Colonial Architecture, Museums, Galleries
Here at the foot of Mt. Pichincha (15,700 ft), an active volcano, you are in the Andean highlands in what was once the northern capital of the Inca Empire. When the approaching conquistadors finally fought their way here in 1534, they found Quito in ruins - the Incas chose to destroy their city rather than surrender it. The city was rebuilt in grand colonial style architecture. UNESCO formally recognized this legacy in 1978, proclaiming colonial Quito a World Heritage Site in the first round of designations (at the same time Galápagos was also recognized). Thus entering the historical center, or “Old Town,” and walking down the narrow, winding cobblestone streets, one is immediately immersed in 16th century colonial architecture, by whitewashed walls, red-tiled roofs, heavy wooden doors, and fountained courtyards.
The heart of Old Town Quito is the area surrounding Plaza de Independencia, including Palacio Municipal (City Hall), Palacio de Gobierno (the Presidential offices), La Catedral (the site of the first church in Quito), and Palacio Arzobispal (the Archbishop's Palace), now a series of shops and restaurants. Nearby is the most impressive architectural treasure Quito has to offer, La Compañia Church, whose interior is a virtual blaze of gold - it is decorated in renaissance style, and almost entirely in gold leaf - it is truly amazing! Nearby the Church of San Francisco is the largest of Quito's 86 churches. For the best panoramic views of Old Town visit Panecillo Hill, where the Virgin of Quito – a 148 foot tall sculpture clad in over 7,000 pieces of aluminum – looks across the city.
More than just beautiful plazas and ornate churches, Quito is a city of culinary treats, superstitions, and legends; where a quesadilla might not be what you expect, where they serve soft cheese in your hot chocolate, and where chocolatieres blend favors you might never anticipate…
Just off the Old Town plazas individual streets are often home to similar businesses. One street might specialize in piñatas and flowers, or snacks like nuts, candies and savory treats. One of the best known and oldest is Calle La Ronda. Today La Ronda is a pedestrian passageway and home to artisan shops, boutiques, and restaurants. Quiet during the day, the street comes alive at night. Visiting in the morning one can appreciate the architecture of Spanish colonial whitewashed buildings, with ornate woodwork, colorful courtyards, and window boxes overflowing with geraniums. A visit to a chocolatiere’s shop will teach you about Ecuador’s cocoa industry (they are responsible for two thirds of the world’s fine grade cocoa), while it tempts your taste buds.
Beyond the historic center of Old Town Quito there is still much to see. Not surprisingly one could easily spend more than a day touring and still feel like they left a lot unseen…
The neo-gothic Basilica and its towering spires, more than a 100 years in the making, are built almost entirely from locally quarried stone. The roof is ringed by elaborately carved gargoyles representing the national fauna of Ecuador; from armadillos to iguanas, and from Galápagos tortoises to cormorants, and more. While consecrated in the late 20th century, superstition dictates the construction shall never be fully completed. For the energetic you can climb to the top of the towers via circular stairs and ladders, but this is not for the faint of heart!
The National Museum (Museo Nacional del Ecuador) houses the most complete collection of pieces from Ecuadorian prehistory, dating back to 12,000 B.C. Beautiful exhibits include everything from arrowheads to early ceramics, through Inca artifacts (including gold pieces and jewelry), to 20th-century paintings and sculpture. (closed Mondays)
Housed in a former mansion in Old Town Quito is the Museo Casa Alabado. This beautiful museum of Pre-Columbian art showcases their permanent collection by theme allowing for fascinating side-by-side comparisons of pieces. Docent-led tour are offered several times each day.
The Vivarium de Quito is a small herpetological research center housing a collection of mostly native amphibians and reptiles. This is your chance to get up close to jungle frogs, or maybe a poisonous snake or boa (from the other side of a glass wall, that is).
Quito is also home to quite a number of wonderful art galleries as well. The three most famous galleries are of the painter Oswaldo Guayasamin, as well as Olga Fisch and the Galería Latina (the latter being one of the best places to view, and purchase, high-quality Andean wares). Of course there are also plenty of locally created handicrafts available in street markets and shops too
Each morning farmers bring their produce – fruits and vegetables, many of which are found only in Latin America – into several indoor marketplaces or mercados around the city. Here chefs, maids, and families might rub elbows as they search out what they need for the day.
One of Quito's more breath-taking attractions is the TelefériQo – an amusement park style sky tram that takes passengers on a dizzying ascent almost 2 miles up the flanks of Volcán Pichincha, to the top of Cruz Loma. Views from the top (nearly 13,500 feet) are spectacular, out over Quito and the surrounding mountains and valleys. While often delightful the adventure comes with a couple of caveats as well; the views are often obscured in the afternoons, and the rapid altitude change will likely zap your strength.
Quito full-day (daily; 8:30am-4:30pm)
Our favorite option owing to the myriad possibilities is a full-day tour of Quito! Start the morning with either “Colonial Quito” or “Quito Like a Local.” Round out the day with visits to both the Archeological Museum and the Mitad del Mundo, plus lunch in a local restaurant.
Colonial Quito half-day (daily; 8:30am–1:30pm, or 1:30pm–6pm)
Visit the best of the elaborate churches and plazas of Old Town Colonial Quito, plus Panecillo Hill, and your choice of either the Archeological Museum or Equatorial Monument on this half day tour.
Equatorial Monument / La Mitad del Mundo (daily; 9am-noon, or 2pm-5pm)
This more in-depth half day tour to La Mitad del Mundo and its Ethnographic Museum also visits the lighthearted Intiñan Solar Museum (where a mix of weird science and geographical phenomena are demonstrated during a 30 minute tour circuit). Nearby we stop at an overlook with spectacular views into the Pululahua Crater and the pastoral crater floor (by afternoon the crater is often fog shrouded).
Quito like a Local (Monday-Saturday; 8:30am – noon)
Start the morning at the landmark Panaderia San Juan bakery in historic Quito; known for 80 years for sweet cheesy tarts, or quesadillas, baked from scratch. Visit the basement for a cooking demonstration (they hand make well over 1,000 daily) before heading back upstairs to enjoy a quesadilla of your own, served with either coffee, or cocoa with bits of soft white cheese added. Invigorated, our next stop is the Quito Basilica. From here we traverse the central plaza of Old Town, learning about a few of the local superstitions and legends, strolling local streets and Calle La Ronda (it’s not too early to sample chocolate is it?). Round out the morning with a stop at a produce Mercado.
Jacchigua Folkloric Ballet (Wednesday only: 7:30pm curtain)
Not a tour per se, but theater tickets: Each Wednesday evening Casa de la Cultura museum theater hosts the extravagant Jacchigua Folkloric Ballet. This award winning 2-hour show features 90 performers and the music and dance of the Andean highlands (the lavish costumes alone are worth the visit). The theater is a short taxi ride from the hotel.