We are back from Ecuador! After spending 3 weeks mostly in historical Quito, I’m ready to share some of our favorite spots. What a special place– Quito has the largest historical center in South America, with some of the most beautiful churches and buildings!
If you find yourself in Quito, I highly recommend spending at least a full day, if not two, in the historic center. The days in Quito are usually exactly 12 hours long, but not without variation! As the sun breaks through the clouds you will see the most glorious light, and the bluest skies! It’s definitely worth it to hang around all day to admire the colorful architecture.
Quito, though it has its problems, feels relatively safe. People tend to mind their own business here, and you likely won’t run into any over-enthusiastic sales people. By keeping a low profile and being smart about our valuables, we didn’t have any issues at all!
10 Places to Visit in Historical Quito
1) Basilica del Voto Nacional
The basilica towers over the rest of Quito and can be seen from various points throughout the historic center. This gothic style behemoth boasts beautiful stained-glass windows and animal carvings inspired by the Galapagos Islands. If you visit the Basilica, be sure to pay the $2 to go up the towers. You can even cross the spine of the cathedral and ascend the highest tower! It’s a bit scary and you need to be in relatively good shape, but so worth it.
2) Plaza Grande
Also known as Plaza de la Independencia, this lovely spot is filled with life! Surrounding the Plaza are famous sights including the Palacio del Gobierno and a huge cathedral where the presidents are buried. Wander around the Plaza and enjoy the variety of views. The buildings here are well-kept, and the center is always bustling!
3) Iglesia de Santo Domingo
This might be my favorite church that we visited in Ecuador. During the Spanish colonization, the “Quito School” was formed: loosely defined, it demonstrated a combination of Islamic, colonial, and indigenous Ecuadorian architectural styles. I think that Santo Domingo exhibits this beautifully, especially with its sweeping ceilings and geometric patterns. This church is a must-see!
4) The Panecillo
Located towards the south of the historic center, the Panecillo is a little hill topped with a winged Virgin Mary. Although most tour guides don’t recommend climbing up the 1,000 steps of the hill, I think it’s the best way to see Quito. You can also pay a few dollars to be driven up to the top of the hill if climbing at 9,000 feet is not your cup of tea. If you do climb the stairs, go with at least 3 other people, and leave your valuables at home! On top, you’ll find the most gorgeous view of Quito.
5) Museo de la ciudad
This museum tells you so much about the history of Ecuador! It has a beautiful courtyard and life-like exhibits, featuring the area from before the time of Spanish colonists to the present. It’s worth seeing if you’re curious about the Ecuador’s past and want to understand what it meant to live under Spanish rule.
6) La Ronda
“La Ronda” refers to a long street of shops and restaurants in historic Quito. It is beautiful and comes to life at night, with street performers, dancing, music and late-night eats. La Ronda is kept safe by the tourist police and enjoyed by locals and foreigners alike. It’s bustling practically every evening, but it’s quiet and pretty in daylight. Whichever you choose, you can’t skip this quaint spot!
7) La Compañía de Jesus
Known to be the most beautiful church in all of South America (disputed, of course), La Compañía is not to be missed. I personally thought the gilded interior was a bit too heavy, but it’s worth seeing. Furthermore, no photos are allowed inside (though Google has plenty of illegitimate shots if you’re curious), so all I have to offer for photos is the exterior.
8) Plaza de San Francisco
Iglesia San Francisco may not be worth seeing, but this plaza is really beautiful. It’s surrounded by ornamented colonial-style buildings, and offers some really great spots for photographing the feel of Quito’s Old Town. The area between Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Grande is worth a stroll as well. Admire the walkways and the unique windows and balconies. If you’re thirsty for a drink, be sure to stop by Casa Gangotena, the most beautiful white building in the square. This luxury hotel underwent an expensive renovation years ago, and is absolutely pristine.
9) Cafe Galletti
Head over to this chic new cafe if you want to try good Ecuadorian coffee! Galletti grows beans for third-wave cafes in the US, including Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle and Four Barrel, some of our favorites. While you might find the espresso is not quite on par with the best American cafes, the baristas here are pretty good. Oh, and get the mocha– pure cacao bits are added to the coffee for the richest drink ever.
10) Casa Victoria and San Roque Neighborhood
Casa Victoria was the reason we went to Ecuador in the first place. A haven and community space for children in a poor Old Town neighborhood, CV is a really special place. If you’re visiting in historical Quito, you should go get pizza at Casa Victoria. Their pizza cafe is run by George, who is now a dear friend of ours. You’ll be supporting the organization and get to see where many indigenous Ecuadorians now live. I’ll be sharing more about our time with Casa Victoria on this blog, so look forward to that!
A Few Tips about Quito’s Centro Historico
Many tourists do not stay in this area because it’s not the safest part of Quito. If you’re traveling alone, I would tend to agree with that tip. However, drug culture has increased in Quito in general ever since the president legalized the possession of small amounts. Travelers should beware that this culture is not limited to the historic center, and is becoming more prevalent everywhere.
If you do stay in the historic center, which I highly recommend, be willing to be flexible. The best time to see this area is during the day, although the buildings are beautiful when lit up at night. In the evenings, go in groups to restaurants and cafes, and use lighted streets. Common sense should generally keep you safe here in Quito!
When wandering around in Quito, always bring sunglasses, sunscreen, and an umbrella. The weather changes quickly here. Also, wear closed-toe shoes! The streets have all kinds of filth on them and you don’t want that stuff near your bare feet.
Knowing a little bit of Spanish will get you a long way! At the very least, be able to pronounce the places you’d like the cab driver to take you, and agree on a price beforehand (or ask him to use the meter in his car). And, obviously, don’t get into an unmarked cab. Most cabs in Quito have security cameras installed in them, and cab rides should not cost more than $5.