If it were possible to sum up an entire city in one neighbourhood, it would be the San Marcos neighbourhood in Quito.
Officially running from Santa Catalina convent on calle Montúfar up to the church and its plaza, (though now it is recognised to extend all the way along calle Junin) the vicinity combines Quito’s artistic expression, rich history, sense of community and idiosyncrasy, its houses looking onto the emblematic sight of the Virgen of the Panecillo and the city rolling towards the south.
Founded in 1580, architecture here is mainly Republican or neo-classical style, the long street lined with pastel-coloured buildings with neat shutters and geraniums and flags protruding from balconies.
Some are colonial, like the Casa Museo de la Acuarela Muñoz Mariño, with its stone interior and corridors connecting outdoor spaces.
Here you’ll find neighbourhood shops run by the same family for decades for decades, and different generations selling traditional street food like maize pancakes.
Visitors to San Marcos can happily pass an afternoon, or even a day, exploring the museums, art galleries and eccentric restaurants and cafes, while peeping through doors left ajar into mysterious courtyards hung with greenery.
Café Dios No Muere
This 17th century building set over three creaking floors (the third accessible by ladder) this restaurant specialises in Cajun-style cuisine, serving po’ boy sandwiches and jambalaya. It has a selection of coffees and wines, and plays atmospheric blues music. The property is rife with legends: the body of assassinated president Garcia Moreno was stashed here after he was killed on Plaza Grande.
Museo Manuela Saenz
This museum shuns the normal historical discourse of the hallowed liberation of Ecuador to focus on a particular, unsung hero – or heroine, rather. Manuela Saenz was the “Libertadora del Libertador”, the liberator of the liberator, lover of Simon Bolivar and one of Ecuador’s first feminists. You can find out about her legendary efforts at the Battle of Pichincha and her passionate relationship with Bolivar himself in this permanent exhibition.
Museo de Acuarela y Dibujo Muñoz Mariño
The works of renowned painter Oswaldo Muñoz Marino hang alongside other local artists in this watercolour museum. Oswaldo came to be known as one of the country’s finest modern artists, and with friends with some other grandees in the region, including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The museum and gallery also hosts watercolour workshops for all ages.
Architecture Archive Museum of Ecuador
Quito’s mishmash of architecture comes together in this museum, with exhibits explaining the history of its design as well as its implications on society.
One of the kookiest restaurants in town, Octava de Corpus is stuffed to the rafters with collections: sewing machines, giant conches, dollhouses and Chinese screens are grouped together in various shapes and sizes. The owner, Jaime Burgos, also collects Ecuadorian paintings and boasts an illustrious assortment. Guests also come for the wine – as well as a cellar of Latin American labels there are some Ecuadorian versions, which Jaime will happily guide you through.
La Piedra Cantuña
Perfect for a quick bite, this restaurant in the heart of the neighbourhood serves pizzas, tacos and burgers. Your meal won’t be entertaining – the owner likes to put on old music VCRS on a retro TV, including Queen live at Wembley.
Following hot on the heels of the craft beer trend in the city, Sirka serves ales made in its own microbrewery. With a cool outdoor space where the owners project movies and visuals to accompany live bands, the inside bar doubles as gallery where local artists display their work. The spot is popular among locals and is a good place to meet those on the city’s creative circuit.