Updated November 24th, 2019.
From the colonial heart of Quito, to the grungy Mariscal, to the up coming artsy neighborhood 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 light headed 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 City: You may choose to stay in the centre of the city in downtown Quito. Hostels such as Secret Garden, Community Hostel and Minka Hostel are popular digs for backpackers that are within walking distance of the major colonial sites.
While we were in 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 city from it’s perfectly central location!
By day, you can wander plazas, take in 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 head to nearby Mariscal for some action!
The beautiful restored cobbled street of La Ronda (meaning ring road)
Mariscal: 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, popular places include Blue House, Amazonas, Vibes Hostel and Quito Backpacker Guesthouse. 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!
Further out: Quito has a few options if you want to stay a little out of the city. We stayed at ‘Boutiquito’ which was located just on the outskirts of what is known as the ‘bohemian, artsy’ area of town, ‘Guapalo’, but has since closed.
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, Ocho Y Medio, 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!
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 choclo; soaking up the atmosphere of this Ecuador’s colonial centre-piece is a perfect first day in Quito.
Get lost in the Old City!
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.
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.
The beautiful intricate ceiling of the Compañīa Church.
LaBasilica 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. 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 to take the cable car up the side of the mountain for incredible views of Quito and the surrounding ‘valley of the volcanoes’.
At the top of the mountain, there is also a hiking trail which 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!
Amazing views of the city from the teleferico!
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.
Ecuador = Equator!
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.
Learn Spanish on a One Month Travel & Study Program in Ecuador!
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 or Otavalo Market
One of the most spectacular volcanoes in Ecuador, Cotopaxi 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, another of the country’s must see sights. Book your Cotopaxi and Quilotoa adventure 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, jewelry 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!
Selling everything from fruit and veg, to necklaces and blankets – don’t miss Otavalo!
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 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.