It may not be Ecuador’s largest city (Guayaquil holds that title) but Quito, situated in a thin valley and framed by the Andes Mountains, definitely deserves at least one day’s attention. The UNESCO-designated old town, founded by conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar on August 15, 1534, is one of the western hemisphere’s best-preserved colonial quarters and was once one of Latin America’s most important cities. But it’s not all plazas and churches in Quito: The new town, with its hodge-podge architecture and somewhat chaotic streets, boasts plenty of modern cafes, restaurants, bars and amenities, rivaling those of any major city. So put on your walking shoes and start your day early to discover Quito.
Start your tour of Quito at the Basilica del Voto Nacional just to the east of the historic Old Town. This unfinished but striking gothic basilica boasts impressive stained glass windows and a facade showcasing animals native to Ecuador rather than gargoyles. Visitors can walk up the basilica’s towers for $2 for an impressive view of Old Town Quito.
Next, head west toward the Plaza Grande, also known as the Plaza de la Independencia, in my opinion, one of the western hemisphere’s most beautiful plazas. Sit on a bench and people watch for a while, then head to the plaza cathedral, City Hall and the Government Palace. Travelers are usually allowed inside City Hall and the Government Palace, so just tell the guard on duty you want take a look inside.
Once you feel you’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Plaza Grande, Walk on Calle Garcia Moreno and arrive at Quito’s most impressive and decorative church, the Compañía de Jesús, which dates back to the early 1600s and showcases Baroque architecture at its best. Admission is $2 and visitor hours are strictly adhered to, so if you arrive between 1pm-2pm or after 5pm, you’ll have to content yourself admiring the church’s exterior. Now walk north toward the Plaza de San Francisco, an expansive, cobblestoned plaza popular with indigenous street vendors and tourists alike. Here you’ll find La Iglesia de San Francisco, Quito’s oldest church, dating back to 1534. The Iglesia de San Francisco is another impressive baroque building and art history lovers will be impressed by its magnificent alter, statues and ceiling. If you’re hungry (or thirsty) head to Cafe Tianguez, a quaint café/restaurant which offering fantastic views of the plaza and a diverse selection of light fare and drinks. If you have a more serious appetite, I recommend heading back to the Plaza Grande and getting lunch at Mea Culpa, one of Quito’s finest (and most exclusive) restaurants, where you can dine on everything from exotic seafood dishes to filet mignon.
Now that you have a good feel for Quito’s old town, it’s time to explore the New Town. Take a cab to the Fundacion Guayasamin, which houses the unique works of Ecuador’s most famous artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin. His haunting works are replicated in markets and souvenir shops all over Ecuador, but it’s best to see the real thing. The Foundation is actually home to three separate museums, the Museum of Modern Art (where Guayasami’s art can be found) as well as the Archaeological Museum and the Colonial Art Museum. If you also want to check out Guayasamin’s famous Capilla del Hombre just around the corner, admission for all four attractions is $5 and hours are 10am-5pm. The foundation is closed on Mondays. If you’re a museum junkie, take a quick cab to the Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador, a sprawling establishment showcasing Ecuadorian history and culture from 10,000 B.C. to present. Tickets cost $2 and museum hours are Tues-Sun 10am-5pm.
If you aren’t too tired out from exploring Quito’s museums, hail a cab and ask the driver to take you to El Teleferico, where cable cars take you to the top of Volcan Pichincha, one of Quito’s highest peaks. At over 13,000 feet high, you’ll want to be sure to bring your jacket and scarf. I recommend doing the teleferico in the evening so you can watch the sunset over Quito while dining at one of the mountain top restaurants. The teleferico costs $4 and operates from 10am-8pm on weekdays and until 11pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Now that you’ve explored Quito, you might feel the need to unwind with a drink or two. Grab a taxi at Volqano Park at the bottom of Volcan Pichincha and ask the driver to take you to trendy Plaza Foch, Quito’s upscale party district (don’t worry; most drinks are only $3-$5), where you’ll have your choice of bars and clubs, from English-style pubs to over the top dance clubs featuring go-go dancers and costumed staff.
So before boarding your plane to the Galapagos Islands or another of Ecuador’s better known attractions, give yourself a day or two to explore one of South America’s oldest and most underappreciated capital cities.