Ecuador’s capital, Quito, is an atmospheric colonial town set against a backdrop of snow-capped volcanoes. Its lively historic center, the “Old Town”, is a Unesco’s World Heritage site boasting an extraordinary amount of churches and colonial architecture. Besides clambering on church roofs, you can spot hummingbirds, admire Pre-Colombian and modern art, and taste the best of Ecuadorian cuisine. Just follow my two-day guide for the best of Quito!
Quito is very spread out, you will have to take taxis or buses to see the sights beyond the Old Town. I do recommend you sleep in the historical center to really soak up the atmosphere. We decided to stay at Casa San Marcos, a charming boutique hotel in a beautiful old house. Get room 3 for lovely views over the Virgen del Panecillo and the occasional visiting hummingbird. You can visit Quito all year round, although October to May tends to be rainier. Be aware that at an altitude of 2850m, nights are always chilly!
Day 1: Quito Old Town
Start by exploring Quito’s picturesque historic center, with bustling Plaza Grande at its heart. There seems to be a beautiful old church on every plaza and every side street, so although you can just wander around and peek inside wherever you happen to pass an open door, it’s worth looking up which ones you don’t want to miss. Most churches and monasteries are clustered in the old town and can easily be visited on a morning walking tour.
If there is one church you cannot miss, it’s the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus. Probably Quito’s most ornate church, be prepared for a gold overload. There are lots of interesting details inside (pointed out on a guided tour included in the admission price), but the highlight is the cupola and the sweeping views from the rooftop. Watch out as rooftop access tends to close earlier than the church.
Just around the corner is picture-perfect Plaza San Francisco. Head up to the rooftop terrace of Casa Gangotena, one of Quito’s most luxurious hotels, for more stunning city views. Unfortunately, they didn’t serve drinks when we were there, but this would be the perfect spot to have your morning coffee!
The Iglesia de San Francisco is Quito’s oldest, but has been much rebuilt because of earthquake damage. It is very popular and a good place to observe local religious practices. The attached convent is now a museum, where the church’s better artworks are shown.
Next, head to Casa del Alabado. This beautifully renovated house showcases a small but striking collection of pre-Colombian art. Both the presentation and the selection are very aesthetic and refreshing. You’ll leave here with a much richer idea of pre-Columbian iconography.
A short walk from here is the Mercado Municipal San Francisco, a great spot for a fresh juice and some food. Indoor markets in Ecuadorian cities usually have food courts (in this case upstairs) with vendors specializing in local dishes. It’s simple and cheap but generally delicious. Although right next to the historical center, it’s a popular neighborhood and has a very different feel.
From here, walk or take a short taxi ride to the Monastery of San Diego, a little above the Old Town. Not visited by many people, it has some interesting treasures to explore. Guided tours seem to start whenever somebody shows up and asks for it (only in Spanish however, bring your own guide if you want explanations in another language). Highlights include a hidden burial chamber behind the church’s fine wooden pulpit, and notable artworks by the Quito School and others, including a Last Supper by Miguel de Santiago in the monks’ dining room. I was personally very intrigued by a rather mysterious painting attributed to Hieronymus Bosch: nobody knows how it got here and it seems to be “restored” or “improved”. The visit is topped off with a clamber on the church roof, with great views over town. Next door is Quito’s oldest cemetery.
Head back to the center via La Ronda, a slightly touristy but pretty street, where you can buy delicious Ecuadorian chocolates at Chez Tiff. Pass by Plaza Santo Domingo for a quick visit to its church (and another museum for those who can still take more religious art).
Another prominent Quito church is the Basilica del Voto Nacional, which dominates the city from its hilltop a little further towards the new town. I didn’t think this rather recent church is really worth the detour, but if you go, only pay the ticket to go up the towers and skip the interior. All around the outside ugly but fun gargoyles in the shapes of local animals are worth seeking out. If you’ve made it all the way here, walk a little further still for local favorite Quesadillas de San Juan.
End the afternoon at the recently reopened Museo Nacional. The exhibits are a bit confusing but there are some very nice pieces on show, most notably some fabulous Inca gold. As entry is free, it’s well worth an hour or two. The nearby Mercado Artisanal is touristy but has a huge selection of crafts and souvenirs. It’s worth a look if you don’t have the opportunity to visit any markets outside Quito.
After sampling the local specialties at the market for lunch, take it up a notch for dinner. Zazu has been Quito’s best option for fine dining for years, serving an exquisite gastronomic take on Ecuadorian cuisine. Reserve well ahead.
Day 2: Quito New Town and around
Quito is surrounded by majestic snow-capped peaks, most famously Cotopaxi volcano. The best way to take it all in is by taking the TeleferiQo cable car up to Loma Cruz, at an altitude of around 4000m. Get up early so you can get to the TeleferiQo just before it opens (9am Tuesday-Thursday, 8am Friday-Monday), beating the queues and crowds. Besides the sweeping views, nature at the top is surprisingly varied and it’s a great place for a hike. The altitude makes itself felt though, so take it easy if you’ve just arrived in Ecuador and haven’t adjusted yet.
Once you’re back down, consider a stop at Rumipamba Archeological Park. Showcasing a few excavation sites, expect more park than archeology. In contrast to its neighbors, Ecuador does not have many Inca (or other) ruins of importance and the ones here are not very impressive, but it makes for a nice easy walk through natural surroundings, plus it’s free.
If like us you enjoyed eating with the locals at a food court, have lunch at Mercado Iñaquito. A whole area is dedicated especially to hornado, slow roasted whole pork. I’m normally not a fan of pork, but this dish is incredibly satisfying!
There are some more sights scattered around Quito’s new town. If you like the work of Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ecuador’s most famous artist, you can’t miss his atelier-turned-museum and the dramatic Capilla del Hombre. Another option is the Jardin Botanico. While not exactly spectacular, it’s a nice, quiet retreat from the city. It’s visited by hummingbirds and other birds, and has a pretty orchid collection and cactus garden.
For another gastronomic dinner, head to URKO. A trendy restaurant with open kitchen and young staff, it serves tasty and inventive food based on organic produce from all over Ecuador. I highly recommend the tasting menu.
The second day in this itinerary is more enjoyable with sunny, clear weather, so change the days around if better. You can also spread the activities in this itinerary over three days and take it easy, or add some more churches and historical houses. Quito is a wonderful city and although two full days are enough to see the most important sights and get a feel for the place, you can easily spend some more time here. But for us, it was time to head off to discover more of Ecuador! Check out my account of our time in the Galapagos Islands here.