Published: September 15, 2011NESTLED amid snowcapped Andean peaks, Ecuador’s capital has long been overlooked by travelers on their way to the country’s most famous destination, the Galápagos Islands. But visitors who bypass this lively historic city of some two million people are missing out. At 9,350 feet above sea level, on the eastern slopes of the Pichincha Volcano, Quito offers breathtaking vistas around nearly every corner. Its historic center, a Unesco World Heritage site, is one of the largest in South America, with 40 colonial churches and chapels, 16 convents and monasteries and picturesque plazas. In recent years, museums have been opened; mansions restored; hotels, restaurants and cafes opened and safety improved. And this year, in recognition of Quito’s rich mix of architectural heritage and cultural traditions, the International Cultural Capitals Bureau chose the city as its 2011 American Capital of Culture.
1) SUNSET OVER THE CITY
Parque Itchimbía (Calles José María Aguirre N4-108 and Concepción; 593-2-322-8470) offers panoramic views, including Quito’s historic center and, in the distance, the winged Virgin of Quito statue. Check out the Art Nouveau Itchimbía Cultural Center (Itchimbía Centro Cultural, 593-2-258-4362; centrocultural-quito.com). The glass and steel structure imported from Hamburg in 1889 was on the other side of the city until it was moved to Itchimbía hill in 2004. Then, venture below the observation deck, where you’ll find Pim’s, an Ecuadorean chain. Order a cocktail and find a seat near one of the heat lamps on the outdoor deck to watch the lights come on in the city below.
2) WITH A LATIN TWIST
Theatrum Restaurant & Wine Bar (Teatro Nacional Sucre, Calle Manabi between Guayaquil and Flores; 593-2-257-1011; theatrum.com.ec), on the second floor of the National Theater, serves Mediterranean cuisine with a Latin twist in a high-vaulted room draped in red velvet curtains. The five-course tasting menu ($38 plus tax; the official currency in Ecuador is the United States dollar) includes specials like grilled octopus with olives and fava beans, crab ravioli and rabbit risotto, and a refreshing sorbet as a palate cleanser. The restaurant will also arrange free transportation to and from your hotel
3) PARTY PLAZA
If the food and altitude haven’t sapped your energy, head to Plaza Foch at the intersection of Calle Reina Victoria and Mariscal Foch in northern Quito, where young people gather before hitting nearby night spots. A noticeable police presence makes it safe to explore the immediate area, but if you plan to party beyond the three-block radius of Calama, Juan León Mera and Pinto Streets, take a taxi. On Fridays, you’ll find live music after 10 p.m. at Q, a restaurant and bar at the base of the NU House boutique hotel (Calles Marsical Foch E6-12 and Reina Victoria; 593-2-255-7840; quitoq.com). Across the plaza, La Boca del Lobo (Calles Calama 284 and Reina Victoria; 593-2-252-7915; labocadellobo.com.ec) has a red lounge and a glassed-in patio with funky chandeliers, hanging bird cages and ceiling tiles featuring religious iconography. It serves a selection of fried appetizers for midnight snacking.
4) AFTER HOURS
Most bars close by 3 a.m. One after-hours option is the Metro Café (Avenida Orellana at the corner of Rábida; 593-2-255-2570), which prepares diner fare around the clock. It’s also a good breakfast option, serving up stacks of pancakes and greasy-spoon dishes like Cheddar scrambled eggs with hash browns and bacon. During the day, families with restless children will appreciate the outdoor playground.
5) INTO THIN AIR
Take the dizzying Teleférico aerial tram up to the Cruz Loma viewpoint, some 13,000 feet above sea level (Avenidas Occidental and Fulgencio Araujo; 593-2-222-2996). Bring a hat (temperatures drop as you climb to the top) and spring for the express line ($8.50 for tourists, $4.90 for locals). At the top, stroll the nature paths threaded amid waving grasses and buy coca tea ($2.25) at the tea shop in the mountain lodge to help counteract the high altitude.
6) ART AND ARCHITECTURE
La Capilla del Hombre (Calles Lorenzo Chávez EA18-143 and Mariano Calvache; 593-2-244-8492; capilladelhombre.com), which means Chapel of Man, is an impressive cultural complex conceived in 1985 by Oswaldo Guayasamín, one of Ecuador’s greatest artists, as a tribute to the resilience of the Latin American people. The three-story museum, in the Bellavista neighborhood, houses a heart-wrenching sequence of paintings, murals and sculptures that captures the miseries and victories of people struggling against political oppression.
7) A TASTE OF THE COAST
Settle in for lunch on the leafy patio of La Chillangua Verde Esmeralda (Calles Zaldumbie N25-165 and Toledo; 593-2-222-5313), which specializes in coastal Ecuadorean cuisine, including tasty ceviches (from $6 for a small calamari to $16 for a large langosta) and camarones encocadas, a rich seafood dish prepared with coconut juice.
8) FOLKLORE AND FORAGING
Folklore Olga Fisch (Avenidas Colón E10-53 and Caamaño; 593-2-254-1315; olgafisch.com) is a boutique with a selection of indigenous and Ecuadorean art, including handwoven tapestries, silver jewelry, straw fedoras and pottery. It’s a must-stop for shoppers. The small museum upstairs displays pre-Columbian artifacts and post-colonial art. Next, hone your haggling skills at El Ejido park, a short taxi ride away, where artisans in indigenous garb line the northern end on most weekends with stalls featuring handmade jewelry, alpaca scarves, wooden flutes and other crafts. Nearby, the Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal (Calles Jorge Washington between Reina Victoria and Juan León Mera) has about another hundred stalls of similar souvenirs.
9) ABOVE THE CLOUDS
Hold tight for a bumpy ride up the potholed gravel road to Hacienda Rumiloma (at the end of Obispo de la Madrid; 593-2-320-0953; haciendarumiloma.com), more than 10,000 feet up the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano, literally above the clouds. The jarring ride is well worth it for a romantic dinner overlooking the city. Outfitted in a hodgepodge of Baccarat chandeliers, booths made of thick slabs of worn wood and antique chairs covered in woven fabrics, the restaurant offers a luxurious, rustic feel, with a wood-burning stove in one corner and a baby grand piano in another. Specialties like the Asian-influenced camarones Rumiloma ($20) and cordero La Cantera, a savory lamb dish ($22), are served on heavy metal platters. Head downstairs to the Irish Pub for an after-dinner drink next to the fireplace. (There are also luxurious suites with fireplaces from $305.)
10) SWISS BREAKFAST
Grab a pastry at the Swiss Corner’s deli/bakery (at the corner of Avenida De los Shyris N38-41 and El Telégrafo; 592-2-280-5360) or sit down in its cheery restaurant next door for yogurt and fruit parfaits or eggs and hash browns. Prices from $3 to $10.
11) OLD TOWN
The cobblestone streets of Quito’s historic center are closed to traffic from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday — an ideal opportunity to explore. Start at the Basílica del Voto Nacional, (Calle Carchi 122 and Venezuela; 593-2-228-9428), Ecuador’s largest Gothic cathedral, adorned with gargoyles inspired by the country’s iguanas, pumas and Galápagos tortoises. Then take Calle García Moreno to the Plaza de la Independencia, Quito’s main square, surrounded by the cathedral, the Presidential Palace, the Archbishop’s Place and City Hall. Take a break at the Plaza Grande Hotel’s Café (Calles García Moreno and Chile; 888-790-5264; plazagrandequito.com) and order a creamy cup of Ecuadorean hot chocolate ($5). Continuing on Calle García Moreno, you will pass La Compañía de Jesús, with its gold-leaf altar. Entrance: $2. On Calle Sucre, head uphill to the Plaza San Francisco, dominated by a church and convent, where musicians gather and locals spontaneously break into dance. Next, make your way to the pedestrian street La Ronda (also known as Calle Morales), where balconies are decorated with flowers and flags, children play hopscotch and tiny restaurants serve up Ecuadorean specialties.
IF YOU GO
Taxis (typically $2 to $6) are recommended for getting around, especially at night. Or rent an air-conditioned mini-van with a driver, about $130 for a 14-hour day from JL Turismo, jlturismoecuador.com.
In Old Town, Hotel Patio Andaluz (García Moreno N6-52 between Mejía and Olmedo; 593-2-228-0830; hotelpatioandaluz.com) has 32 elegant rooms with antique-style furniture. Rates from $200 a night.
Casa Gangotena, a historic mansion overlooking Plaza San Francisco in Old Town Quito (Calle Bolivar 541; casagangotena.com) plans to offer 33 rooms with painted tin ceilings, antique furniture and marble bathrooms beginning this month. Rooms will start at $425, with breakfast. There will be eight rooms with plaza views for $550 a night