WHAT TO DO
Set in a spellbinding spot surrounded by the Andes Mountains, sophisticated Santiago is both Chile’s capital and its largest city. Also known as Santiago de Chile, it is one of the largest cities in the Americas. It is located in the country's central valley and is the center of the Santiago Metropolitan Region, which has a population of 7 million. Most of the city is situated at over 2000 feet above sea level. Founded on February 12, 1541 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, the city has a downtown interior of 19th century neoclassical architecture and winding side streets featuring a mix of colonial, art deco and neo gothic styles. Santiago's cityscape is defined by several stand alone hills and the fast flowing Mapocho River, which divides the town in two. The outskirts of the city are encircled by wine vineyards, and Santiago is within an hour's drive of both the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Santiago is a wonderful place for strolling, and each neighborhood (barrio) has its own unique flavor - Lastarria and Bellavista have a lively bohemian vibe and are coated in cool street art, while well heeled Las Condes and Vitacura are home to peaceful parks and a number of the city's finest restaurants. With so much to offer, Santiago is sure to please.
Start your odyssey in the core of the city center at Plaza de Armas. The heart and soul of life in town, Plaza de Armas is lined by a number of its most important buildings with impressive monuments also dotting the square. Popular with locals and tourists alike, it hums with energy all day as street performers, walking tour groups and interested onlookers all congregate here. The palm tree studded plaza has remained the epicenter of Santiago ever since it was founded in the 16th century. While the magnificent Metropolitan Cathedral dominates one side, stately buildings such as the Central Post Office and Royal Courthouse also look out over the plaza. A few of its landmarks are the freedom of Latin America sculpture and indigenous peoples monument. Parallel pedestrian precincts Paseo Ahumada and Paseo Estado disgorge scores of strolling Santiaguinos onto the square on weekends and sunny weekday afternoons. Aside from taking in the plaza's lively atmosphere and snapping some photos of its exquisite architecture, be sure to visit both the Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago) and Chilean National History Museum (Museo Historico Nacional de Chile).
Where earlier cathedrals in Santiago have been destroyed by earthquakes, the Metropolitan Cathedral has stood on the Plaza de Armas for 270 years. Construction began in 1753 and the stone church has dominated the square ever since. The neoclassical cathedral is considered one of the best examples of religious architecture in South America. One of its towers holds the remains of Chile’s first cardinal. The cathedral’s wooden doors were carved around 1765. Inside you’ll find a richly decorated altar and the Museum of Sacred Art. The massive, decorated naves add to the aura of inspiration. Colonial furniture, weapons, paintings, historical objects and models chart Chile's colonial and republican history at the National History Museum. After a brief nod to pre Columbian culture, the ground floor covers the conquest and colony. Upstairs goes from independence through Chile's industrial revolution and right up to the 1973 military coup d'etat, led by General Augusto Pinochet - deposed President Salvador Allende's broken glasses are the chilling final exhibit.
Nearby at Bandera 361 is the Chilean Museum of Pre Columbian Art (Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino). Exquisite pottery from most major pre Columbian cultures is the backbone of one of the city's best museums. Established in 1981, its 3000 or so masks, carvings, sculptures and ceramic pieces represent almost one hundred different groups from every corner of Latin America. Some of the top exhibits include hefty Maya stone columns, towering Mapuche totems and a fascinating Andean textile display. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday. Not far away, Chile's presidential offices are in the Moneda Palace (Palacio de La Moneda). The ornate neoclassical building was designed by Italian architect Joaquin Toesca in the late 18th century and was originally the official mint. A changing of the guard ceremony takes place every two days and the inner courtyards are generally open to the public. Note: the north facade was badly damaged by air force missile attacks during the 1973 military coup when President Allende - who refused to leave - was overthrown here. A monument honoring Allende now stands opposite in Plaza de la Constitucion.
Another outstanding institution is the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos), located at Matucana 501. Opened in 2010, this striking museum isn't for the faint of heart: the exhibits expose the terrifying human rights violations and large scale 'disappearances' that took place under Chile's military government between 1973 and 1990. Learning about the 30000 victims subjected to torture and execution is positively chilling, but a visit to this carefully curated museum helps to contextualize Chile's tumultuous recent history. You will find the last poem of Victor Jara inscribed at the entrance - the poet was an early victim of Pinochet’s regime. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday. The Santiago Municipal Theater (Teatro Municipal de Santiago) can be found at Agustinas 794. This elegant neoclassical building is the most prestigious performing arts venue in the city. Home to the Opera Nacional de Chile, it also hosts world class ballet, classical music and touring acts. Note: guided tours (in Spanish and English) of the theater run Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 12p.
The Church of San Francisco (Iglesia de San Francisco) is at Avenida O'Higgins 834. The first stone of this austere church was laid in 1586, making it Santiago's oldest surviving colonial building. Its sturdy walls have weathered some powerful earthquakes, although the current clock tower, finished in 1857, is the fourth. Note: the church has an attached colonial art museum. Down the street at Avenida O'Higgins 227 is the extremely popular Gabriela Mistral Center (Centro Gabriela Mistral). This striking cultural and performing arts center - named for Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature - is an exciting addition to Santiago's art scene, with concerts and performances most days. Drop by the GAM and check out the rotating art exhibits on the bottom floor, the iconic architecture, the little plazas, murals, cafes and more. Note: the center is open from 10a-9p and is closed on Monday. Around the corner at Lastarria 307 is the Museum of Visual Arts (Museo de Artes Visuales). Exposed concrete, stripped wood and glass are the materials local architect Cristian Undurraga chose for this stunningly simple museum. The contents of the four open plan galleries are as impressive as the building: top notch modern engravings, sculptures, paintings and photography form the regularly changing temporary exhibitions. Note: the museum is open from 11a-7p and is closed on Monday.
Take a break from the chaos of the city center (Centro) with an afternoon stroll through Santa Lucia Hill (Cerro Santa Lucia). This lovingly manicured park was just a rocky hill until 19th century mayor Benjamin Vicuna Mackenna had it transformed into one of the city's most memorable green spaces. A web of trails and steep stone stairs leads you through terraces to the Torre Mirador at the top, where you’ll enjoy sweeping views over the city and snowy mountains far off on the horizon. Note: the hill was where Pedro de Valdivia declared the founding of Santiago in 1541. An additional green space in town is Bicentennial Park (Parque Bicentenario). This gorgeous urban oasis was created in celebration of the Chilean bicentennial. In addition to more than 4000 trees, a peaceful location alongside the Mapocho River and access to city bike paths, the park features inviting chaise lounges and sun umbrellas. Note: the park is a short uber ride from the city center. Close by in the upscale Vitacura neighborhood at Alonso de Sotomayor 4110 is the Ralli Museum (Museo Ralli). This little visited spot on a quiet residential street boasts a stunning collection of contemporary Latin American art mixed in with familiar European masters. Don't miss the gallery dedicated to 20th century Chilean art on the basement level or the surrealist works by Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte on the top floor. Note: the museum is open from 11a-5p and is closed on Sunday.
The National Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes) is located at Jose Miguel de la Barra 650. This fine art museum is housed in the stately neoclassical Palacio de Bellas Artes, built as part of Chile's centenary celebrations in 1910. It features an excellent permanent collection of Chilean art - look out for works by Luis Vargas Rosas, member of the Abstraction Creation group, along with fellow Chilean Roberto Matta, whose work is also well represented. Note: the museum is open from 10a-7p and is closed on Monday. Adjacent to the fine arts museum at Ismael Valdes Vergara 506 is the Museum of Contemporary Art (Museo de Arte Contemporaneo). Temporary exhibitions showcasing contemporary photography, design, sculpture, installations and web art are often held here. Twentieth century Chilean painting forms the bulk of the permanent collection. Note: the museum is open from 11a-7p and is closed on Monday. From there, explore the nearby Lastarria neighborhood. A lively yet easygoing area, its bohemian art filled streets are lined with unique boutiques, bookshops, bars, restaurants and cultural centers. One of the most popular spots to explore in the city, this historic district and its narrow, winding streets date to the early 19th century. Life in this trendy barrio revolves around Plaza Mulato Gil de Castro with the 1852 Iglesia de la Veracruz counted among its main attractions. Note: an arts and crafts market is held every Sunday along the district's main drag.
Not far off is the equally exciting Bellavista neighborhood. This is Santiago's free spirited quarter - a place where artists, intellectuals and students live, work and play. It’s the hippest place in town, with restaurants, funky boutiques and avant garde galleries. Colorful old houses abound on the barrio’s tree lined streets. Weekend evenings feature a crafts market, with art made from the semi precious lapis lazuli - a deep blue metamorphic rock prized since antiquity for its intense color. Bellavista's most famous resident was, and still is, Pablo Neruda whose house, La Chascona, is one of the top attractions in town. It can be found at Fernando Marquez de La Plata 0192. When noted Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda needed a secret hideaway to spend time with his mistress Matilde Urrutia, he built La Chascona (loosely translated as 'Messy Hair'), the name inspired by her unruly curls. Neruda was a great lover of the sea, so the dining room is modeled on a ship's cabin and the living room on a lighthouse. Audio tours (in Spanish and English) take you through the history of the building and the collection of colored glass, shells, furniture and artwork by famous friends - sadly much more was lost when the house was ransacked during Pinochet's dictatorship. Note: the home is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday. Next, stop by Patio Bellavista (Constitucion 30) for upmarket eateries and stylish shops ranged around a large courtyard. End your Bellavista expedition by taking the classic funicular up to the top of San Cristobal Hill (Cerro San Cristobal). The best views over Santiago are from the peaks and viewpoints of the Parque Metropolitano, better known as Cerro San Cristobal. A snowy white 50 foot high statue of the Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepcion towers atop the summit of the park. Note: the benches beneath the Virgin Mary statue are the outdoor church where Pope John Paul II said Mass in 1984.
Conclude your Santiago experience by taking an easy day trip outside the city. Located on Chile's Pacific coast, about 75 miles northwest of Santiago, is the port town of Valparaiso. It is well known for its steep funiculars and colorful, clifftop homes. Valpo is also popular for its artistic street murals. Note: Templeman Street on Cerro Alegre is one of the best spots to take in the city's street art. Another day trip option - mandatory in my opinion - is to visit some of the excellent wine vineyards not far from Santiago. As the country is renowned for its wonderful whites, reds and roses, you simply can’t visit Santiago without stopping by at least one or two of its world famous wineries. In the fertile plains west of the capital, you can take terrific tours and tastings at countless estates and vineyards with striking scenery. Thanks to favorable conditions such as its arid climate and warm, sunny weather, grapes have been grown throughout Chile since at least the 16th century. From Santiago, you can reach the vast Maipo (reds) and Casablanca (whites) Valleys, two of its main wine growing regions in less than an hour’s drive.
WHERE TO EAT
Santiago has several great places to eat and enjoy a drink. Start your day at Cafe Caribe, located at Paseo Ahumada 120. This popular cafeteria on a pedestrian street is famous for its potent coffee and particular standing service, which is presented by friendly women in skimpy skirts. Note: do try the hot chocolate, it's yummy. There are a couple of markets in town that are worth a visit. Located near Plaza de Armas in the city center is the Central Market (Mercado Central). Housed in a neoclassical building accented by wrought iron, this Santiago landmark has been in business since 1872. While the market sells other items, seafood is the top draw. Here, you will find a variety of fresh fish and crustaceans from Chile’s long coastline - look for congrio (conger eel), locos (Chilean abalone) and other local specialties. Note: the market is open daily, be sure to keep your valuables secure. Nearby at Davila Baeza 700 is La Vega Central. Also known as the Mapocho Market (Feria Mapocho), it sells fresh fruits and vegetables from the Chilean central valley. Raspberries, quinces, figs, peaches, persimmons, custard apples, etc. If it grows in Chile you will find it here. Stop in next door to its sister market, La Vega Chica, for all kinds of meats. Note: once again, be sure to keep your valuables protected.
Sandwich culture in Chile is vast, varied and regional, but if there’s one that stands out above the rest, it’s the Lomito - tender pork slices with tomato, mayonnaise and avocado on a massive roll. There are 2 places in Santiago that do this mountain of deliciousness just right. The first is Fuente Alemana, located at Avenida Pedro de Valdivia 210. Grab a seat at the square bar, order a Lomito Italiano with a local beer and enjoy. The second spot is Antigua Fuente, found at Avenida O'Higgins 58. This family run eatery also has a square bar with stools and does a lovely Lomito sandwich. The excellent El Hoyo restaurant can be found at San Vicente 375. From humble origins selling food and drinks to the workers of Santiago's central station in the early 20th century, family owned El Hoyo has grown over the generations into one of the city’s most beloved establishments. Drop in for a taste of porky, rustic comfort food - whether that means the famous Arrollado, boiled garlic and spice marinated pork loin or Pernil, an irresistibly tender pork hock. Score a seat at the bar and sip on a Terremoto (local red wine, pineapple ice cream, grenadine syrup, pisco) while you wait. El Hoyo is one of several restaurants that’s credited with creating the iconic Chilean cocktail. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday.
There are a number of confiterias selling tea, coffee, pastries and sandwiches around town, but for a taste of the old world, locals head to Confiteria Torres (Avenida O'Higgins 1570), the city’s oldest restaurant, founded in 1867. With white tablecloths, mahogany walls, lace curtains and dapper waiters, this classic spot will transport you to the Santiago of old. Head here for a simple lunch of classic Chilean fare or one of the best afternoon teas in the city, and be sure to check out the pictures of the famous regulars hung along the walls. Look closely and you will notice many of them are former presidents. One such former head of state, Ramon Barros Luco, even got a steak sandwich named after him for his loyal patronage. Another solid sandwich joint, with a modern twist, is Jose Ramon 277 in barrio Lastarria. Inside this casual sangucheria you’ll find the young and cool sipping on pints pulled from one of the 12 Chilean craft beer taps while they pick at Pichanga (cubed pork snout with pickled cauliflower, carrots and olives). Their take on the Lengua (beef tongue) sandwich is a local favorite, but the Plateada (beef brisket) sandwich is worth just as much attention. Note: the restaurant is open daily until late.
As Santiago solidifies its status as one of South America’s most exciting new dining cities, heavy hitting chefs from across the continent are opening their own local flagships. None has been so highly anticipated as La Picanteria, the Peruvian export from acclaimed chef Hector Solis. Located at Alonso de Cordova 4355 in barrio Vitacura, this popular spot specializes in seafood sourced from the coasts of Chile and Peru. Choose from the open display of fresh fish and crustaceans kept center stage over ice, then pick your preparation from the chalkboard. While filets and other smaller dishes are available, the best way to experience La Picanteria is to order the whole fish in multiple preparations, from the unparalleled ceviche made from the belly to the crispy fried head drenched in a rich garlicky sauce. Make sure to top it off with an extra large Pisco Sour (pisco, lime, egg white, sugar).
Liguria can be found at Avenida Providencia 1353. From the colorful facade to the red and white checkered tablecloths, this is where locals go for traditional Chilean comfort food with a side of bohemian vibes. Sopaipillas, a classic deep fried bread made with pumpkin served along fresh pebre, a traditional Chilean salsa, are a great way to start the meal before moving on to traditional dishes like ossobuco stewed in black beer or pastel de choclo chilote, a classic sweet corn and beef pie. For the best ice cream in town, head to Il Maestrale at Constitution 50. This tiny gelateria near Cerro San Cristobal is widely credited with starting Santiago’s artisanal ice cream movement, thanks to owner and Italian expat Donata Bergmann. Depending on what she feels like making and what’s in season, you can find flavors from beet to toasted flour, but the gelatos made with classic Chilean flavors are some of the best. If available, get the Cherimoya (custard apple) or Lucuma (Andean tree fruit) for a taste of Santiago’s most iconic flavors. Note: the shop is open daily until 9p.
Hip crowds swarm the city's best wine bar Bocanariz, located at Lastarria 276. This stylish space is home to 400 different Chilean wines (more than 40 of which come by the glass) and a creative menu of small plates broken up into tasting notes such as iodized, citrus and herbaceous to match the wines. Note: the restaurant is open daily and reservations are recommended. Next door at Lastarria 282 is Chipe Libre - Republica Independiente del Pisco. In Santiago, the debate over who makes the best Pisco Sour can get very real. Most agree there’s no better place to sample the South American brandy than at Chipe Libre in Lastarria. Home to the country’s largest collection of pisco, the geographically organized north to south flight is a great way to educate yourself on the subtleties and regional differences of the country's favorite spirit. Grab a seat in the outdoor garden and nibble on some octopus and tuna ceviche in between sips for the full experience. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday.
The outstanding La Mar restaurant is located at Avenida Nueva Costanera 4076 in Vitacura. Celebrated Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio's cebicheria has taken South America by storm. While there are now a handful of locations, including Lima and Buenos Aires, the ceviche at this Santiago outpost is no less worth the hype. The trendy location boasts a beautiful outdoor patio perfect to take in a pisco or crisp white wine alongside La Mar’s vibrant ceviche con Leche de Tigre (mixed seafood, onion, choclo, cancha, rocoto leche de tigre, topped with a jumbo prawn). Note: the restaurant is open daily and reservations are recommended. Down the road at Avenida Nueva Costanera 3736 is Osaka. While the Peruvian Japanese fusion cuisine known as Nikkei may have originated in Chile’s northern neighbor, the Santiago location of South America’s collection of upscale Osaka restaurants is one of the best places to try authentic Nikkei cuisine outside of Peru. Thanks to the exceptional seafood coming from Chile’s diverse 2600 mile coastline, snazzy Osaka is one of the cities hardest tables to score. Note: be sure to book well in advance.
Karai can be found at Isidora Goyenechea 3000 in Las Condes. The inarguable king of Nikkei cuisine, Mitsuharu Tsumura of Lima’s Maido (and Worlds 50 Best Restaurants top 10 spot holder) has come to Santiago with the ultra chic Karai. Located in the swanky W Hotel, this modern haunt serves a mixture of the classic dishes for which Tsumura gained fame. Try the best of both with Maido’s signature 50 hour braised short rib and mouth watering ceviche alongside Karai originals like the sizzling cast iron of Chupe de Camarones (Peruvian Shrimp Chowder) dotted with crispy prawn heads. Don't miss the thrilling desserts. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday. Miraolas is at Avenida Vitacura 4171. Locals come to this Vitacura hot spot in droves for its superb seafood. Menu highlights include black lip pearl oysters, tuna, conger eel, corvina, crab claws and lobster. Miraolas is the perfect place to savor what the Humboldt Current brings to Chile. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday.
My most memorable dining experience was at the extraordinary Borago, located at Avenida San Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer 5970 in Vitacura. When the restaurant first opened in 2006, fine dining in Chile almost exclusively meant European cuisine. After cutting his teeth at Spain’s two Michelin starred Mugaritz, chef Rodolfo Guzman returned to Santiago to open the city’s haute venue dedicated to Chilean cuisine. The epic 17 course tasting menu, which includes little known endemic ingredients, sweeps you away on an unforgettable culinary adventure from the Atacama to Patagonia. Borago is currently ranked in the top 10 on the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday - reserve well in advance.
WHERE TO STAY
Santiago offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is The Ritz Carlton, located at El Alcalde 15 in Las Condes. This sophisticated hotel is a short drive from the Ralli Museum and Bicentennial Park. Featuring marble bathrooms, the stately rooms also have flat screen TVs, iPod docks, free WiFi and Egyptian cotton sheets. Upgraded quarters add separate living areas and city views. Amenities include 2 refined restaurants, a cafe, afternoon tea and a luxe spa. There's also a top floor pool with a vaulted glass roof that means you can swim beneath the stars. If you prefer liquid treats that come in a glass, the bar's novelty Pisco Sours are legendary.
A second option is The Singular Hotel, located at Merced 294 in Lastarria. Offering views of the city, this upscale boutique hotel is a short walk from the National Museum of Fine Arts and Santa Lucia Hill. Featuring complimentary WiFi, the elegant rooms with antique furnishings come with flat screen TVs, artwork and writing desks. Upgrades add balconies and sitting areas. Other perks include a stylish restaurant, a posh lobby bar, a cafe and a hip rooftop bar with city views. The pool and spa bookend the hotel top to bottom.
Santiago is full of beauty, art, culture, architecture, excellent wine and fantastic food. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.