Many travellers argue that all South American cities bar Rio and Buenos Aires look exactly the same. A beautiful yet small historical centre boasting colonial architecture and large squares nestled among modern high rises and many many square miles of poor shanty towns. And whilst Santiago is no exception, there is quite a lot more to this city than those three components.
History and overview:
Santiago was founded by Spanish colonists in 1541 and has remained the economic and cultural powerhouse of Chile ever since.
It was here where the famous 1973 golpe del estado saw the military seize power, leading to the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet which lasted until 1990. Notwithstanding the city’s proneness to earthquakes, the population exploded throughout the 20th century creating a greater Santiago that’s seven times larger than the second biggest Chilean city.
The first impression you get when entering the Chilean capital is the ubiquitous smog which plagues the city throughout most of the year, except for the rare occurrence of a rainy day. Bad air quality is a common situation in Latin American cities although amplified in Santiago due to the city’s trapped location between the Andes. The city’s areas are characterized by stark contrasts pertaining to cleanliness, wealth and architecture.
Staying in Providencia: A great area to stay with lots of places to choose from. A good option is always renting a small place in a large apartment complex, those high rises usually offer facilities such as a concierge service, a gym and a swimming pool. I personally stayed in this one here.
If you are travelling on a budget, there are also many hostels in Providencia, especially in the barrio Italia, check out this hostel for a great experience with fellow travellers.
Staying in Las Condes: The wealthiest area of the city naturally offers a wide range of hotels and high end apartments for travellers to stay in style. Find your place in Las Condes here
Cultural offer & Activities:
Cerro san Cristobal: The hill which offers great views over the city that can however be seriously tarnished by the regular occurrence of heavy smog.
Museum of Natural History and Quinta Normal Park: A great museum which explains the nature and wildlife aspects of the longest country in the world. It will give you a better understanding of the many climate zones that are present on the 4200km stretch from Arica to Punta Arenas (northernmost and southernmost cities in Chile) and the varied and extensive array of wildlife that calls Chile home. The museum is moreover located in a beautiful park close to the central train station area which offers a stark contrast to the modern neighbourhoods of Las Condes and Providencia.
National History Museum and Plaza de Armas: The National History museum can be found in the historic centre which in itself isn’t the economic centre of the city but it is the area with the highest density of colonial architecture and it is the area where many museums and classic Spanish style buildings can be admired. The Plaza de Armas is the showpiece of the city’s ancient centre, a beautiful European style square which looks like straight out of Madrid or Seville.
Cerro Manquehue: Another hill on the eastern edge of the city which will delight hiking lovers.
Gran Torre Santiago: The highest tower in Latin America, the viewpoint on the top floor offers mind blowing views over the Chilean capital, worth a visit on a clear day.
Wine & Dine:
The city offers a large variety of restaurants and wine bars where you can taste and indulge on Chile’s delicacies which include the world famous Chilean wine, the finest Patagonian beef and the local liquor, Pisco. An enormous choice of local restaurants can be encountered in the Bellavista patio.
Mistura del Perú: (Santa Isabel 0496) Yes, this is not a Chilean restaurant but unless you have been living behind the moon for the past couple of years you should know that Peruvian food is absolutely stunning. The Mistura del Perú is a fabulous restaurant in the busy Barrio Italia and serves the finest Peruvian food accompanied by the finest Chilean wine creating a truly mouthwatering experience.
Bellavista area: The city’s most affluent nightlife area where most young Santiago residents go in order to carretear (Chilean word for partying). Myriads of small bars, restaurants and nightclubs. This area will delight party animals and gourmet lovers equally as it features something for every taste and budget, ranging from Irish pubs to underground reggaeton nightclubs. Some recommendations are Club 57 (Antonia López de Bello 25) and Miercoles Po (foreign students party, location changes every week, check on facebook)
Club Subterraneo: (Av. Pedro de Valdivia 61) A nightclub located in the busy Providencia district, the perfect place for reggaeton lovers and a good place to meet some locals.
Pubs: Flannery’s Geo Pub (Encomenderos 83, Las Condes), a great pub with & Teclados (Av Vitacura 3917), a great place to watch sports events while enjoying a local beer.
Vitacura area: high end bars and clubs, a lot flashier than Bellavista and also a lot more expensive but definitely worth a visit.
Santa Isabel and Barrio Italia: An area with small and cosy bars and lots of well priced international restaurants. The ideal place for a drink before heading to the more crowded area of Bellavista.
Final tips & verdict:
Spanish is vital to have the right experience in Santiago, English proficiency is very low and knowing at least basic Spanish is necessary in countless situations. Knowing a few Chilean Spanish words will moreover be of great benefit when talking to locals.
Santiago is a safe city for South American standards but it is still South America. Most areas are safe during the day and unlike many other South American cities, also at night. Beware of pickpockets, stay out of the bad barrios (southeast of the centre) and use common sense, this should largely suffice to stay safe in Santiago.
In a city of Santiago’s size, walking is of no use as it takes hours to get from one place to the other. The metro is the easiest way to get around in Santiago and covers most of the city’s areas.
Taxis are also a great way to move, they are cheap and have a taximeter. It is however recommendable to know Spanish and have a local sim card with mobile data when using a taxi so that you can use google maps to explain the route to the drivers who otherwise tend to make detours.