Santiago doesn’t get the same press as Rio or Buenos Aires, but this metropolis of 5 million people anchoring the Chilean axis is as cosmopolitan as its flashier South American neighbors, if in a bit more subdued way. Ancient and modern stand side by side in the heart of the city—the neoclassical cathedral reflected in the glass of a nearby office tower is the quintessential postcard view.
Downtown you’re never far from leafy Plaza de Armas or the paths that meander along the Río Mapocho. On a clear day you can see the Andes in the distance. But that air is none too clear in the winter when a dreary smog hangs over the city. And you may have the city to yourself in the heat of the summer when Santiaguinos flee for vacation. Spring and fall are the best times to visit.
When it was founded by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia in 1541, Santiago was little more than the triangular patch of land embraced by two arms of the Río Mapocho. Today that area, known as Santiago Centro, is just one of 32 comunas that make up the city, each with its own distinct personality. You’d never mistake Patronato, a neighborhood north of downtown filled with Moorish-style mansions built by families who made their fortunes in textiles, with Providencia, where the modern skyscrapers built by international corporations crowd the avenues. The chic shopping centers of Las Condes have little in common with the outdoor markets in Bellavista.
Perhaps the neighborhoods have retained their individuality because many have histories as old as Santiago itself. Nuñoa, for example, was a hardworking farm town to the east. Farther away was El Arrayán, a sleepy village in the foothills of the Andes. As the capital grew, these and many other communities were drawn inside the city limits. If you ask Santiaguinos you meet today where they reside, they are just as likely to mention their neighborhood as their city.
Pedro de Valdivia wasn’t very creative when he mapped out the streets of Santiago. He stuck to the same simple grid pattern you’ll find in almost all of the colonial towns along the coast. The city didn’t grow much larger before the meandering Río Mapocho impeded these plans. You may be surprised, however, at how orderly the city remains. It’s difficult to get lost wandering around downtown.
Running through the center is the city’s major thoroughfare, Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, better known as the Alameda (the street is named for Chile’s first president). East of Plaza Baquedano, the Alameda turns into Avenida Providencia, where you’ll find an upscale shopping district. After this it becomes Avenida Apoquindo, full of high-rise apartment blocks, and farther along it turns into Avenida Las Condes.
Much of the city, especially communities such as Bellavista and Providencia, is best explored on foot. The subway is probably the quickest, cleanest, and most economical way to shuttle between neighborhoods. To travel to more distant neighborhoods, or to get anywhere in the evening after the subway closes, you’ll probably want to hail a taxi.
Santiago Restaurant Reviews
Santiago can be overwhelming when it comes to dining, as hundreds of restaurants are strewn about the city. No matter what strikes your fancy, there are likely to be half a dozen eateries within easy walking distance. Tempted to taste hearty Chilean fare? Pull up a stool at one of the counters at Vega Central and enjoy a traditional pastel de choclo. Craving seafood? Head to the Mercado Central, where you can choose from the fresh fish brought in that morning. Want a memorable meal? Trendy new restaurants are opening every day in neighborhoods like Bellavista, where hip Santiaguinos come to check out the latest hot spots.
In the neighborhood of Vitacura, a 15-20 minute taxi ride from the city center, a complex of restaurants called Borde Río attracts an upscale crowd. El Bosque, an area along Avenida El Bosque Norte and Avenida Isidora Goyenechea in Las Condes, has a cluster of restaurants and cafés. The emphasis is on creative cuisine, so you’ll often be treated to familiar favorites with a Chilean twist. This is one of the few neighborhoods where you can stroll from restaurant to restaurant until you find exactly what you want.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the city’s dining scene is the relatively low price of a fine meal. It’s difficult to find an entrée in the city that tops $15. And many who assume that the best vintages have been exported are pleasantly surprised by extensive wine lists with good prices.
Remember that Santiaguinos dine a little later than the rest of us. Most fancier restaurants don’t open for lunch until 1. (You may startle the cleaning staff if you rattle the doors at noon.) Dinner begins at 7:30 or 8, although most places don’t get crowded until after 9. Many eateries close for a few hours before dinner.
Santiago Hotel Reviews
Santiago has more than a dozen five-star hotels, many of them in the burgeoning Las Condes and Vitacura neighborhoods. With the increased popularity of Chile as a travel destination, most major international chains are represented here. You won’t find better service than at newer hotels such as the lavish Ritz-Carlton. But don’t write off the old standbys such as Hotel Plaza San Francisco. Inexpensive small hotels, especially near the city center, are harder to find, but they do exist.
Although the official room rates are pricey, you’ll undoubtedly find discounts. Call several hotels and ask for the best possible rate. It’s a good idea to reserve in advance during the peak seasons (January, February, July, and August).
Note that the 18% hotel tax is removed from your bill if you pay in U.S. dollars or with a credit card.
Although it can’t rival Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro, Santiago buzzes with increasingly sophisticated bars and clubs. Santiaguinos often meet for drinks during the week, usually after work when most bars have happy hour. Then they call it a night, as most people don’t really cut loose until Friday and Saturday. Weekends commence with dinner beginning at 9 or 10 and then a drink at a pub. (This doesn’t refer to an English beer hall; a pub here is a bar with loud music and a lot of seating.) No one thinks of heading to the dance clubs until 1 AM, and they stay until 4 or 5 AM.
Bars and clubs are scattered all over Santiago, but a handful of streets have such a concentration of establishments that they resemble block parties on Friday and Saturday nights. Try pub-crawling along Avenida Pío Nono in Bellavista. The crowd here is young, as the drinking age is 18. To the east in Las Condes, Paseo San Damián is an outdoor complex of bars and clubs. It’s a fashionable nighttime destination.
What you should wear depends on your destination. Bellavista has a mix of styles ranging from blue jeans to basic black. Paseo San Damián maintains a stricter dress code.
Note that establishments referred to as “nightclubs” are almost always female strip shows. The cheesy signs in the windows usually make it quite clear what goes on inside.
Once mostly underground, Santiago’s gay scene is bursting at the seams. Although some bars are so discreet they don’t have a sign, others are known by just about everyone. Clubs like Bunker, for example, are so popular that they attract a fair number of nongays. There’s a cluster of gay restaurants and bars on the streets parallel to Avenida Pío Nono in Bellavista. There’s not as much for lesbians in Santiago, however, although some women can be found at most establishments catering to men.
Vitacura is, without a doubt, the destination for upscale shopping. Lined with designer boutiques where you’ll find SUVs double parked out front, Avenida Alonso de Córdova is Santiago’s equivalent of 5th Avenue in New York or Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. “Drive” is the important word here, as nobody strolls from place to place. Although buzzing with activity, the streets are strangely empty. Other shops are found on nearby Avenida Vitacura and Avenida Nueva Costanera.
Providencia, another of the city’s most popular shopping districts, has rows of boutiques. Avenida Providencia slices through the neighborhood, branching off for several blocks into the parallel Avenida 11 de Septiembre. The shops continue east to Avenida El Bosque Norte, after which Avenida Providencia changes its name to Avenida Apoquindo and the neighborhood becomes Las Condes. In this chic district you’ll find modern shopping malls filled with hundreds of specialty shops and international brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Gucci. A stroll down the wide tree-lined Avenida Alonso de Córdova and La Nueva Costanera in Vitacura will take you past lots of exclusive shops.
Bohemian Bellavista attracts those in search of the perfect woolen sweater or the right piece of lapis lazuli jewelry. Santiago Centro is much more down-to-earth. The Mercado Central is where anything fishy is sold, and nearby markets like Vega Chica and Vega Central sell just about every item imaginable. Stores downtown usually face the street, which makes window-shopping more entertaining. Pedestrian streets around the Plaza de Armas are crowded with children licking ice-cream cones, older women strolling arm in arm, and business executives sitting under wide umbrellas having their shoes shined.
Shops in Santiago are generally open weekdays 10-7 and Saturday 10-2. Malls are usually open daily 10-10.