Santiago, Chile’s largest city, comprises 26 different comunas and barrios that have their own character. While our time in Santiago may not have been enough to see every part of this sprawling town of over 7 million residents, we did get a small taste of it.
Here are 6 things you could do in the nations capital.
1. Head downtown.
Santiago’s bustling city centre is a jumble of glass towers, historic buildings and more than its fair share of concrete monstrosities. Dawdling tourists, rushing office workers, old dudes playing chess and street preachers belting out words that fall on deaf ears.
The lungs of the downtown precinct has to be Plaza de Armas, the city’s geographic centre and home to some utterly gorgeous buildings. The 18th-century Catedral Metropolitana, taking up almost the entire city block, towers over the palm-filled plaza, which teems with locals sitting on park benches and enjoying the ambience.
Behind the cathedral you can check out religious paintings, Jesuit’s silver handiworks and furniture in the Museo de Arte Sagrado (Museum of Sacred Art).
On the plaza’s northern side you find Museo Histórico Nacional (National History Museum), and on the plaza’s southwest and southeast corners are the highly commercial Paseo Ahumada and Paseo Estado. Walk along here and you find countless eateries and fast food outlets, departments stores and other retail outlets.
It’s pretty hard not to miss the café con piernas, or “coffee with legs” joints where the staff – female only – don short dresses for the pleasure of hetro male clientele. It’s a Santiago tradition, apparently, and I’m scratching my head as to why.
2. Visit Barrio Lastarria.
Designer boutiques, bars, numerous cafes and restaurants, museums and galleries – this, along with Barrio Bellas Artes, is where fashionable urbanites, writers and artists waft about cobbled streets lined with European architecture.
I’m sorry, but are we in Paris?
Without a doubt, this was our favourite area in Santiago – namely due to the large number of cafes. José Victorino Lastarria seems to be the backbone of this arty enclave, and it’s here that you’ll find the MAVI – Museo de Artes Visuales. The relatively small cultural space exhibits permanent and temporary pieces by local and international artists, plus there’s a shop and cafe onsite.
José Victorino Lastarria is dotted with quirky cafes, boutiques and restaurants, and it pays to look beyond this thoroughfare and head down the side streets and passages, as you can discover some great little gems.
Up on Merced, opposite the comedy theatre and Bombón Oriental with its Middle Eastern cakes and coffee, is an apartment building that’s home to a handful of businesses – mainly eateries – that can be found around its internal courtyard. What drew us in was seeing a box of stunning wood-fired bread being delivered to this place – Hibrido by Colmado.
Coffee was all that we sampled, which was excellent, but reading the short menu kind of made me want to stay. Dishes like hearty meatball & bean stew, roasted veg with romesco & hummus, or this one – skewered octopus with rice, veg and a dark chocolate & passionfruit sauce.
Back to the coffee, regular espresso is up for grabs, but V60, clever, aeropress, chemix, syphon and cold brew are available.
Hibrido by Colmado, Merced 346
Of the coffee we sampled on our few days in town, this was was one of the best. The fact that these guys roast their own beans says one thing, but the meticulous precision in how they make is beyond appreciated.
If a piccolo, flat white, doppio or cold brew doesn’t get you excited, then hot chocolate, matcha latte or tea may. Breakfast is available, plus sandwiches, some cakes and an Italian-inspired lunch menu.
Original Green Roasters, Rancagua 040
3. Window shop in Barrio Italia.
Barrio Italia got its name soon after the Girardi clan settled in Santiago and opened a hat factory at the turn of last century. As the industry flourished, more Italians, as well as Spanish, moved to the neighbourhood and set up shop in front of their homes.
These days the main strip, Avenida Italia, is alive with design and lifestyle stores, cafes, vintage and furniture restoration stores, bespoke clothing and accessories.
4. Bar-hop and check out street art in Bellavista.
Anyone with a penchant for street art ought to make it to Bellavista during the day, when the streets are quiet and you can casually wander along and snap up the colours.
Come the afternoon, the area transforms into one of Santiago’s busiest night club precincts. Countless bars belt out music well into the early hours on any day of the week, so anyone choosing to stay here will either love the proximity to the action, or struggle to sleep through the thumping.
Most of the bars sit side-by-side on Calle Pío Nono between Dardignac and Santa Filomena, but the streets west of this have plenty more to choose from.
The area can be a bit of a culinary ghost town during the day, but if you look around, there are some spots worth checking out, be it for a takeaway sandwich, hot dog, local or international food.
You’re bound to hear Beit Habibi before you get to it, due to the high decibel Arabic music they pump through the stereo. Take a seat inside beneath flashing coloured lights, get used to having to raise your voice to have a conversation, and tuck into some pretty decent shawarma (3690), or the mixto al plato (4990) which is basically the same thing arranged on a platter.
They’ll even fire up a shisha pipe if you like a bit of flavoured tobacco.
Beit Habibi, Antonia López de Bello 14
If eating something a bit more local is your thing, then look no further than El Caramaño. This taverna-style family eatery has an enormous, and typically Chilean menu that’s heavy on seafood, carne and plenty of offal.
Pork was on the agenda for both of us, this particular lunchtime. The first hefty lump is pernil de cerdo (7890), a seriously meaty shank lightly doused in delicious pan juices. All sides need to be ordered, so I kept it simple with ensalata palmitas (2890), crunchy and juicy hearts of palm squeezed with fresh lemon.
Costillar de cerdo (7490) is more of a belly cut, layered with melting fat with the same pan juices as my dish.
El Caramaño, Purísima 257
5. Head up to Cerro San Cristóbal.
One of the city’s attractions is Cerro San Cristóbal, on the northern edge of Bellavista. One way to get up there is to hike for 45 minutes, but if that sounds too strenuous, spend a few pesos and take the Bellavista Funicular from the top of Calle Pío Nono.
About a third of the way up you can jump off and visit the National Zoo, or keep riding and get off at Terraza Bellavista at the top. As with many urban hilltops in South America, you’ll find a religious statue overlooking the city. Here it’s La Virgen, a large white statue of Mary.
Also at the top, there’s a cable car that spans the ridge of the hill for almost two kilometres, but it wasn’t operating when we arrived. The views of the city would be nothing short of spectacular, should you get the chance.
For a similar view, we walked along the road from the top of the funicular to Mirador El Hundimiento, about 10 minutes away. In low pollution, you can even see the snowcapped mountains that tower over the city.
6. Hit the markets.
Four blocks north of Plaza de Armas is Mercado Central, an historic 1870’s building that’s home to Santiago’s fish market. On its peripheries are many small seafood vendors, including a bunch of small, inexpensive restaurants where the locals eat.
In the centre of the market, beneath an impressive wrought iron roof, are more seafood restaurants that, whilst they may look inviting, are priced and geared for the tourist.
Mercado Central, Ismael Valdes Vergara 900
On either side of the Mapocho River, Mercado de Abastos, or “Supplies Market”, is filled with dozens of stalls peddling fresh fruit and veg, cheeses, meats, charcuterie and household goods.
Head upstairs and prepare to be accosted by energetic touts, yelling and shoving menus in your face. This is very normal behaviour in places like this, especially when there are so many small eateries wanting your custom. Or should I say peso?
The food is dirt cheap, simple, local and plentiful.
Mercado de Abastos, Rúa de Ameás, between Piazza San Fis de Solovio and the Church of Santo Agostiño
Saving the best for last, the grandad of them all would have to be La Vega Central Market. Head one block north of Mercado de Abastos and the streets are lined with fruit vendors. Keep walking and you’re there.
Some kind of market has been in operation here since colonial times, then in 1895 the construction of what we see today commenced.
To say this market is enormous would be a gross understatement, and you could easily spend a couple of hours just exploring, getting lost and picking up supplies along the way. It can’t get fresher that this.
Every fruit or vegetable you could think of, incredible stone fruits and berries when they’re in season, dairy products, fresh and cured meats, eggs of all kinds, household goods, pet foods and even a few eateries.
It was here at La Vega that we found what we think is the best coffee in Santiago. A small coffee cart called Cafe Altura located at the back of the market, run by a guy that knows how to operate a machine and work that milk the way it ought to be.
It’s standing room only, he has a few little pastries to nibble on in the morning, but the true magic is what’s in those cups.
La Vega Central Market, Antonia López de Bello 743
How we got to Santiago from Pucón.
We took the Andesmar bus, which leaves Pucón at 7.45pm and arrives around 6.40am. Cost is 21,000 pesos per person.