1. Centro Histórico
• Plaza Grande
Also known as Plaza de Independencia, this square is filled with plants, trees and people either sitting doing nothing, passing through in a hurry or sometimes protesting. It always feels safe to me. In a centre is a statue to the original band of heroes who kicked out the Spanish and kept everything else the same. To the side of the square you can visit the cathedral and admire the elegant Carondolet with its colonnade. This is the presidential palace but you can still peek in the courtyard most days.
To the north-east is the old archbishop’s palace, now renovated to house restaurants, cafes and a few shops around a courtyard. Finally on the lower side is the more modern city hall.
Just off the square opposite the cathedral on García Moreno street you can visit the Centro Cultural Metropolitano which usually has some exhibitions. Next to the cathedral is the El Sagrario church, built in the late 17th century with beautiful paintings, windows and carvings.
• Iglesia La Compañia
Just along the street from El Sagrario is this incredible church. The exterior is fascinating – an intricately carved grey stone façade. The interior is a spectacular, albeit overwhelming display of gold. It’s everywhere. Worth the $2 entry.
• Plaza San Francisco
If you head uphill from La Compañia you come to this large square. It’s often full of people who want to shine your shoes or sell you something. It also feels a little edgier than Plaza Grande, but come here anyway to admire the church. Construction started in 1534 when the city was founded and some original parts remain. It is quite gloomy and foreboding inside but full of interesting details. Attending a Mass is a powerful experience.
+ Don’t miss
Plaza / Iglesia Santo Domingo with an elegant tower.
La Ronda, a narrow street downhill from Santo Domingo which is lined with colonial buildings in fine condition.
Plaza del Teatro, surrounded by colonial buildings and the wonderful Teatro Nacional Sucre, so white that you feel dirty looking at it.
La Basilica Voto Nacional, completed in the 20th century. The views from the top of the towers and the hairy balancing act you can do to cross the roof are exciting.
Take a taxi up El Panecillo, the little hill to the south of the old town which affords a great view of this part of the city. It can be dangerous to walk up.
Take a taxi, or a shuttle bus from Colón street (northern edge of La Mariscal) up Pichincha volcano to the cable car station. This new attraction takes you up to 4000m, with incredible views over the city and, when skies are clear (early mornings are best), the surrounding volcanoes. From the top you can take a short walk or go for the summit of Rucu Pichincha, or if your head feels like it is going to explode, sit and drink a cup of coca tea.
There are some really nice parks in the city. If you’re staying for a while you should explore the Parque Metropolitano, a huge open space on the ridge to the north-east of the new city. Parque Itchimbía is also on the ridge north-east of the old town. It is worth getting up there to lie on the grass and enjoy the views. There’s also a glass palace which sometimes has exhibitions.
Down below you will find two parks (La Alameda and El Ejido) between La Mariscal and the old town. They’re both nice enough places to sit and read or take a breather. In the new town is La Carolina, a large space which fills up at weekends with families and groups of friends doing exercise and playing sport.
This district is in one of the valleys that falls away to the east of the centre. It can be reached from Avenida 12 de Octubre. There is a beautiful church and viewpoint.
Quito has several excellent museums but you should definitely try to make time for the Museo del Banco Central (off El Ejido park in La Mariscal) which has excellent displays of architectural pieces, colonial and contemporary art and gold. I have also enjoyed the Museo de la Ciudad and Museo Guayasamín.
Tour agencies in La Mariscal organise day trips to go rafting, kayaking, horse-riding or mountain biking out of Quito. There are obviously fantastic climbing and trekking opportunities in the Andes and many agencies and shops are competing to cater for your every need. See the activities section for more information.
If you want to go on a long walk try the Parque Metropolitano or Rucu Pichincha (accessed via the Telefériqo).
Swimming. There are several indoor pools including El Batan (Cochapata e12 123 y Abascal Jose Manuel) and Jipijapa (Rio Coca y Seymour).
Football. If you want to play, head to Parque La Carolina at the weekend. If you want to watch there are several teams in the top professional league which are based in Quito. Liga (best team and best atmosphere) play in the Estadio Casa Blanca in the far north of the city. El Nacional and Deportivo Quito play in the cavernous Estadio Atahualpa at the north end of La Carolina.
Quito is full of shops selling touristy goods, be it T-shirts, textiles, hats or other handicrafts. You can find places all around the old town (mixed with places hawking cheap bric-a-brac) and in La Mariscal. There are also handicraft markets in both areas.
There are several malls in the new town including two near Parque La Carolina, El Jardín at the southern end and Quicentro to the north. Both contain supermarkets and can be reached easily on public transport.
Quito has a lot of congestion. In 2010 a scheme was introduced to restrict vehicles on the road according to their registration number. If you are hiring a car you need to find out about this pico y placa system.
There are numerous buses heading up and down the streets but also a couple of cleaner mass-transit systems – the Ecovía and El Trole, which run along different north-south routes connecting the old and new towns and also the bus terminals in the extreme north and south of the city. The systems are efficient but the buses are usually crowded and pickpockets operate. Alternative: take a taxi.
The international airport is in the new city, a few km north of La Mariscal. If you want to leave Quito to head north you need to get to the Carcelén bus station and to travel any other route go to the Quitumbé bus station in the extreme south. The new terminus are nice and clean but it’s a long journey to get to them, 30 minutes in a taxi and over an hour on public transport. Try and share a ride.
Where to Stay, Where to Eat
There are some fine hotels and restaurants in the old town and also around Parque Carolina in the new town.
Many visitors choose to stay in La Mariscal. This area is bordered by Parque El Ejido, the Hilton hotel and Casa de Cultura to the south, and Avenida Colon to the north. Here you can find lots of little hostels as well as bars, restaurants, discos, tour agencies, Spanish schools and everything else a backpacker (and probably any other tourist) could wish for, in a clean, compact and very relaxed environment which is really only replicated in Baños. I’ve been in La Mariscal loads of times and never had any problems or seen any problems with crime but everything I read suggests it is dangerous at night. It’s certainly true that you see a few prostitutes and dodgy looking people. So if in any doubt, or drunk, take a taxi to be safe –they are cheap.
Click here to find out Where to Stay or Where to Eat in Quito.
There are some discos in the old town and bars along the Avenida de los Shyris stretching north. However most tourists tend to go out in El Mariscal where there is a big cluster of places and a really buzzing atmosphere. An alternative is the Plaza de las Americas, a short taxi ride away, where there are restaurants, a sports bar and a cinema.