New boutique hostels, quirky nightlife and a medley of world cuisines are making Santiago stand out among the crowd of popular Latin American capitals.
After spending a long time in the shadows of its more illustrious South American neighbours like Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, Santiago is finally coming into its own. The Chilean capital’s economy continues to expand – as evidenced by the new 300m Gran Torre Santiago, the tallest building in Latin America – fuelling a burgeoning eating, drinking and nightlife scene. The city also has a selection of great hotels and some idiosyncratic and thought-provoking attractions.
New boutique hotels (and indeed “boutique hostels”) are springing up all the time in Santiago, and there are options for every budget. If you’re short on pesos, head to Happy House in the bohemian neighbourhood of Barrio Brasil, a classy hostel in an atmospheric turn-of-the-century townhouse. At the other end of the scale, despite the presence of glamorous outposts of global chains like The W and the Ritz-Carlton, the more intimate and no less luxurious Aubrey gets our vote. Located in lively Bellavista, it combines stellar service with effortlessly stylish rooms.
Santiago’s eating out scene has really taken off in recent years and you can find a surprisingly diverse range of cuisines, including Peruvian, Mexican, Cuban, Indian, Japanese, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, French and Italian, as well as – of course - Chilean. Highlights include: Kintaro in the historic centre, where Chile’s superlative seafood is turned into exquisite sushi and sashimi; and Ciudad Vieja, also in Bellavista, which has turned sandwich-making into an art form (the home-brewed beer is a perfect accompaniment).
Sometimes, however, the classics are the best. Travelling gastronome Anthony Bourdain said the best food he ate in Chile was at the traditional El Hoyo, near the Estación Central. Hearty pork dishes are the specialty here, as is the deadly Terremoto (Earthquake), a potent blend of white wine, pisco and pineapple ice cream.
Drinking and nightlife
The bohemian neighbourhoods of Barrio Brasil and Barrio Yungay are popular night spots at the moment, though – rather more surprisingly – the historic centre is also home to some gems. It is here that you’ll find The Clinic, a quirky joint run by the satirical magazine of the same name (imagine a bar run by Private Eye and you’re on the right track).
Over in Bellavista, Santiago’s traditional nightlife district, Etniko transforms itself from a swish pan-Asian restaurant during the evening into a hip, blue neon-lit bar-club later on - the sake-based cocktails are particularly good. (Although it may look closed, you just have to ring the doorbell to enter).
Santiago’s striking location – the city is situated on a plain at the base of the Andes – is best admired from the summit of Cerro San Cristóbal, an 806m-high hill covered with parks, botanical gardens and – perfect for the summer months – outdoor swimming pools.
Due to reopen at the end of 2013 following a major revamp, the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino has one of Latin America’s finest collections of pre-Columbian art, with a collection spanning 10,000 years.
This September marks the 40th anniversary of the violent Pinochet coup that overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende, so a visit to the moving Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos is a must. Housed in an impressive glass building, this modern museum is dedicated to the victims of the Pinochet dictatorship, during which over 3000 people died or “disappeared”.
Another echo of the Pinochet years, though lighter in tone, is the former home of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, a prominent Allende supporter. Known as La Chascona (“The Tangled-Haired Woman”, a tribute to the thick red hair of Neruda’s wife, Matilde), the painstakingly restored house is an evocative tribute to Neruda – highlights include a library of around 9000 books and a portrait of Matilde by Diego Rivera. (Two other of Neruda’s homes have also been turned into museums, one in Valparaíso, the other in Isla Negra.)
Day and overnight trips
And if you tire of city life, the vineyards of the Casablanca Valley, world class ski runs at Portillo and Valle Nevado, and Pacific beaches of the Litoral Central are all within easy striking distance of Santiago.
Shafik Meghji is the co-author of The Rough Guide to Chile. He blogs at www.unmappedroutes.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @ShafikMeghji.