Surrounded by towering Andean peaks and volcanoes, Quito is a compact and accessible city with a host of interesting sights, as well as great dining and shopping opportunities. Three days is a perfect amount of time to visit many of the capital's best museums and attractions, while sampling some of the city's many great restaurants. You even have time to visit the artisans market in nearby Otavalo, and to have your picture taken straddling the Equator.
Day 1: Taking In Old Town
Many international flights arrive in Quito in the late afternoon or early evening, so this actually begins the day after your arrival. Following breakfast at your hotel, spend the morning touring Old Town. Visit the magnificent Iglesia de San Francisco, which dates back to 1535, allowing a good 45 minutes to get a feel for the city's oldest church and its attached museum.
A few minutes' walk from here is La Compañía de Jesús Jesuit church, which features an incredibly ornate interior mixing baroque and Moorish influences. Nearby, Casa Museo María Augusta Urrutia is a perfectly preserved 19th-century mansion worthy of at least a 45-minute visit. Pope John Paul II visited here, so you shouldn't miss it. When the day begins to warm up, take an hour to stroll around Old Town, ending at La Plaza de la Independencia, the city's main square in the 16th century. (Old Town is safe to get lost in during the day, but at night I don't advise venturing far from the Plaza de la Independencia on foot.) Break for a cup of coffee at a sunny cafe on or around the plaza -- there are plenty of spots to choose from.
While walking around the Plaza de la Independencia, see if there's a show on that night at the Teatro Nacional Sucre; if there is, buy a ticket and make a pre-show dinner reservation at Mea Culpa or Theatrum.
El Panecillo is where you'll want to head next; it's a 10-minute ride up a steep hill. From here, standing below the immense winged virgin, you have a sweeping view of Old Town and the rest of Quito. Right next to the monument is PIM's Panecillo, a great place to enjoy local cuisine and the view. I suggest returning to your hotel for a rest, because your body is probably not acclimated to the altitude and you may get tired easily. Remember to drink lots of bottled water, too, especially in the early afternoon, when the sun is at its highest and the atmosphere at its driest.
After your dinner (and hopefully a show), sit at the bar in stylish Plaza Grande for a nightcap.
Day 2: A Side Trip & Some Shopping
For your second day, sign up for a day trip to Otavalo, home to Ecuador's most famous artisan market. The market is most extensive and active on Saturday, but it's pretty impressive any day of the week.
Your tour should include lunch at one of the area's historic haciendas, as well as stops at any number of nearby attractions, such as Lago Cuicocha, Cascada Peguche, Lagunas de Mojanda, and Parque Condor. Be sure your tour includes a stop at the Quitsato Mitad del Mundo Monument.
For dinner, head to Zazu, arguably the best restaurant in Quito, for a taste of cutting-edge fusion cuisine.
Day 3: Time for New Town
After breakfast, head for Parque El Ejido and work off a few calories walking around this pretty city park. If it's a weekend, you'll have a chance to shop for Ecuadorean crafts and clothing at the outdoor market here. Otherwise, you can head to the nearby Mariscal Artisans Market, or to Olga Fisch Folklore, a high-end shop nearby. This is a good chance to pick up any last-minute gifts.
Next, head to Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador, the country's biggest and most extensive museum. If you have the time, stop in at Museo Mindalae.
For lunch, head to the Plaza Foch and have lunch at one of the restaurants ringing this open-air plaza in the heart of the Mariscal district. I recommend the nuevo latino cuisine at Azuca Latin Bistro.
After you eat, take a taxi to the Fundación Guayasamín, named after the country's most famous and influential artist. Expect to spend at least 1 1/2 hours here, which may include a brief stop at the charming museum-cafe for a coffee and a sweet empanada.
For dinner, head up the flanks of Volcán Pichincha to the stunning and romantic restaurant at Hacienda Rumiloma, which serves up excellent food in a cozy and stylish room with a stunning view of the city below. If you've got the energy, pull out all the stops and do a bar-and-club crawl in the Mariscal district of New Town. Begin at Plaza Foch, and see where the night takes you.