Leave it to Quito to quietly slide into its new position as South America’s capital of cool. This Ecuadorian city has long nabbed some impressive titles, including the first city to be named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978, but it wasn’t until recently that it became a destination for contemporary arts and culture.

A row of multicolored houses against the backdrop of houses on a hillside in Quito © Mike Matthews Photography / Getty Images
Quito is worth more than a quick stop © Mike Matthews Photography / Getty Images

Today, Quito is more than just a history-steeped stopover city for travelers en route to the Galápagos Islands or Amazon rainforest – it’s home to one of South America’s most vibrant creative scenes. Here, pizza places double as venues for indie concerts and politically charged poetry readings, while bohemian barrios are home to murals, art studios and food truck festivals. If the critically acclaimed exhibitions at Centro de Arte Contemporáneo (Ecuador’s only contemporary art museum) are any indication, the appetite for new talent is more robust than ever. Once you’ve visited the colonial cathedrals of the centro histórico (Quito’s Old Town) and caught your breath at 9350 feet above sea level, make some room for the city’s eclectic offerings.

A show of the cinema exterior covered in street art, with flowers in the foreground © Julia Eskins / Lonely Planet
You can't miss Ocho y Medio's colorful façade, painted by local artist Ana Fernández (Miranda Texidor) © Julia Eskins / Lonely Planet

Dive into the arts

To reach the urban epicenter of Quito's art scene, head to the La Floresta neighborhood, home to a growing community of filmmakers, artists and writers. Low-cost rent originally attracted the creative set to the barrio in the 1990s, leading to a communal push for better public policies to support independent galleries, film productions and collaborative spaces. Fast-forward over 20 years and you’ll find the area peppered with the fruits of their labor including No Lugar, a contemporary arts venue and workshop space. It’s impossible to miss the floral painted Ocho y Medio, an independent cinema with an equally photogenic cafe. The colorful story continues on the streets, where murals by local legends like La Suerte and Apitatán have become the star attraction of free walking tours through the neighborhood. "It’s probably the barrio with the highest concentration of cultural entrepreneurs in the country," says Quito Street Tours guide Antonio Portilla (aka Tuno). "The styles of the artists – a lot of them are women – are much different from artists in other countries. There is a tendency to focus on plants, animals, conservation and the social protest against 'macho' stereotypes and racism."

A man pours a beer from a tap in a warm-toned bar setting © JUAN CEVALLOS / Getty Images
Craft beer has seen a boom in Ecuador, and Quito has plenty of homegrown breweries © JUAN CEVALLOS / Getty Images

Embark on a brewery hop 

Streams of cultural empowerment have trickled into Quito’s craft beer scene, which has grown to include over 20 microbreweries in the last decade. Quito is recognized as the first place in South America to brew beer (thanks to a Flemish monk who brought barley and wheat to the city in 1535), but has only recently revived cerveza artesanales traditions. Among its niche breweries is Zambo Creek Microcervecería, an all-female brewery founded by sisters Laura and Paulina Boada. Together, they’re working to change Ecuador’s male-dominated beer industry and support local agriculture; incorporating Amazonian tea leaves, coffee and cacao into the brewing process. Other innovative gastro pubs, like Bandidos Brewing, invite guests to blend history and hops. Their main location is inside a Spanish colonial building with a chapel, making for a refreshing way to cap off a day of sightseeing in the historic center. Join a craft beer tour for the full experience, which includes meeting some of the brew masters, tasting flights and visiting locally loved spots like Altar Cervecería.

Close-up of drummer playing in a dark music venue with singer in the background © Da Pawn
Hometown band Da Pawn plays in a Quito venue © Da Pawn

Find local tunes

Stroll down the charming cobblestone street of La Ronda on a Friday night and you’ll likely hear Ecuadorian folk music spilling out of pint-sized bars. Salsa dancing and canelazo (a hot tipple made from citrus fruits, cinnamon and cane sugar liquor) get the fiesta started, but it’s Quito’s love of music that keeps the party going. Beyond traditional sounds, the city is home to an innovative music scene punctuated with genres ranging from ska-jazz to Andean hip-hop. Thanks to the popularity of Quito-based bands Swing Original Monks and Da Pawn, the city's music has transcended Ecuadorian borders. Da Pawn drummer and manager Pedro Ortiz says, "The music scene in Quito is amazingly vibrant and diverse. Local artists play traditional music in streets and plazas and, at the same time, you can get into a music venue nearby and listen to a heavy metal band. What makes the music scene so interesting is that most of the artists that play live shows also produce them. So, the do-it-yourself culture is deeply rooted." The city’s musical output can be heard at casual venues on any given night: head to Cafe Democrático for live performances on Thursday, Friday and Sunday nights, Dirty Sanchez for bohemian rock, Casa Pukara for hip-hop and Parque La Carolina for rap battles on weekends.

With year-round festivals, it’s almost impossible to walk through Quito’s plazas and parks without stumbling upon buskers. The highlight of the summer is the Verano de las Artes (Summer of Arts) festival, which takes place in the scenic Parque Itchimbia over three weekends in August. The free event brings together over 175 Ecuadorian and Latin American artists, along with local vendors and food trucks.

A wooden table set with a coffee, two sandwiches and a dessert, with the corner of a menu © Botánica
Indulge in a tasty coffee and lunch spread at Botánica © Botánica

Taste Quito's best bites

Street food is an institution in Quito, where vendors hawk everything from steaming hot soups to tortillas de tiesto (corn pancakes). Its no surprise the city’s innovative culinary entrepreneurs have carried on street level traditions. In a land where anytime is mealtime, food trucks have taken over the city – so much so that food truck ‘plazas’ are now popping up everywhere. For a taste of diverse dishes, head to Bunker Food Park on Avenida Gribaldo Miño (open evenings Monday–Friday and afternoons on Saturday and Sunday). In La Floresta, street-food park La Platea can be found on Avenida La Coruna and Francisco Salazar (open noon–10pm Tuesday and Wednesday, noon–11pm Thursday, noon–midnight Friday and Saturday and noon–5pm Sunday).

A trip to Quito isn’t complete without sampling some award-winning chocolate from Kallari or popping in one of the city’s many cafes for a cup of Ecuadorian coffee. The perfect warm reprieve from the Andean chill can be found inside Botánica, a cafe-cum-boutique selling items made from recycled materials. Stay awhile and you’ll likely find yourself with a new appreciation for Quito, a former town of stone that’s now showing its creativity. Inside these innovative spaces, originality roars.

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