Quito is a funny place. We still can't really decide if we like it or not. Tucked and stretched in the valley between picturesque mountains at elevation of almost 3,000m with absolutely gorgeous historical center - it should be the place to enjoy thoroughly. Yet something is always off about it.
Coming to Quito will always guarantee a headache and fatigue due to the elevation for a couple of days. Bus drivers that drive to Quito from lowlands every day can be considered tough guys, because Quito is merciless with its altitude sickness.
The Gringo Land is located in Mariscal area, thats where most tourists and backpackers stay and it's also the party area with lots of international food choices. Historical center where we stayed is much more active during the day time when all the shops open for business, all the shoppers flock around the main streets and markets, all the tourists gather around numerous churches and colonial buildings. The life is busy, bright and colorful in the historical center - you'll see every type of people there, from real butchers and shoe masters to the indigenous Quechua people in their bright felted clothes, to university students doing theater performances on the town squares, to daytime prostitutes and local intellectuals. It's fun! After around 9pm the historical center dies and you can wander around its lonely streets barely seeing any other people around. And the working hours in Quito are always random - things open and close in an unpredictable manner so you need to get used to that. In the evenings people often choose to go out to Mariscal (in the evening about $2-3 by taxi) or stay in their hostels to socialize.
Up the hill part of the historical center behind the central market is where most of the hostels are. We loved staying at Colonial house on Olmedo and Guayunga hostel (across from Secret Garden - probably the most popular hostel in Quito) was a great stay too. Most of these places will have a roof terrace and the view over the historical center and El Panecillo area with its virgin statue on top of the hill are breathtaking. Most of these hostels also have a kitchen, so the quiet evenings here turn into very pleasant time with views, BBQ and a company of other travelers.
As for food - breakfasts and lunches tend to be big and cheap (lunch which will usually include chicken or fish, rice, salad, juice and something sweet goes for $2.50) . Bakeries, ice scream parlors and pastry shops are pretty much on every corner. Empanada pies and venezuelan tortillas (cheese stuffed kind of pancake) are common street food. Grilled chicken is probably a single most popular food throughout Ecuador (with the exception of ice cream) It's quite hard to be vegetarian in Ecuador, some less traveled towns have no no-chicken options at all, so if you are vegetarian and you don't have a kitchen where you stay, in some places your only option will be the bakery, fruit stand, Chifa (Chinese eateries that usually have vegetable rice) or look for the signs of Krishna communities.
What we usually did is shopping at the central market - you get fresh fish, shrimp, fresh vegetables and fruits, lentils or quinoa and cook it at the hostel. Much cheaper and healthier (you can't really avoid deep frying in Ecuadorian cuisine) Fruits are really good, especially papayas, mangos, melons, don't miss the berries too - most of Ecuador has a perfect climate for blackberries, strawberries, blueberries.
Even though Ecuador is one of the leading exporters of premium quality coffee in the world most Ecuadorians drink instant coffee. Most eateries and cheaper cafes will serve instant coffee as well. Such a disappointment! All good coffee goes out for export and thus has export prices. A medium bag of good ground coffee may cost $10-12 and that's not what most locals are ready to pay for the ground coffee beans which they know grow all around. Going more South where most of the coffee grow is a bit better (for example around Cuenca, Loja) - make sure you ask if the coffee is "natural" before you order otherwise you'll end up with a cup of hot water or hot milk and a can of instant coffee on your table.
Quito seems to be very artistic city with a lot of young university students involved in arts and performances and a lot of artists coming to perform from other South American countries, especially Argentina. Check your hostel for posters and flyers about festivals and other gigs in the city.
For some reason Ecuador has a really big Krishna community spread in different parts of the country. So if you're up for yoga, vegetarian food, organic cosmetics, maybe some educational lectures or playing music together - visit Krishna temple/community/restaurant/yoga center on Esmeraldas street in the historical center.
As for sightseeing - there's plenty from basilicas to museums, to Quechua ruins underneath historical center. For panoramic views go to Teleferico and hike around there (you might want to acclimatize to the altitude before that though as it's really high up) or go to see the virgin statue on top of El Panecillo hill.
They say you should take a taxi up to the top of El Panecillo as robberies are common on the way up if you walk. Some however say that it's fine if you're more than one. So us two and our friend Alex, who we keep meeting around the world, decided to hike up there ourselves. After a very explicit sign on the wall at the base of the steps which said "Tourist robbery zone" we got some second thoughts, but kept moving up. Alex got to arm himself with some sticks when a police car stopped in front of us. Knowing the dangers of police encounters in Mexico, we thought that now we got ourselves into a bigger trouble than being robbed. What a huge surprise it was when we found out the police just wanted to give us a ride up to the top.
Quito also has some downtown in Carolina area with much newer and more expensive houses, apartments and department stores. The difference in living is big - some people rent apartments around historical center for $100 a month and some people rent $5,000/mo apartments. Through a friend we got to see a bit how some more prominent people live and what the golden youth is like in Ecuador and with their beach villas, house maids and general lifestyle choices you couldn't tell that it's happening in Ecuador.
The city is super stretched - even without the traffic you'll need 3 hours to go from the North of the city to the South. Historical center and Mariscal are somewhat in the middle. Coming from the airport - the bus terminal in the North and it's about $8 to get to the center by taxi. Same with the other bus terminal for major destinations - Quitumbre. It's located way South and it takes $8 and up to 30 minutes by taxi to get there or from there.
No matter how you feel about the city, there is plenty of things to do and explore in Quito.