Santiago is a large urban area area of more than 6 million people, sandwiched between the vast Andes mountain chain and the fertile avocado, vegetable and wine-growing region to the west, a smaller coastal range and the Pacific Ocean, from which much of the nation’s tastiest food is fished. The city is divided north and south by the Mapocho River, and east and west by the iconic Plaza Italia, which is a gathering point for politicians, sportsfans and friends meeting up in the evening for a night on the town.
The city is characterized by many contrasts, glassed-in buildings in the Las Condes area, where a set of (somewhat diminutive) skyscrapers reflect each other and passersby and a downtown traditional market area where peddlers with dishcloths and coffee (Nescafe, don’t be fooled) ply their wares. There are several areas of notable Spanish architecture, cobblestoned streets and colonial facades. Some of these were damaged in the recent 8.8 earthquake that shook the city, but many more are still in near-perfect condition or are being repaired.
The city has grown in the 500 years since it was founded at Cerro Santa Lucia, one of two iconic downtown hills, by its founding father, Pedro de Valdivia, which is also the name of a metro stop in a comfortable, leafy neighborhood further uptown. Traditional downtown Santiago centers around the Plaza de Armas and three main pedestrian streets nearby, which are Huerfanos (say: WHERE-fa-nos), Estado and Ahumada, which are microcosms of the city at any time of day, with honey roasted peanut vendors and shoe shine men and people talking on cellphones and going in and out of the hundreds of stores and restaurants that line the streets.
But there is much more to Santiago than downtown, or than uptown, or even what lays in between. There are 34 comunas or administrative districts, each with a unique flavor. There are several neighborhoods that bear exploring, where you’ll find many different Santiagos to explore on foot and by Santiago’s sleek, if overcrowded metro. Intrepid travelers will brave the busses and explore an even wider swath of the city. A several-day visit to Santiago would not be excessive, especially if you love to walk, nibble street food, explore and most of all, observe Santiago’s greatest asset, its people.
Terminology: The main downtown street in Santiago is called Avenida Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins, named for an important figure in Chilean history. Lucky for the traveler, and Santiaguino (Santiago-dweller) alike, we refer to this street as the Alameda.
República & Dieciocho
On the south side of the Alameda is one of the leafiest and broadest streets in downtown Santiago, which defines the neighborhood of República. Is is also known as the Barrio Universitario (university neighborhood) for all of the universities and “institutes” (similar to trade or technical schools, and there are many) in the neighborhood. Large palaces that have been purchased and repurposed by universities can be found here, and many of these were built with money from the mining boom in the country. Deeper into República (moving south from the Alameda), the grandness of scale disappears, and it becomes a middle-class neighborhood as it fans out towards the horseracing club, Club Hípico. Much of República, particularly closer to the Alameda has many newer apartment buildings and is considered a somewhat desireable, central place to live, with many familiies and young couples. The area is also home to one of Santiago's bowling alleys, much to the amusement of its neighbors.
North of the Alameda, and hugging the plaza of the same name is Barrio Brasil. It is considered to be one of the more bohemian of Santiago’s neighborhoods, with a string of bars, empanada restaurants and other picadas (local wateringholes/snackbars) along Avenida Brasil from Moneda through Catedrál and around the plaza itself, which has fantastical painted cement structures in the form of dragons, serpents and other creatures for children to play in/on and around. It is a traditional plaza, in that it is not been paved, and you can often find cotton candy vendors at their cargo tricycles, ready to spin you a new one. There also is some classic architecture that frames the plaza, as this area was quite moneyed until the turn of the century. The area is a little worn around the edges and not for a high-class night on the town, but is fun for people of all ages who are down to earth and have an appreciation for middle-class nightlife. There are many hostels in this area, and more keep opening to keep up with the steady flow of travelers who find this location (fairly close to downtown and not far from the bus stations) to be ideal. The Basilica was heavily damaged first in the 1985 earthquake, and again in the 2010 earthquake. It makes a good photo op, but you won't be going inside.
La Moneda is the presidential palace, and the place where the golpe militar (coup) took place on September, 11th, 1973. It’s all rebuilt and lovely, a pretty, columned building that faces a giant, colorful plaza on one side (Plaza La Constitución), and which faces the Alameda and Paseo Bulnes on the other side, with decorative fountains flanking the building. Some other important government buildings are in this area, including the Ministry of the Exterior, the Women’s Ministry, and the Stock Exchange, which is just catty-corner to the Moneda itself. Also under the Moneda Palace and accessed from the Alameda side is the Centro Cultural La Moneda, an arts and exhibition space with a store with local handicrafts made mainly of wood, silver, wool and ceramic or terracotta, and two cafés. There’s a movie theater that plays artsy and political movies, and a rotating set of exhibits including recently, the terra cotta soldiers from China. This area of the city is chockful of business people walking to and from work, and lunch time and is generally one of the more crowded areas of downtown, though weekends are significantly quieter. At ten AM on Saturdays tourists and locals line up to watch the changing of the guard at the palace, on the north side. The Universidad de Chile (University of Chile) is located just a few blocks away, as is Diego Portales (another university), both on the Alameda (Avenica Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins).
Further west, a number of important buidings dominate the area including the Court of Justice, and the PreColumbian Art Museum. Old buildings abound, with more classical lines, but newer buildings are also present, mainly in a boxy, somewhat soviet style of poured concrete that was popular in the 50s and 60s, making for a visual hodgepodge of architecture that seems poorly- or un-planned. As of June, 2010, some buildings are still cordoned off or have had scaffolding put up to repair fallen cornices or otherwise shore up the buildings. However, the Moneda Palace, the Stock Exchange and many other buildings suffered only cosmetic, or no damage at all.
París Londres is one of about three beautiful, cobblestoned pocket neighborhoods that still retain a colonial feel. The entrance to this neihborhood is marked by the Hotel San Francisco, which is a popular place for downtown business people to stay, and also hosts different cultural events, including wine festival. The whole neighborhood has a distinctly European feel, due to the architecture, cobblestones and winding nature of the streets in an area where most other streets are on a straight grid. The neighborhood was established in 1929 on the former grounds of the Convent of San Francisco. It is also the site of an infamous detention house and torture spot during the dictatorship, but you'd have to look to find it. The area feels peaceful and safe, though late at night when there's no one around, it can seem a bit islolated.
Walking in Santiago is an exercise in weaving among pedestrians (and knowing where your wallet is at all times). The city is quite safe, but as a tourist, you will stand out somewhat, and don't want to give anyone an opportunity to take advantage of that. The Plaza de Armas is a popular place to hang out and watch the world go by, and you can often find a couple of people out with telescopes for star sightings in the evening. The plaza is dominated by the Metropolitan Cathedral, an ornate and gilded space, where worshippers and tourists can enter freely. There is very minimal damage here from the Feb. 2010 earthquake. Nearby, you can also check out the classic architecture of the Central Post office, and the history of the city at the museum called the Casa Colorado. The area around Plaza de Armas is home to many locales set up for the growing Peruvian population in Chile to send money home or buy a snack or drink from Peru.
The pedestrian streets of Ahumada, Huerfanos (say WHERE-fa-nos) and Estado will give you a good idea of what people need and want in the city, from shoeshines to cafés con piernas (cafés with a gamut of scantily-clad women serving coffee) to the ever present Nuts4Nuts carts selling candied peanuts, and in the summer, the mote con huesillo (traditional drink made of cooked wheat kernels, peach punch and reconstituted dried peacehs) vendors. During business hours this area is packed, and at Christmastime it is practically impassable. Wander the streets here to get to know downtown Santiago, and watch it wind down as businesses close and the cartoneros (informal recyclers) take over in the late evening.
Towards Mercado Central and into La Vega
The area north of Plaza de Armas becomes progressively more crowded as Paseo Ahumada approaches the Mapocho River, passing the salmon-colored Mercado Central, where locals come for a fishy breakfast to cure what ails them after a night on the town and where respectable lunches are served with many Chilean specialties from the sea, using an approach that appears to say “if it’s in the ocean, you can cook and eat it.” The Estación Mapocho, a former train station built at the turn of the 20th century is the most notable construction in the area, and its gleaming copper roof can be seen from atop Cerro San Cristobal. The station was formerly used to receive goods from the coast, and is now used as a concert and arts space, including a celebration of popular culture called the Cumbre Guachaca, which takes place every year in May or June, and a giant book fair from the end of October to Mid-November, with one free day for students and another for women.
La Vega (which means “the flat”), is across the river from Mercado Central, and is the actual central market where individuals (and restaurants) go to get supplies for their families. The general rule of thumb is to look but not touch the merchandise, lest you upset one of the vendors. The usual warnings apply here, though it is not an unsafe place. In the spring impossible quantities of asparagus do battle with strawberries scent the air, while in the fall, squash and potatoes dominate. You can also eat at the soup and restaurant counters at the market, which are generally regarded as safe, but not as delicately prepared as the food in the Mercado Central. This is a lower-middle class (but not poor) area formerly called “La Chimba.” to the side entrance of La Vega, headed uptown (east) is the neighborhood of Recoleta, which houses the central cemetary and a row of fabric stores, and also represents a face of Santiago that most travelers will view as more typically Latin American, more colorful and chaotic than the downtown, which looks a bit buttoned-down and grey at times.
Flanking the river on the south side and east from the Mercado Central is Parque Forestal (Forest Park), which is a lanscaped dirt and treed park lined with sycamore and picturesque lamposts with round glass globes. This park was created at the beginning of the century, and it extends from its more urban point near the Estación Mapocho to its leafier area with lots of places for children to play (and couples to engage in public displays of affection). In the middle of the park, close to the metro Bellas Artes, and near a pleasant neighborhood which has recently become the café capital of Santiago, there are two museums that are back to back, the Fine Arts museum (Bellas Artes), and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (Contemporary Arts Museum), which is closed for the foreseeable future due to earthquake damage which arrived on the heels of a pricey remodelling job.
The strip of cafés and boutiques is mainly on José Miguel de La Barra, though it also extends up Mercéd. This is where much of the best coffee in Santiago is served, though keep in mind that a cortado is a tiny latte, and a cappuccino is often served with whipped cream on top.
Lastarría is just a few streets up from Bellas Artes (and that's a good point to start on if you're on the green line metro, otherwise get off at Universidad de Chile (not Santiago) on the red line. This is another classic, cobblestoned neighborhood, near the Neo-Classical National Library (1924) outside of which is parked an old train car which is part of the subscription libarary you'll also see in the metro. Lastarría is home to many art galleries, a number of good (if somewhat overpriced by Chilean standards) restaurants and el Biografo, one of two remaining artsy movie theathers. Lastarria is home to Plaza Mulato Gil, which sees antiques and other curiousity vendors, and more than its fair share of street performers, including the chinchinero, or one-man band. Giving a 100 peso coin is more than welcome, no more than that is necessary unless you really love the music. Lastaría is also quite close to Cerro Santa Lucía (Santa Lucía Hill) whose entrance on the José Miguel de La Barra/ Mercéd entrance is marked by one of the city's many fountains.
Following the Alameda further east (towards the Andes), you come to Plaza Italia, the area that used to be the eastern limit of the city, and now delimits Santiago Centro (downtown). From here on up, is Providencia, another comuna (district), which tends to be more moneyed, greener, and less densely populated. Bellavista lies to your left (or north), across the river, marked by a giant private university on the left, and the University of Chile Law school on your left. This neighborhood is unique in that it joins the upper and lower classes of the city, and pretty much anyone can find a place to go out in this neighborhood. There are loads of restaurants, bars, shopping (particularly in the Patio Bellavista, a very populated shopping arcade with live music, nice lighting and a fountain), hotels and gay-friendly dance clubs. It is considered bohemian, has many beautiful wall murals, and is home to nobel prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda's home-turned-museum, La Chascona. It also offers access (by foot, taxi or funicular) to the top of Cerro San Cristobal (San Cristobal hill) which dominates the neighborhood at the north end. Two outdoor swimming pools, Antilén and Tupahue are popular in the summer, and the Santiago Zoo is located here as well, though most visitors (rightly) give it a miss and prefer the zoo in Buin or skip the zoo altogether.
Providencia is the heart of upper-middle class Santiago. It's where people go to shop, people watch, see and be seen, drink coffee, take their kids on long walks, ride bikes and otherwise enjoy the clean(er) air of an area with much more green space than most of the rest of the city. Avenida Providencia is the continuation of the Alameda, which changes names as you pass Plaza Italia/Baquedano.
Each part of Providencia (as defined by the metro stops) has a slightly different feel to it. Salvador is the metro closest to the park which continues Parque Forestal, and is also close to the Café Literario (subscription library and café) near Condell. Manuel Montt begins a posher area with nicer restaurants, while Pedro de Valdivia is where the the commerce and shopping, and densely-packed streets pick up, and high rises appear. Los Leones has more of the same, with fewer restaurants, but easy access to Suecia, which has a small strip of restaurants and clubs for early 20s and other heavy partiers. Further on, at Tobalaba (transfer to the Blue Line to get to La Reina), the street changes names again, to Apoquindo, and this is where Las Condes starts.
Las Condes is a wealthy neighborhood with pricey restaurants and a nice shopping area, with two main streets as the centers of activity, which are Isidora Goyonochea and Alonso de Córdoba. Both of these streets have internationally-recognized chains, such as Starbucks, and also local flavored cafés, and shopping, including some exclusive wine shops. Las Condes is also home to two of the pricier and fancier malls in the city, which are Alto Las Condes and Parque Arauco, each of which are accessible by taxi or metro. Las Condes is also a good jumping-off point for ski tourism, with easy access to Farrellones, Valle Nevado and El Colorado. A store called Ski Total runs daily minibuses. Dramamine is recommended for the motion-sickness prone.
Orrego Luco 023
Isidora Goyenechea 2926
Brasil 201, Santiago