From the colonial heart of Quito to the grungy Mariscal, to the upcoming artsy neighbourhood of Guapalo, Ecuador’s capital has many faces.
The capital city with the second-highest altitude in the world, (La Paz in Bolivia is the highest!) those arriving by air may feel a little lightheaded as they readjust to the elevation, as well the culture of this very distinct and proud city.
The old town of Quito was declared a UNESCO World Heritage in 1978 and is one of the best-preserved colonial capital cities in South America.
Filled with ornate Jesuit churches where locals flock to worship, picturesque plazas where old folk get their shoes shined whilst reading the daily newspaper and tree-lined pastel-coloured streets dotted with restaurants and bars, it’s a living museum and simply perfect for people watching and soaking up the culture!
The city is also home to some great museums such as the ‘Museo Nacional’ where you can learn more about the history of Ecuador. Did you know that the name ‘Quito’ comes from the tribe living here more than a thousand years ago, the ‘Quitu’ people?
In 1534 the Quitu tribe was conquered by the Spanish, and Ecuador became a colony. In 1809, after many battles in the war of independence, the country finally celebrated its own nationhood.
Where to stay in Quito:
The Old Town
By day, you can wander plazas, visit museums and take in local Quito life, stopping for a local ‘almuerzo’ (lunch) of minestres (soup for starters), rice, meat and plantains, (for main course) and postres (dessert) for only $2 USD!
The restored cobbled street of La Ronda is a microcosm of Quiteñan tourism and is one of the livelier spots to head for dinner. Adventurous foodies may like to try ‘cuy’ (roasted guinea pig) at one of the restaurants here.
Even though you are in the centre of town, nightlife options are limited and you will likely want to head to nearby Mariscal for some action!
Packed with pubs and late-night bars, this is where most backpackers (and a fair few locals) head to let their hair down and party!
It is also the area where many backpacker hostels are located, although it is worth noting these are sometimes more pricey than the hostels in the Old Town. You’ll find everything here from overpriced Thai and Mexican restaurants to Irish pubs and dodgy discotecas, and happy hour seems to extend all night!
The ‘bohemian, artsy’ area of town, ‘Guapalo’ has some limited options for travellers. The winding cobbled road ‘Paiso Guapalo’, which extends from the main road ‘Calle Gonzales Suarez’ is speckled with a few bars and restaurants serving the comforting Canalazo (hot fermented wine) and it is certainly an up and coming area where you are unlikely to spot a backpacker!
If you are staying here, be sure to check out the cool cinema/bar/restaurant, Ochoymedio, which shows nightly international films, hosts artsy film festivals and showcases the occasional music concert with some cool indie bands for only $10 USD. This is far removed from backpackersville – you’ll be hanging out with the cool kids here!
Top 6 Hostels in Quito!
While we were in the Old Town we stayed with the folks over at Community Hostel, joining in on family dinners, sipping on free coffee while we worked, and enjoying views of the old town from its perfectly central location!
There are daily events at Community including salsa classes and yoga in the mornings. The tour company Community Adventures runs from here and they offer a number of great trips, including a two-day tour to Cotopaxi Volcano and Quilotoa Lake. Prices start at $9USD for a dorm bed.
Hump Day hostel is located in the Old Town of Quito, very conveniently next to Calle La Ronda and a short walk from the pretty Plaza Grande. The hostel is based in a quirky old colonial house, with a cool courtyard in the centre. As soon as you arrive here, you are greeted by the friendly and helpful Hump day staff. You are issued with a wristband, which gives you a free arrival drink/shot and a free drink with a meal at the hostel restaurant, Llama Love.
The cost of a bed in a dorm is $7 per night without breakfast. The bunk beds are comfortable, with a curtain on one side; and a small wooden partition on the other. Each bed comes with its own light, plug (not USB) and storage hanger.
The hostel has a huge chalkboard filled with information about the various tours and onward travel that the staff can help with. It also lists activities that are happening that day, which include things such as a Latin party and bar crawl. There are plenty of socialising opportunities to get involved with or if that isn’t your thing, there are just as many areas to chill in!
Situated in the La Mariscal district, El Patio Hostel is small and cosy. Dorm beds start around $11USD per night and there are also private rooms available. The staff are super helpful and can advise about local attractions.
The dorm beds have privacy curtains and reading lamps. There are weekly activities including yoga, dance classes and even karaoke! Guests looking to cook can make the most of the communal kitchen facilities if they would rather save their money for Plaza Foch’s beer instead of its food.
Located in the La Mariscal area of Quito, Selina is a popular choice for both digital nomads and backpackers. The global chain is famed for its fabulous co-working spaces but also offers great communal areas in which to meet other backpackers.
As well as an on-site bar and restaurant, there is also a yoga deck and even a barbers! Selina generally attracts flashpackers as it is a little more expensive than some of the other options, although there are a limited number of cheaper dorm beds beginning at around $9.
It is located close to Plaza Foch which boasts plenty of international food choices although these options are more expensive than the street food eats that are easy to find in the Old Town.
A backpacker favourite located in the historic centre is Minka Hostel. They offer a few private rooms and also dorm beds which start at around $8 per night. It is a great place to meet other travellers and there is also a communal kitchen and BBQ facilities available for guest use.
It is possible to leave your bag in their storage room and if you have stayed at the hostel, the first week of storage is free. This is particularly helpful if you are jetting off to the Galapagos for a week or heading out to the Amazon rainforest.
This hostel is located in Guapulo and despite its name, it is more of a guesthouse than your usual backpacker hostel. There are no dorm rooms here but it is a decent place to score a private room for a bargain price. A double room for two people costs just $22 a night and all of the rooms they offer come with private bathrooms.
The location is good and the accommodation is just a stone’s throw from the Guapulo viewpoint. Although the decor is not hugely aesthetically pleasing, the place offers a pleasant stay and allows travellers to explore an area of the city regularly skipped over.
Things to do in Quito:
Wander the streets of the Old City
The old city of Quito was the first-ever UNESCO World Heritage site and for good reason. From the impressive Plaza Grande, to the Quito Basilica, wandering from street to street, stopping to get your shoes shined on the street side or pausing to enjoy a snack of ‘maiz cancha’ (roasted corn) soaking up the atmosphere of this Ecuador’s colonial centre-piece is a perfect first day in Quito.
Compañía Church (Church of the Society of Jesus)
Quiteños claim that this is the most beautiful Jesuit church in Ecuador, or perhaps even the whole of South America – and they may be correct! Gazing into the mirror at the head of the altar offers mesmerizing views of the ornate gold ceiling and intricate stained glass windows.
An interesting place to explore the recent history of Quito, this well-presented and well-maintained museum is a great place to while away an afternoon and learn more about what makes Quiteños so proud of their fascinating city. Entrance $3 USD.
Basilica del Voto Nacional (The Basilica of the National Vow)
A short climb from the old city, this bold neo-Gothic Basilica (the largest in the Americas!) offers an impressive panorama of the city ($2USD entrance fee). Arrive before 4pm to ensure you can climb the church towers (which close earlier than the church) which offer the best views.
Free City Walking Tour
Daily tours leave from Community Hostel at 10:30am. The tour is free (tips appreciated) and takes you to the best places around the old city, a great way to get introduced to the area. Highlights include a stop at the market, churches, and plazas of the old city, plus a visit to a chocolate shop!
A must-do activity whilst in Quito is spending $8.50 USD ($11USD for fast track return tickets) to take the cable car up the side of the mountain for incredible views of Quito and the surrounding ‘valley of the volcanoes’. The journey up lasts between 15-30 minutes and there is also the option to go horse riding once you disembark at the top.
There is a swing that offers beautiful views over Quito and also a hiking trail that goes all the way up to the summit of Rucu Pichincha. The volcano hike can be challenging in bad weather but the views are well worth it on a good day! Make sure you start the hike first thing in the morning, before the weather changes.
There is a cafe called Cruz Loma which also offers incredible views through their tall glass-panelled wall. We definitely recommend the chai latte!
Quito Theatre (Teatro Nacional Sucre)
An impressive line-up of entertainment hits Quito’s main theatre every week, everything from concerts to comedies and pantomimes. Pick up a program at the theatre and get brushing up on your Spanish if you want to understand a thing that’s going on.
La Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World)
Ecuadorians placed a monument here to mark the centre of the earth, the ‘equator’ of which the entire country of Ecuador (meaning equator in Spanish) is named.
The thing is… they got it wrong. The equator is actually 250 yards from here, where you’ll find an interesting crater and no monument! Despite being geographically inaccurate, the Mitad del Mundo makes for an interesting day with demonstrations about different hemispheres, including the way water flushes and eggs boil.
To enter La Mitad del Mundo costs $5USD for adults. Don’t forget to take your passport for a stamp from the middle of the world! You can easily spend a couple of hours here. It is a great spot for photos and really interesting to wander around (also on site is a chocolate museum, equator museum, beer museum and cafes!).
A round trip via taxi costs around $30USD but there is also a bus from Quito city centre which costs around $1USD each way.
There are many places in Quito to take Spanish lessons, one of the most memorable being the Banana Spanish School which as well as teaching you the grammar tables, gives you free plàtanos! Lessons start from just $7.50 USD / hour for one-on-one private lessons or $6 USD / hour for group tuition.
If you are looking for a more immersive experience, why not learn Spanish on a one month travel & study program?
Travel and learn Spanish at the same time! You’ll start your adventure in the historical city of Quito, to the colonial city of Cuenca, the mind-blowing Amazon Jungle, to the authentic fishing town of Manta and finally the surf and party hotspot of Montañita!
Along the way, you’ll fit in four hours of Spanish daily, stay with a host family (so you can practice your Spanish every day!), try your hand at cooking, take salsa lessons, visit Cotopaxi National Park, try paragliding, visit Isla de la Plata AND if all that isn’t enough… learn to surf!
Phew! Along the way, you’re guaranteed to meet some like-minded and have the time of your life. Read more about the one-month language program here…
Papallacta and Oyacachi Thermal Hot Springs
Enjoy a pleasant trip from Quito to soothe your backpacker bones in a thermal hot spring. Temperatures range from 93 to 102 Fahrenheit – now that’s hot! Prices vary depending on where you want to take the plunge. At the spa resort, Las Termas de Papallacta, the cost is $4 USD for adults.
Take a day-trip to Cotopaxi National Park, Otavalo Market or Quilotoa Lake
Quilotoa Lake is a natural spectacle to behold and it is well worth making the journey from Quito to visit. Day tours usually include return transport, a visit to a local market and indigenous hut as well as trekking to the bottom of the crater, before heading back up again. Book your Quilotoa day trip with Ecuatraveling here.
One of the most spectacular volcanoes in Ecuador, Cotopaxi Volcano can be experienced as a day trip from Quito. You can arrange trekking and mountain biking trips, (including return transport to the city) or combine a trip up the volcano with Quilotoa Lake. Read more about visiting Cotopaxi Volcano and book your trip here.
Although Otavalo Market is actually on every day of the week, the most popular day for backpackers and tourists to visit is Saturday when the streets are shut off from traffic and the artisanal market merges with the animal market and food market.
For backpackers wanting to stock up on scarves, jewellery or authentic souvenirs for folks back home, (including Spongebob Squarepants hats or blankets made in China – what?) this is a must-do day trip from Quito. Just make sure you bargain hard!
A Word About Safety…
Keep your belongings safe, especially in the Old Town. Some taxi drivers will wind the windows up and lock the doors when driving through this area. Some travellers say they have been mugged in this area too so just be aware of your surroundings.
Stay in well-lit areas and on main roads. Try to travel with others when possible and if you are out late at night use taxis and only carry valuables if necessary.
We recommend using Uber as it seems to be cheaper and arguably safer, however, it is technically illegal in Ecuador. Check out this post for more on staying safe in South America.
Just two hours by bus from Quito (buses leave all day from Ofelia bus costing $2.50 USD one way), lies the beautiful town of Mindo peeping through the cloud forest.
A haven for bird watchers, many of the hostels offer tours to help you spot the incredible bio-diversity of avian life here amidst the trees. If you’re not a twitcher, however, there are also opportunities for more adventurous sports such as canyoning, zip-lining and mountain biking.
It is the favourite Ecuadorian destination for adrenaline junkies and one that should not be missed from any good Ecuador backpacking trip. Face your fears as you zip-line, swing and raft your way through this lush valley.
For a taste of the Ecuadorian Amazon, head to Cuyabeno National Park. Tours depart from Quito and often include return transport. As Ecuador sees fewer tourists than other countries such as Peru and Bolivia, the experience in the Amazon is usually less touristy and more authentic.
Quito is one of the best places to find cheap Galapagos cruises and land hopping tours. Chat with tour providers while you are in the city and see what you can find. All Galapagos flights depart from Quito airport and pass through Guayaquil.