The sprawling city of Santiago combines the sights, sounds and tastes of South American culture with the European architecture of the conquistadors who founded the city in 1541. Despite being home to 6.3 million people downtown Santiago feels relatively calm. For a capital city Santiago has an abundance of green spaces and you’re never far from one of the several hills that rise up out of the cityscape. With the Andes mountain range never far from sight, Chile’s capital certainly manages to fuse urban life with natural scenery as much as it fuses South American culture with Spanish colonialism.
View of the sprawling city of Santiago
As a city that combines so many different elements it’s a shame that Santiago is perhaps one of South America’s most overlooked capitals. Many travellers who fly into Santiago often head straight to the natural wonders of the Atacama Desert or Patagonia. However, in recent years, following some major restoration projects, it certainly feels as though Santiago is beginning to experience something of a renaissance with many travellers now hanging around long enough to sample a spot of ceviche at the Central Market.
Street art on the walls in the city.
Where to stay in Santiago:
This neighbourhood is where the majority of travellers stay. It’s one of the most beautiful neighbourhoods in the city and it’s where the majority of the good nightlife takes place. What’s more, there is a wealth of good hostels. From here it’s also a short walk to the centre of town and Emporio de Rosa – supposedly one of the world’s best ice cream parlours!
A little further away from the centre of town and a good twenty-minute taxi ride from Barrio Bellavista, Barrio Brasil seems less of an obvious choice for those looking for accommodation. However, it is home to Casa Roja and this makes it worth splashing out a few pesos on the taxi ride. A huge, old converted nunnery, Casa Roja is a particularly popular hostel amongst travellers. In the summer you can take advantage of the pool and the poolside bar, and in the winter there’s always the indoor bar for enjoying a drop of Santiago’s finest wine.
Things to do:
- Tours For Tips – Walking and Cycling: Santiago’s ‘Tours For Tips’ (walking and cycling tours) are a great way to get to know the hidden spots of the city, particularly if you’re short on time. It’s a good thing to do on your first day in the city, in order to get your bearings. The friendly and informative guide (look for someone dressed as Where’s Wally!) will take you to various important institutions in the city, such as the Mercado Central and Santiago’s National Cemetery. The idea is ‘You-Pay-What-You-Want’ – or whatever you think the tour is worth. Walking Tours depart every day of the week at 10am and 3pm from various landmarks in the city. The morning tour is ‘Santiago offbeat’ – giving you alternative insights into the city such as gastronomy and street art, whilst the afternoon tour is ‘Santiago highlights’ with a more traditional historical and cultural take. You can find out more about the tours on the Tours For Tips website and are recommended to book your place! (Tours by the same company also take place in the coastal city of Valparaiso)
- Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos: The Museum of Memory and Human Rights is a museum dedicated to the victims who suffered human rights abuses at the hands of the Pinochet regime between 1973 and 1990. A very comprehensive and detailed museum it describes the junta’s rise to power and the events which led to Pinochet’s eventual decline. The museum serves as more than a simple record of the past – it also plays a part in allowing Chile to come to terms with this period of its history.
- Visit Mercado Central: Famed for its seafood, the Central Market is one of the best places to try Chile’s famous dish of fish cooked in lemon juice: ceviche. The restaurants in the centre of the market offer a more atmospheric eating experience but if it’s value for money you’re after eat with the locals in the cafes by the entrance.
- The General Cemetery: El Cementerio General is Chile’s oldest, biggest and most important cemetery and one of the largest cemeteries in Latin America. Established in 1821, it is estimated that over two million people have been buried here, including all of Chile’s presidents, as well as the the military dictator Augusto Pinochet. During a tour, you’ll pass elaborate tombstones which look more like small luxury apartments than graves, and shrines to saints known as ‘animitas’, where people have left flowers and prayers… What may sound like a very strange tourist attraction is a fascinating insight into an important part of Chile’s heritage.
- Take a tour around Pablo Neruda’s house: Chile’s most famous poet, Pablo Neruda was a fascinating character with a collection of intricately designed houses in different parts of the country. His home in Santiago is as unorthodox as his personality and comprises a series of small buildings built across a sloping garden, each with a different function. It’s worth getting the audio guide as this explains the history behind the objects and interiors, giving a sense of Neruda’s life and character.
- Nightlife: It’s not just salsa that you’ll find in Chile’s capital – though there is also plenty of that – Santiago has a multiplicity of different clubs and is particularly noted for its impressive electronic scene. As with many other South American cities the nightlife rarely gets started until after midnight and doesn’t finish until the sun comes up.
- Cerro San Cristobel: There are so many ‘cerros’ – hills – in Santiago that it’s difficult to decide which provides the best view of the city. The viewpoint at the top of Cerro San Cristobel is the most popular for its sweeping view. You can take a funicular from the bottom of the hill, in Barrio Bellavista, to the summit where a towering statue of the Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepcion will look over you as you capture the view on camera.
- Cerro San Lucia: Though much smaller than Cerro San Cristobel, Cerro San Lucia is a symbolic landmark in the city’s history as the official spot where the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia conquered the city on December 13th 1541. Just below the viewpoint is a picturesque, landscaped park which provides a tranquil break from urban life below.
Things to Taste:
La Vega Market is a maze of stalls with an assortment from fruit and vegetables, both native and from the surrounding countries including Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. It’s one of the best places to try some new and unusual foods… The markets previously got so large that they had to be consolidated and are now regulated to ensure quality over quantity. Make sure to grab some of the diverse stall food on offer such as these treats…
- Toffee Apples – Trays of home made fresh toffee apples sold off the back of carts on Pio Nono, the main street in Bella Vista. So sticky and tasty, they’re amazing.
- Waffle Taco Wraps – from Buffalo Waffles on Merced. They have a range of sweet and savoury waffle delights.
- Italiano Supremo – A hot dog with the lot. “The Lot” consisting of bun, dog, avocado/guac, sauerkraut, tomato salsa, sour cream and sauce. Grab some extra serviettes, cause it’s super messy but totally worth it.
- Ice Cream – Chileans are the largest consumers of ice cream in South and Latin America, and Santiago has many quality ice creameries to offer. My favourite was Emporio la Rosa, where I happily treated myself the rose and honey ice cream.
- Pino Empanada – The classic Chilean empanada contains an unusual mix of ground beef, onions, raisins, 2 black olives and half a hard boil egg.
- Sopaipilla – Available at most street corners for the humble price of CLP$150 is the deep fried pumpkin dough scallop known as Sopaipilla.
- Pisco Sour – The Chilean pisco sour varies significantly from the Peruvian version. Chileans love sugar, so this version is a lot sweeter, but the Peruvians also use egg whites. It’s a much sweeter alternative, making it easier to drink, but the hangover just as deadly.
- Piscola – Like the pisco sour, but using a soft drink base. The color varies depending on the soda –coke, lemonade or ginger ale. This much loved cocktail has it’s own day, 8th February is the ‘Day of the Piscola’.
- Terremoto -Chile’s national cocktail, the “Earthquake” consists of cheap white wine, (goon for the Aussie contingent), pineapple sorbet and grenadine. However there is a wide variety of recipes which include or emit pisco, sugar and fernet. So known for the shaking effects experienced once the alcohol suddenly hits you.
- By plane: you can fly directly to Santiago from most international destinations and flights tend to be relatively cheap.
- From Argentina: you can get a bus over the Andes from Mendoza. It takes anything between 6-8 hours and is worth doing in the daytime because it’s a particularly beautiful and scenic journey.
- From the North: you can get a bus from San Pedro de Atacama which takes around 20 hours. If you want to break up the journey stay overnight in La Serena, a 7-hour bus ride from Santiago.
Where to go next?
If Pablo Neruda’s house was the thing that caught your fancy the most in Santiago, then it might be worth heading to Valparaiso to visit another of his impressive homes. Only a 90-minute bus ride away, Valparaiso is a small coastal town which, even if you’re not interested in Pablo Neruda, is sure to win you over with its ramshackle hills, old fashioned funicular network and amazing street art. Buses run regularly from Santiago.
If you’ve enjoyed the wine in Santiago then head to Mendoza, Argentina’s famous wine region. Though Malbec is its biggest claim to fame if you take a few vineyards tours here you’ll soon discover that the region produces white and sparkling wines equally as good as it’s famed red. Mendoza can be reached by a 6-8 hour bus ride over the Andes.
For many travellers leaving Santiago, La Serena is a perfect place to break up the long journey north to the Atacama Desert. However, it is perfectly deserving of a stop in it’s own right. With a beautiful Plaza de Armas and a refreshingly relaxed atmosphere La Serena marks a nice change of scenery from the highly populated Santiago. You can also use the town as a base from which to explore the Elqui Valley and sample some of Chile’s renowned spirit: Pisco. It takes around 7 hours to reach by bus from Santiago.
About the writer: Hannah Lawrence is an English Literature graduate from Manchester who has just returned from six months travelling around South America. During her time there, she did her best to learn Spanish and although is now able to order a ‘cerveza’, is sticking purely to English when it comes to writing. Check out her travel blog ‘Hostels and Haciendas’ here.
Things to Eat / Taste section written by Klara Thwaite: Klara is a Business Management graduate from Sydney, who skipped graduation to go backpacking. Endowed with a massive Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) complex and limited Spanish, she zigzagged her way across the continent and developed a deep appreciation for toilet paper, plan Bs and alfajores. Check out her personal blog at drinkingink.tumblr.com