Reach New Heights in Quito

1. Where to Stay

Casa Gangotena offers luxurious accommodations right on the iconic Plaza San Francisco.Photo: Courtesy of Casa Gangotena

Find a comfortable atmosphere at Café Cultura (from $109), where claw-footed tubs, wall murals, and even a fully grown tree in one room make up the unique décor. Originally the home of one of Quito’s oldest families and later, the French Cultural Centre, this 26-room hotel also houses a restaurant that attracts locals with its fresh-baked breads and native fruits at breakfast, and English tea service every afternoon.

Get a feel for modern Ecuador at the Le Parc Hotel (from $172), a contemporary glass tower near Parque La Carolina, the city’s largest green space. The 30 cushy guest rooms feature down duvets and Philippe Starck faucets, and there’s also an on-site L’Occitane spa and a rooftop bar with spectacular views of the city.

Live like nobility while staying at Casa Gangotena (from $375), a restored Art Deco mansion that opened as a hotel in 2011. Formerly the home of Republican-era presidents and a prominent family, the mansion now offers the most luxurious accommodations in town, with 31 oversize rooms and suites boasting original details, like decorative tin ceilings and painted murals alongside updates like specialized textiles from Osborne & Little.

2. Where to Eat

Theatrum's dramatic space reflects its location on the second floor of the Teatro Nacional Sucre.Photo: Courtesy of Theatrum

Make a reservation for what is arguably Quito’s best fine-dining experience at Zazu, a modern bistro where the elegant décor extends to a massive, cylinder-shaped wine cellar with giant glass doors. Peruvian chef Rafael Peréz fuses innovative ingredient pairings with artistic presentations in dishes like wild mushroom ceviche ($9) and stone-crab cannelloni in saffron-coconut emulsion ($27).

Grab a seat on the outdoor patio of El Esmeraldas, a casual lunch-only spot specializing in the northern coast’s Afro-Ecuadorian cuisine, which is heavy on peanuts, coconuts, and shellfish. Order staple fare like encocados (from $7.50), creamy seafood stews made with coconut milk, or bolones (from $2.50), balls made of mashed and fried plantains that are filled with cheese, shrimp, or pork.

Dine in style at Theatrum Restaurant & Wine Bar, a celebrated restaurant with a tuxedo-clad staff and towering red curtains that give the dining room a stagelike feel. Peruvian-born chef Julio Jose Avendaño uses local produce in his contemporary New Andean–Mediterranean menu that includes plates like grilled octopus with foie gras butter and 25-year-old balsamic vinegar ($16). A five-course seasonal tasting menu usually tops out at $50.

3. What to Do

Plaza San Francisco sits in the historic city center, which has been restored to its former glory in recent years.Photo: © John Coletti/JAI/Corbis

Wander the revitalized cobblestone streets of the historic city center, which was named one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1978. Thanks to more than a decade of ongoing restorations, the formerly gritty atmosphere of the city’s 500-year-old Plazas San Francisco and La Independencia has been wiped away. Admire the Palacio de Carondelet (Calle Espejo and García Moreno), the Catedral Metropolitan (Plaza de la Independencia), and gilded Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (Calle García Moreno and Av. José de Sucre; 593-2-2584-175; $3 admission), a baroque masterpiece that took more than 160 years to complete and is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in the world. Afterward, stroll down the recently restored colonial street Calle de la Ronda, which is now lined with eclectic shops and cafés.

Get the best views of the city (and the 13 volcanoes that surround it) by riding the TelefériQo (Avenidas Occidental and Fulgencio Araujo; 593-2-222-2996, $8.50 round-trip), one of the highest aerial lifts in the world. The 2.5-kilometer gondola line takes you up the side of Pichincha Volcano to the Cruz Loma lookout, more than 13,000 feet above sea level, in about eight minutes. It’s open until 10 p.m. on weekends, but you’ll want to go during the day if you’re interested in embarking on the three-hour hike to the volcano’s summit, which you should only consider after a few days of adjusting to the altitude.

Stand with one foot in each hemisphere at the Intiñan Solar Museum ($4), just north of the city, where GPS technology accurately marks the equator. You can try to balance an egg on its end or flush a toilet on each side of the line to confirm the exactness of the measurements, which you can’t do at the more popular yet hokey Ciudad Mitad del Mundo 600 feet away.

Take a taxi to La Capilla del Hombre (Mariano Calvache E18A; 593-2-2448-492; $4), internationally renowned artist Oswaldo Guayasamín’s recreation of a pre-Columbian temple on a Bellavista Park hillside overlooking the city. While a more complete collection of his work can be found five minutes away in the Museo Guayasamín (Mariano Calvache 2458; 593-2-2448-492), this impressive two-level monument, completed by the artist’s family in 2002, three years after his death, holds some of his greatest works, including Tears of Blood and an eternal flame dedicated to those who have died in the struggle for human rights.

4. Insider’s Tip

A wave of Ecuadorian artisans is producing high-end chocolate for the first time.Photo: Courtesy of Galería Ecuador Gourmet

While Ecuador has long produced sought-after cacao for export, it wasn’t until recently that the country began making its own high-quality chocolate. These days, dozens of small, artisanal producers are using the prized Arriba Nacional cacao bean to make chocolate that ranks among the best in the world. You’ll find the largest selection of brands at Galería Ecuador Gourmet in La Mariscal, where multiple rooms are dedicated solely to Ecuadorian-produced chocolate.

5. Oddball Day

A toucan in the Mindo Cloudforest; colorful fabrics sold in the market town Otavalo.Photo: Courtesy of Mindo Conexion (L); ~maja*majika~, via Flickr (R)

Put aside a day to explore the diverse mountain landscapes just outside the city. Rent a car from Avis (from $32 per day), stopping at a branch of Cassave Pan de Yuca & Yogurt for a typical Quiteño breakfast of cheese bread and yogurt flavored with native tropical fruits ($4). Drive about two hours to the Mindo Cloudforest Reserve, a magical-looking 35,000-acre expanse that reaches a height of more than 15,000 feet. Explore the foggy terrain to see dozens of orchid species, as well as a few hundred types of birds in the Milpe or Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuaries ($7 entrance fees). Head east to Hacienda Pinsaqui, a 300-year-old estate just outside of town in Cotacachi, for a traditional Ecuadorian-set menu ($27) of llapingachos (potato cakes stuffed with cheese) and other typical plates. Continue east to the market town of Otavalo, where you can haggle for alpaca blankets (from $65) and scarves (from $10) in the plaza (daily, until about 5 p.m.) before venturing to the indigenous village of Peguche to watch artisans weave ponchos and belts inside their homes. Drive back to Quito in time for dinner at Lúa, a trendy new restaurant in La Floresta that serves Alexander Lua’s brand of pan-Latin cuisine, with dishes like tiradito in a Parmesan sauce ($13) or grilled red tuna ($24). For a nightcap, skip the grungy backpacker pubs and discotheques in La Mariscal and head to El Pobre Diablo (cover charges vary), a jazz-and-blues club where live music has been performed most nights of the week for more than two decades.

6. Links

Learn about the city’s different neighborhoods and its brand-new airport, among other things, on the city’s official tourism site.

Check in with the South American Explorers Quito Clubhouse for the latest travel updates, expat happenings around the city, and volunteer opportunities around the country.

Read news and restaurant reviews in national newspaper Diario Hoy’s English-language section.

Life in Quito is a site where two American expats advertise their two-bedroom condo for rent, but they also write about current events and include helpful tips for visitors.

Reach New Heights in Quito