Home to 5 million inhabitants, Santiago, Chile’s capital, is one of Latin America’s most sophisticated cities. Although far less popular than Rio de Janeiro, and not really a tourist hub by itself even within the country, this vibrant metropolitan city has a variety of cultural and tourist attractions for the discerning visitor – ski slopes, sandy beaches, excellent wineries and heritage homes. Nestled at the foothills of the Andes Mountains, the snow capped peaks provide a breathtaking backdrop for the city. Most of these spectacular views, however, are blocked by the smog that envelops much of Santiago. The best time to visit is the period between December and February. That’s the time when most Santiaguinos leave the environs of the city to spend summer elsewhere, leading to a dramatic drop in the smog level and thus, better vistas of the peaks. The city has left most of its troubled military ruled past behind and is in the process of reinventing itself. Newer restaurants and night life venues have sprung up and the cultural and arts scene is undergoing a makeover. All these reasons added to the fact that Santiago is the countrys historical center, make Santiago definitely worth more than just a transit stop on the way to the more popular Patagonia or Lake District areas.
When the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia founded the city in 1541, Santiago was a tiny patch of land nestled between two arms of the Rio Mapocho. Over the centuries, more and more communas were added to the city, making a total of thirty two such neighborhoods today. Each communa or neighborhood has its own distinctive history and personality and very often the difference between localities is stark. Residents are as emotionally tied to their communa as they are to their city itself.
How to Get In
The main international airport in the city is the Santiago Airport. It is serviced by a number of international airlines from cities like Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and Toronto.
Santiago Metro is one of the most efficient in the world- quick, safe and clean. Tickets are good for a single ride and may cost more during peak hours. The bus system here is of two types- the transsantiago buses which stop at specific bus stops and move at a leisurely 60 km/per hour and the Micro buses whose drivers are paid according to the number of passengers they pick up. So, its no surprise that that the driving borders on the lunatic and bus stops with no waiting passengers are conveniently ignored. The city is currently in the process of upgrading its bus system with the aim of integrating the subway and bus lines into a single functioning system.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Bella Vista is located in the heart of the bohemian quarter and close to all the happening night spots in the city. It offers large comfortable rooms and free internet access. For more affordable accommodations, head to the Plaza de Armas Hostal, a small but comfortable hotel in the central square of the city.
The Hotel Montebianco in Las Condes offers upscale rooms in a smaller price bracket than some of its more expensive neighbors. This small hotel has a tour bus that can be used for airport pick ups and sightseeing trips within Santiago as well as the outlying areas. Los Espanoles in Providencia is part of the Best Western chain of hotels and extremely popular with American tourists. It is housed in a large mansion in a quiet residential neighborhood and comes complete with a restaurant and a bar.
As the commercial and business capital of Chile, Santiago also has hotels from some of the best big name chains like the Sheraton and the Hyatt chains. The most impressive is by far, the Ritz Carlton Santiago which is hands down, the best hotel in Santiago. It has, among other luxurious features, a rooftop fitness center with a clear glass ceiling that offers panoramic views of the city. The Santiago hotel is actually lesser priced than other hotels in the Ritz chain.
Where to Eat
The culinary scene in Santiago has, in recent years, transformed itself dramatically and the city now boasts of cuisine from all corners of the planet. There is a very evident craze for international food, as seen in the dozens of sushi bars scattered around the city. The star attraction of Chilean cuisine is its seafood- the sheer variety of it boggles the mind. The artistic Bellavista neighborhood has a number of international restaurants from Cuban to Mediterranean. The streets of Providencia have some great Italian restaurants and pizzerias as well as cafes and bars that attract a predominantly American clientele. Cheaper eateries can be found in downtown Santiago where fixed price menus are the norm and prices for the day are displayed outside the door. Lunch at these places includes an appetizer, main course, and dessert all washed down with coffee. Self service eateries are also very popular for those looking for chow on a budget.
What to See
Barrio Bellavista and Parque Metropolitano
Bellavista is Santiagos bohemian quarter and is perfect for pleasant afternoon strolling. In the evenings, this neighborhood pulsates to the beats emanating from the many clubs and discos that line its streets. There are many vintage houses here which are currently being used as restaurants and artist studios. One of the most famous homes in Bellavista is the former residence of Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda. Visitors wander about the quirky rooms of the house for a look at his collection of antiques including the antique encyclopedia that he purchased from a portion of his Nobel Prize money. Guided tours are available in Spanish and English. Atop the Cerro San Cristobal is the sprawling Parque Metropolitano.
Chilean Museum of Pre Colombian Art
Though not large in terms of the size of the collection on display, this museum still has close to 1500 objects from pre Colombian times, encompassing four regions of Latin America and exhibited in seven galleries. The collection includes metals, ceramics, textiles and figurines, all vividly displayed in tribute to the many cultures that lived here before the Spanish. Sip a cup of coffee at the small café on the premises or browse through the book shop with its array of Indian art objects and jewelry.
Metropolitan Cathedral and the Museo de Arte Sagrado
This huge cathedral, with its baroque façade designed by Italian architect Joaquin Toesca, displays intricate architectural details inside its large cypress doors. The grand altar, made of marble and bronze, was shipped over from Munich in 1912 and the compound includes a religious museum, the Museo de Arte Sagrado, with an impressive collection of ancient paintings and sacred manuscripts.
Parque Quinta Normal
This 96 acre park was originally intended as a plant nursery, but since then has grown to include a lagoon, four museums and facilities for outdoor sports, in addition to verdant lawns and many varieties of trees and foliage. The Artequin museum houses reproductions of the works of French masters and is housed in a spectacular building of cast iron interspersed with colored glass. It was originally the Chilean gallery at the French revolution centenary in Paris in 1889. It was torn down and shipped to Santiago and the Parque where it now serves as an exhibition hall to introduce visitors to famous masterpieces. The Parque also houses the Museum of Science and Technology and the Railway Museum with its collection of railway coaches and carriages dating back decades.
Palacio de la Moneda
This ostentatious palace was built during the Spanish rule and is considered one the finest architectural examples in the whole of Latin America. It was the scene of the famous coup that took place on September 11, 1973 when General Augusto Pinochet seized power and proceeded to establish his often brutal 17 year dictatorship. It is Chile’s Presidential Palace although it is not the Presidents official residence. All presidential offices are housed here and visitors are not permitted entry. There is a changing of guard ceremony that takes place outside the Palacio every other day.
Calle Dieciocho and the Palacio Cousino Macul
During the 18th century, Calle Dieciocho was the most exclusive address in Santiago and its streets still have many of the elegant homes that housed the citys elite during that period. The most impressive mansion, by far, is the Palacio Cousino Macul, which was once the residence of the Goyenechea-Cousino business dynasty. Upon its completion in 1878, this extravagant Palacio was the talk of Santiago high society. The most expensive and plush furnishings were imported from Europe-exquisite tapestries from France, hand painted ceramics from Italy, and opulent chandeliers. A visit to the house provides a snapshot of the sort of craftsmanship that existed in Europe during that period.
Iglesia Convento y Museo de San Francisco
A survivor of three devastating earthquakes, this convent houses a museum with a well preserved collection of paintings depicting the life of the highly venerated St Francis of Assisi. The altar of the convent seats the Virgin del Socorro, the first image of the Virgin Mary in Chile. The Virgin was brought to Santiago by the founder of the city, Pedro de Valdivia. The patio of the convent has an assortment of plants brought from all corners of the globe and the peaceful garden is an oasis of calm in the midst of downtown Santiago.
The Providencia area has a few popular bars like the Bar Liguaria which has a fairly mixed clientele. One of the newer, trendier places to be seen at is the Casino Royale – there are regular musical and comedy performances put up at the premises. Most of the bars in the city turn into restaurants and cafes by day. The Habana Salsa is popular with salsa aficionados and is packed on weekends. The city has a burgeoning jazz scene with a number of clubs like the Club de Jazz, which once hosted Louis Armstrong, and El Perseguidor being two of the more recommended ones. Clubs like Blondi and La Feria are popular with the 18 to 35 crowd. For electronica music, check the entertainment section of the local newspapers – all night raves and music fiestas are regularly advertised.
Many of the best wineries are located just an hour or so outside the city and day tours are operated by a number of local tour operators. Tours may cover the more popular wineries like the Vina Cousino Macul for a short tour and a tasting and drop you off at your hotel just in time for dinner. Vina Conch y Toro, Vina Santa Rita and Vina Undurraga are some of the other wineries just outside Santiago that are definitely worth a visit.
Exquisite jewelry made from lapis lazuli, woolen wear, intricately carved curios and handicrafts are the more popular buys in Santiago. There are a number of crafts markets like the Los Dominicos which has an array of textiles, ponchos, crafts and inexpensive antiques. The Feria Santa Lucia is the largest such market in the city and vendors hawk everything from clothes to cheaper antiques. Two of the biggest malls here are the Parque Araoco and the Alto Las Condes, both of which house some 150 odd big name international chain brands, restaurants and food courts as well as cinemas. Neighborhoods like Providencia are lined with fine boutiques and trendy stores.