Chile is famous for its crystalline lakes and snow-capped mountains; its 100-point wines and its austere deserts. It is without doubt a tourism heavyweight, but its capital goes largely unnoticed. True, most people who visit Chile visit Santiago but this is more to do with connecting flights than anything else. Santiago doesn’t get many days on most itineraries as it has the reputation of being dull and Americanized.
It is true that the city’s subway is extremely clean and efficient and that the financial district – unlike those in some other South American capitals – really is just that: a boring conglomeration of office blocks interspersed with Hooters and Pizza Hut franchises. But a booming, successful city isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
When I was living just over the border in Mendoza, Argentina I visited Santiago regularly and always found it to be an eclectic and buzzing city full of cultural and gastronomic surprises. I attended a Picasso exhibition in the beautifully restored central train station. I watched entranced as locals played chess on outdoor boards in the Plaza de Armas. And I marveled at the complete absence of litter in the streets and parks of central Santiago.
Traditional Chilean food isn’t very healthy, but it is hearty. Be sure to try lomo a lo pobre (literally ‘poor man’s steak’ – a layered pyramid of fries, onion rings, steak, eggs and, if you’re lucky, avocado) in one of the dog-eared diners of downtown’s backstreets. The Mercado Central is fantastic for seafood, just make sure you eat at one of the stalls on the periphery – prices are lower but the food is the same.
Chilean wine has long been from the top drawer, but in recent years Santiago has seen a proliferation of foreign and fine-dining restaurants which really allow these wines to shine. My favourite is Bocanariz, in the up-and-coming Barrio Lastarria which not only boasts a more than 300 wines but also has a staggering array of Chilean, international and fusion tapas. Before or after dinner take the time to wander the streets of Lastarria: art galleries, boutiques and small theatres abound.
Another neighborhood which you really shouldn’t miss is Bellavista. Chances are you’ll go here to visit Neruda’s fascinating Santiago house, La Chascona, (read this fascinating piece about Neruda and his houses) but don’t limit it to this. Bellavista is a pedestrianized Bohemian hangout where graffiti is embraced rather than frowned upon. The abundance of trees makes the streetside cafes and restaurants a great place to have lunch. There are also loads of crafty little stores – the lapis lazuli jewelry in particular is worth looking at.
Other must-sees are Cerro San Cristóbal (a hill which affords panoramic views over the city); the Plaza de Armas and La Moneda presidential palace in the center of the city the impressive Museo Bellas Artes and Museo de Arte Contemporeano two adjoining and very well curated art galleries; and the site of the former (Pinochet-era) interrogation and torture center Villa Grimaldi, which features heart-wrenching tours by former detainees.
Santiago may be a springboard for the rest of Chile and a transport hub for the whole region, but it also has a lot to offer in its own right. Chile has experienced a few decades of political and economic stability and this is reflected in the diversity of cultural, gastronomic and artistic expression in its capital. There are also loads of great day trips from Santiago – we’ll blog about these sometime soon.
Keen to see Santiago for yourself? Check out our Chile itineraries here or speak to one of our Destination Experts about crafting the bespoke vacation of your dreams.
Thanks to Eder Fortunato for the cover photo of this post which was taken from the mirador at the top of Cerro San Cristobal.