, the church has stone versions of Ecuadorian animals (iguanas, tortoises, parrots, etc.!) guarding its towers.
Once you have explored the interior of the church, it’s time to head up to the most exciting part: the towers! Exit the church from a side entrance and you will find yourself in a concrete courtyard with a large set of stairs leading back up to the street.
To the left of the stairs is a small ticket both where you will need to purchase your second set of tickets. Once you have done that, across from the ticket booth are the stairs leading up to the towers. After climbing a few sets of stairs, you will find yourself on a landing overlooking the main chapel. The largest stained glass window is here, making a perfect photo op.
Continue up the stairs and you will arrive somewhere strange: a long plank bridge leading to a ladder. It seems sketchy, but you are meant to cross it. It was completely steady when I went across, even if it didn’t look like it! Once you cross the plank, there will be ladders leading up to the very top of the tower.
The ladders are extremely steep and a little scary, but once you climb two sets you will be in the viewing dome at the very top of the tower, offering views of the entire city of Quito. It was a truly gorgeous view. I recommend coming here earlier in the morning if possible, so that you can see the city and mountains before the clouds and fog roll in, as they tend to do each afternoon.
The TelefériQo is similar to a ski lift, carrying you up the side of a mountain which overlooks the city of Quito. This is the perfect activity for a bright, sunny day. The ride takes about ten minutes each way and costs $8.50 (cash only). Once you arrive at the top, grab a cup of coffee and spend some time meandering around the trails. You will most likely find a llama or two wandering about, which is reason enough to start exploring.
This activity is best reserved for when it’s sunny. In Quito, this usually means first thing in the morning. It’s worth doing as your first activity of the day because it’s very typical for the clouds to roll into Quito during the afternoon. The day I went, it was actually cloudy all day and was therefore pretty disappointing. On a clear day, you can see the towering peaks of six different volcanoes, including the famous Cotopaxi, in the distance!
La Mariscal Market
Shopping for locally crafted souvenirs is one of my favorite things to do on any international trip, and Quito is no exception! Located in the New Town just a few blocks from Plaza Foch is a bustling market full of vendors selling a multitude of handcrafted items. Fair warning: some (okay, a lot…) of the items for sale here are cheap trinkets probably made in China. But that’s okay because it’s obvious what they are, and you can just walk right past those booths.
My favorite items to shop for were locally made chocolate, boxes of tea bags, sweaters, and blankets. Many of the stalls sell very similar items, so you should definitely shop around before purchasing and always haggle the price lower. It’s expected (and fun!).
Nothing here is exactly “authentic”, but Plaza Foch is a good stopping point along the list of things to do in Quito. I recommend staying nearby this area as there are a wide variety of hostels to choose from within walking distance to the Plaza, which is full of bars, restaurants, and coffee shops. If you plan to go out at night, this is the place to be.
I stayed at Hotel Cayman, an adorable inn just a few blocks from Plaza Foch. I enjoyed the ease of a quick walk down the street to grab a cup of coffee at Juan Valdez, a Starbucks-like cafe with decent coffee and free wi-fi.
Visit the Equator Line
No itinerary of things to do in Quito would be complete without a trip to the equator. Is it kitschy? A little. Is the monument accurately placed on the equator line? Well, no. But is it fun?! Oh yes.
Take a taxi to El Mitad del Mundo and purchase your tickets for $5 (cash only!). Your taxi driver might offer to wait for you, but this is not necessary and will only cost you more money. There is a constant influx of taxis coming and going, and it will be easy to grab one when you are done looking around. While at the ticket booth, I noticed a sign listing prices for dogs to enter. There was actually a price difference for large dogs or small dogs – $5 for small and $10 for large, with a measuring post like you might find at an amusement park saying “You Must Be This Tall to Ride”. I wish I had taken a photo of it!
There is a large monument of the globe marking the supposed line of the equator. Advancements in GPS technology have revealed that the marker is just a little bit off, but who cares! It’s still fun to see, and to put one foot on each side of the line marking the division between hemispheres.
There are restaurants and shops in the plaza if you feel like spending more time here. I didn’t stop at any, but some of the smells wafting out of the restaurants were DELIGHTFUL.
Visit El Panecillo
The round hill rising up from the center of the city is known as El Panecillo. Atop it sits a winged statue of the Virgin Mary, visible from nearly anywhere in Quito. It’s a quick 15 minute taxi ride to the top of the hill, where you are treated to local bands playing, food vendors, and jewelry and other handicrafts for sale. The view is stunning as well, as you can see across the entire city of Quito.
Definitely plan to take a taxi to the top — the neighborhoods on the way up are pretty sketchy and not safe for walking (not to mention it is a very large, steep hill). The top is filled with tourists and is totally safe, though.
Atop the hill is Pim’s, a nice restaurant with a large panoramic window offering fantastic lunchtime views. I popped in for lunch during my visit and enjoyed a plate of traditional Ecuadorian foods such as empanadas, steak medallions, and grilled shrimp.
Quito is such an eclectic and interesting South American city, and it definitely does not get enough love from tourists! I had a great time exploring this colonial city over the course of a few days. 3-4 days is the perfect amount of time to check out what Quito has to offer.