It’s the middle of the world as we know it; Kitu, “the middle” in the indigenous Kichwa language. Although the country attracts mostly for its natural wonders, a trip to Ecuador cannot be complete without visiting Quito. With its UNESCO-listed historical centre, modern atmosphere and rich cultural scene, it’s definitely a worthwhile place for a few days. During our stay in the capital, we went event-hopping like there was no tomorrow. In this post, we’re giving you our best tips to cultural things to do in (and around) Quito.
Quito, the high-lying capital of Ecuador
Located at 2850 meters Quito is either the highest or the second highest capital in the world (depending if we count La Paz as a capital).
As with most South American cities, it was already populated by indigenous people, when the conquering Spaniards founded it. However, in the case of Quito there’s a twist. Originally it was founded a couple hundred kilometres south at the place where another town is today, Riobamba. And only a few months later it was moved to its current location, and was “re-founded”.
Another highlight of the area is related to the War of Independence that Latin America fought with the Spanish Crown. General Sucre, an important leader of the independence movement, defeated the Spanish colonial army just outside of Quito at the climax of the war. The battle, known as Battle of Pichincha, secured the independence of current-day Ecuador.
Read about the most famous celebrities in South America besides Shakira and Ricky Martin: the heroes of the Independence
The weather in Ecuador, and in particular Quito, being right on the Equator line, doesn’t vary much all year round. The temperatures surely vary very little, oscillating from 10°C to 20°C (48°F to 66°F).
The rainy season is between January and April, but there are chances of rain all year round. Because of this weather, we recommend to bring jumpers and a rain jacket whatever the things you decide to do and whatever the time in the year you visit Quito and Ecuador. Having said that, the best time to stay outdoor is between mid-June and early October.
The UNESCO World Cultural Heritage city
Nowadays Quito is one of the smallest capital cities in South America. It’s got a size similar to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and a population of only 1.9 million. Which means it’s ideal to explore Quito in 3 days.
Locals really care about their environment. For example there’s no rubbish on the street; car drivers are polite with pedestrians; and the centre preserved its colonial style of architecture in the historical centre despite rapid urban development. That’s why it was awarded with the title of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978.
Nevertheless, in Quito visitors can wander in residential and modern neighbourhoods which are just as interesting as the centre.
When we arrived in Quito, the first thing we noticed was its unusual, long shape. The city wraps itself around the eastern slopes of the Pichincha volcano (sorry to write that it’s an active volcano…). Expect constant nice close-up mountain views from everywhere and long bus rides from one part of the city to another.
Talking about bus rides… tickets cost mega cheap (0,25 USD), so ride until nose bleeding (Hungarian expression). However, finding out where to go with the bus is not so easy. The bus route map was a mystery to understand, it’s built according to a strange logic we couldn’t decipher. But luckily most of the places we wanted to visit were in the same area or in walking distance. Well, our walking distance, meaning within 1.5 hours. Otherwise, the best is to ask the station workers, they are very nice and helpful!
Things to do in Quito, Ecuador
Although we love being in the nature, we also enjoy visiting big cities for the cultural palette they offer. Whenever you arrive in a city like Quito, one of the first things to do is to search online for free events; just search “eventos en xy city”.
Attending some random event is one of our favourite things to do. Some of them turned out to be pretty interesting concerts or exhibition openings (involving free food and drink!) or festivals.
Check out our post about the tango festival in Montevideo where we learnt a very important thing about tango.
Regarding Quito, we found that it’s not so much a beautiful or charming city; for architectural beauty and charm in Ecuador I rather recommend Cuenca in the south. But we could ease our thirst on the great cultural scene.
Cultural tourism is one of the main reason we travel. I believe a cultural traveller will rejoice in the many things to do and it’s definitely a great point for Quito that many cultural events are free! If you are searching for cultural things to do in Quito, quitocultura.info is a good starting point to check out (in Spanish).
Here are the top budget-friendly cultural things to do that we enjoyed the most during our one-week stay in Quito.
Crash on a free film screening or concert in the House of the Ecuadorian Culture
The soviet-style, ugly circular building in El Belén district houses the best place for cultural events in Quito, the awesome House of the Ecuadorian Culture (Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana).
Culture-lovers will definitely appreciate this place, as it offers a wide range of free events; for example concerts, performances, theatre, cinema. The best thing to do is to check out their website before you’re in Quito to make sure you don’t miss any interesting things.
When we were there a retrospective film festival of works by Fernando Mieles (an Ecuadorian film director) was on the program, and we had just missed a free concert of Ecuadorian classical music. The film was in Spanish without any English subtitles. Great if you have at least intermediate Spanish and you’d like to practice! I’ve learnt Spanish on this trip, during 9 months, and could already understand it back then.
Another great thing about the House of the Ecuadorian Culture is that one can watch Ecuadorian films for free anytime. So if you’re interested in the country’s filmography, here you can spend your time not in the usual touristy way!
In fact, Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana has institutions in other cities in Ecuador too. So why not have a look for events as you discover the country? The events list is available on a link from the homepage.
Address: Av. 12 de Octubre #555 y Av. Patria, Quito – Website
Learn about the indigenous cultures in the free National Museum of Ecuador
We’re very interested in learning about the various Indigenous groups in South American; so this museum was a must for us. The National Museum of Ecuador (Museo Nacional de Ecuador) has a very interesting exhibition on the nation’s history. It includes paintings, early ceramics and gold work.
The museum wants to show history not only from the Spanish descendants’ perspective; it wants to represent equally the country’s many indigenous groups.
We spent hours in this museum and learnt so much about the different aspects of Ecuador’s culture! Would you expect this small country, with a size similar to Italy, to have 14 indigenous languages; out of which 9 are in the Amazon region?
Address: Avenida Patria (between Avenida 6 de Diciembre and Avenida 12 de Octubre), Quito, Ecuador – Website
Discover the history of Quito and enjoy great views from the rooftop of the CCM
This UNESCO heritage building, the Metropolitan Cultural Center (Centro Cultural Metropolitano) was built in a neo-baroque architectural style. You’ll surely come across it on your walk downtown as it’s just at the corner of the main square, Plaza de la Independencia.
It houses the Alberto Mena Camaño Museum, which tells about the history of Quito; a library and a book machine in the lobby, in case you crave reading classics in Spanish!
The highlight of this building is the unparalleled view that you get from the rooftop terrace. Check out the Plaza de la Independencia; the prettiest baroque church Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús; and the Panecillo hill from birds eye view!
It’s also worth reading the funny little anecdotes (in Spanish) related to the building that are scattered on the walls.
Address: Gabriel García Moreno, Sebastián de Benalcázar, Quito 170130, Ecuador – Website
Watch a film of independent world cinema in the Ochoymedio cinema
I’m a big fan of world cinema! So an evening in this alternative, independent cinema was on the agenda without question.
Its name, Ochoymedio, means eight and a half. It does a good job at keeping the cinema fans up to date regarding world movies. It’s the only one of its kind and an essential place for cultural things to do in Quito.
Going to this cinema was also a good occasion to have a stroll in La Floresta district (which is the chic part of town) and discover pretty houses (most of them embassies) on the Avenida 12 Octubre.
The cinema has a cute cafe where you can leaf their own cinema magazine (in Spanish). The opposite building surprisingly is an abandoned house (closed from the public unfortunately, so only look at it from the street).
Address: Valladolid, Quito 170143, Ecuador – Website
Marvel at amazing Ecuadorian painters’ works in the free Museum of Modern Art
I will say it loud and proud: for me, the Museum of Modern Art (Museo de Arte Moderno) houses jewels that should rank among the best paintings in the world! Anthony disagrees but he knows nothing about Modern art anyway…
The collection contains Ecuadorian and South American paintings and sculptures from the modernist era. They represent a wide array of typical South American topics, like indigenous culture, religion, social issues.
Have a look at some of the best South American paintings in the collection of MALBA, Buenos Aires
On the downside, the structure of this museum is not really visitor-friendly. The long line of paintings without any explanation makes it hard to understand and appreciate the modernist pieces. The little commentary on two panels is only in Spanish.
Besides us, there were only 4 people in the exhibition room; and they literally ran through the space. To be honest, I recommend this museum only for hardcore modern art fans.
The museum is in the same building as the House of Ecuadorian Culture but it clearly needs a lot of marketing. I’m planning a post about my favourite works of this museum so stay tuned! Until then, have a look at some of them.
Address: Avenida 6 de Diciembre & Avenida Patria, Quito, Ecuador – Website
Catch an alternative theatre show in El Útero
El Útero is an independent socio-cultural space with an expressive name (“uterus”), unique in its kind in Quito. It shows alternative theatre pieces performed by local groups, mostly written by South American authors.
It provides a space to create synergies between local artists, the public and other players of the art scene. The result is a pretty cool and exciting scenery of diverse and local art forms, workshops, fairs and other events. There are regular theatre plays; the ticket price is 10 USD. Book in advance through their Facebook page.
The venue is quite special too: it’s housed in a mansion that caught our attention already from the street. The decoration on the facade of the house and in the garden are pieces of art, I loved them; watch out for the spider door knob on the gate!
Address: Reina Victoria N21 -255 esq. y Jerónimo Carrión, 170602 Quito, Ecuador – Facebook page
Check out the exhibition in the Contemporary Art Centre
It seemed to us that arts and culture in Quito are paramount; so we were not surprised to come across another big-league institute. If you haven’t had enough of art yet (or if you skipped the Museum of Modern Art), the Contemporary Art Centre (Centro de Arte Contemporáneo) offers an interesting few hours for free.
It’s located in San Juan district, just outside the historical centre. That’s also a nice area to explore, around the Basilica of the National Vote (a beautiful Gothic church, not free). The art centre’s neoclassical building used to be a military hospital and it was converted to a museum in 2007.
The goal of the Contemporary Art Centre is to explore contemporary artistic practices with its exhibitions, so interesting and fresh ideas are guaranteed! Apart from the art exhibitions, it also organises art workshops.
Address: Montevideo y Luis Dávila, Montevideo, Quito, Ecuador – Website
Step to the northern hemisphere at the Middle of the World
An excellent day trip is to the Mitad del Mundo, where the famous equatorial line lies. It’s only an hour bus ride north of Quito. As per good Ecuadorian custom, there’s not one monument to celebrate the line, but 3!
- One is on the top of a hill.
You can go there only with a private tour. You’ll follow in the steps of pre-Inca indigenous groups who already calculated ages ago where the middle of the world was. We found it a bit pricey and a bit lame-looking. And not an ideal activity under the rain, because we wouldn’t have any view anyway.
- The second one is at the real equatorial line calculated by modern scientists.
A monument and a museum called Intiñan Solar Museum. English or Spanish tours explain about Indigenous customs and daily habits. The tour also tries to prove “scientific facts” related to the middle of the world; like how it’s easier to stand an egg on a pin there, that sort of things.
- The third site is the “old” equatorial line, calculated in 1736 by French scientists.
Considering the lack of tools, it’s impressive that they were only 240 metres wrong! It’s a similar monument and museum trying to prove scientifically that all the facts from the second site are just myths.
We visited the second site and found very interesting the explanations about the indigenous cultures.
To get to the Middle of the World take a bus to Ofelia (a bus station in the north), then without going out of the station change to a bus to Mitad del Mundo/Calacalí. You don’t have to buy another ticket but need to pay $0,15 extra on the bus.
Address (Intiñan Solar Museum): Manuel Cordova Galarza, Quito, Ecuador – Website
Visit Pululahua, a village built in an active volcano crater
Visiting the Middle of the World is only a half a day activity. So if you are not tired, we recommend the visit of an extraordinary place. There is a village that was built in the crater of a volcano that is still active. Some people are just that crazy. Imagine house insurance costs!
To go thither, you need to take the same bus you came with. Tell the driver to drop you off at the crater entrance, Caspigasí (but if you say “Pululahua” they will know). It should cost 0,25 USD. From here walk the rest of the way up – about half an hour uphill on a paved road.
Once at the lookout, you can choose to descend to the crater for a one-hour hike down and 1,5 hours back up. Or the adventurous can stay in the crater village overnight; there are all sorts of accommodation available from camping to guest houses.
Like volcano craters? Hike to the Quilotoa Lake, South of Quito
Visit the Capilla del Hombre art museum and picnic on the hill
The Capilla del Hombre (“Chapel of the man”) is an art museum built by an Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín. He was a well-known painter and sculptor across South America. His works depict the society he lived in, and what he saw during his travels in the Americas; specifically, the topics of political oppression, racism, poverty and class division and indigenous lifestyle.
He dedicated this museum to the people of Latin America who suffered so much during the continent’s history. The Capilla del Hombre museum’s construction only finished after the artist’s death. It exhibits Guayasamín’s sculptures and murals, but in fact you can see more works by him in the nearby cultural centre.
The Capilla del Hombre museum is located on the top of Bellavista hill, overlooking Quito; it’s a good opportunity for a picnic lunch with a view! The Capilla del Hombre is a unique museum because of its purpose, the location and the structure itself. It looks a bit like a fort on the top of the hill. The entrance costs 8 USD.
Address: Mariano Calvache E18-94 y Lorenzo Chávez. Bellavista. Quito
Lunch and shop for fresh fruits at local markets
What better way to really get a taste of the local cuisine than eating at a market? We are huge fans of local markets, especially in the Andean countries (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia) where cooked food at markets and on the street is so cheap!
Pop to the Central Market near downtown or to the Iñaquito Market in the north. We recommend that you try these Ecuadorian food and drink specialities:
- bolones de verde con queso: a traditional fried ball made of plantain and cheese,
- morocho: rice-based milky drink, my absolute favourite,
- quimbolito: a sweet and fluffy corn pastry wrapped in corn husks.
Markets’ “comedores” (canteens) serve both breakfast and lunch. But don’t try to look for a simple sandwich. Traditionally heavy, fried food is served for both meals: rice, meat, eggs. Market comedores are usually open until 4 in the afternoon.
Shopping for exotic fruits? The market is your best bet! Ecuador has many tasty and salutary fruits that I had never seen in my life; so it was a must to try as many as we could. My favourites are granadilla, a small type of mango and naranjilla, a citrus-flavoured fruit typical of the Quito region.
As responsible travellers, don’t forget to bring your reusable shopping bag and ask for loose fruits instead of the pre-packaged ones. Alternatively, try fruits as freshly pressed juice in one of the juice booths.
Have a look at some awesome exotic fruits we’ve found in Peru. Most of them are also available in Ecuador.
Address: Central Market – Av Pichincha, Quito 170136, Ecuador. Iñaquito Market – Iñaquito, Quito 170135, Ecuador.
Where to go after Quito?
If you’re travelling north, your next stop should be Otavalo and its colourful outdoor market; time your travel well to visit on a Saturday, market day. After that, you’re already in Colombia, with a stop in off-the-beaten track but nature-lovers paradise Pasto.
If you’re going to the South, the Cotopaxi Volcano and the Quilotoa Lake are awaiting, both around Latacunga. That’s some great outdoors over there so have your hiking boots ready!
West of Quito, you can explore the wonderful Parque Nacional Yasuní; it’s a 6 or 7-hour bus ride to the town of Puerto Francisco de Orellana, also called El Coca. There are planes to get there too.
Feel free to read our articles about these destinations for inspiration:
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