Don't dismiss Quito as just a stopover en route to the Galapagos Islands. This city is buzzing from the current 200th anniversary celebrations of its quest for independence, known as the Quito Revolution, and has been transformed into a hot destination in its own right thanks to a $225m (£137m) programme of restoration and urban renewal.
The Old Town – the largest, least-altered, and now best-restored in the Americas – has morphed from a hazardous maze of dishevelled streets and crumbling façades into a colonial beauty, worthy of its Unesco World Heritage status. Boutique hotels, once the preserve of the new town, are now opening up in renovated mansions – the sumptuous Hotel Plaza Grande (plazagrandequito.com) is in the former home of one of the Spanish conquerors who founded the city at the beginning of the 16th century.
Quito is at the forefront of the renaissance of Andean cooking, known as novo andino, which can be sampled in its many fusion restaurants. And its cultural heritage is alive and well thanks to the Mindalae Museum (sinchisacha.org), which showcases the art and crafts of Ecuador's many ethnic groups, and the Guayasamin Foundation (guayasamin.com), which celebrates the work of one of the country's most famous artists.
And when you've had enough of pounding the pavements, you'll find this city is full of green spaces and miradores, or look-out points – Itchimbia Park is one of the best places for enjoying the sunset.
... a ride on the Teleferico (teleferico.com). The air gets rarer as the cable cars climb to 4,000 metres (13,000ft). Expect spectacular views of the Avenue of the Volcanoes.
... free guided tours of the Old Town's many attractions, from the visitor information centre on Plaza Grande.
... a night out in the Mariscal. Known as La Zona, it's packed with bars, restaurants and clubs to suit every taste and budget.
... La Compañia de Jesus (Garcia Moreno). One of the finest baroque churches in South America, every inch of the interior is covered with intricate carvings and lashings of gold leaf.
... a visit to the Central Bank Museum, which showcases the country's largest collection of Ecuadorian art.
... the Convent of Santa Catalina (Espejo 779 and Flores), where the cloistered nuns sell botanical unguents and natural remedies from behind a rotating door.
... buying an authentic hand-woven panama hat from Homero Ortega & Sons (Isabel La Catolica).
Calle de la Ronda
One of Quito's oldest streets is now a flagship regeneration project. Formerly the haunt of pickpockets and prostitutes, La Ronda has become a delightful showcase for the best of Quiteño food, crafts, music and art, with galleries, workshops, cafés and restaurants lining its cobblestone curves. New openings include La Casa 707 (at number 707), a cultural centre and café, Muyuyo (at number 939), selling original gifts and souvenirs, Jomayr (Guayaquil and Morales) for organic coffee and chocolate, and the Casa de las Artes (centrocultural-quito.com), which displays photographs conjuring up the area's bohemian past.
In the heart of the Mariscal, Plaza Foch has been transformed from a run-down intersection to a lively, European-style square, with bars and restaurants spilling out on to the pavements, live bands playing, and a contemporary craft fair lining the streets on Saturday evenings. Quiteños and tourists alike often begin and end their evenings in the Plaza: try a cocktail on the sand-covered terrace of Azuca Beach (above Azuca Bistro: azucabistro .com), where underfloor heating takes the edge off the evening chill.
Casa San Marcos
This bright green 17th-century mansion has been converted into a café, art gallery, antique shop and four-room boutique hotel. Its restoration took three years and some ceilings have been rebuilt using colonial-era techniques, featuring wooden beams and bamboo. The rooms are stuffed with antiques and objets d'art, most of which are available to buy. The gallery has a fascinating collection of Ecuadorian art, from carved religious sculptures to contemporary paintings. And the great views of the Old Town and the hilltop Virgin of Quito from the terrace café may distract you from the delicious food.
Quito's up-and-coming barrio offers a laid-back alternative to the Mariscal, with some of the city's best restaurants, as well as its only independent cinema, Ocho y Medio (ochoymedio.net), which shows films in Spanish and English. Browse the exotic produce at the traditional Friday street market, then chill out with the local intelligentsia at El Pobre Diablo (elpobrediablo.com), a friendly bar-cum-restaurant which hosts live jazz at weekends. Or put on your dancing shoes for a wild night at Seseribo (Calle Veintimilla 325 and Avenida 12 de Octubre), Quito's best salsateca (dancing school).
La Florida Archaeological Site-Museum
La Florida Archaeological Site-Museum opened in July this year and offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of the Quitos, the people who inhabited the valley before the arrival of the Spanish and even the Incas. Archaeologists have unearthed a 15-metre burial site, dating back to AD220, full of remarkable finds, including ceramics, jewellery, gold ornaments, carvings, spondylus (a shell that was once worth more than gold), and hundreds of bodies.
Details: Calle Antonio Costa, between Roman and Fernando Corral St.
INSIDER'S SECRET: AMIRA PÉREZ, GRAPHIC DESIGNER
"Every Sunday from 9am to 3pm, the Ciclopaseo clears an 18-mile route for cyclists crossing the Old Town and uniting the north and south of the city. So rent a bike and join the throng. Also, explore the historic neighbourhood of Guapulo. Rustic and bohemian, it's reached by a steep stairway behind the Hotel Quito. At the bottom of the hill stands the beautiful 17th-century church of El Guapulo, and the views on the way down are magnificent."
How to get there
Sarah Gilbert travelled to Quito with Last Frontiers (01296 653000; lastfrontiers.com), which offers a 14-night trip to Ecuador from £2,365 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and accommodation. Return fares from London to Quito start from £685. Rooms at the Hotel Plaza Grande start from $500 (£305) per night.
Quito Official Travel Information (quito.com.ec).