Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito // © 2015 Quito Turismo
For years, Quito’s historic downtown — a neighborhood graced with some of South America’s most impressive colonial architecture — was a place that tourists only visited during the day, darting back to the big hotels in the newer part of city as the sun set. But things have changed in this part of Ecuador’s capital.
In recent years, Quito’s historic center has increased its safety, beautified its streets, restored more buildings and diversified its offerings to include noteworthy hotels and restaurants that serve as perfect complements to the district’s many landmark sites. Indeed, if a traveler so desires, it’s finally possible to organize an entire, multiday visit focused solely on exploring downtown — by day and by night.
Tour companies such as Gulliver Expeditions, which offers packages for most of Ecuador’s popular tourism destinations, now offer many options for exploring Quito’s old city and also provide recommendations and assistance with hotels, shopping and dining.
Must-see religious sites include the 16th-century Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito, which is home to a museum that displays historic religious garb, and the massive San Francisco church, which dates back to 1534 and sits adjacent to a convent that’s also open to the public.
Also popular on the tourism trail is Compania de Jesus, a 16th-century church with an interior that glistens with gold leaf.
Countless museums and cultural attractions — which address everything from pre-Hispanic culture to colonial and contemporary art — make it easy to spend several days exploring Quito, which was the first city to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978 (along with Krakow, Poland).
Museo de Arte Colonial, which reopened in 2010 following a renovation, is home to an impressive collection of works from the 16th to 19th centuries, all housed in a beautiful colonial mansion. Also worth a visit is Museo Numismatico (Numismatic Museum), housed in a grand building constructed for the nation’s central bank.
And for a rewarding glimpse of local talent, visitors can head to Calle La Ronda, a historic street where artisans work on traditional handicrafts such as embroidery and candle-making.
Another reason travelers are staying longer in downtown Quito is the array of hotel offerings. Today, three hotels — each set in a beautifully restored historic building and within walking distance of the most important landmarks — tend to attract the greatest number of midscale and upscale travelers in the neighborhood.
The 31-room Casa Gangotena leads the trio when it comes to pristine perfection, while Hotel Plaza Grande — a stately building near the presidential palace — is another elegant choice. Hotel Patio Andaluz offers comfortable accommodations in a restored former mansion at more economical prices. These hotels have also established themselves among locals and visitors as culinary hubs for the district.
This is likely only the beginning of the renaissance downtown. Quito Turismo, the city’s tourism organization, is seeking investors for a series of public-private partnerships to refurbish several historic buildings — most of which currently house government offices — and recast them as restaurants, hotels and shops.
WHEN TO GO
Many locals say that in Quito you can experience four seasons in one day, so packing for a variety of temperatures is a good idea. From June through August, the weather is sunnier, but windy. It’s a bit cooler through the rest of the year.
Mariscal Sucre International Airport opened in 2013, offering greatly improved and expanded facilities compared to its predecessor. The new facility, however, is located outside the city, so allow for extra travel time (up to an hour or more during rush hour, otherwise 35 to 45 minutes from most hotels in the city).
Connections from the western U.S. are most convenient through Houston, Atlanta and Miami, or via Mexico City, Panama City or Bogota, Colombia. Between the new airport and Quito, taxis charge a fixed rate ranging from $20 to $26, while an express bus links the new facility to the former airport (which is located in the city of Quito) for $8.
WHERE TO EAT
Quito’s historic center is home to an ever-expanding array of dining establishments. You’ll find lots of international dishes here, but for the most interesting and authentic experiences, make time to sample the local cuisine, divided among these four categories: pre-Hispanic (dating to the period between 1000 B.C. and 1533 A.D.), colonial (dating between the 16th and 19th centuries), republican (after independence) and contemporary (which blends all of the previous categories, with modern flair).
Must-try Ecuadorian favorites include locro de papas (potato soup with avocado), fritada, empanadas (including the very airy empanada de viento), tamales, humitas (a version of tamales) and rosero, an 18th-century beverage made from corn, fruit and spices.
Restaurants at Casa Gangotena, Hotel Plaza Grande and Hotel Patio Andaluz are among the most elegant venues for dining downtown (even if you’re not staying in any of the hotels). One of the best places for authentic Ecuadorian cuisine is Hasta La Vuelta Senor, which is located on the top floor of a centuries-old building overlooking a courtyard.