Set high in the rolling foothills of the Andes Mountains, Quito is a sprawling metropolis filled with cultural and historical treasures. Founded by 16th-century Spanish conquistadors on the site of an ancient Incan city, the capital of Ecuador boasts the biggest and best-preserved historic center in the Americas. Featuring an artful blend of European and indigenous architectural styles, dozens of churches, museums and colonial mansions line cobblestone streets. There are plenty of modern attractions in Quito too, including night clubs, trendy restaurants and boutique shops. Quito’s many parks and plazas provide picturesque settings where you can relax while planning your next excursion.
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The most significant representation of neo-Gothic architecture in the Americas, Ecuador’s largest basilica is a must-see attraction. Built in the style of Notre-Dame in Paris, construction for the concrete cathedral began in 1887. Instead of the traditional gargoyles, however, Ecuadorian animals like monkeys, iguanas, tortoises and pumas adorn the structure’s edifice. Inside, standout features include the mosaic floor and an altar to the Virgin Mary located in a side chapel. If you’re up for a long climb up stairs and ladders, the top of the main tower offers great views of Quito and the volcanic mountains beyond.
Quito’s go-to spot for relaxation and recreation, the Parque La Carolina is popular among tourists and locals alike. Located in the city’s business district, the massive tract of land was turned from a farm into parkland in the 1940s. Running tracks, bike lanes, basketball courts and soccer fields offer plenty of opportunities for physical activities. An artificial lake with several islands invites leisurely strolls. Paddle boats are available too. La Carolina is also home to the Jardin Botanico where flora from Ecuador’s varied ecosystems is on full display. A large orchidarium features more than 1,200 species of the tropical flowers.
When it comes to nightlife in Quito, Plaza Foch is the place to go. Dozens of bars, nightclubs and eateries fill the blocks immediately surrounding the square. It’s also a great spot to meet the locals. Thursday through Saturday, young people gather here to join in the fun. Prices are higher in this neighborhood than in other areas in affordable Quito, but the diversity of entertainment available makes it all worth it. From live music to karaoke to dancing, there’s something for every taste. Plaza Foch is where you’ll find some of Quito’s best tapas bars, pizzerias and upscale restaurants too.
Dedicated to the people of Latin America, La Capilla Del Hombre is an art museum designed by famed Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín. Located in Bellavista, the strikingly modern-looking structure sits atop a hill overlooking the city. Guayasamín used his murals and sculpture to capture the experience of a people fighting political oppression. Completed three years after his death in 1999, the “Chapel of Man” offers the perfect backdrop to his emotionally moving paintings. The adjacent Museo Guayasamín features a more expansive collection of the artist’s work as well as artwork from Ecuador’s pre-Columbian and colonial periods.
One of the few streets in Quito that date back to pre-Columbian times, La Ronda offers visitors a welcome break from taxis and tour buses. The narrow pedestrian-only street, which covers less than three city blocks, is the perfect place to enjoy a leisurely stroll. Restored in 2007, La Ronda is lined with small art galleries, quaint little shops and family-run cafés. Grants were given to residents to spruce up their homes too. Today, picturesque wrought-iron balconies ornamented with flower pots and flags overlook the cobblestone walkway.
The recently completed TeleferiQo tramway whisks visitors from the city center to the peak of Cruz Loma on the eastern side of the Guagua Pichincha Volcano. The entrance to the gondola ride is located within the new VulQano amusement park, a tourist destination in its own right. You’ll want to ensure you’re acclimated to Quito’s high elevation before taking on the aerial tramway. The six-passenger gondola cars rise 1,100 meters (3,620 feet) in just 10 minutes. There’s a café at the top where you can relax and regain your bearings. Bring along some warm clothing so that you can enjoy the breathtaking views of the city in relative comfort.
Quito’s hilly terrain offers scenic views from just about every vantage point, but the panoramic vista you’ll enjoy from El Panecillo makes a trip to the summit a must-do experience. Named after the Spanish bread panecillo, the hill is located in the south-central section of the city, providing expansive views from every side. While it’s possible to climb to the top of El Panecillo, most visitors prefer taking a taxi. A large statue of the Virgin Mary adorns the summit. Made from 7,000 pieces of aluminum, it’s notable for showing the Virgin with wings. This type of portrayal is popular throughout the northern Andes.
You could spend an entire day in the Plaza Grande and still not see everything this historic square has to offer. Since the 1600s, royalty, dictators and presidents have governed the country from the buildings surrounding Plaza Grande. Visitors can tour the presidential palace Carondelet, which has been converted into a museum, and the 16th-century Cathedral of Quito, Ecuador’s oldest Catholic church. The Archbishop’s Palace and Hotel Plaza Grande are open to the public as well. At the center of the plaza stands the Heroes de la Independencia, a moment to those who fought in Ecuador’s war for independence from Spain.
One of the first churches built in the Americas, San Francisco de Quito dates back to the 1570s. Over the nearly 150 years of its construction, Renaissance, Mannerist, Mudejar and Baroque architectural styles influenced its design. Named after Saint Francis, the church’s relatively plain edifice is contrasted by the lavish use of gold in its nave, chapels and altar. The main altar features a winged Madonna crafted by Quito artist Bernardo de Legarda in 1734. The adjacent museum provides access to the choir, which features beautifully persevered Moorish decoration from the 16th century.
Demonstrating the wealth of the powerful Jesuit order in 16th-century Ecuador, La Compania de Jesus is the most impressive church in the country’s capital. Built over 160 years starting in 1605, the structure is best known for its highly decorated interiors. Around half a ton of gold was used to ornament the walls, ceilings and the church’s 11 altars. In the towering nave, gold leaf, gilded plaster, elaborate mosaics and wood carvings cover every surface. At the base of the high altar lies the remains of Quito-born Mariana de Jesús de Paredes, Ecuador’s patron saint.