I arrived in Quito at about midnight on October 7, 1996 and, I must confess, my first impressions of the place were not positive, but then arriving in almost any city when the stores are shuttered and the streets are dark usually does not bring out the best in a place. I was relieved that my room was waiting for me at the hotel (I had made the arrangements myself with a call from the U.S., but everything had seemed a little too casual – no credit card number taken and no confirmation number offered).
The next day, when I saw the city for the first time in the daylight, my apprehensions were not completely relieved. There were armed security guards and police everywhere. Even the local delicatessen and the Japanese restaurant across from my hotel had uniformed guards with pump-action shotguns and bullet-proof vests. A uniformed police officer with a machine gun stood at every bank and at every cash machine. Walls topped with huge shards of broken glass lined the streets.
Soon, however, I came to realize there was little to fear. After several days, I thought nothing of walking the streets (in the area surrounding my hotel) at midnight. During my entire time in Quito, I never saw or even heard of any problems (though, like any city, there are places where one should be careful). In fact, the most dangerous aspect of Quito in my experience was the sidewalks. For some reason, there are two-foot square open holes, up to six feet deep, at various points along the sidewalk, usually at the corners. There are no barriers or signs of any kind to warn pedestrians. As best I could tell, the holes were open to allow access to underground pipes or wiring. The entire time I was in Quito, however, I never actually saw anyone working in these holes.
Quito is loosely divided into the Old City and the New City. The Old City contains the Plaza de la Independencia, the main cathedral and several other churches worth seeing, a number of other Spanish colonial buildings and an open-air market (which is really more interesting for people watching than as a shopping experience). The Old City has been designated as a World Heritage Site.
The New City contains most of the hotels and restaurants (the Old City tends to close down at night). I stayed at the Café Cultura (which, despite its name, is a hotel). It was very well located near shops and restaurants in the New City, as well as being near the travel agencies, tour operators and money-changers along Avenida Rio Amazonas, the main commercial street in the area. One can walk from the New City to the Old City (through the Parque El Ejido), but it is quite a hike. A taxi only costs a few dollars (agree on a price before getting in) and the "trolebus" is clean, safe and pretty easy to figure out.
For a short taxi or trolebus ride, one can also reach a part of the city which is newer than the New City. It offers a very nice park (Parque La Carolina) and the El Jardin shopping mall, which is one of the nicer malls I have seen. Whenever I travel I like to check out parks, shopping malls and grocery stores to see what the regular people are doing. My appreciation for craft stores and traditional folklore definitely has its limits. Also, grocery stores are fun because you get to see all kinds of foods and other products you would never see at home.
Although I will not look back on Quito as a gourmet experience, one restaurant I enjoyed very much was Il Grillo, which served very good Italian food. For museums, one should be sure to visit the Casa Cultura, which houses three museums in one building. One museum is devoted to prehistoric and Inca times (and includes some Inca gold artifacts); another section exhibits paintings from colonial times and the "Quito School" period; and the third is devoted to modern art (which I enjoyed very much).