Quito is not the highest capital in the world — La Paz takes that prize — but Ecuador’s capital does have a more important claim to fame for visitors. Its historic colonial center is the largest in the Americas, and it was the first place on the planet designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, in 1978.
When setting aside a day of enjoyment in Quito, it’s important to time it right. Monday is the worst: Most museums and restaurants are closed. Sunday is best: Most of the city streets in the historic center are closed off for pedestrians. The main avenue going from here through the more modern Mariscal district is as well, with bicyclists taking the place of cars. If you want to explore on two wheels yourself, rent a bike from one of the pop-up stands and join along. Take it easy, though: You are 9,350 feet above sea level.
Most of the city’s business chain hotels are in the newer part of town, as are many of the top restaurants, but for history and interesting architecture, the best bet is to head for the center and start walking. Plaza de la Independencia is the heart of it all, so this is a good starting point. The presidential palace is here, as is the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Nearby Plaza San Francisco is more open and dramatic, with its namesake church, completed in 1580, flanking a large rectangle cobbled in stone. A block away is the city’s most attractive museum, Casa del Alabado. Focused solely on Pre-Columbian art, the collection of stone carving and pottery is arranged by theme, with some items dating back as far as 4,000 years. The collection is beautifully presented in a 17th-century mansion.
The best restaurant in the area for lunch is at Casa Gangotena, the city’s newest luxury hotel, where Ecuadoran classics get an upgrade under the mastery of one of Ecuador’s finest chefs.
In the afternoon, visit the nearby free Museum of Colonial Art to see religious works from the 16th to 19th centuries, then step inside the stunning La Compañía de Jesus church to see how these works appear in a gilded Spanish colonial church. This is one of the grandest in the Americas, with nearly every surface a work of art and miles of gold leaf covering intricate altars and cornices.
Wander a few blocks to the narrow pedestrian-only La Ronda Street to see artisan shops and have dinner by candlelight in a historic building. Or grab a taxi back to Mariscal for a less rustic setting, dining at one of Quito’s excellent modern restaurants such as Zazu or La Gloria.
After it all, you’ll realize you’ve had to pass on much of what this highland city near the equator offers. The rest will be waiting next time you venture nearly two miles into the sky.
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PHOTO: © ADRIAN OLSTAD
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