The two big cities in Ecuador are like ying and yang. And in that version of the truth, Quito is the modest, cold version perched in between the Andean highlands. But by being authentic the capital of Ecuador also manages to retain its charm.
Waking up after a late-night arrival in Quito is a bit magic. You have no idea where you are, but then you leave your hotel to see neighborhoods squeezed in between the surrounding mountains, especially in the center. Quito really is a long-stretched urban sprawl, with a beautiful historic center and majestic nature surrounding it.
In that sense it resembles Medellin and especially Bogota, because the Colombian capital is also located at a high altitude. Quito clocks in at around 2’900 metres, which makes the weather pleasant but sometimes chilly at night. The biggest difference with the Colombian side and with the yang-people in Guayaquil is the mentality: as this is Andean highland, the mountain people are much more modest and quiet.
Most tourists visit Quito just for a sneak peak of the historic centre. That would be a huge miss. Not only is the centre deserted in the evening and therefore not entirely safe, but there are many other neighborhoods worth visiting and staying.
The centre itself has magnificent colonial architecture. It also hosts magnificent plazas, a great museum of archaeology and several great churches.
The moment you leave the heart of the city, the exhaust fumes of buses dissipate though. There are lots of parks, and Marescal and especially Floresta are pleasant neighborhoods. Further north is swanky Bellavista and the Parque Carolina, home to some urban development. Don’t forget the art here, especially the Capilla del Hombre by local hero Guayasamin is a highlight of South America.
Food and drinks
Most tourists opt for either the historic centre or the Marescal area. The latter is full of chain restaurants and loud bars catering for the young backpacker crowd around Plaza Foch. If that’s what you are looking for, including partying, Marescal is the best option.
The Floresta area is more quiet, pleasant and a bit upmarket. There are food laboratories, there is a place called Casa Warmi that is recommendable. Walk around the Valladolid and Toledo streets and you will find something for every budget. A bit further down at Plaza Jose Navarro (in the Fomento neighborhood) are even great food stalls, very popular among locals. Your street credibility will definitely increase when you visit this barrio. Near Parque Carolina I also noticed the Pradero food court, which looked quite cool.
Activities / things to do
- centro historico: the beating heart of the city during the day, this is the place to admire colonial architecture, enjoy the beautiful plazas and churces and nip a coffee or two. The Plaza San Francisco and the Plaza Santo Domingo are two highlights. Some other highlights:
- Casa de Sucre, a fun museum to visit
- Teatro Bolivar, the heart of the theatre experience in the capital
- Casa del Alabado: housed in a beautiful renovated old mansion, this museum of pre-Colombian art has the best collection of old artifacts and the friendliest personnel you can imagine
- Calle la Ronda: a narrow street full of colorful houses, and in the evening well-known for its gastronomy
- Basilico del Voto Nacional: towering on the eastern edge of the centre. this is probably the best church in town. The interior is not only pretty impressive: the two bell towers can be accessed separately and provide city panoramas. Close to the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo
- Parque Cumanda: a former parking lot converted into an urban sports centre, also with outdoor amphitheatre. Cool place to walk around, especially in the evening when the skateboarders are there as well
- miradors: great lookouts are everywhere in the city. The Panecillo is one of the most famous, towering visibly over the centre. But the road there is dangerous to walk, so take a taxi. The Centro de Arte Contemporaneo de Quito is also a great place to enjoy sprawling views over the city
- Yaku water museum: in the hills above the city centre, but not too dangerous to walk, is this quaint museum in a modern architecture building. Dedicated of course to water as a natural resource
- Parque La Carolina: several kilometres north of the centre (and a twenty minute walk from Marescal) is this huge park, that in its shape is a bit reminiscent a bit of Central Park in New York. There are also several high-rises at the edge of it. In the weekend locals flock to this place in droves
- Guapulo: this valley village has a mirador above it that provides views of the Guapolo itself, the valley, and the skyline of modern residential towers in the swanky La Paz area. The mirador is a gathering place on balmy evenings for the locals to drink a beer. When you walk down, your rewards are a nice old church and especially the Parque Guapulo, far away from the tourist crowds. It’s a steep walk back and up though, so be prepared and take water with you
- Teleferico: Quito already is at around 2’900 metres. The Teleferico cable car takes you in a mere ten minutes to around 4’000 metres. From there you have great views over the Quito valley. It’s also the starting point of a hike towards the Rucu Pichincha peak
- the National Museum of Ecuador: this brutalist building comes straight from a James Bond movie. It is a huge complex that houses the Museo de Arte Moderno (in an older adjacent building), huge theatres, jewelry collections and more. The oval-shaped building fills an entire block close to the pleasant Parque El Ejido and the smaller Parque del Arbolito
- Centro de Arte Contemporaneo: the best contemporary art can be found here, close to the basilica. The eastern wing of the old building is still being renovated. The Centro de Arte Contemporaneo has really cool temporary exhibitions, and some permanent works of street art
- Capillo del Hombre and the Casa Guayasamin: although he exhibited all over the world, you may have never heard of Osvaldo Guayasamin. He is known for his dark paintings about Latin life. Towards the end of his life he built the Capilla del Hombre, an architecturally and culturally fascinating building and an ode to the good of mankind. It houses several massive paintings and other artworks of him. This one is so good it is definitely one of the art highlights in South America. The Capillo is on the site of where his house and studio were. These are also part of the exhibition, and you can see Guayasamin on pictures with several world leaders visiting him in Quito. Designs for a beautiful modern expansion with even more artworks of the old master are ready, but the necessary funds haven’t been collected yet
Getting to Quito and getting around
- international visitors will most likely come through the airport, which is located 20 kilometres outside the city. From/to there taxis are the easiest but also most expensive option (around 30 dollars). The Aeroservicios are cheaper, around 10 dollar, and go to/from the Parque Bicentenario. From there you can travel onwards with local buses. An even cheaper option is the slightly slower public bus. It leaves from the eastern part of the Rio Coca terminal. From there it’s only a five-minute walk to the local buses within the city
- from within the country you will probably arrive, or leave from, some of the bigger bus terminals. Quitumbe is in the south, modern and spacious, and serves most destinations in the south and west. The metrobus (see below) connects to the city itself. Carcelen is the north and serves most of the destinations in the north. An important exception is Mindo amongst others, buses to that village leave from nearby Ofelia which is directly connected to the metrobus. Try to call in advance about bus schedules because they change continuously
- local transport consists mainly of high-speed metrobuses that travel on separate lanes. These are quick and cheap (25 cents). Watch out for pickpockets though. The network is very good throughout the city. Construction of the first metrolines is almost finished as well
- Weather: June to September are the nicest months, where there is less rain. From October on rain chances increase upto its peak in April. The weather is generally mild but freshy, because of the altitude. Daytime temperatures vary between 18 and 25 degrees, in the evenings markedly fresher. Lots of people though like to eat outside even in the evenings in Quito, just put on an extra pullover
- Safety: in general Quito is safe. Public transportation hubs are a playground for pickpockets, so be cautious. Also always wear your backpack as a frontpack where crowds are, especially in the historic centre. In that area it can get deserted and therefore sketchy at night. The main areas where tourists stay (Marescal, Floresta) are safe to walk around at night