Set on a wide plain near the foot of the Andes, Santiago boasts one of the most dazzling backdrops of any capital city on earth. The views onto the towering cordillera after a rainstorm clears the air are magnificent, especially in winter, when the snow-covered peaks rise behind the city like a giant white rampart against the blue sky (though smog, unfortunately, often obscures such vistas). The city itself is a rapidly expanding metropolis of around seven million people, and though long in the shadow of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro has its own proud identity.
Santiago is divided into 32 autonomous comunas, most of them squat, flat suburbs stretching out from the centre. The historic centre, in contrast, is compact, manageable, and has a pleasant atmosphere. Part of the appeal comes from the fact that it’s so green: tall, luxuriant trees fill the main square, and there are numerous meticulously landscaped parks. Above all, though, it’s the all-pervading sense of energy that makes the place so alluring, with crowds of Santiaguinos constantly milling through narrow streets packed with shoe-shiners, fruit barrows, news kiosks and sellers of everything from coat hangers to pirated DVDs.
Architecturally, the city is a bit of a hotchpotch, thanks to a succession of earthquakes and a spate of undisciplined rebuilding in the 1960s and 1970s. Ugly office blocks and galerías compete for space with beautifully maintained colonial buildings, while east of the centre Santiago’s economic boom is reflected in the glittering new commercial buildings, skyscrapers and luxury hotels of the comunas of Vitacura, Providencia and Las Condes. These different faces are part of a wider set of contrasts – between the American-style shopping malls in the barrios altos, for example, and the old-fashioned shops in the historic centre; between the modish lounge bars and the greasy fuentes de soda; and, in particular, between the sharp-suited professionals and the scores of street sellers scrambling to make a living. It’s not a place of excesses, however: homelessness is minimal compared with many other cities of its size, and Santiago is pretty safe.
Although it is not Chile’s most dazzling highlight, Santiago is a cultural, economic and educational hub, and the best place to get a handle on the country’s identity. Dipping into the city’s vibrant cultural scene, checking out its museums, and dining at its varied restaurants will really help you make the most of your time in this kaleidoscopic country.
You can get round many of Santiago’s attractions on foot in two to three days. A tour of the compact core, centred on the bustling Plaza de Armas, should include visits to the Palacio de la Moneda, the excellent Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino and the evocative Museo Colonial, followed by a climb up Cerro Santa Lucía. Less strenuous options include lunch at the colourful mercados Central or La Vega.
North of downtown, on the other side of the Río Mapocho, it’s an easy funicular ride up Cerro San Cristóbal, whose summit provides unrivalled views. At its foot, Barrio Bellavista is replete with cafés, restaurants, bars and clubs, plus the former home of poet Pablo Neruda, now a wonderful museum. West of the centre, the once glamorous barrios that housed Santiago’s moneyed classes at the beginning of the twentieth century make for rewarding, romantic wanders, and contain some splendid old mansions, including Palacio Cousiño. Moving east into the barrios altos of Providencia and Las Condes, the tone is newer and flasher. Apart from shiny malls, there’s less to draw you out here, with the notable exception of the crafts market at Los Dominicos.
Santiago is also a great base for exploring the surrounding region. With the Andes so close and accessible, you can be right in the mountains in an hour or two. In winter people go skiing for the day; in warmer months the Cajón del Maipo offers fantastic trekking, horseriding and rafting. Heading west towards Valparaíso you’ll also find good hiking opportunities in the Parque Nacional La Campana. Nearby villages such as Los Andes and Pomaire can provide a relaxing antidote to Santiago’s bustle. Still more tempting are the many vineyards within easy reach. There are also a number of excellent beaches less than two hours away.
Some seven years after Francisco Pizarro conquered Cuzco in Peru, he dispatched Pedro de Valdivia southwards to claim and settle more territory for the Spanish crown. After eleven months of travelling, Valdivia and his 150 men reached what he considered to be a suitable site for a new city, and, on February 12, 1541, officially founded “Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura”, wedged into a triangle of land bounded by the Río Mapocho to the north, its southern branch to the south and the rocky Santa Lucía hill to the east. A native population of Picunche was scattered around the region, but this didn’t deter Valdivia from getting down to business: with great alacrity the main square was established and the surrounding streets were marked out with a string and ruler, a fort was built in the square (thus named “Plaza de Armas”) and several other buildings were erected. Six months later they were all razed in a Picunche raid.
The town was doggedly rebuilt to the same plans, and Santiago began to take on the shape of a new colonial capital. But nine years after founding it, the Spaniards, in search of gold, shifted their attention to Arauco in the south, and Santiago became something of a backwater. Following the violent Mapuche uprising in 1553, however, the Spaniards were forced to abandon their towns south of the Bío Bío, and many returned to Santiago. Nonetheless, growth continued to be very slow: settlers were never large in number, and what opportunities the land offered were thwarted by strict trade restrictions. Moreover, expansion was repeatedly knocked back by regular earthquakes.
Santiago started to look like a real capital during the course of the eighteenth century, as trade restrictions were eased, more wealth was created, and the population increased. However, it wasn’t until after independence in 1818 that expansion really got going, as the rich clamoured to build themselves glamorous mansions and the state erected beautiful public buildings such as the Teatro Municipal.
As the city entered the twentieth century it began to push eastwards into the new barrio alto and north into Bellavista. The horizontal spread has gone well beyond these limits since then, gobbling up outlying towns and villages at great speed; Gran Santiago now stretches 40km by 40km. Its central zones have shot up vertically, too, particularly in Providencia and Las Condes, where the showy high-rise buildings reflect the country’s rapid economic growth over the past decade. Despite this dramatic transformation, however, the city’s central core still sticks to the same street pattern marked out by Pedro de Valdivia in 1541, and its first public space, the Plaza de Armas, is still at the heart of its street life.Read More
Wine tours near Santiago
Wine tours near Santiago
Santiago is within easy reach of some of Chile’s oldest wineries, several of which offer tours and tastings. Those by the Río Maipo, in particular, are beautifully located, with large swaths of emerald-green vines framed by the snowcapped cordillera and bright-blue skies. Harvesting takes place in March, and if you visit during then you’ll see the grapes being sorted and pressed. If you want to visit a vineyard you should book at least a day beforehand. We’ve listed three, relatively easily reached wineries below; most are accessible by public transport. All the tours include free tastings.
Viña Concha y Toro Virginia Subercaseaux 210, Pirque, 2 476 5269, conchaytoro.com; metro to Las Mercedes, from where it’s a short taxi ride to the vineyard. This handsome vineyard was founded in 1883 by Don Melchor Concha y Toro, and in 1994 became the first-ever winery to trade on the New York Stock Exchange. It is now the largest wine producer in Latin America. Bilingual tours CH$8000. Daily 10am–5pm.
Viña Cousiño Macul 7100 Av Quilin, 2 351 4175, cousinomacul.com; metro to Quilin station and then a taxi or walk 30min east along Avenida Quilin. The main estate and park of Chile’s oldest winery (dating from 1550) make a nice quick trip from central Santiago. Bilingual tours CH$7000. Mon–Fri 11am, noon, 3pm and 4pm, Sat 11am & noon.
Viña Undurraga Old road to Melipilla, Km 34, 2 372 2850, www.undurraga.cl; bus to Talagante from Terminal San Borja (every 15min; 30min), and ask to be dropped off at the vineyard. Still run by the Undurraga family, the vineyard was established in 1885, complete with mansion and park. It’s now a large, modern winery, and you’re likely to be shown around by someone who’s directly involved in the wine-making process. Bilingual tours CH$8000. Mon–Fri 10.15am, noon, 2pm and 3.30pm, Sat & Sun 10.15am, noon & 3.30pm.
Skiing near Santiago
Skiing near Santiago
Santiago is close to some of the best skiing in South America. Sunshine is abundant and queues for lifts are practically nonexistent during weekdays. The season normally lasts from mid-June to early October, with snow virtually guaranteed from mid-July to the first week in September.
Sitting high in the Andes at the foot of Cerro Colorado, a 90min drive from Santiago, Farellones is a straggling collection of hotels and apartments, connected by roads to the resorts of El Colorado (4km north), La Parva (2km further on), and Valle Nevado (a winding 14km east). Alternatively, a 2hr drive from Santiago takes you to posh Portillo.
Transport and equipment rental
The least expensive way to go skiing is to stay in Santiago and visit for the day. A number of minibus companies offer daily services to the resorts, including Ski Total, Apoquindo 4900 (2 246 0156, skitotal.cl). If you intend to drive up yourself, note traffic is only allowed up the road to Farellones until noon, and back down to Santiago from 2pm onwards; tire chains are often required but seldom used; they can be rented on the way up. Each resort has its own lift ticket.
All of the resorts have ski schools, English-speaking instructors, and equipment rental outlets.
El Colorado elcolorado.cl. Linked to Farellones by ski lift, as well as by road, El Colorado has 15 lifts and 22 runs, covering a wide range of levels. Elevations range from 2430m to 3333m. The resort’s base is known as Villa El Colorado, and includes several apart-hotels, restaurants and pubs.
La Parva laparva.cl. La Parva has moderate terrain, huge areas of backcountry skiing and a classy feel. The skiing here is excellent, with some very long intermediate cruising runs and a vertical drop of nearly 1000m. The resort has thirty pistes and fourteen lifts, but limited accommodation facilities.
Portillo www.skiportillo.com. Just off the international road from Los Andes, 7km short of the border with Argentina, Portillo is a sophisticated place, with no condominiums and just one hotel – the restored 1940s-vintage Hotel Portillo. The ski-runs are world-class, and off-piste options are endless, with elevation ranges from 2510m to 3350m. There are 12 lifts, plus extensive snow-making equipment. Portillo is avidly kid-friendly and its ski school is routinely ranked one of the world’s best.
Valle Nevado vallenevado.com. Connected to both El Colorado and La Parva by ski runs, Valle Nevado is a luxury resort with first-class hotels and some good restaurants. It has 27 runs, eight lifts and is the clear favourite for snowboarders.
There are some great backcountry options for skiers who want to escape the resorts. Ski Arpa, near the city of San Esteban, a 2hr drive from Santiago, offers cat skiing (off-trail skiing accessed via a snowcat vehicle, rather than a ski lift) and snowboarding in two beautiful valleys, el Arpa and la Honda, which lie to the west of Argentina’s Cerro Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Andes. Note, that the season at Ski Arpa generally opens slightly later than the other resorts in the region, and that there is no equipment hire available. Santiago Adventures (244 2750, santiagoadventures.com) can organize transport and accommodation nearby; the company also offers (pricey) heli skiing trips in the Tres Valles, Cajon del Maipo and Aconcagua areas.
There’s plenty of accommodation to suit most budgets, though really inexpensive places are scarce. Most of the city’s low-cost rooms are small, simple and sparsely furnished, often without a window but usually fairly clean; the many hostels with dorms make a good alternative. There are numerous good mid-range hotels and B&Bs, plus several luxurious top-end options. Prices don’t fluctuate much, though a few hotels charge more November–February.
Eating and drinking
Eating and drinking
Santiago has a wide range of places to eat, from humble picadas serving traditional favourites to slick modern restaurants offering cuisines such as Japanese, Southeast Asian, Spanish, Peruvian, French and Italian. Some are modestly priced but most are fairly expensive, although at lunchtime many offer a good-value fixed-price menú del día or menú ejecutivo. In most places there’s no need to book. There are also innumerable fast food joints and (generally) unappealing fuentes de soda. The bar scene is fast developing, with the historic centre enjoying something of a renaissance. Barrio Brasil (and neighbouring Barrio Yungay) boasts a growing number of cool, idiosyncratic bars and there are plenty options in Bellavista, plus several bar-restaurants elsewhere in Providencia (there are also dozens of dispiriting American-style bars, particularly around the junction of Suecia and Holley, which should be avoided at all costs). Las Condes, unsurprisingly, has a few suitably expensive joints.
Nightlife and entertainment
Nightlife and entertainment
Santiago is not a 24/7 party town, but Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are lively, and the club scene is constantly evolving. Live music – from folk to heavy metal – is popular, and you’ll find venues everywhere from the historic centre to bohemian Ñuñoa, in bars, jazz clubs and concert venues. Bellavista, in particular, has many “resto-bars” with live music, as well as a number of (generally unappealing) clubs on Pío Nono; this area can be a bit unsafe at night, so take care. Arts-wise, Chile is noted in Latin America for the quality of its theatre, and Santiago is the best place to see it. Classical music is performed in a number of venues, including theatres, cultural centres and churches. Cinema is very popular: most films shown are Hollywood imports, but arts cinemas have more varied offerings. The Friday newspapers include comprehensive entertainment listings.
Santiago is the only city in Chile with anything resembling an organized gay community. The scene, such as it is, centres around Bellavista, and consists of a small collection of bars, restaurants, discos and saunas; visit santiagogay.com for more info. Chile’s Gay Pride Parade takes place in September, and there is a gay and lesbian film festival every January or February at the Centro Arte Alameda.
Shopping and markets
Shopping and markets
Santiago is a curious place to go shopping. The historic centre is packed with small, old-fashioned shops and a warren of arcades (galerías) that seem to lurk behind every other doorway. Providencia and Las Condes, on the other hand, sport a slick array of fashionable boutiques and modern, American-style malls – better shopping, perhaps, but far less interesting.