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13 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Quito

Written by Alison Abbott
Sep 3, 2019

Quito, the capital of Ecuador, often takes a backseat to the more well-known Galapagos Islands. Tourists are not always aware that the city offers its own panoply of unique attractions. After all, the entire city of Quito was crowned the very first UNESCO World Heritage site in the world.

With over two dozen historic churches, a wide variety of museums and attractions, and a developing foodie culture paying homage to traditional ingredients, this gateway city is one visitors should not overlook. Add in a vast array of hotels at all price points and an equatorial climate that keeps the temperature comfortable and uniform year-round, and this South American charmer might just become your new favorite city.

Plan your visit with our list of the top things to do in Quito.

1. El Panecillo

View of El Panecillo in the center of Quito with the Cotopaxi in the background

On the south side of Old Town, perched high on the hill overlooking Quito, is El Panecillo, one of the city's top attractions. This major landmark in Quito is home to the La Virgen de Quito, a luminous madonna statue that was constructed in 1976 entirely of aluminum by Spanish artist, Agustin de la Herran Matorras. The views of Quito and the volcanos are epic if you can catch a glimpse and tour on a clear day.

Be sure to climb the steps up to the base of the statue for the best view. An insider tip is to try and visit first thing in the morning before the clouds roll in.

2. Ciudad Mitad del Mundo

Middle of the world monument in Quito, Ecuador

For a sneak peek into the history of Ecuador and its indigenous people, head to the Cuidad Mitad del Mundo. This national landmark (the equator) has several statues; a small village; and a charming, old-school museum. Don't be fooled by its size, the museum has exhibits from Highland and Amazonian tribes, which include their history, and a homey collection of musical instruments, clothes, textiles, and more. Combined with the adjacent Middle of the Earth, this is one of the best things to see in Quito.

Make sure to try some of the experiments on offer where there's a new normal for gravity, and you can even balance an egg on top of a nail. Where else can you straddle both sides of the equator?

Be sure to allow some time and stop in the gift shop, which sells goods handcrafted by local artisans. Again, like most of the things to do in Quito, early is better.

3. La Campaña

Facade of the church, The Society of Jesus, representing Latin American Baroque

The many churches of Quito are within walking distance of one and other, but if you can only visit a single church during your stay in Quito, Compañia de Jesús should be the one. The extraordinary exterior of the building is only surpassed by the jaw-dropping interior. Imagine seven tons of gold leaf. It covers all surfaces in excess that could only belong to a house of worship.

Often called Quito's Sistene Chapel, the breathtaking interior will not disappoint. Centrally located, the structure was begun in 1605 and completed 160 years later. Well known for the decorative and expansive central nave, the Jesuit church is considered the finest example of Spanish Baroque architecture in South America.

4. Teleferico

Teleferico cable car to the lookout Cruz Loma

Those with acrophobia take note. For breathtaking views and a nail-biting ride that will leave you on the edge of your seat, stop by the Quito Teleferico. This sky tram is one of the highest aerial lifts in the world. The ride is only 10 minutes, but you will marvel at the views over Quito as it climbs up the side of Volcan Pichincha and comes to a rest on top of Cruz Loma.

This is the gateway for more adventures. Visitors can hike, cycle, or enjoy the rides at the amusement park, Vulqano Park, at the base station of Rucu Pichincha. There is also a swing at the top for the ultimate Instagrammable picture.

5. The Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace

Surrounded by Guayas river, which winds through Quito, Itchimbia sits high above the Old Town. Head to this serene grassy park in the Guayaquil neighborhood to take a stroll or just take a break from a busy day of sightseeing, all while taking in the panoramic views.

In Itchimbia, you will see one of the landmarks from the past, the Crystal Palace. Designed by engineers Francisco Manrique and Carlos van Ischot and overseen by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, the structure was brought over from Belgium piece by piece and rebuilt.

Along the riverbank, this impressive structure is abandoned but is still a must-see for tourists solely on its architectural integrity. Once a bustling marketplace, it is now vacant but well loved by photographers and others who want to walk through its vast center hallway. The surrounding plaza is often a hub of activity.

6. Eat Empanadas

Empanadas, typical Ecuadorian street food

Do you enjoy eating local foods when you travel? If you have never had an empanada, you will be hooked after a visit to Quito. This delectable staple in South America is one of Ecuador's favorite street foods. There are many places you can find empanadas around the city, from restaurants to sidewalk stands.

At the top of our list are empanadas de viento, with a cheese-filled center and dusted with sugar. Another choice is empanadas de verde, made from green plantains, a plentiful staple in South America. After getting your fill, it will be time for some active fun. La Forest Street Art Tour is the perfect way to burn off those tasty calories.

7. La Forest Street Art Tour

Street art is everywhere in Quito | Photo Copyright: Alison Abbott

If you want to get a view of the city by foot, from one of the locals, try the free La Forest Street Art Tour. You will spend three hours winding your way through historic houses, learning more about Ecuador's colorful history and even more about its colorful murals and prolific graffiti art scene. On the tour, you will also head to the famous Ocho Y Medio, an independent cinema with one-of-a-kind movies.

No tour of Quito would be complete without some of the delicious coffee and local treats. This activity happily obliges with a stop at one of the local coffee shops to recharge. After this tour, you will have a better understanding of the vibrant culture and warm people who make up Quito's population.

8. La Ronda

La Ronda, one of the oldest colonial streets in Quito | Photo Copyright: Alison Abbott

La Ronda is one of the best-preserved streets in colonial Old Town. Colorful and full of activity, the cobbled street is lined with cafés, galleries, and the best of traditional artisans invited by the government to share their craftsmanship with the public. If you come early in the day, the area is still sleepy and a great spot for a quiet cup of coffee. Later, the street hums with movement from both the shopkeepers and tourists.

Don't miss some of the vendors tucked in the back of shops or little alleyways. They represent the best of local Quito and are great spots to find souvenirs and keep traditional crafts alive.

9. Plaza Grande

Plaza Grande

Spending some time in one of Quito's popular crowd-gathering plazas is a must for visitors. Soak up the popular culture and see how the locals meet and greet. Street food vendors and buskers are all part of the activity on offer.

A favorite is Plaza Grande, aka Independence Square, which is bordered by the Presidential Palace, City Hall, a cathedral, and the Archbishop's Palace. Choose a bench and enjoy the people watching. Multi generations gather, and the central statue is a favorite spot for photos.

Vendors of all kinds make their way through the paths of cobblestones that radiate from the center. Should you need it, you'll have many a chance to get your shoes shined.

10. Basilica del Voto Nacional

Basilica del Voto Nacional and downtown Quito

If you enjoy getting an overview of a new city, visit the Basilica for a 360-degree, bird's-eye view from the twin bell towers. The climb to the Neo-Gothic Tower is not for the faint of heart, but no worries, an elevator is also available. If possible, arrange your tour in the early morning or late afternoon for the best photography light.

Keep your eyes peeled for the gargoyles on the exterior. The sculptors have playfully carved indigenous animals of Ecuador into the exterior. Armadillos, tortoises, birds, and dolphins replace traditional goblins and religious figures.

11. Casa del Alabado Museo

Exhibition room, Casa del Alabado Museum, Quito | Photo Copyright: Alison Abbott

Located just a short distance from the main square of Plaza San Francisco, the collection represents the Pre-columbian world of indigenous American people. Visitors will find the rooms broken down into small, manageable bites of related objects. Taking the tour brings sightseers through the relationship of communication, rituals, and nature. Illustrating how they are all intertwined, the related objects are decorated with images from the celestial, underworld, and middle earth.

The center courtyard offers an opportunity for a light bite, a bit of rest, and a shaded spot to organize your next round of sightseeing.

12. Chapel of Man

Interior of the Chapel of Man | Photo Copyright: Alison Abbott

It's easy to overlook the story of the indigenous population during travel. There is no better place to learn more than the powerful museum featuring the work of Oswalso Guayasamín. He was an Ecuadorian master painter and sculptor of Quechua and Mestizo heritage who championed the story of the underprivileged.

Located high on a bluff overlooking the city, the museum was completed in 2002, shortly after the artist's death. The Chapel of Man is dedicated to the struggles of the indigenous people both before and after the arrival of the Spanish explorers. The artist's enormous paintings fill the unique space, and the enormity of the subject matter is important for travelers to experience.

The setting is quite somber and dramatic, with plenty of intimate spaces to pause and ponder the ideas the artist presents. Make sure to look for all of the street art on the drive up to the structure.

13. Convent and Monastery San Francisco

Courtyard gardens, fountain, and dome of the church and monastery of San Francisco

Iglesia San Francisco is Quito's first church and also the largest religious complex in South America. The entire compound of buildings will transport visitors back to the 16th century. Close your eyes, and you might even hear the faint sound of monks chanting in a muffled hush.

Inside, along with an appropriate musty scent, the woodcarvings are spectacular. Crowning the altar is the exquisite Winged or Dancing Virgin sculpture by Bernardo de Legarda. The design of her dress and folded hands give a feeling of motion. This particular Virgin can be seen throughout the northern Andes as a popular cult figure.

The adjacent museum has an impressive collection of artwork and décor. In addition, an airy courtyard complete with a ring of swaying palms is a welcome respite from the buzzing streets outside. Make sure to ask your tour guide about the devil's connection to the building-a great inventive folk tale sure to raise the hairs on your neck.

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Guide to Ecuador: If Quito is just a gateway to the rest of your trip, be sure to see our guide to the Top Attractions in Ecuador. Learn about other important cities like Cuenca and Guayaquil, as well as the markets, beaches, waterfalls, and other major attractions across the country.

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