Surrounded by volcanos and full of beautiful colonial architecture, Quito definitely has plenty of fun things to do. But sadly, most visitors don’t even consider visiting the second-highest capital in the world and simply treat it as a layover on the way to the Galapagos or other popular South American cities.
To be honest, I was guilty of this mindset as well and I treated Quito as a quick stop on the way to the Amazon. To my surprise, I had an amazing time and I’d rank Quito as no. 3 of the best Latin American capitals after Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro.
So what should you do when you visit? Here are my top things to do in Quito!
Best Fun Things to Do in Quito
1. Visit the Historic Center
You should start your visit by taking a stroll through Quito’s 16th-century colonial old town which is a UNESCO world heritage site. I’d recommend starting from Plaza de Independencia to see the marble monument celebrating Ecuador’s first declaration of independence against the Spanish in 1809.
Next, everyone will probably advise you to visit the baroque church of La Compañía de Jesús, but I’d say it’s not actually the best church to visit in Quito. It might sound strange, especially coming from the mouth of an art historian (a long, long time ago I studied art history), but this church didn’t impress me. The columns on the facade seemed to be basically copied from Bernini’s artwork and the interior wasn’t very spectacular. I thought the Basilica del Voto Nacional was much better (next on my list of things to do in Quito).
Make sure you don’t miss a stroll down Calle de La Ronda. Said to be one of the oldest streets in Quito, it’s also one of the most picturesque! If you can’t find it or simply want to have a little more information, I always recommend taking a walking tour with a local guide. Not only will it help to get your bearings, but you’ll also learn all the best spots and historical relevance of what you will see during your visit.
2. Climb the Basilica del Voto Nacional
As I mentioned before if you’re only going to visit one church in Quito, make it the Basilica del Voto Nacional. Entering the church, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I saw that the church had an elevator so I was convinced we were just going to see some observation deck… I was wrong.
The moment I got off the elevator I had to walk across a narrow wooden bridge directly over La Basilica’s interior arches. Then I saw a ladder, and for a person generally freaked out by ladders, it was already quite a challenge. However, the worst was yet to come.
Lastly, you have to climb some very steep stairs all the way up to an open-air platform only 2.25 x 2.25 meters. It was very scary to even look around, but if you’re not afraid then you’re treated to a breathtaking view of the entire city of Quito.
3. Learn at Museo Templo del Sol Pintor Ortega Maila
Once you have your feet firmly on the ground again, head to the Museo Templo del Sol Pintor Ortega Maila if you are looking to learn a little bit more about the indigenous culture.
This unique museum was created by the indigenous painter and sculptor Ortega Maila and is more than just an art exhibit. Here you can try ancient sun worship rituals, admire the detailed murals that adorn the walls, and even participate in cleansing ceremonies.
Even if you aren’t a museum person, most people will appreciate this immersive experience that teaches you about the ancestral traditions and artistic expressions of Ecuador.
Quito-Mitad del Mundo: Monumento, Museo del Sol, Cráter Pululahua
4. See the View from Mirador de Panecillo
To get an idea of the city’s layout, it’s a good idea to head to one of the many viewpoints that offer panoramic views of Quito and the surrounding volcanoes.
The Mirador de Panecillo is one of the best viewpoints in the city and you’ll be welcomed by a statue of the Virgin Mary looking like a Guardian Angel protecting Quito.
Unless you’re a hardcore hiker, you shouldn’t try to climb up here on your own as it’s quite a long walk. Instead, simply jump in a taxi and ask for the Mirador de Panecillo, it’s a very cheap ride and the taxi drivers all know where it is.
5. Go to the Center of the World
You can’t leave Ecuador without standing on the equator! You’ll find the Mitad del Mundo monument (the Center of the World) about 30 minutes away from the center of Quito but this is actually a bit of a tourist trap. The equatorial line is located 5 minutes away from here in a museum (at least according to the GPS).
The Mitad del Mundo monument is a great place to take some pictures and meet some llamas but I do recommend paying the small fee to take a tour of the museum. Here you can take a picture with the real equatorial line and try some experiments that relate to standing at the equator.
6. Ride a Teleferico
One of the most photographed tourist attractions of Quito is the view from a teleferico. For a small fee, you start at the base of Volcán Pichincha and are transported by cable car to the top of Cruz Loma at an altitude of 4,270 meters.
From here you can take in the view, play on a very scenic swing, or if you’re well acclimatized you can hike even higher to the volcano.
TIP: Try to go as early as possible if you want to get a nice view of the city as during the day there are more clouds.
7. Watch the Changing of the Guard
You may have already seen plenty of changing of the guard ceremonies but the one at the Presidential Palace in Quito is quite special. It only happens on Mondays so you will need to line up your trip accordingly if you want to see it, but it’s a great attraction for those who can.
The changing of the guard is a vibrant spectacle of music, horse-mounted guards, and the proud display of the Ecuadorian flag. Plus the President of Ecuador often attends so you might even get to spot him in the crowd.
8. Eat a Bunch of Unknown Dishes like Guinea Pig
While in Ecuador I decided to give some local dishes a try. While some were good, some turned out to be a mistake as, despite my fluent Spanish, I still had no idea what I had been served. The locals were constantly telling me the name of the dish and never answering my questions about what actually it is so they might as well have been speaking in Chinese.
A girl from my hostel ordered as I found out later, boiled llama’s stomach, while I got a rice ball stuffed with ‘something’. Food in Ecuador will always be a bit of a mystery for me and the only things you can be sure of are rice and beans, two of the basics of northern South American delicacies.
When visiting Peru or Ecuador, it’s impossible not to hear about roasted guinea pigs. Kept as pets in Europe, these little rodents are considered a national dish in both of these countries. Fried guinea pig, aka cuy, is present in the Peruvian version of the Last Supper in the cathedral in Cuzco.
Restaurants that serve cuys are actually quite hard to find in Ecuador, but it’s definitely an experience. If someone asks if I liked it, I’d say that chicken is better.
9. Enjoy Quito’s Nightlife
When I arrived at my hostel in Quito after a long and awful flight from London via Miami, I wanted to go to bed and rest. To my surprise, before even leaving my bags in the room I got a shot and a piece of cake. ‘More drinks are in the lobby!’ someone said to me right after my ‘arrival treat’.
The welcome at my hostel was my first introduction to the nightlife scene in Quito and the place was constantly organizing drinks at the bar and nights out in La Mariscal district. I even got to go on a party bus all the way up to the Mirador de Panecillo during my stay.
Hostel Vibes was one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in! The owner, Santiago, was super helpful and everyone who was planning on staying just for a night or two ended up staying for a week or longer. Even if there was officially no space at the hostel Santiago was willing to help people who stayed there before.
When I came back from my trip to the Amazon jungle I had nowhere to sleep for 2 nights, because I forgot to make a reservation (Yes, sometimes I’m very unprepared!). I had to sleep in a hammock, but at least I had a place to stay – thanks to Vibes Hostel!
10. Take a Day Trip
Last but not least, there is SO much to do just outside of Quito that you should absolutely plan to take some day trips while you’re here. There is everything from rainforests to hot springs, volcanoes to national parks so I’m sure you can easily find something that piques your interest.
To help you out I actually wrote another post with all the details you need to plan some fun things to do outside of Quito. Make sure to have a look and spare some days to experience the magic of the rest of Ecuador!