When you’re whizzing down to Patagonia or up to Atacama, Santiago may not seem a great destination for a stopover. But while it’s an untidy, sprawling city with 6 million inhabitants and without the more obvious romance of Rio or Buenos Aires, it’s also a thriving metropolis with one of the most stunning backdrops of any city: the majestic Andes mountain range.
Skyscrapers dominate the city’s financial zone, but colonial houses and nineteenth-century municipal buildings exist in the old Centro district and the city is dotted with small parks, making it seem green and shady, essential in the the hot summer months. Santiago is lively, modern, friendly and safe. Oh, and it’s also going through a steady economic boom that has made Chileans more confident and upbeat – a sharp contrast to just about any European capital the moment.
The best way to get to know any city is by walking, and Santiago is no exception. It’s easy to get a feel for the place in a few days, perhaps spending two touristy days visiting the main sights and one day relaxing in Parque Metropolitano.
The city was officially founded in February 1541 by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, who established the grid system of roads which makes it so straightforward to navigate. It runs east to west, on the banks of the murky brown Mapocho river, alongside which teems the busy Alameda (officially the Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins) highway. To the east of the city are the Andes; to the west the Casablanca winemaking valley; an hour and a half further west, 75 miles away, are coastal resorts and the historic hillside seaport city of Valparaiso.
La Moneda is one of Chile’s most impressive buildings. In 1973, communist president Salvador Allende was overthrown here in a military coup, which led to 17 years of dictatorship by General Pinochet. La Moneda was built to house the national mint; now the impressive eighteenth-century, baroque-style building (itself surrounded by many other grand official buildings), houses the offices of the president of Chile and various ministers. In the stylish, glass-roofed public space beneath, the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda (+56 2 355 6528) stages exhibitions and contains the National Film Archive as well as a small café, a separate chic wine bar and shops selling high-end native textiles and kooky figurines of Chilean tribespeople.
Shopping & Style
In the Centro barrio, near the main square, the Plaza de Armas, the pedestrianised shopping streets are lined with mainstream stores and stalls selling shoes, clothes, books, electronics, novelty gadgets... pretty much anything you can think of.
The city’s main market, the Mercado Central, is in a nineteenth-century building and is where locals go for fish, fruit and veg; you can also pick up a souvenir bottle of Chilean pisco, a wood-aged version of the Peruvian grape spirit. Cafés on surrounding streets sell cheap snacks: look for the busiest ones to find the best.
The Santa Lucia Crafts market sells inexpensive, mainly mass-produced, touristy ‘crafts’, such as notebooks, magnets, cushion covers and mate gourds, but for authentic Chilean handicrafts including ponchos, wool blankets, brightly coloured handmade scarves and ceramics, head to one of the official Artesanias de Chile shops (+ 56 2 235 2014), which guarantee the profits go to the makers. There’s a well-stocked one in the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda (see Around Town).
Signs of Chile’s new prosperity are evident on a stroll along the wide treelined boulevards of the exclusive Vitacura district – it’s a bit like an updated, less stuffy Mayfair and is the area to visit if you’ve got plenty of spare cash (or just want a break from the city centre). The streets are lined with expensive fashion boutiques (Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel), commercial art galleries, chic caffs and palatial private homes. There’s also the Parque Bicentario, a large grassy space where well-heeled local families have picnics, play football and feed the ducks.
Food & Drink
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Chilean men are a chauvinistic bunch, given the evident popularity of a style of coffee shop where minimally clad, busty young women serve drinks to male businessmen. The café con piernas (‘coffee with legs’) is a Santiago institution, and though they might sound sleazy, in reality they’re just a bit of harmless fun – in fact, some cafés con piernas are aimed at women, who sit reading books or chatting.
No meat-eater should leave Santiago without trying a Barros Luco, a steak sandwich that’s also stuffed with an entire avocado and melted cheese – it’s named after a former president who presumably used to eat them a lot. There are empanada shops everywhere and whatever the time of day you will see them filled with people lining up for these oven-fresh snacks. The classic ‘empanada de pino’ is full of meat and potato and is a meal in itself – and will set you back less than £1 here.
Santiago cuisine is varied. Lastarria is a studenty, bohemian barrio where you’ll find cafés and restaurants on cobbled streets and in courtyards. Bellavista is a more residential district where middle-class locals and university kids hang out drinking beer and eating chicken and chips at street-corner restaurants – the barrio has a thriving nightlife scene with lots of late- night bars and clubs. Providencia is a smart neighbourhood with restaurants to match, including Aqui Esta Coco (+56 2 410 6200), which specialises in seafood – ceviche and king crab pie are particularly good.
Peruvian-French restaurant Astrid y Gaston (+ 56 2 650 9125), also in Providencia, possibly constitutes Peru’s (if not France’s) finest export (after the pisco sour) and Santiago’s best restaurant, though be warned: prices are as awesome as the dishes on offer. In upmarket Vitacura, fine dining is the norm on main street Nueva Costanera – try Puerto Fuy (+ 56 2 208 8908) for sophisticated Chilean-style seafood.
Chilean wine is well known in the UK as post-work plonk, but you’ll see it in quite a different light if you visit one of the country’s world-class vineyards. Santiago Adventures (+ 56 2 244 2750) can arrange one-day winetasting trips from the capital to vineyards such as the small Corcoran Gallery and Kingston Family Vineyards (the latter supplies wine to Marks & Spencer) and lunch atthe larger Casas del Bosque vineyard.
Chile’s aperitif is the pisco sour, a potent cocktail made by blending pisco spirit with sugar, lime juice and egg white. Another speciality is the ‘terremoto’ (‘earthquake’), which is sweet white wine served with pineapple sorbet – it sounds strange, but is actually very refreshing.
For years Santiago was universally disdained as the global capital of CO2 and smog, but if you make the effort you’ll find plenty of opportunities for walking and cycling here. A vast, 22-metre-high statue of the Virgin Mary watches over Santiago from the top of Cerro San Cristóbal (San Cristóbal Hill) in the Parque Metropolitano, 860 metres above sea level. Thankfully, Santiago is already 520 metres above sea level so it’s a manageable 300 metres to the summit, from which you get a fantastic view; the steep walk up will take a good hour or so, otherwise there’s a funicular which runs up from Bellavista.
Santa Lucia Hill, in downtown Lastarria, is a tranquil, tree-and-flower-filled park just off the main thoroughfare of Alameda. There’s a panoramic view from the top, and the 69-metre climb along paved paths and steps through tunnels of trees and past ponds takes about 15 minutes. If you don’t fancy hill-climbing, Parque Forestal in the city’s central area is long and narrow and runs beside the river.
Art and Culture
The National Museum of Fine Arts was built in 1910 and displays works by two of Chile’s most famous artists: nineteenth-century landscape artist Pedro Lira and twentieth-century surrealist Roberto Matta. The museum also showcases colonial pieces and stages temporary exhibitions. The smaller Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende (+56 2 689 8761) is located in a colonial house and displays European and South American art including pieces by Picasso and Miró.
Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, had a house in Bellavista that’s now a museum, La Chascona (+56 2 737 8712), filled with paintings and furniture from when Neruda lived there with his secret lover Matilde.
UK-based tour firm Last Frontiers (01296 653000) arranges tailor-made trips throughout South America, including Chile and Santiago. Lan (0800 977 6100) is Chile’s national airline and flies from London Heathrow to Santiago de Chile via Madrid.
Hotel Orly (+ 562 231 8947) in Providencia is traditionally furnished, friendly, comfortable and well located for seeing the main sights; it’s a short walk from the metro station. Staff speak English, the hotel has wi-fi throughout and breakfast is in a pretty, shaded quiet courtyard. Doubles from US$135. Five star and super-styled Noi Vitacura (+ 56 2 941 8000) in the exclusive neighbourhood of Vitacura has large rooms with all mod cons and the luxuries expected of a top hotel: wi-fi, fitness centre, library and rooftop swimming pool. Doubles from US$399.