Although it’s rarely a destination in and of itself, but rather a pit stop for most travelers en route to the Galapagos Islands or the Amazon, Quito is a fantastic place to spend time with children. Wrapped in the majestic beauty of the Andes surrounding it, Quito has a large green urban park where kids can run amok and is an achingly charming colonial town.
Ecuador’s capital city has the second highest altitude in South America (the highest is La Paz, Bolivia), so it will take you a couple of days to get acclimated. The first time I visited Quito, I passed out as I stepped off the plane and took my first shallow breath of Andean air. The second time, I drank gallons of water on the plane in preparation and my only concern when I stepped off the plane was finding a restroom.
So take your time, acclimate, and enjoy these 4 activities guaranteed to make your trip to Quito one you and the kids won’t soon forget. I’ve also included recommendations of 1 great place to eat and 1 great place to stay while visiting Quito with kids. And don’t forget to bookmark the handy map at the end to help plan your travels.
Activity 1: People- and Pigeon-Watch at Plaza de San Francisco
The massive cobbled-stoned Plaza de San Francisco is a great place to people-watch, check out some vendors, and—because is it really a plaza without them?—commune with pigeons. It’s located smack in the middle of the colonial old town and a central place for people to meet and for municipal and cultural events large and small.
The Church of St. Francis, the oldest church in Quito, dominates the square. If you like old churches, feel free to take a free and quiet peek inside. There is a nice high-end souvenir shop right underneath the church that sells everything from artisan crafts to jewelry and fine Ecuadorean chocolate. –> Get directions or see on map.
Activity 2: Straddle the Equator at Mitad del Mundo
You don’t have to be a geographer or a sleuth to figure out that the name “Ecuador” has something to do with the fact that the country lies on the Equator. In fact, the Equator was discovered and mapped out here by a team of French explorers in 1736. Unfortunately, they were slightly off-mark and the monument was built a couple of hundred meters from the actual line. Details…
Mitad del Mundo is just outside of Quito and makes a great day-trip with kids, who get a real kick of standing with one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern. Talk about a photo op! The site also has a reconstructed Equatorial village, a playground, souvenir shops, and rather limited refreshments. http://www.mitaddelmundo.com/en/ –> Get directions or see on map.
Activity 3: Get Some Old-School Culture at Casa de la Cultura
These days, visiting a museum can seem like entering a virtual world. While multi-media exhibits can be stimulating for children, it’s sometimes a little too close to playing a video game for my taste. Give me a good diorama over a computer display anytime. The Casa de la Cultura has fabulous ones, depicting different scenes from everyday life over time in various parts of Ecuador. They also have a great display of Inca gold objects, pre-Columbian art and pottery, and Spanish-era religious art. And it’s all free! www.casadelacultura.gob.ec –> Get directions or see on map.
Once you’re done communing with the artifacts, head across the street to Parque El Ejido for some playground fun.
Activity 4: Partake of Paddle Boats and Orchid Gardens at Parque La Carolina
When you’re traveling to a big city with kids, nothing beats an afternoon at the park. Located at the northern end of Quito, the huge leafy Parque La Carolina has something for everyone. We enjoyed the outdoor gym equipment (for both adults and kids), watching the cool kids ride their BMX bikes on the massive ramps, and the paddle boats. You’ll find plenty of street vendors selling snacks, drinks, and of course, ice cream.
The park also boasts two museums. The Botanical Garden features plants from the different regions of Ecuador. The orchid rooms are particularly gorgeous. There is also a small reptile zoo that might not thrill older kids but was fascinating to my four-year-old. –> Get directions or see on map.
1 Great Place to Eat: Café Tianguez
Situated just below the looming cathedral in the Plaza de San Francisco (see above), Café Tianguez serves up traditional Ecuadorian food. The outdoor terrace is a great place to pigeon- and people-watch. Be sure to try the delicious hearts of palm ceviche, traditional fish ceviche, and the Ecuadorian specialty, locro de papa, a potato and cheese soup topped with avocado and aji (hot sauce). Finish your meal with a cup of strong Ecuadorian coffee. www.tianguez.org/english/ –> Get directions or see on map.
1 Great Place to Stay: Lugano Suites
When traveling with kids in a big city, we find it helpful to stay near a nice park where we can escape the exhaust and exhaustion of the city streets. Lugano Suites is located in the modern, upscale part of the city, just blocks away from the wonderful Parque La Carolina (see above). As the name suggest, it is an all-suites property. Each suite has two bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms and a living room with sofa bed—plenty of room for our family of five. The décor is clean and modern. Although the rooms have equipped kitchens, we didn’t do any cooking. We did buy drink and snacks and had ample room to stock them in the refrigerator. Breakfast is included in the rate, which was an added bonus. http://luganohotel.com.ec/ –> Get directions or see on map.
Tip: It’s almost too perfect that Quito’s best brick-oven pizza place, Cosa Nostra, just happens to be a couple of blocks from Lugano Suites. Let’s just say we had it more than once during the four nights we spent there.