Surrounded by the volcanoes of the western Andes, some of which are active, Quito sits near the equator at an elevation of 2,850 meters/9,350 feet making it one of the highest capital cities in the world.
Dating back to 1534, the historic center of Quito, Old Town, lies on top of the ruins of an Incan city and is considered to be the best-preserved colonial city in South America. Quito was placed on the World Heritage List by UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1978.
Now a sprawling city and home to over two million people, Quito is a bustling metropolis with many hotels, restaurants, cafes, shopping centers, and parks.
Getting to Quito
The main entry point for international arrivals into Ecuador is Quito’s Mariscal Sucre Airport (airport code: UIO). A quick four-hour flight from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale, Mariscal Sucre also welcomes visitors to Ecuador from numerous international destinations and serves as the largest hub of the Ecuadoran airline, TAME. Transportation into the city, which is approximately 18 km from the airport, is available via bus, rental car, or taxi. Taxi fare is $25.
Things to do in Quito
There are many things to do in Quito, but the place to start is Old Town. The bustling historic district is filled with colorful buildings lining hilly cobblestone streets, decorated with flowers, flags, and, on occasion, artwork.
A mix of markets, Ecuadorian food vendors, cafes, shops, government buildings, museums, and churches, exploring Old Town is a true immersion into the culture of Quito.
Vendors at tables in markets sell goods ranging from handcrafts to food to toys, while others roam the crowds offering bananas, ice cream, or lottery tickets.
Home to dozens of cathedrals, museums, and squares, a stroll through Old Town provides an immersion into Ecuadoran history.
Colorful historic buildings line the cobblestone streets, as crowds scurry along the narrow sidewalks and traffic slowly navigates the narrow passageways.
Plaza Grande – Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Plaza)
In the heart of Old Town is Plaza Grande, also known as Plaza de la Independencia. Surrounded by the Presidential Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the Metropolitan Cathedral, the plaza is also a central gathering point for locals and tourists.
On the northwest side of the plaza, is the Palacio de Gobierno, or the Presidential Palace. Serving as both the president’s home and office, the building can be toured when the president is not in residence. Formerly the Archbishop’s Palace, the Palacio Arzobispal has now been converted into an arts center and is also home to shops and several restaurants.
Continuing around to the southwestern side of the plaza is the Metropolitan Cathedral. Established as the Diocese of Quito in 1545, the Cathedral was elevated to the archdiocese in 1849.
La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús
Considered to be Quito’s most ornate church and the most beautiful church in Ecuador, La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús is located close to Plaza Grande in Old Town on the Calle de las Siete Cruces (Street of the Seven Crosses). With a large sanctuary lavishly decorated with gold leaf and carvings, La Compañía took over 160 years to complete, with construction beginning in 1605 and not completed until 1765.
Mirador El Panecillo
High atop a hill above Old Town called El Panecillo an immense statue of the Virgin of Quito (La Virgen de Quito) keeps watch over Quito.
Constructed between 1955 and 1975, La Virgen de Quito is a Madonna with a crown of stars and wings, holding onto a chained dragon.
Inside the statue, stairs lead to several floors offering a historical account of the construction of the monument. Climbing to the top, it’s interesting to note the numbers on the backs of the panels used to construct the statue of La Virgen de Quito.
At the top of the stairs, visitors enjoy open access to a viewing platform providing panoramic views of Quito and the surrounding mountains.
Basílica del Voto Nacional
The largest neo-Gothic church in the Americas, Basílica del Voto Nacional is a spectacular church that technically remains unfinished to this day. Adorned with Ecuadoran animals such as Galapagos tortoises, iguanas, and penguins instead of the traditional gargoyles, construction on the church began in the 1880s.
Legend has it that when the church is finished a cataclysmic event will occur, and so, parts of the Basilica remain unfinished to the day. Visitors can climb to the top of the towers providing views of the city and the surrounding volcanoes.
Centro de Arte Contemporáneo
Housed in the Old Military Hospital of Quito in the San Juan district, the Contemporary Art Center hosts a wide variety of exhibits in painting, sculpture, photography, visual and digital arts as well as theater and dance.
Additionally, don’t miss the excellent street art in the areas surrounding the Contemporary Art Center.
La Mariscal / Plaza Foch
A popular meeting place, La Mariscal in north-central Quito is home to numerous bars, discos, coffee shops, cafés and restaurants, and Quito’s nightlife. At the center of La Mariscal is Plaza Foch, also called Gringolandia, which translates as hummingbird, because of a statue of a hummingbird in the area.
El Ejido Park
South of La Mariscal, El Ejido Park transforms into a large market on the weekends with vendors and artists offering jewelry, crafts, and paintings. On the north side of the park near Amazonas Avenue, the Arch of the Circassian, also called The Circassian Gate, serves as the entrance to the park. The arch originally served as a gateway to the gardens of the Palacio de La Circasiana in the northern center of Quito.
Jardín Botánico and Parque La Carolina
North of the Mariscal, the Parque La Carolina is a large green space where Quiteños gather to participate in sports and relax in the outdoors. The park includes a pond with paddle boats and a skateboarding park. Quito’s botanical garden, Jardín Botánico, is located in the park as well. The Jardín Botánico encompasses 18,600 square meters with plants representative from regions across Ecuador.
Where we stayed
Wyndham Quito Airport
On our way to the Galapagos, we stopped for one night in Quito, staying at the Wyndham Quito Airport. Built in 2016, the hotel is modern and luxurious, with large, well-appointed guest rooms, beautiful marble baths with rain showers, a bar and restaurant, 24-hour room service, and WiFi. A free airport shuttle is available (requires a call to the hotel to have the shuttle sent).
JW Marriott Quito
On our return from the Galapagos, we spent two days in Quito at the JW Marriott. One of the top hotels in the city, the JW Marriott is a beautiful, luxury hotel located in the Mariscal district. The hotel is filled with tropical plants and flowers, especially roses, in abundance. A waterfall cascades from the lobby level down to the lower level, where one of the restaurants, the spa, and access to the pool are located.
The resort-size pool and hot tub are surrounded by multiple waterfalls, tropical gardens, and immense palm trees – amazing considering the hotel is at an elevation of most ski resorts in the United States.
The JW Marriott Quito’s rooms are large with wood floors and accents, a marble bath, upscale bedding, an in-room safe, bathrobe, flat-panel TV, and sweeping city views. The coffee shop near the shops is a great spot to begin your day with a cappuccino and pastry and is very reasonably priced. We also had sushi in the bar and an excellent dinner in La Hacienda restaurant.
Know before you go
Getting around. Licensed taxis are yellow and marked with a green placard. Some taxis are not metered so inquire what the fare will be before leaving for your destination. Your hotel should be able to provide you with an estimate of the cost. Quito also had a double-decker tour bus running on a three-hour loop to many of the major attractions for a very reasonable fee of $15 per day.
Use caution when exploring the city. Theft is common in the streets of Quito, so strap your camera or bag around your body and be aware of your surroundings. If possible, don’t venture out alone and consider taking a taxi instead of walking, especially at night.
Altitude sickness. At such a high elevation, many people may experience some effects of the altitude – especially if arriving from sea level only a few hours before. Keep hydrated, avoid excess alcohol and take it slow when you arrive.
Use sunscreen. Quito’s location near the equator and high elevation can result in sunburn quickly so don’t venture out without sunscreen – even on a cloudy day.
Poor air quality. As with most large cities, Quito has significant pollution, especially in the narrow streets of Old Town, where the bus fumes can be considerable.
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