A capital city high in the Andes, Quito is dramatically situated, squeezed between mountain peaks whose greenery is concealed by the afternoon mist. Modern apartment buildings and modest concrete homes creep partway up the slopes, and busy commercial thoroughfares lined with shops and choked with traffic turn into peaceful neighborhoods on Sundays. Warm and relaxed, traditional Ecuadorian Sierra culture – overflowing market stands, shamanistic healers, fourth-generation hatmakers – mixes with a vibrant and sophisticated culinary and nightlife scene.
The city's crown jewel is its 'Old Town,' a Unesco World Heritage Site packed with colonial monuments and architectural treasures. No sterile, museum mile, its handsomely restored blocks – with 17th-century facades, picturesque plazas and magnificent art-filled churches – pulse with everyday life. Travelers, and many locals too, head to the 'gringolandia' of Mariscal Sucre, a compact area of guesthouses, travel agencies, multicultural eateries and teeming bars.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Quito.
Capped by green-and-gold domes, La Compañía de Jesús is Quito’s most ornate church and a standout among the baroque splendors of the Old Town. Free guided tours in English or Spanish highlight the church’s unique features, including its Moorish elements, perfect symmetry (right down to the trompe l’oeil staircase at the rear), symbolic elements (bright-red walls are a reminder of Christ’s blood) and its syncretism (Ecuadorian plants and indigenous faces are hidden along the pillars).
For spectacular views over Quito’s mountainous landscape, hop aboard this sky tram, one of the world's highest aerial lifts, that takes passengers on a 2.5km ride (10 minutes) up the flanks of Volcán Pichincha to the top of Cruz Loma. Once you’re at the top (a mere 4100m), you can hike to the summit of Rucu Pichincha (4680m), a 4km (five-hour) round-trip – ask about the safety situation before attempting the climb and bring warm clothes.
In the former home of the legendary painter Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919–99), this wonderful museum houses the most complete collection of the artist's work. Guayasamín was also an avid collector, and the museum displays his outstanding collection of pre-Columbian ceramic, bone and metal pieces. Admission includes entry to the Capilla del Hombre gallery.
One of the most important works of art in South America, Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín’s Capilla del Hombre stands next to the Casa Museo Guayasamín. The fruit of Guayasamín’s greatest vision, this giant monument-cum-museum is a tribute to humankind, to the suffering of Latin America’s indigenous poor and to the undying hope for something better. It’s a moving place and tours (in English, French and Spanish, included in the price) are highly recommended. Admission includes entrance to the Casa Museo.
Located in the circular, glass-plated, landmark building of the Casa de la Cultura is one of the country’s largest collections of Ecuadorian art, with magnificent works of pre-Hispanic and colonial religious art. The museum collection includes more than 1000 ceramic pieces dating from 12,000 BC to AD 1534, with highlights being ‘whistle bottles’ from the Chorrera culture, figures showing skull deformation practiced by the Machalilla culture, wild serpent bowls from the Jama-Coaque and ceramic representations of tzantzas (shrunken heads).
On Plaza Grande's southwest side stands Quito's cathedral. Although not the most ornate of the Old Town’s churches, it has some fascinating works by artists from the Quito School and houses the tomb of independence hero Antonio José de Sucre. Behind the main altar is a plaque marking where President Gabriel García Moreno died on August 6, 1875; after being slashed with a machete outside the Palacio del Gobierno, he was carried, dying, to the cathedral.
To the right of the Iglesia de San Francisco’s main entrance, and within the Convent of St Francis, this museum contains some of the church’s finest artwork, including paintings, sculpture and 16th-century furniture, some of which is fantastically wrought and inlaid with thousands of pieces of mother-of-pearl. The admission fee includes a guided tour in English or Spanish.
Topped by a 41m-tall aluminum mosaic statue of La Virgen de Quito (Virgin of Quito; completed in 1976), with a crown of stars, angelic wings and a chained dragon, the hill to the south of the Old Town called El Panecillo (the Little Loaf of Bread) is a major Quito landmark. From the summit there are marvelous views of the sprawling city and the surrounding volcanoes. Climb steps up to the base of the Virgin statue for an even loftier outlook.
While wandering around colonial Quito, you'll probably pass through the Plaza Grande several times. Its benches are great for soaking up the Andean morning sun and watching the bustle all around. On Monday, the changing of the guards takes place on the plaza at 11am. The white building on the plaza’s northwest side with the national flag flying atop is the Palacio de Gobierno, the seat of the Ecuadorian presidency. On the southwest side stands Quito’s cathedral.