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The 5 Best Places to Go on a Trip to Quito, Ecuador

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cioOn a recent trip to South America, we found ourselves with a free day to explore Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. And it was a revelation. The city features dramatic vistas, historical churches, fabulous food and even a trip to the Equator. Here’s our take on the best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including the Old Town, the cable car ride and a visit to the monument marking the Equator. Plus, we’re sharing an insider’s secret recommendation on where to find the best empanadas in all of Ecuador. Seriously.

why visit Quito, Ecuador?

Quito is Ecuador’s capital city, situated high in the Andean foothills. Built on the foundations of an ancient Incan city, Quito is known for its Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is rich with 16th- and 17th-century churches and other structures that meld European, Moorish and First Nation styles. It was one of the first World Heritage sites, gaining the distinction in 1978.

Quito has one of Ecuador’s largest international airports, and as a result, it’s one of the two launch spots most commonly used for cruises to the Galapagos Islands (the other is Guayaquil). So even if Quito is not your final destination, you may find yourself there for a day or so. If you do (as we did), and you have a free day to explore, here are the 5 best experiences we had in just a few short hours that made us fall in love with this city.

1. ride the cable cars for a panoramic overview.

Quito, Ecuador is one of the highest capital cities in the world. And yet, there’s a marvelous way to go higher still if you choose. Looming over the city is the dormant volcano Pichincha, and you can hitch a ride to the top via the TelefériQo Cruz Loma cable car system. The gondolas carry passengers from 8,500 feet above sea level to a height of 13,000 feet above sea level. It’s an amazing experience, with spectacular views.

Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, a cable car ride, incredible empanadas and the Equator.
Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, a cable car ride, incredible empanadas and the Equator. Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

views from the ride

On the 15-minute ride up and down on the cable cars, visitors are treated to panoramic views of Quito and the surrounding hills of the Andes Mountains.

Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

The views are breathtakingly beautiful.

Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, a cable car ride, incredible empanadas and the Equator.
Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, a cable car ride, incredible empanadas and the Equator. Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

the view from the top

Once you arrive at the cable car terminal, there are even more stunning vistas waiting.

Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

if you want to climb to the peak of Pichincha, you can take one of the hiking trails leading from the cable car station. There are gorgeous indigenous flowers – and more eucalyptus trees than you’ll find anywhere other than Australia. The trees were imported because they grow quickly, and sailors thought they would provide perfect ship-building material. That turned out to be incorrect (the wood is too soft for seafaring). Now the mountain is carpeted with them.

Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

Before you leave the station at the bottom of the mountain, be sure to see the exuberant mural in the visitor’s center. It was getting a touch-up on the day we were there.

Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

2. take a stroll through the old town.

The Old Town of Quito was one of the first areas in the world designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s remarkably well-preserved, and exudes charm and history in equal measure.

The UNESCO website notes: “[Quito] has the best-preserved, least altered historic center in Latin America. [Many of the buildings] are pure examples of the ‘Baroque school of Quito’, which is a fusion of Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish and indigenous art.”

government and public buildings

Built in the 16th century, Plaza Grande (Plaza de Independencia) is a must-see. Ecuador’s Presidential Palace overlooks the plaza, and the pink grande dame Hotel Plaza Grande is just steps away.

The Presidential Palace in the Old Town city center of Quito, Ecuador. Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

The Plaza is ringed with churches and other houses of worship, as well as shops and eateries that share the vibe of the 16th- and 17th centuries.

Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

A towering evergreen in the plaza was a gift to the Ecuadorian government.

Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, cable car ride, empanadas and the Equator
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, cable car ride, empanadas and the Equator
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, cable car ride, empanadas and the Equator
The best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, cable car ride, empanadas and the Equator. Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

churches and religious monuments

There are many well-preserved and magnificent cathedrals and churches in Quito, including the Basilica of the National Vow, with its two large clock towers.

Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, cable car ride, empanadas and the Equator
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

We visited during the Christmas holiday season, and one of the churches had a gorgeous display of hand-crafted objects to honor the Nativity, including a beautiful creche.

Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, cable car ride, empanadas and the Equator
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, cable car ride, empanadas and the Equator
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

The statue of the Virgin of El Panecillo is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, towering over the Old Town of Quito from a nearby hill.

Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, cable car ride, empanadas and the Equator
Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

La Compañia de Jesus is a grand 17th-century church crowned with gilded domes and intricate wood carvings. Many would argue that this is Ecuador’s most beautiful building.

The organ was imported from the United States in the late 19th century. It has 1,104 pipes and in a bit of a curiosity, on one side is a beautiful spiral staircase. On the other side, there’s a painting of that same staircase, so that from a distance it appears that there are two actual staircases.

Compañia de Jesús Jesuit church in Quito, Ecuador. Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, cable car ride, empanadas and the Equator
The interior of the Compañia de Jesús Jesuit church in Quito, Ecuador. Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
The interior of the Compañia de Jesús Jesuit church in Quito, Ecuador. Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

3. taste the best empanadas ever

No visit to Quito is complete without a meal at one of the local eateries. Our guide took us to his favorite place for empanadas, and assured us that they’re the best in all of Ecuador.

Fresh out of the kitchen and piping hot, we couldn’t disagree. Especially since we were too busy ordering seconds.

Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, a cable car ride, incredible empanadas and the Equator.
The best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including incredible empanadas. Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.
Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, a cable car ride, empanadas and the Equator.
The best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including incredible empanadas. Photo © Dandelion Chandelier.

4. visit to the equator 

Just a short drive north of Quito sits the equator line, the origin of Ecuador’s name. Marked by a monument where French explorers initially calculated the Equator to be, one place to stand right on the line is the Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world).

Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, a cable car ride, incredible empanadas and the Equator
The Quito, Ecuador monument marking the Equator. Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Our guide took us to a smaller version of this same monument in a nearby neighborhood, explaining that no one actually knows where the true Equator line lies. The monument we saw sits in a charming square with almost no tourists, making it feel a lot more authentic. Whichever of the local monuments you visit, though, you can stand proudly with a foot in both worlds.

5. commune with the hummingbirds in the Mindo cloud forest

If you have only one day, and you choose to do all of the activities we did, you won’t have time to visit the cloud forest that is driving distance from Quito in the town of Mindo.

Best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including Old Town, a cable car ride, incredible empanadas and the Equator.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

However, if you make that your priority – or have more time – we’re told its a marvelous place, filled with hundreds of hummingbirds and other indigenous wildlife.

best places to go on a trip to Quito, Ecuador

That’s our take on the best places to see and things to do on a visit to Quito, Ecuador, including a stroll through the Old Town, an epic cable car ride and a visit to the monument marking the Equator. Let us know if you go, and what we should add to this list, dear reader.

what to know before you go

If you’re wondering where to stay, we found the J.W. Marriott to be a great place to use as your base of operations. The official currency of Ecuador is the US dollar, and the electrical outlets are the same ones used in the US. So no adapters needed: that’s one less thing to pack!

A local custom that we discovered just in the nick of time is that public toilets in Quito do not offer toilet paper – you have to purchase it for 10 cents from a machine before entering. A kind woman pointed this out to us as we waited in line – and now you know, too. Bring dimes.

And please note: altitude sickness is a real thing, and may affect you or one of your travel companions. Drink lots of water, have headache medicine readily available, and consider other medications that may help in extreme cases.

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