Santiago may lack the charm of Buenos Aires and the flair of Rio, and it certainly can’t compete with Patagonia or the Chilean Lake District when it comes to natural beauty, but – over the past few decades, in an unassuming way – it has transformed itself into a city which is both efficient and arty; clean and quirky.
Santiago is probably the most functional and first-world city in Latin America. The subway is spotless and on-time, the plazas are neat and tidy and the art galleries are well-curated. Although all this has led to the city being labeled ‘dull’, it actually makes convenient Santiago a tourist’s delight.
Start your exploration of the city at its heart. The Plaza de Armas is surrounded by ornate colonial buildings, most notably the Palacio de la Moneda, while in the plaza itself locals queue up to play chess on rickety tables. Nearby the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes boasts a fine collection of South American and European art housed in an ornate palace surrounded by forested parkland.
Now it is time to explore the barrios, starting with Bellavista, a pedestrianized Bohemian hangout where graffiti is not painted over but embraced and small shops in ramshackle buildings sell things as diverse as lapis lazuli and truffle paste. It’s a very leafy suburb, and the street-side cafes and restaurants under the trees make it a great place to have lunch.
But the undisputed hero of Bellavista is La Cascona, Pablo Neruda’s (Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet) Santiago residence and now a very fine museum. If Bellavista is quirky, Neruda’s sense of décor is even quirkier. La Cascona was very important not only to Neruda but also to Chilean history (it was sacked by Pinochet’s forces days after the poet’s death) and the guided tours (given by literature students from local universities) come extremely highly recommended.
No visit to Santiago would be complete without a visit to Cerro San Cristóbal a fairly significant hill in verdant Parque Metropolitano in the upmarket suburb of Providence. The cerro affords panoramic views over the city and although climbing to the top can take over an hour, there is also the option of a funicular if you’re not feeling up to it.
You should spend at least one evening in the up-and-coming Barrio Lastarria: a historical neighborhood which is now chock-a-block with restaurants, bars, cafes and theaters. Chile is well-known for its wine, and where better to get to know it than the exceptional Bocanariz restaurant? Here ‘fusion tapas’ and a wine-list of over 300 wines are served by waiters who are also qualified sommeliers. If you can bear to drag yourself away from Bocanariz after dinner, countless night-haunts await within walking distance.
This article has only scraped the surface of what’s on offer in Santiago, and it really should have mentioned the Mercado Central (great for rustic seafood), the recently-opened Museum of Memory and Human Rights and the exquisite Municipal Theater. But more on these another time…For now make sure that Santiago gets on to your Chilean itinerary as a destination in its own right, not just as a stopover to Patagonia, Easter Island and San Pedro de Atacama.