Ecuador’s capital, Quito, offers a wealth of immersive cultural experiences that you won’t find anywhere else. Founded on the ruins of an Inca settlement, this 16th-century city is full of stunningly beautiful and ornate churches, palatial homes converted into boutique hotels, and winding cobblestone streets. Walking through them, it’s easy to see why Quito was the first city to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
Here are 10 ways to get a taste of what this incredible destination has to offer its visitors.
Admire the splendor of the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús
Known locally as the “Golden Church” because almost every inch of the interior of this Baroque masterpiece is gilded with gold leaf, this church is filled with artwork and artifacts that will leave you amazed. Construction began here in 1605, in the early years of the Spanish occupation. It took more than 150 years to complete. A guided tour lets you climb to the roof, which offers fantastic views over the city and access inside the ornate dome.
Dine at fabulous Urko
The creative vision of chefs Daniel Maldonado, Andrés de la Torres and Cristhian Hernandez, the tasting menus at Urko draw on Ecuador’s rich biodiversity to serve incredible dishes using ingredients from the Andes, the coast, the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon jungle. These include Amazonian paiche fish with potato foam on a bed of lacto-fermented tomato jelly, or a ceviche dish of preserved watermelon and gooseberries with caramelized plantain corn stock. Urko’s vibe is fun, with artwork depicting local shamanic rituals and local crafts displayed among plants and flowers. All seats have a view of the large open kitchen, where Maldonado and his team conjure up culinary magic.
Climb the east face of Pichincha Volcano in a TelefériQo cable car
At more than 9,000 feet above sea level, Quito holds the title of the second highest city in the world. (La Paz, Bolivia, takes first place.) Want to go higher? Take a ride on a TelefériQo cable car that takes you to almost 4,000 meters above sea level. Your ears will pop as you take in the epic city views. Climbing the east side of Pichincha from the cable car is a popular activity. If you do this you will be at an altitude of more than 15,000 feet. Pichincha is an active volcano that last erupted in 2002.
Stroll through the super cool neighborhood of La Floresta
As the artistic heart of Quito, La Floresta is the perfect place to spend an afternoon eating local food and admiring street murals. Here you’ll find small boutiques and pop-up shops and galleries, as well as people selling delicious bowls of pork stew and cornbreads outside their doors.
Shop for local handicrafts at Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal
Definitely a destination for fun souvenirs, Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal features rows of stalls selling the softest baby llama blankets and cashmere scarves and stylish Panama hats. Prices at this market are ridiculously cheap and you will be expected to haggle. If you’re a fan of higher quality art and souvenirs, check out the fancier Olga Fisch Folklore shop, which works with local women’s cooperatives and sells beautiful jewelry, crafts, and clothing.
Climb to the top of the Basílica del Voto Nacional
After feeling the burn climbing the interior of the basilica’s towers, exit the roof to find a narrower stairway. At the top of the stairs, you can enjoy expansive views of the city and the volcanoes beyond from a tiny seat.
Look for a spiritual experience at the San Francisco Market
Local markets are always fun, but alongside meat and vegetables you’ll find a range of traditional healers offering to cleanse your spirit or bring you love, luck or money. Hand in your money and you’ll be ushered into a back room, where you’ll be worshiped while being patted with handfuls of herbs and massaged with rose petals. It’s a fun, if not confusing, experience at times.
Stand at latitude 0 in the middle of the world
Despite being so touristy in Ecuador — complete with a village frontage and shops selling T-shirts and handicrafts at inflated prices — it’s worth visiting Mid-World to learn the origin story of the earth’s division into hemispheres.
Sample traditional Ecuadorian spirits at Casa Agave
When Casa Agave founder Diego Mora began making miske, a traditional agave-based spirit used ceremonially since pre-Columbian times, few people had heard of it. You certainly couldn’t find it in bars. But Mora breathed new life into the spirit, and many distillers across Ecuador followed her. Enjoy its refined spirit at Casa Agave, which offers a distillery tour ending with a tasting and cocktail experience.
Explore the Casa Museo Guayasamín
The private museum of one of Ecuador’s most famous painters, Oswaldo Guayasamín, is an art lover’s delight. If you’ve never heard of Guayasamín, you’re sure to become a fan of his haunting portraits and abstract landscapes after visiting this Spanish-style mansion he once called home. In addition to Guayasamín’s work, the museum houses an impressive collection of pre-Columbian and 15th-century religious artifacts.
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