Practical travel tips, things to do, see and experience, brief history and more
This article has been updated on April 23, 2021
Quito or officially San Francisco de Quito is the capital of Ecuador. This Andean city of 2,5 million people is located on the eastern slopes of volcano Pichincha, just 25km south of the actual equator, at an elevation of 2850 metres above sea level, which makes it the second-highest capital city in the world, right after Bolivia’s La Paz. The historic centre of Quito has one of the largest and well preserved historic centres in the Americas.
On that note, I must confirm the rumour about its beauty because besides Buenos Aires it was the most beautiful South American city I’ve visited. No wonder that together with Kraków, Quito was among the first two cities declared a World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 1978. From 2008, the city also became the “capital of South Americas” because it has been designated as the headquarters of the Union of South American Nations.
In this post, we’re therefore going to talk about this pretty city from the visitor’s perspective. Right after we’ll briefly touch on the subject of Quito‘s history, we’ll get on things to do, see and/or experience in and around the city. Also expect few practical notes about how to get here, where to stay, how to get around the city, events and go out section, safety tips and so on.
Brief history of Quito
Like Cusco and few other settlements in the region, Quito is also built on the ruins of an ancient city. The archaeological findings show that the hunter-gathering communities were present in the area as early as 8000 BCE. Later on, the valley was inhabited by the Quitu people, which was a tribe from the Quechuan civilisation. It is believed that they have turned the city into a regional commercial centre. Just before the turn of the first millennium, the Quitu were defeated by the Caras tribe, who set up the Kingdom of Quito.
In the 15th century, the expanding Incas set their eye on the prosperous kingdom, to eventually take control of the city in 1450. Incas however only held Quito until 1534, when they were defeated by the Spanish conquistadors, following the Incan Civil War. The city was in Spanish hands until it was liberated in 1822 by Simón Bolívar, only to become Ecuador’s capital 7 years later, following the collapse of the South American superstate Gran Colombia (1819-1830).
The more recent history have seen further political turmoil, assassinations and revolts. Mother Nature chipped in with few earthquakes and volcano eruptions but the old city has thankfully survived them all in great shape. Quito remained to be an undisputed centre of Ecuadorian national affairs right until the early 20th century when the largest port in the country Guayaquil overgrown the capital in terms of economy, but Quito remained the country’s political and cultural centre.
Things to do in Quito
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As I’ve mentioned above, Quito is a very charming city. In my humble opinion, if the city has hills, it generally boosts its beauty with amazing views and angles one can enjoy and Quito fully benefits from that advantage. The whole historical centre boasts of plenty of impressive structures and narrow winding cobblestone streets, lined with pretty historical buildings that often feature various super cool balconies, shops or cafés. Perhaps that is why the city earned the nickname “Florence of the Americas”. To be honest, in spite of being aware of the Ecuadorian capital’s beauty, when I set off for a walk in the early hours around the city centre, I didn’t expect such high levels of excitement.
Stroll around the historical centre
Tip: To get to know the city, due to the high amount of places of interest, I’d recommend taking a city tour or picking one of the free walking tours to start with. That way you’d learn many things about the place, including few curiosities the printed guides sometimes don’t mention as well as practical stuff about the possible safety-related issues, transport and so on. Afterwards, you can individually further explore the areas that interest you the most.
The heart of the city is Plaza Grande, a park-like central square that is lined up with churches and monumental buildings. I’d suggest grabbing a coffee in one of the cafés or restaurants on the square and look around to observe the vibrant life around here. Except that, you’ll also spot few impressive landmarks, such as the seat of Ecuadorian Government Carondelet Palace as well as Catedral Metropolitana de Quito; right across which there’s Palacio Arzobispal.
Whenever I am in such a beautiful place, except visiting particular spots, I love just turning random corners to admire the atmosphere and this is the perfect area to do so. For instance, right at the top of the square, there’s García Moreno street, one of the oldest streets in town that copies the ancient Incan path. In case you’re into churches, there are plenty of impressive ones around here. Right by the main square, there’s La Compañía de Jesús, and if you turn around and walk a little more, you’d spot yet another impressive church Convento de San Francisco or Iglesia de El Sagrario.
In fact, there’s a tremendous amount of churches around here but whatever you do, do not overdose on them because there’s still at least one more religious landmark you should not miss, which is Basilica del Voto Nacional, the impressive and rather dominant neo-gothic structure on the hill few blocks away from here. Except for the fact that you can climb the basilica’s towers up to the clock level, the surrounding area provides great views of the city. In fact, if you were to pick just one church, this would be the one I’d suggest.
Except for the random strolls around the historical centre, there are also numerous viewpoints, one can admire the city from. The most popular would perhaps be The Virgin of El Panecillo, a must-see iconic Virgin Mary statue landmark located on the hill in the middle of the city. Just by seeing it from the distance, walking up that pretty hill with colourful houses will most probably cross your mind as soon as you see it. It is, however, worth pointing out the fact that rather than hiking up there you better take the bus or taxi up there because might get robbed on your way up.
Another vista I’d definitely recommend is taking the sky lift TeleferiQo up to the volcano Pichincha. You can board the ski-lift at Vulqano Park, which is a small family-friendly amusement park on the side of the mountain. If the weather permits, you’d be rewarded with spectacular views of the whole valley. You could also climb to the Rucu peak of Pichincha volcano, there are hiking trails that lead from the top of TelefériQo.
Museums in Quito
OK. Quito has many museums that could possibly grab your attention, depending on your interest. I am not going to list them all here, although I’ll list the most popular ones, plus those that I believe are hidden gems. So let’s start with the most basic ones. In case you wanted to learn something about the city’s history, I’d say that the best place to do so is in Museo de la Ciudad (web/esp). I suggest going for a personalised tour guide to get the most out of it.
The same would apply to the whole country if you’ve visited the National Museum of Ecuador, although I’d perhaps leave this museum for later because it’s in a different hood, that is a bit away from the old town. You might however end up having dinner and few drinks in that area later anyway, which is btw something we’ll talk about later in the “Go Out” section. For now, let’s just stay in the historical centre.
To learn something about Ecuadorian colonial history and art as well as to visit a beautiful building, I would definitely not miss out on Convento de San Francisco. The church is also located on a café-perfect Plaza de San Francisco where you can chill right after your visit. In case you weren’t that much into museums, I’d say that this one together with either one of the two above should cover the basic museum requirements for a quick visit to Quito.
However, if you are into the arts, I believe that you should check out few more places. For modern art lovers, consider visiting Centro de Arte Contemporáneo (web/esp) or Museo de Arte Moderno. Furthermore, there are works of the local cubist artist Oswaldo Guayasamín and other modern Latin American art, which could be seen in Bellavista neighbourhood’s museum La Capilla del Hombre as well as in his former home-turned museum Fundación Guayasamín that’s located right next door. For the more classic art, there’s Museo de Arte Colonial and to go even further back, there’s Pre-Columbian Art Museum House of Praise: La Casa del Alabado.
Depending on your interests, there are plenty of other museums in Quito that deserve to be mentioned. For instance, in case you were here with children, think about the rather fun interactive Yaku Water Museum to find out pretty much everything water from the scientific as well as from the social angle. If your Spanish is good enough, you could also consider the vax-ish history museum Museo Alberto Mena Caamano or an independence struggle-related museum named after a local lover of the Latin liberator Simón Bolívar Museo Manuela Saenz.
Mitad del mundo, AKA the middle of the world
The main square of Quito is located about 25km south of the equator AKA zero latitude. While I like the sound of it (zero latitude), the actual site is just yet another glorious tourist trap where you can cross the yellow line from south to north and wise-versa. In fact, there are two of them. The original one marked in the and the new, re-measured spot that was determined by the more precise modern instruments, which is about 240 metres north of the old site.
There’s also a Museo de Sitio Intinan that exhibits items related to Ecuadorian culture, such as replicas of totem poles and so on. Other than that, there are also numerous scammers “proving” how the draining water spins anti-clockwise in the southern hemisphere and clockwise just a few yards north. FYI, the actual (Coriolis) effect is a scientific fact, it however needs a far larger distance (few miles) to show. The scammers here just “help” the water to spin a little to get some tips in return 😉
Other attractions worth considering to check out in Quito
Among the popular places to visit in the Ecuadorian capital is the historic neighbourhood of Guápulo. The hood boasts magnificent views and a general bohemian vibe that comes with numerous galleries and cafés. For a number of tourists, this is also a preferred area to stay in the city. It’s accessible via public bus E2 from the city centre for $1 or a 10 minutes taxi drive for $5-7.
If you want to do something rather different, think about a night tour of El Tejar cemetery. During this allegedly existential tour, you’d be led by a hooded guide who would navigate you through a maze of crypts, while you’ll hear voices calling out various existential questions, such as “What are you doing so that someone remembers you after you’ve died?” into the night. According to the director of the tour company, “the idea is to make people reflect”. Read more about this unusual attraction here, in case you were interested.
Go out and events in Quito
While the historical centre gets rather deserted in the later hours, there’s a place that remains safe and alive, which I’d definitely vouch for to check out for dinner and few glasses of wine. It’s the gorgeous Calle de La Ronda, which is a pretty, very Parisian-vibe street filled with bars and restaurants. If you’re keen on artistic vibes, perhaps you could pop in Metropolitan Cultural Centre, that except being a beautiful building with a stunning patio, also holds various exhibition, organises live events and so on.
The major entertainment and nightlife area is however La Mariscal neighbourhood, which is about 12 minutes by taxi or a 45-minute walk away from the historical centre. The hood’s Plaza Foch, AKA Zona Rosa is literally filled with restaurants, bars, venues as well as galleries and few Artisanal Markets. Btw, this is the area where the National Museum that I’ve mentioned above is located, so you can educate yourself a bit before having a few 😉
Right next door to La Mariscal quarter, there’s the hipstery La Floresta hood, which is the cool up and coming area of town. Before your visit, I’d recommend taking the La Floresta Street Art Tour to learn about the area first. The tour will give you an opportunity to see an interesting area of town from the unique perspective of a street artist, who’ll take you around some cool independent shops as well as the local cult indie cinema/bar Ocho y Medio (fcbk page).
Nightlife in Quito
Quito does have a rather vibrant nightlife scene, most of which is mostly concentrated around Plaza Foch. There are numerous Anglo-Irish themed drinking holes that appear to be popular with young travellers, such as Finn McCool or Kings Cross if you’re in that kind of stuff. If you’re more into the trendy and arty-ish places, check out Dirty Sanchez or Naranjilla Mecanica (that appears to have closed down) but there’s plenty of other places of similar vibes in the area to pick from.
As for clubbing, except the usual Latin disco and reggaeton, among which Bungalow 6 appears to be the most popular place. If that’s not your cup of tea, you could also check out the more middle of the road-ish electronic-music BPM Club or take a taxi to a different hood to check out the Lost City club (the sister club of Montañita‘s famous Lost Beach Club), where you can sometimes catch some decent beats from the acclaimed international DJs (see its fcbk page here).
Safety in Quito
Well, this is where it gets a bit tricky. The old town is full of banks and various offices and during the opening hours, there’s a heavy presence of police officers around. However, when the sun sets, the office workers, as well as the police, pretty much depart for the night and some parts of the old town switch into its – let’s say – a bit rougher mode.
During the day it’s all however rather safe, although be aware of pickpockets as this particular square appears to be a magnet for various characters. Please note that you might be also approached by shoe-polishing children, which is a bit of a painful sight, especially when they do it during school hours.
Personally, I haven’t had any problems in Quito at all but I admit that my guards were naturally switched to their full potential, more than in most places I’ve visited in the Americas. Some friendly locals also warned me about not walking in certain directions, such as the El Panecillo hill as I’ve mentioned above, but also few other less central areas of the old town. Even the hostel I stayed in that was just under El Panecillo had a proper security guide standing in front of the entrance for when the nights fall upon the old town, which is something I haven’t seen south of here.
Generally, the safety in Quito isn’t the best I’ve experienced around the Americas. On the other hand, it’s not reaching some alarming levels like for example Rio. My advice would be to stay cautious, minimise carrying valuables like passport, larger sums of cash and so on. Talk to the hotel receptionist about the particular area you’d like to visit, especially in the late hours…
Quito is a huge and very very long city (up to 70km long), that’s divided into the rough working-class south, historical centre and more posh north. You’ll be most likely spending most of your time in the latter two areas. The historical centre is could feel a bit hilly at points but it’s all easily walkable if you’re reasonable with coffee breaks, for which you’ll have plenty of stunning opportunities.
When it comes to public transport, in case you were staying outside of the old town, there is an inexpensive network of buses running through the city, it’s, however, a little complicated to work it out. I’d recommend asking at the reception of your hotel about the most convenient bus between the historical centre. Otherwise use a metered taxi or get yourself an Uber.
How to get there
There are two major bus terminals in the city: South (Quitumbe) and North (Terminal Terrestre Carcelén). While the former takes you to and from the tourist destinations of Montañita, as well as to the Amazon’s Banos or Cuenca, the latter is obviously more about destinations north of here.
In case you wanted to reach Colombia on land, the northern terminal is where you’d like to take your bus to the border town of Tulcan, which would cost you 4,5hrs of your time, plus $6. Then a $3.50 taxi to the border, from where a 10 000,-COP ($2.75) taxi from to the nearest Colombian town of Ipiales.
As for getting to the city from the city’s international airport, you can opt for a $20-25 taxi, a bit cheaper Uber, the $2 Public Transportation System, or one of the numerous shuttle services such as this one.
When to visit Quito
Due to its rather stable climate, some people like to call Quito “the city of eternal spring” While the average temperatures are in the area of 20+ °C but there is a Feb to May rainy season. So the best time to pick for your visit would be the dry season (June to September), although the rainy season isn’t anything evil to deal with when it comes to the actual rain you’ll get a lot of clouds trying to spoil your views of the city.
- Safety on the bus: In case you’re getting to the city by bus, make sure to keep your day pack on your knees. I have arrived in Quito by night bus from a small Ecuadorian beach town of Puerto Lopez just north of Montañita. Because I’ve heard and read a lot about the safety on night buses in Ecuador I was rather cautious. No incident occurred to me at all but I have noticed a higher level of security precautions on various stops. People were searched upon entering the vehicles and cameras were placed inside the buses;
- Safety when clubbing: I don’t mean to sound patronising, nor I want to ring any alarms but if you’re about to go a bit more wild on one of the places around Plaza Foch, I’d say to stay cautious in accordance with your surroundings around there…
- Safety in southern Quito: In case you arrive at the southern bus terminal, I’d advise you to take an official taxi from the Southern Bus Terminal to avoid unnecessary uncomfortable feelings passing through the neighbourhood of southern Quito, which is infamous for being rather rough;
- Trekking gear: In case you were planning to reach the Rucu peak of Pichincha volcano, as I’ve mentioned above, please make sure to wear the right gear. Have warm clothes as it gets cold up there, wear comfy trekking shoes and do not forget to apply sunscreen 😉
Depending on the nature of your visit, people generally stay either in the city centre, where it the most convenient to stay if you want to explore the old town. Other popular options are La Mariscal or Guápulo hoods. Given Quito‘s steadily popularity among international tourists, expect a wide range of accommodation available across all levels and price brackets.
I’ve personally stayed in Rebel Hostel near the historic city centre. It was possibly the cleanest hostel I’ve ever been to. Upon my very early arrival, the owner welcomed me with a free breakfast. The whole place is a well-oiled machine, with hardworking friendly staff leading the way. Dorm beds are equipped with a “shutter” so you get privacy but it felt like being in a coffin to me. If you over 180cm – make sure to book a room with longer beds or private.
How long to stay
Quito does have a lot to offer for everyone, after all, it’s also a destination for a considerable amount of expats, possibly because of the fact that for $2000, you should be able to achieve quite a high standards of living over here. When it comes to the length of your visit, it obviously depends on your interests and the time available. I’d say that if you were short of time, you could see the absolute highlights of the city in 3 busy days but if you have decided to give it an extra couple of days, you shouldn’t run out of interesting things to see and/or experience.
Sort of conclusion
Quito is getting ready to top one million tourists per year, which makes it one of the leading tourist destination in the region. Such a number speaks for itself, if anyone asked, whether it is a city worth visiting. It’s pretty, it has plenty of museums and impressive sites to explore, not to mention its decent nightlife scene as well as the fact that Quito is also a travel hub to explore other interesting destination around this beautiful country.
However, not everything is so peachy. When it comes to safety, the city has some gaps to fill because Quito could be a rather dangerous city if you are at the wrong place at the wrong time. But does this safety concern spoil what the city has to offer? That is obviously a question that can be answered on multiple individual levels. For me personally, it didn’t spoil much, except taking it easy with evening strolls around the old town.
I’ve however met few rather overcautious people that appeared semi paranoid levels of safety concerns. I know, there’s the old saying “better safe than sorry” but at the same time, it depends how far the safety measures go because if it’s too much, it takes away a lot of potential fun. On the other hand, I wouldn’t advise anyone to take it entirely easy and switch their guards off because the healthy levels of safety concerns in Quito are not entirely unjust.
I’d say that if you belong to the category of street-clever people who have a good sense of awareness of what’s going on around them, you should be all right, in case you’ve moved around the tourist areas only. If you are however coming from a background where you never needed to flex your security concerns, you might need to look into organised tours to enjoy the city and feel secure at the same time. One way or another, there is always a way to enjoy the beauty Quito has to offer. Just make sure to find the one that suits you most.
Useful and interesting links
- Quito: .com’s website with the city’s festivals as well as general info about the city
- Arts and Culture: Google‘s Arts and Culture page that lists various landmarks to visit in the city (stunning pics)
- Events: Eventbrite on Quito
- Airport shuttle service
- History of Quito: Encyclopedia Britannica‘s page on Quito
- UNESCO‘s page about Quito
- Gran Colombia: Encyclopedia Britannica‘s page on the South American superstate
Next possible destinations heading north: Colombia
Heading north from Quito leaves you about 4,5 hours away from the Colombian border. Southern Colombia boasts of many gems, whether it’s Las Lajas Sanctuary by the town of Ipiales right after crossing the border, National Park Corota near by Pasto (read more here), popular destinations of Popayán and Cali or perhaps even the amazing Tatacoa Desert.
Then, of course, you’d be heading towards the central parts of this beautiful country where you can explore the Bogotá or Medellín and plenty of other destinations, not to mention that you’ll still have Colombia’s Caribbean coast ahead. In case you were interested in general tourism info, history, cuisine, culture, safety tips – basically a Traveller’s Guide to Colombia – please click here.
Next possible destinations heading south
In case you wanted a bit of an ocean vibe, I’d suggest checking out the area around the Ecuadorian town of Montañita. Travelling further south from there would take you to Peru and its famous and ever-popular tourist locations like Cusco, Machu Picchu or Arequipa, neither of which need introducing that much.
Then you’d encounter the amazing Lake Titicaca which would take you to the border with neighbouring Bolivia. In case you want to experience the incredible and surreal nature of the Altiplano plateau, you should definitely consider visiting the mesmerising Uyuni Salt Flats after you check out the country’s two capitals La Paz and Sucre.
Enjoy the beauty 😉
Feature image is by Grebmot from Pixabay