When most travelers think of Ecuador, they think Galapagos, stopping in Quito, the nation’s capital, only to change planes for the flight to the islands. But these days, after a 10-year project to upgrade this historical city, Quito deserves a linger. With a town center that features lavish churches, courtyard mansions and cobblestone squares — mostly built between the 16th and 18th centuries by Spanish colonists and now collectively deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site — the city is begging to be discovered as more than just a layover. Plus, at an elevation of 9,350 feet, under the gaze of the Pichincha volcano, it’s a cool counterpart to the country’s tropical lowlands.
Lodged in a meticulously restored 1926 mansion with hand-painted tin-wall panels, marble floors and murals, the new 31-room Casa ?Gangotena claims a regal corner of the central Plaza de San Francisco (climb to the fourth-story rooftop for the best views of the cobblestone plaza). Hotels in the historic city center are some of the most atmospheric, including the antique-filled, eight-room Casa San Marcos, lodged in an 18th-century building that also houses a companion art gallery. Nearby, the 32-room Hotel Patio Andaluz occupies one of Quito’s original mansions, with a restaurant in the enclosed central courtyard.
Whether you’re religious or not, the ornate 16th-century Iglesia de San Francisco, newly restored and sparkling from its gold-leaf ceiling to its sculpture-filled altar, is a mandatory art tour and the one must-see of the 40 or so ?colonial-vintage churches in the city. Just a block off the main square, you can delve into indigenous symbols and beliefs in the Casa del Alabado,? a modern archaeology museum devoted to pre-Columbian cultures lodged in a gutted ?mansion. Survey the city and surrounding mountains from atop the Pichincha volcano via the TelefériQo cable car, which summits at nearly 13,500 feet. If you can still breathe in the thin air, the gondola also provides access to hiking trails here.
People come to Ecuador just for the crafts, and Olga Fisch Folklore, founded by the namesake Hungarian immigrant, curates some of the best designs in everything from carved wooden tiles to tapestries. Haggle for less-rarefied but equally colorful folk art and crafts among the stalls at the Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal and in nearby El Ejido park, where vendors in indigenous clothing display alpaca scarves, woven bags and wooden statues on weekends.
Draped in red velvet, the fittingly theatrical Mediterranean-meets-Latin Theatrum Restaurant & Wine Bar resides above the restored national theater and serves top Ecuadorian dishes like prawns with yucca purée. Popular Peruvian chefs have been moving into the colonial center and opening outposts of their Lima restaurants, such as Astrid&Gastón, by celebrated ceviche specialist Gastón Acurio. Casa Gangotena waves the national flag for local dishes like empanadas and coastal seafood.
In trendy Plaza Foch in the north, Q Restaurant, Bar & Lounge serves martinis and pisco sours in exuberantly painted quarters. In the middle of town, the sloping pedestrian street of Calle La Ronda rings out with live music from restaurants and bars like Café Sibari, which often programs folk-inspired groups.
IF YOU GO...
Coruña N32-302 at Gonzalez Suarez
La Ronda 707
Casa del Alabado
Cuenca Street N1-41
Casa Gangotena, from $460
Bolivar Oe6-41 y Cuenca
Casa San Marcos, from $138
Junín E1-36 y Montúfar
Hotel Patio Andaluz, from $110
García Moreno N6-52
Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal
Calles Jorge Washington between Reina Victoria and Juan León Mera
Olga Fisch Folklore
Avenidas Colón E10-53 and Caamaño
Q Restaurant, Bar & Lounge
La Mariscal Foch E6-12 and Reina Victoria
Avenida Occidental and Fulgencio Araujo
Theatrum Restaurant & Wine Bar/Teatro Nacional Sucre
Calle Manabi between Guayaquil and Flores