Perched in a valley between towering Andean peaks, it’s not hard to see why some call Ecuador’s capital the most beautiful big city in South America. At 9,350 feet above sea level, Quito offers breathtaking views from almost every corner of town. Its historic centre is one of the largest in South America and the 40 colonial churches and chapels, 16 convents, and countless other mesmerising pieces of baroque architecture have earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. Nowadays Quito is transforming into a cosmopolitan metropolis and recently the city has become an even more attractive destination thanks to a massive restoration project, the opening of many new cafes and restaurants, and increased safety.
Wander the cobblestone streets of Quito’s old town and you’ll unravel enough history to fill a few textbooks. Basilica del Voto Nacional is Ecuador’s largest Gothic cathedral and is decorated with gargoyles inspired by the country’s iguanas, pumas and tortoises. Close-by at the main square you’ll find Plaza de la Independencia where you can take your pick from the Presidential Palace, City Hall or Archbishop’s Place. Don’t get churched out before you make a visit Iesia de La Compania de Jesus though. The cathedral took a lengthy 160 years to complete and is one of the great baroque masterpieces in South America.
After all the sights you’ll definitely be craving a cup of the famous Ecuadorian hot chocolate. No sugar though. In Quito they serve it with a side of cheese the drink is already so sweet. Quito is also a fantastic place to sample food as unique as it is tasty. The nine-table La Cuchara de San Marcos is one such place and serves authentic Andean cuisine using produce sourced locally from nearby Kichwa gardens and farmers. Hotel Casa Gangotena is another restaurant with a reputation for traditional dishes and is home to an unbeatable locro (potato soup) and aji (hot sauce). Coffee is of-course an Ecuadorian staple and while the popular Sweet and Coffee may be the Ecuadorian version of Starbucks, the tiny Kallari Café in the heart of La Mariscal is a nicer place to sip the day away.
Where to Stay
Visitors have three main choices when it comes to deciding where to stay in Quito. La Mariscal is the most popular of the three and is home to many hotels, guesthouses, bars and restaurants, and will have something for someone on any budget. The historic old town provides another interesting option with some luxuriously restored colonial houses offering a fairytale like stay. The city’s financial centre, close to La Carolina Park, is another option and is where you’ll find some of the most modern hotels in Quito. Business travelers and those wanting to be close to shopping malls are recommended to stay here.
Shoppers will absolutely love Quito. Handicrafts are popular souvenirs and shops literally line the streets in La Mariscal selling everything from carved items, sweaters, scarves, rugs, and ponchos, to coffee and artisan chocolate. Similar items can be found by poking your head into one of the shops on Avenida Amazonas or by taking a trip to the artist’s market at the corner of Reina Victoria and Jorge Washington Streets. On weekends, head to El Ejido Park and hone your haggling skills with the mainly indigenous local artisans selling all manner of gifts and trinkets.
Quito Like a Local
Quito is fast gaining a reputation as a cultural capital in South America and its music scene is only really rivaled by Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. After dark head to Plaza Foch in La Mariscal to mingle with the locals at one of the numerous watering holes offering live music. A noticeable police presence makes it pretty safe to wander late and on weekends you’ll find live music at Q, a bar at the base of NU House Hotel. For something a little more avant-garde, Catekil, El Aguijon and Naranjilla Mecanica are three venues where Quito’s hippest locals hang out. There you’ll hear everything from electronic, rock and indie to Andean hip-hop.