Quito may be high in altitude, but it should also be high on your travel wish list! Here’s a cheat sheet to Ecuador’s unmissable capital city: what to do, see, and eat in beautiful, bustling Quito.
Ecuador is one of the world’s most ecologically diverse countries, and at its heart is the thrumming capital city of Quito, where business, transport, culture, history, and incredible regional food collide. Founded by the Spanish in the 16th century atop the ruins of an Incan city, at 2,850 meters it is the second-highest capital in the world (after La Paz). From its many vantage points, Quito is a seemingly endless city, sprawling across the slopes of Pichincha Volcano and flanked by the hills of Ichimbia and Panecillo—there is a real sense of being among the Andes. On a clear day the snow-capped peak of the still-active Cotopaxi Volcano looms over the city like a mighty mirage.
Blending indigenous and Spanish heritages, both architecturally and culturally, Quito holds one of the most extensive and well-preserved historic centers of Latin America. Here’s your guide to some of the key things to do, see, and eat during your time in Quito.
What to See + Do in Quito
Commanding the skyline of Quito’s historic center, the imposing Basilica of the National Vow is certainly worth a visit, if only for the stunning 360-degree views to be seen at the top of its towers. As the largest church in Quito and the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas, it is quite a sight to behold. Unlike the usual Gothic installations of gargoyles and imps, the Basilica is decorated with the many different creatures and animals of Ecuador: Ant eaters, turtles, monkeys, dolphins, and many others jut out of the side of the structure like a stone menagerie, a tribute to the country’s rich ecology.
Entrance inside the church is $2; however, you can pay a separate fee of $3 that allows you to climb the towers. Here you can see an exceptional piece of circular stained glass up close and access the upper lookout points. Be prepared to lose your breath a bit, particularly if you haven’t adjusted to the altitude yet! There is a café partway up where you can sit and enjoy a coffee or cerveza while admiring the views.
Framed by four buildings—the Presidential Palace, the Municipal Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the Metropolitan Cathedral—the imposing Plaza Grande is central to the political and religious symbolism of the country. Its focus point, a monument to the Heroes of the Independence (commissioned in 1899 and unveiled in 1906), is responsible for the square’s other name, La Plaza de Independencia.
This is without a doubt one of the best places in Quito to watch the world go by. Sit back with a hot chocolate and an empanada at one of the cafes skirting the square and watch shoe shiners buff a living, street vendors peddle their goods, and pensioners soak up the morning sun.
The best time to visit the plaza is a Monday morning. At 11am the Changing of the Guard takes place, an elaborate ceremony of splendor and pomp, overseen by the president of Ecuador. Dressed in traditional 19th-century uniforms, the soldiers are accompanied by a marching band and cavalry, evoking a tradition that’s carried through the ages. It’s worth arriving well before the ceremony starts, as it can get quite crowded. Look for a spot in the shade to avoid the hot midday sun.
This stunning piece of architecture, designed to evoke the natural surroundings of the Andes, was the final residence of the Ecuadorean painter Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999), where he lived and worked in his final years. Guayasamín’s work focused on the human suffering he witnessed in this region: the oppression, political conflict, and poverty. Consisting of many of his original works as well as pre-Columbian artifacts and religious pieces, this is not a place to only learn about the life of Guayasamín, but also about the people of the Americas as a whole. Admission is $8; the best way to get there is by taxi.
Ecuador is a country rich in fresh produce and locally made artisanal goods, and its many markets are the best source to find these.
Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal: If you can’t make it to the markets of Otavalo during your time in Ecuador, then a trip to the colorful Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal should definitely be on your agenda. A great place for various local goods like alpaca wool blankets, scarves, handmade leather goods, and jewelery, this is your one-stop shop for souvenirs and gifts before leaving Ecuador. Prices are reasonable, but a bit of haggling is expected, so don’t shy away from trying to strike a bargain with the vendors.
Mercado Central: Every city in Ecuador is equipped with a Mercado Central, a hub for local foods, fresh produce, and a dose of culture. Quito’s is no exception—here you’ll find cheap, tasty, filling meals as well as market stalls selling fruits, vegetables, flowers, and various dried goods. If you want to eat like a local, this is the place to go.
The perimeter of the market is lined with small family-based counters offering freshly squeezed juices, llapingachos, corvina frita, and many other local dishes. Come here with an empty stomach and try out what’s on offer. The market is open daily between 7am-5pm. It’s an ideal place for breakfast, to fuel up for your day’s adventures.
Mercado Arena: One of the more off-the-beaten-track markets, Mercado Arena is full of the weird and, well, weirder. The stalls here sell almost everything and nothing, ranging from vintage clothes, tools, old TV sets, vinyls, tapes, cooking equipment, and more—the list goes on. Toward the back of the market you can watch blacksmiths carry out traditional methods of forging and hammering chisels and other metal goods. Take care of any personal belongings, as pickpockets have been known to operate here.
What to Eat in Quito
Traditional food in Quito mimics Ecuador’s geographical diversity, with ingredients coming from the coast, the Andes, and the Oriente, the lowland areas of the Amazon rainforest.
Almuerzo, which translates simply to lunch, is the staple of many Ecuadoreans’ diets. This cheap, quick, nutritious meal comprises three elements: a soup, a juice, and a main dish. The soups and juices tend to rotate daily depending on what ingredients are available, but typically a main dish will generally consist of rice, beans, patacones (fried plantains) or potatoes, salad, and a protein of your choice (beef, pork, chicken, eggs, or fish). Prices are also very reasonable, with $3 being the going rate at the more traditional locations.
Where to find it: Almuerzo is served everywhere, and part of its charm lies in the families and small businesses that serve it. If you want a real local experience, try one of the cheaper-option cafes, such as Restaurante Colonial. Or just look for a sign advertising lunch and go with your instincts! Wander around the Centro Historico and see what you can find. (map)
Cocoa has been consumed in Ecuador for thousands of years, and since the Spanish began exporting this commodity in the 17th century its popularity and notoriety has grown. While there are certainly various bars of Ecuadorean chocolate to buy and (once you get out of the city) even chocolate tours to take, why not grab a cup of real hot chocolate while in the nation’s capital? Cooked in milk and often flavored with spices like cinnamon, star anise, and orange peel, it is the perfect pick-me-up on Quito’s colder days.
Where to find it: Tiny Dulceria Colonial, situated just outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in the Plaza Grande, has terrific hot chocolate and perfect people-watching ambiance. Established in 1988, the café is run by an adorable older couple who will make sure you feel welcomed. They have a family-recipe roast pork sandwich that’s also recommended. (map)
The Incas first cultivated potatoes in the Americas, and they’ve since become a staple in many cuisines across the region. Llapingachos date back to pre-Hispanic times, with the name originating from the Kichwa word llapina. Boiled potatoes are mashed and then fried on a griddle, often with cheese and onions at their center. These potato cakes can be eaten anytime of day—in the morning topped with a fried egg or, for a more complete meal, served with spicy sausage, avocado, and salad. It is frequently served with a peanut sauce on top for extra indulgence.
Where to find it: Mercado Central is the best place to try a wide variety of local Ecuadorean foods, and llapingachos is no exception. This dish makes a great breakfast, and the many juice bars located in this market compliment the meal nicely. (map)
Locro de papa
Hailing from the Andean Highlands and encapsulating Ecuador’s love of soups and potatoes, locro de papa is a rich and creamy potato soup usually accompanied by cheese, avocado, and toasted corn (maíz tostada) or popcorn (canguil). Add a dolop of salsa de aji (homemade hot sauce) on top for an extra kick of flavor and heat.
Where to find it: Inside Palacio Arzobispal you will find a beautifully decorated courtyard with a number of dining options—any of those will serve up a good bowl of locro de papa. Two we like include Hasta la Vuelta! Señor (where we also recommend the empanadas de yuca and the prawns ajilo) and La Vid Restaurante, which overlooks the Central Plaza. (map)
A dish originating from the Spaniards and popular in coastal regions (like Guayaquil) and the Galapagos Islands, corvina frita is fried sea bass accompanied by potatoes, rice, and salad. Add a squeeze of lime and a spoon of salsa de aji and you’re good to go.
Where to find it: Look for this at Central Mercado, where you’ll be served big hunks of flaky white fish, often served here with shrimp ceviche and popcorn on the side. You can also find lots of good seafood dishes at Cevichería Siete Mares (Juan León Mera E4-458; map).
Regarded as the national dish of Ecuador, encebollado is a fish stew made with four primary ingredients: fish, onions, yuca, and tomatoes (the root of the word is cebolla, or onion). This dish came about thanks to the region’s many fishermen, who, with a steady supply of fresh fish and a few basic ingredients, were able to readily make this stew while out at sea. Encebollado comes in many different varieties, but the most traditional (and recommended) fish is albacore.
Top it with extras such as plantain chips, avocado, salsa de aji, or popcorn to personalize it to your taste. Many locals swear by this dish as a hangover cure!
Where to find it: Los Ceviches de la 10 serves up a whole host of seafood dishes, including a particularly delicious encebollado. There are a number of restaurants with the same name, but we found the best one to be located near the Mercado Artesenal (10 de Agosto N21-102; map).
About the author: A passion for adventure, culture, and flavor has taken Jack to many parts of the globe. From living in the cloud forest in Ecuador, working on ranches in Mexico, or learning to cook from locals around the world, you can follow him on Instagram or find examples of his work here.
Tom WJanuary 5, 2022 at 2:05 pm
Brilliantly written – Quito going to the top of my travel list!
Laura Siciliano-RosenJanuary 13, 2022 at 11:46 am
Thanks for reading, Tom!
Dan ReedMarch 24, 2022 at 12:09 pm
I love Ecuador!!!!
Laura Siciliano-RosenMarch 26, 2022 at 9:59 am
Yesss! Thanks for reading.