Even if you have just 24 hours to spend, your time in the Ecuadorian capital will be special. On this thrilling one-day itinerary, you'll take a trip on one of the most magical cable cars on the planet, wander through some of South America's best museums, and indulge in Ecuador's famous coffee and chocolate.

Overview

Rimmed by towering mountains and volcanoes, Ecuador's Andean metropolis spreads out through the valleys below. Its beautifully preserved historic core is truly striking: it was one of the first cities in the world to earn status as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Quito's key sights of interest mentioned here are divided between the Old Town and the La Mariscal neighborhood, a part of the larger New Town area, just over two miles to the northeast. The following itinerary suggests concentrating on the Old Town in the morning, then spending late afternoon and evening in La Mariscal. There's a break in between, a window of time that allows you to take a ride on the city cable car, the superb TelefériQo.

The beautiful Plaza San Francisco in Quito's Old Town, with the Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco behind
The beautiful Plaza San Francisco in Quito's Old Town, with the Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco behind

Accommodation & Transportation

Get the perfect day off to a good start by staying overnight in Quito's Old Town at a resplendent colonial address such as Casa Gangotena. This three-story mansion dates from the early 16th century but has been recently restored. It sits on Plaza San Francisco, the city's prettiest plaza.

Take taxis when traveling between Old Town, La Mariscal, and the Teleférico cable car base. Within the Old Town and La Mariscal neighborhoods, walking is the best way to get around.

A Morning of Coffee and Culture

Quito's leafy Plaza Grande

8:00 am: Opening the curtains in your hotel room and seeing Quito's colonial Old Town below, with dramatic Andean peaks behind it, is a memorable experience. The only way to improve the moment is to indulge in one of Ecuador's most famous exports: coffee. Café Galletti has some of the best coffee in the Old Town, and it's located just one block from Plaza Grande. For a more traditional start to the day, head to Cafeteria Modelo, situated between Plaza Grande and Plaza San Francisco. Here you can try traditional Ecuadorian snacks like tamales (steamed corn and meat or fish, wrapped in a banana leaf).

Next, begin to explore Quito's Old Town. Plaza San Francisco is the place to start. The plaza itself is cobblestone, lined with important buildings such as the Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco, a church and monastery that dates back to the city's founding. Next door, El Museo Francisco displays ornate religious art, some of which dates back nearly five centuries.

Continue the colonial sightseeing throughout the morning, making sure to visit Plaza Grande, with its cathedral, and stately Palacio de Gobierno, decorated with a breathtaking mosaic depiction of Francisco de Orellana discovering the Amazon. Plaza Santo Domingo, three blocks south of Plaza Grande, often has impromptu live music and performances. For modern art, try the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo (Center for Contemporary Art), featuring some innovative contemporary artworks and installations. 

See the sights, but allow yourself some time for just strolling and taking in the atmosphere of the Old Town. For more on experiencing Ecuador like a local, read this article.

Riding High Above the City

The Teleferiqo in Quito is one of the world's most spectacular cable car journeys
The TelefériQo in Quito is one of the world's most spectacular cable car journeys

12:30 pm: In the early afternoon, grab a taxi to the base of Quito's TelefériQo. The cable car carries you from the city streets (keep in mind that Quito is already located at high altitude) up the slopes of the closest volcano to the city, Volcán Pichincha, to a dizzying, dazzling 12,942 feet. The views of Quito below, set against the immense Andean peaks, are well worth the trip. There's further hiking on offer from the top cable car station, as well as a café. Alternatively, grab food and drinks in town for a picnic lunch at the top.

Views are usually best in the morning, so if you wish to leave off from Old Town sightseeing a little earlier, do so. Bring a warm coat: it can get very chilly at the top. Allow at least two to three hours for the whole TelefériQo experience. Read this article to find out more about the essential attractions of Ecuador.

Chocolate, Coffee, and Colonial History

Republica del Cacao, one of Quito's artesan chocolate shops
Republica del Cacao, one of Quito's artisan chocolate shops

3:00 pm: Take a taxi from the TelefériQo cable car base to the Museo Nacional, located in the New Town just south of La Mariscal. Though slightly out of the way, it's located in a lovely setting, and it's often considered Quito's (and Ecuador's) best museum. The exhibits cover Ecuadorian history, from the Pre-Columbian peoples in Ecuador through to the colonial era. The ceramics are particularly impressive.

In early evening, the oldest observatory in South America, located in the same park, opens for viewing the skies. The views are often exceptionally clear in this part of the Andes, so if you're interested in stars, consider factoring this stop into your evening plan.

From Museo Nacional, you can walk a half-mile into the heart of La Mariscal, the definitive nightlife district of the city. This is where you'll find lots of restaurants, bars, and clubs. But first, it's time to sample another of Ecuador's famous products: chocolate. There are several chocolate shops and chocolate-tasting cafés in Quito, including Republica del Cacao, where you can sample all sorts of chocolates. If you're really into chocolate, consider adding another stop to your morning plan in the Old Town: Pacari chocolate shop, by Plaza Grande.

Stargazing and Bar-hopping

The oldest observatory in South America, in Quito
The oldest observatory in South America, in Quito

6:30 pm: After you've enjoyed some stargazing at the observatory, explore Quito's lively nightlife scene around La Mariscal. Options are numerous: try coffee and people-watching at Coffee Tree, then have some drinks and enjoy live music at La Estación or El Pobre Diablo.

At the end of the night, take a taxi back to the Old Town. And consider spending a few more days in town! If you do, check out this recommended itinerary for Quito & the Galapagos islands.