Santiago, like Chile in general, has enjoyed a renaissance of cultural, intellectual and especially commercial activity for more than two consecutive decades. The Andes Mountains overlook Santiago's eastern edge, and their snowy peaks provide good hiking, skiing, rafting and kayaking—and the beach is only a short drive away. Small wonder it is the country's capital and largest city, as well as one of the continent's largest metropolises.
Centro (downtown Santiago) is still dotted with Spanish colonial buildings and old churches, as well as many sparkling new modern buildings. Other neighborhoods house international restaurants, upscale boutiques and lively nightlife. Tourist areas are compact, and the resident Santiaguinos are pleasantly helpful. The city has a certain efficiency not found elsewhere in Latin America, and an obvious prosperous feel to it. The major drawback is that ongoing development and traffic congestion have created air pollution and smog, and the shanty towns on the outskirts appear to be growing (albeit in a controlled state).
Santiago is divided in half by a river, the Mapocho, which runs east to west through the city. Much of the civic and tourist activity is concentrated on the southern bank. That's where you'll find the downtown area, known as Centro, which is basically a triangle bounded by the river, Alameda (the city's major thoroughfare) and the Pan-American Highway.
Barrio Brasil is the traditional neighborhood just west of Centro, with the Barrio Yungay and Quinta Normal districts farther west; to the east, Barrio Lastarria and Parque Forestal is a rapidly growing gastronomic, shopping, nightlife and hotel zone. Heading east from Centro, you'll find a succession of commercial and residential neighborhoods: Providencia, Las Condes and Vitacura in particular. These neighborhoods contain many of Santiago's hotels, plus some fine restaurants and shops.
Generally speaking, the farther northeast you go, the more exclusive the neighborhoods become. On the north bank of the river, opposite Centro, Barrio Bellavista is an area of fine restaurants and lively nightlife. The Paris-Londres neighborhood, centered around the San Francisco church, is one of the few districts left that still evokes 1920s Santiago, with its cobbled streets and low-slung town houses, some of them now serving as small hotels.
Rather than use compass points to explain directions, most folks in Santiago use the looming Andes as the key reference point. On clear, relatively unpolluted days (which alas, seem to be getting fewer and fewer), it is easy to orient yourself in the urban sprawl simply by remembering that the Andes are always to the east.
When Pedro de Valdivia led a Spanish expedition from Peru to the land that would become Chile in 1540, he had to contend with both an attempted mutiny by many of his men and violent resistance from the native peoples of the region, the Araucanians and Picunches. He and his remaining men founded Santiago del Nuevo Extremo on 12 February 1541 and built a fortress at the foot of a hill he named Santa Lucia. They spent the next two years under siege as Picunche guerrillas attacked them constantly. It was only with the assistance of Peruvian reinforcements that the attacks subsided, though periodic battles between the Araucanians and the colonists continued into the next century. Major earthquakes in 1647 and 1730 also slowed growth in the area.
A number of Santiago's major governmental structures were erected at the end of the 18th century and during the first decade of the 19th century. However, the city's cultural and intellectual importance was modest. Chile won its independence from Spain in 1818, and the leader of the Chilean liberation movement, Bernardo O'Higgins, is a national hero. Santiago didn't begin to become a metropolis until after World War I, when jobless nitrate miners from the Atacama Desert moved there.
After World War II, the process accelerated with industrialization, and an influx of rural Chileans rapidly swelled Santiago's neighborhoods with apartments, housing projects and vast commercial spaces.
Santiago's darkest hour arrived on 11 September 1973, when military insurgents stormed the city, taking over radio stations and bombing La Moneda, the presidential palace. The popularly elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende Gossens, refused the military's calls to resign and is believed to have committed suicide. The leader of the coup, Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, installed himself as the country's leader and ruled until his defeat in a 1988 referendum. Though internationally rebuked for oppressive tactics and human-rights violations, Pinochet's authoritarian government did manage to push through economic reforms that made Chile economically stable and successfully implemented communications and infrastructure projects.
Pinochet was arrested in the U.K. in October 1998 after a Spanish judge issued an international warrant over human-rights violations, but he was released on medical grounds and returned to Chile in March 2000. Pinochet's arrest provoked an avalanche of other human-rights-related arrests within Chile, involving dozens of his former generals and officers. Pinochet himself was stripped of parliamentary immunity in Chile in 2000, and in January 2005 was placed under house arrest in Santiago and indicted for the disappearance of nine opposition activists and the murder of one. His family remains under investigation for illegal enrichment after the discovery of numerous bank accounts, some under pseudonyms, in the U.S. and elsewhere. Several of them were also charged with possessing false passports. In December 2006, Pinochet died of a heart attack at the age of 91. The center-left government of Michelle Bachelet refused to hold a state funeral.
Bachelet, whose father died in 1974 after being tortured and jailed by Pinochet's military government, was the first woman president in Chile's history. She made an ambitious "social protection" agenda the focus of her four-year term, and ended in March 2010 with sky-high approval ratings. Her replacement was Sebastian Pinera, a center-right billionaire businessman who distanced himself from Pinochet and the extreme right at an early stage—to the displeasure of many diehards allied with the dictatorship. During his term, Pinera did much to incentivize investment in Chile with the economy growing considerably during this period. In March 2014, Michelle Bachelet took over as President a second time with a focus to reorganize the tax code to improve public health and education—not without resistance.
Thanks to an exceptional subway system, getting around for sightseeing is easy except at peak hours, when the trains can get uncomfortably crowded. For navigational purposes, get a good map and note the main thoroughfare, Avenida Libertador General O'Higgins (popularly known as the Alameda), which becomes Avenida Providencia and later Apoquindo as it heads northeast. Everything, more or less, is along or just off this avenue, and the main subway line, Line 1, runs beneath it. When in doubt, look for the Andes Mountains. If they're to your right, you're heading north; to your left, you're heading south; if they're in front of you, you're eastward bound; if they're behind you, you're going west.
Visitors interested in history or architecture will be impressed by the many colonial-era Spanish buildings and churches that dot the historic Centro area, especially the hilltop Cerro Santa Lucia, where Pedro de Valdivia founded the fortress that became Santiago. Those more curious about modern Chilean life will want to gravitate toward the cafes of the Bellas Artes or Bellavista neighborhoods—the center of the city's bohemian culture and home to galleries, theaters, street performers and nightlife. Also in Bellavista is one of Santiago's most recognized and frequented sights, the Statue of the Virgin, which stands atop the 2,800-ft/853-m Cerro San Cristobal—you can take the funicular railway, but it's also a fairly easy (and safe) walk.
Throughout the city are several good art and history museums, ranging from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes to the University of Santiago's planetarium to the excellent Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino. Santiago also has many parks and plazas: Parque Metropolitano (the city's largest) and Parque Quinta Normal are two of the most interesting parks, and the winding Parque Forestal is one of the nicest; the best plazas are the historic Plaza de Armas and Plaza Nunoa. Wildlife buffs and thrill seekers will enjoy the city's zoo, but its amusement parks, although serviceable, are somewhat lackluster and run-down.
Probably the best way to tackle the city is to visit one neighborhood a day, beginning with the culturally and historically significant Centro and nearby Bellas Artes and Barrio Lastarria. You might then hit Barrio Italia, a historical area where many young designers have opened fashionable boutiques next to antiques peddlers and classic cafes. Take at least one full day to see Bellavista and Providencia, and another full day to explore Barrio Brasil, Barrio Yungay and the Quinta Normal. You'll find that walking is really the best way to get around (during the day, anyway). There are so many surprises in Santiago—its architecture, sounds and people—that it is really worth taking the time to explore on foot.
Be aware that at some sights, hours vary by season, with longer hours in summer (December-February) than in winter (June-August). Museums are also closed on Monday.
In the years since Chile's return to democracy, Santiago's nightlife has taken off. Many discos and dance clubs don't get started until 1 am or so. Friday and Saturday are the biggest nights, but Thursday can be pretty busy, too. The most lively areas are Barrio Bellavista, which has strong alternative-rock venues and a gay scene on its Recoleta side and Barrio Brasil, but the Suecia strip in Providencia has declined in its appeal and is not recommended.
Dancing is very popular, with salsa and techno music generally providing the beat. Major weekly dance parties are publicized by street posters plastered around town. Although Santiago is not particularly dangerous, a common scam among cabdrivers is to pick up foreigners in the early morning hours and charge outrageous fares—watch the meter closely or call a trusted radio taxi. Be sure that when you enter the cab that the starting rate is Ch$300, and each 328 ft/100 m (or 60 seconds wait time if in traffic) is Ch$130. Fares vary depending on where your hotel is located, but typically between downtown and Bellavista, or Providencia to Las Condes, they should be Ch$3,000-Ch$6,000. When in doubt, check with a local to get an estimate.
If you are traveling with your smartphone, you can also use taxi services such as Easy Taxi or Safe Taxi for pickup. Uber, which is well-known in major U.S. cities, now operates its private car service in Santiago. This is more expensive than taxis, but has excellent vehicles, drivers and service.
Most Chileans enjoy their local wines and favor a grape brandy cocktail known as the pisco sour, the national cocktail. Beer, though, is the drink of choice among younger Santiaguinos, while the older, sophisticated set gravitates toward martinis.
Santiago's formerly underrated dining scene is now receiving the recognition it deserves, especially in regards to its seafood and nouvelle cuisine. The city's history of immigration and its sustained economic growth have given rise to a worldly and varied group of restaurants. At the same time, Santiago's middle and upper classes are now more traveled and demand places to eat that meet their sophisticated palates. This, mixed with the rooted influence of traditional Chilean cuisine, creates a unique urban dining experience in which options abound.
Chileans are late-night eaters, so most restaurants open their doors for supper around 8 pm. Although there are excellent restaurants all over the city, a first-time visitor's best bet is to visit one of the capital's restaurant districts. A good first choice is Bellavista, the city's original bohemian neighborhood. Another is Barrio Lastarria and Parque Forestal, one of the hippest areas of the capital. Farther east, the area around Nueva Costanera in Vitacura is home to many upscale restaurants, creating a sort of "gastronomic pole." Even farther east, in suburban Vitacura, is Borderio, with restaurants offering cuisines from all over the world.
Many foreigners tend to put all Latin American cuisine in the same category, but don't expect Chilean food to be hot and spicy like Mexican food. In fact, some may find Chilean cooking rather bland. Table salsa such as the pebre is a cure for this, as it is made from spicy chili peppers, cilantro, tomato and onions. Many Santiago restaurants have begun to specialize in rural Chilean and Creole dishes, which involve relatively little meat except chicken, and an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables. These dishes include humitas (steamed corn tamales with basil and onion), pastel de choclo (corn and beef or chicken casserole), charquican (a potage of pumpkin, vegetables and beef), budin de acelga (leafy greens in a cheese casserole), porotos granados (thick soup made from fresh cranberry beans, sweet corn, basil and pumpkin), porotos con riendas (beans cooked with spaghetti), pollo arvejado (chicken cooked in tomato juices and peas) and cazuela (chunky chicken or beef stew with vegetables).
You're never far from Chile's 2,600-mi/4,200-km coastline, so expect to find fresh seafood almost everywhere. Clams, mussels, oysters and sea urchins are usually served as a first course. Exquisite main dishes include seviche (fish or shellfish macerated in lemon juice), mariscal (raw or cooked fish and seafood stew), machas a la parmesana (razor clams with Parmesan au gratin), congrio con salsa margarita (conger eel with seafood sauce), paila marina (fish and shellfish stew, a sort of local bouillabaisse) and chupe de locos (abalone casserole).
Expect to pay within these guidelines, based on a dinner for one, excluding drinks, tax and tip: $ = less than Ch$8,000; $$ = Ch$8,000-$12,000; $$$ = Ch$12,001-$15,000; $$$$ = more than Ch$15,000.
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