Santiago made simple

By | Category: Travel destinations

When it comes to South American cities, Santiago tends to be overshadowed by Rio (with its raw energy) and elegant, emotional Buenos Aires – much like a middle child sandwiched between an older and younger offspring. Yet while the Chilean capital will never match up to the fabulousness of its South American siblings, Santiago has undergone a renaissance in the past few years –  something the myriad of new museums, cultural centres and parks bear testimony to. Many visitors also find Santiago to be safer than Rio and more welcoming that Baires. Bottom line? Santiago has become a city worth stopping in rather than just using as a transit hub on the way to Torres del Paine and Patagonia in the south of Chile, or San Pedro de Atacama – aka the driest desert in the world – in the north. Just About Travel shows you the way to go…

 

Must see and do

Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas


With a bit of judicious planning, you can see most of Santiago’s sights in  two days. Start in El Centro in the bustling Plaza de Armas – the symbolic heart of Santiago. This gorgeous square, whose beautiful fountain pays homage to the famous liberator Simon Bolivar, is flanked by blockbusters sights such as Catedral Metroplitana;  a neoclassical cathedral that was built between 1748 and 1800. However if you’ve been in South America a while and are suffering from cathedral fatigue, check out Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda. This worthy new addition to Santiago’s cultural scene consists of two exhibition spaces, a gallery, movie theatre and a fabulous fair trade crafts shop – the perfect spot to snap up a few Santiago souvenirs. Another striking cultural centre worth seeing is Centro Gabriela Mistral, named after the first Latin American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Meanwhile a mustn’t miss museum is the Musueo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory & Human Rights). Situated in barrio Yungay, the museum – which exposes the terrifying human rights violations that occurred under Chile’s military government between the years of 1973 and 1990 – makes for sobering but essential viewing. But you’re probably after a holiday not a history lesson in which case climb Cerro Santa Lucia, an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of Santiago’s streets. Complete your Santiago sojourn by touring La Chascona – the house where Pablo Neruda (the Nobel Prize winning Chilean poet who was once called “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language”) used to hole up in with his mistress, Matilde Urrutia, before taking the funicular up to the top of Cerro San Cristobal for breathtaking views of the Chilean capital.

 

Santiago street life

Santiago street life

Best bites
Much of Santiago’s appeal lies in its food scene, so arrive with an appetite. First up make for Mercado Central where you can enjoy a sensational seafood lunch. (Tip: the restaurants in the middle of Mercado Central are aimed at tourists and thus have prices to match. For a more authentic Mercado experience, take a seat at one of the stalls around the edge). Even if you aren’t a fan of seafood, the colourful, photo friendly market is worth visiting for the atmosphere and phenomenal people watching alone.

Empanadas Zunino

Empanadas Zunino

For lunch on the run, look to Empanadas Zunino. Situated on Puente Street – a stone’s throw from Mercado Central – this old school bakery is famous for its empanadas – long considered to be Chile’s national dish. (Case in point? Salvador Allende chose to celebrate his election as Chilean president in 1970 “with red wine and empanadas.”) The classic versions are filled with pino (meat) but other fillings on offer include queso (cheese), chicken, seafood and vegetable mixtures. On the subject of vegetables, El Naturista is the name that all vegetarians need to know. There’s two branches downtown – one on Huerfanos and a smaller, more casual branch on Moneda – but both serve up generous portions of heathy salads and sandwiches, plus some more sinful desserts. For dinner, the barrios of Lastarria and Bellavista are a better bet. The latter is home to Galindo where you can try Santiago staples such as the heart attack inducing Chorrillana (french fries washed topped with grilled onions and meat) washed down with copious amounts of Carmenere – Chile’s signature grape.

Best kept secret
Not many visitors – or locals for that matter – make it over the Rio Mapocho river to Patronato but those that do quickly discover its delights: Patronato is thronged with Santiago’s Arab and Chinese immigrants peddling their wares (everything from Chinese slippers to sweets) for a pittance. Patronato is also the place to see Cementerio General, where Chilean heavyweights tend to be laid to rest. Keep an eye out for Salvador Allende’s tomb, plus the the memorial to all those who disappeared during Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship.

Top shops

Santiago's shopping scene

Santiago’s shopping scene


Shopping isn’t Santiago’s biggest draw yet nonetheless, shopaholics won’t leave town empty handed. Tasteful trinkets to remind you of your stay in Santiago include Lapis lazuli, leatherwork, silver jewellery,  copper goods and alpaca shawls. You’ll find the aforementioned artisan-made handicrafts in Artesanias de Chile , inside the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda. And the best bit? Most of the profits from the products you purchase, go directly to the artisans meaning you can shop guilt free. For hip threads created by a Chilean designer, make a beeline for Patio Bellavista – a charming courtyard centre in the buzzy Bellavista barrio.

After dark
Most of the action takes place in the picturesque neighbourhood of Bellas Artes or Bellavista. Top choices include Catedral – a classy bar serving killer cocktails plus more unusual options like Champagne with violet creme – in stylish (think two tone couches) surroundings. Rougher round the edges is Barrio Brasil whose ramshackle streets are chock full of crumbling old fashioned buildings that house bars like Eurohappy (which boasts over 400 types of beer) and Baires. About as far away as you can get from Barrio Brasil (both literally and figuratively) is the uber modern neighbourhood of El Golf. Here you’ll find glittering skyscrapers, shiny shopping centres, swanky apartment blocks and the sleek W Hotel – home to a seriously sexy bar that’s become a destination of choice for locals and visitors alike. From the fabulous fashion forward folk who frequent the watering hole to the unrivalled views of the majestic Andes, you’re guaranteed something to gawp at while you sip your expertly made Pisco Sour (Chile and Peru both claim to have invented this heavenly cocktail in which Pisco, a popular grape brandy, is mixed with sugar and fresh lemon juice).

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Chef Boris Basso Benelli in action

Best excursion
An hour away from Santiago, the port city of Valparaiso is worth the trip. The Unesco world heritage listed town is known for its 45 cerros (hills), overlooking the Pacific that are dotted by sugar almond hued houses, whose exteriors are made of corrugated metal peeled from decades old shipping containers. The cerros are crammed with cafes that are perfect for sampling tasty local dishes but if you want to learn how to recreate what you’re eating at home, sign up for a cooking class with Chilean Cuisine. Chef Boris Basso Benelli – a name and a personality you won’t forget – will escort you to Mercado Cardonal to shop for ingredients, before returning to the school where you’ll learn how to make Chilean classics including Pisco sour, empanadas, pebre and ensalada chilena plus an entreé, main course and dessert all washed down with some fantastic local wines. It’s not only a night of food, it’s also a night of fabulous fun – our group have stayed in touch and all invested in a copy of Chilean Cuisine , an internationally published cookbook by Boris (who incidentally is a potential future contestant on Masterchef Chile.)

Home-made empanadas

Home-made empanadas

Where to sleep
For style on a shoestring, check into CasAltura – a beautiful 100 year old building that’s more flashpacker than backpacker owing to its stunning rooftop terrace, well designed kitchen, comfortable lounge and dining room, satellite tv and friendly staff. The location can’t be bettered either: CasAltura is close to Mercado Central and Parque Forestal and within easy walking distance of most of Santiago’s main sights. Little wonder then the self declared ‘boutique’ hostel is a hit with travellers.

The rooftop terrace at CasAltura

The rooftop terrace at CasAltura

 

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