Holding bragging rights as one of the highest capital cities in the world, historic Quito sprawls out over never-ending steep hillsides, making for stunning views of the buildings perched on the lush, green cliffs. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, the city also boasts a gorgeous, preserved historic centre which should be on everyone’s must-see list.
Ecuador’s capital is a great jumping off point for day trips to natural wonders like the Cotopaxi volcano, cloud forests and Pululahua crater, before heading to the coast for an unforgettable expedition to the Galapagos Islands. Regardless of how much time you have in the city, here are some of the best things to do in Quito, Ecuador that you won’t want to miss.
What to do in Quito: Old Town (Centro Historico)
The heart of the Old Town centres around beautiful Independence Square, which is anchored by a cathedral, the Presidential Palace, the Municipal Palace and the Archbishop’s Palace. Despite being the city’s epicentre, it’s a rather peaceful spot, and there are cute cafes where you can kick back and enjoy the sights and sounds.
The square is also home to the Independence monument, which shows a wounded lion, condor and a Roman goddess. While many people are content to simply meander along the cobblestone streets, there’s also an option to go right inside the Presidential Palace which is still used by the nation’s leader.
The hour-long tours are absolutely free, all you have to do is grab a ticket from a stand outside the entrance. However, you must be sure to have identification like a passport or license on hand, otherwise you won’t get a ticket.
Basilica del Voto Nacional
One of the best things to do in Quito is visiting the Basilica del Voto Nacional.
This impressive neo-Gothic basilica which was built back in the 1800s is absolutely gargantuan, taking up a couple of city blocks and stretching 115 metres high into the sky. Intricate gargoyles adorn the façade, which depict Ecuadorian animals like Galapagos tortoises and iguanas.
After heading through the massive front door and paying the $1 entrance fee, you’ll head into the sanctuary which features an incredibly long aisle, beautiful archways and stunning stained-glass windows that line the entire area. Visitors are allowed in the basilica during regular services—just be sure to be respectful of those in prayer. There are also some stairs on each side that take you up to lookout points.
However, the real lookout point is way up at the very top of the basilica, and to get there you’ll have to navigate across a slim catwalk before climbing straight up a ladder. Then, hike up about three sets of scary, steel stairs outside, which basically have no guardrail as you glance hundreds of feet below.
Fortunately the view is totally worth the effort, as you’ll have a birds-eye view of the rooftops dotting the hills stretched out before you as far as the eye can see. It’s an absolutely incredible spot, and one of the best places for Quito sightseeing as it’s one of the best vantage points in the entire city.
Keep in mind that you need to purchase a separate ticket to go to the top, which you can buy out in the courtyard on the ground level for about $2.
La Compania de Jesus
This gem of a church could be easy to miss, as it’s tucked around the corner from the main square and is rather unassuming from the outside. But the real magic starts as soon as you head inside.
The ornate church features hand-painted beams with stunning gold details, and is well worth the small entrance fee. Built back in the 1600s, its interior is completely cloaked in gold, making for a dramatic scene.
San Francisco Church
If you haven’t got your fill of churches, there is one more worth making at stop at: San Francisco. This cathedral overlooks a plaza lined with little shops, making it a great place for a scenic pit stop.
The large church was built way back in the 1500s and includes two bell towers framed by green hills. The interior is as intricate as we’ve come to expect in Quito, and features statues of saints, a large altar and artwork dating back centuries.
Once you’ve made it through all those historical buildings, it’s time to shop! Head over to La Mariscal, a district which is filled with hotels, clubs and cafes. It’s also home to an artisanal market, where you can pick up some authentic Ecuadorian wares.
One of the most famous Quito tourist attractions is the TelefériQo, a cable car which stretches over 4,000 metres above sea level high up into the Andes. The gondola cars glide between a series of towers on the side of Pichincha volcano (Volcán Pichincha) up to Cruz Loma which has sweeping views of the city and Cotopaxi.
If you’re up for even more of an adventure, you can explore the surrounding trails at the top by horseback riding, cycling and hiking or book a fun tour like this one.
The TelefériQo is open daily and costs $8.50 per adult. Some passengers do suffer from altitude sickness, so it’s a good idea to get acclimatized to the city before heading up. Take it easy when you arrive and avoid strenuous activity as you acclimate, and be sure to sip cocoa tea if you start feeling unwell.
Tours to see the Quito attractions
There are a number of guided tours that take guests to the best places to visit in Quito, and even one that travels around in a vintage trolley:
Day trips from Quito
If time allows, check out some of the great Quito day trips like this tour of Cotopaxi National Park, the Limpiopungo Lagoon and the Quilotoa Volcano which has a gorgeous turquoise lagoon in its crater.
Get a taste of the countryside by booking this trip to Otavalo, Cotacachi and Cuicocha to see traditional handicrafts, instrument workshops, serene Lago San Pablo and an ecological reserve. Click here to book
Over in the Mindo Nambillo Ecological Reserve, book this excursion where you’ll take a cable car ride 150 metres above the forest canopy, swim under the Nambillo waterfall and hike to the so-called Sanctuary of Waterfalls.
Quito is also close to the Pululahua volcano and so-called Middle of the World where the equator line is. Book a horseback ride into a crater, or get an adrenaline rush by combining a visit to the monument with some fun in an extreme adventure park which has a high hanging canopy bridge to walk across. Click here to book
Where to stay in Quito
- Casa El Eden: This boutique property is in the heart of the city centre, in a historic Colonial building. The views from the rooftop terrace are excellent, and guests love the large rooms and welcoming service. Click here to book
- El Crater Hotel: This beautiful boutique hotel a short drive from Quito is perched over the Pululahua crater, and surrounded by cloud forests which makes for an ethereal scene. The serene, modern rooms have incredible views, making El Crater a great retreat from the action of the city, while still being a convenient base for sightseeing. Click here to book
- Hotel Casa de Hacienda La Jimenita: Another fun option just outside the city, this property is near some ancient Inca ruins and surrounded by a private botanical eco-reserve with hiking trails and birding. The large rooms have cool rustic touches like exposed wood beams and brick walls, and guests say the staff are so welcoming they feel like family. Click here to book
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
- The best things to do in Guayaquil, Ecuador
- Exploring the Pululahua volcano and the hotel perched on a crater
- Galapagos Islands cruise: A week with Ecoventura
- 5 reasons to go backpacking in South America
This article was originally published in September 2014 and updated in October 2020.
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