Santiago: Chile’s colourful, cultured capital

Colourful, cultured and cosmopolitan weren’t necessarily the words I thought I’d be using to describe Chile’s capital Santiago. I knew it had a great setting with a backdrop of imposing mountains. But it’s also a really fabulous place to spend a few days, with great restaurants, interesting museums, leafy neighbourhoods and wonderful hillside parks.

SantiagoWe stayed at The Singular, an extremely nice boutique hotel with big rooms and a fantastic rooftop with a small pool and a bar. It’s in Merced, one of the main streets in Lastarria, a great area for eating and drinking in Santiago as well as having some nice shops. So if The Singular looks a bit pricey, try the Lastarria 43 apartments on nearby Calle Lastarria.

SantiagoCalle Lastarria is a great street with shops, wall murals, live music and lots of restaurants and bars, so we ate there every night. For local food I can recommend Sur Patagonico and Casa Lastarria – ask for a table on the rooftop. We also ate very good Peruvian food at Tambo and tasty Italian at Nolita, while Bocanariz looked very good for paired food and wine tastings.

SantiagoOur favourite Santiago bar, Berri, was also just off Calle Lastarria in Rosal – they make extremely good and pretty strong Pisco Sours. Our hotel’s rooftop bar served great cocktails too though I’m not sure if it was open to non guests. Catedral on the corner on Merced and Jose Miguel de la Barra is another good spot for a rooftop drink, and Mamboleta on Merced was recommended in my guide book, but we didn’t have time for a visit.

After a long overnight flight our first day in Santiago started with lunch at Cafe Bistro de la Barra, a quirky cafe with excellent light fittings made from teapots and cups.

SantiagoThen it was a short walk to the huge palm tree shaded Plaza des Armas in the centre of the city to get our bearings, before heading to Agustinas to change some money. There are lots of exchanges places in this street with a much better rate than we got at home.

SantiagoNext we headed for the Singular’s poolside loungers to start planning our time in Santiago. We had three full days with one earmarked for a day trip to Valparaiso, so decided to sandwich that between two days exploring the capital.

I always think it’s good to start by seeing the whole of a city from on high if possible and in Santiago that’s no problem as there are some lovely viewpoints. We decided to spend our first day in the Bellavista neighbourhood, home to the Cerro San Cristobal hill top park and La Chascona, the former home of Chile’s most famous poet Pablo Neruda.

La Chascona is a fabulous place to visit and a showcase for Neruda’s unique style and taste. He was a great fan of the sea so there are many nautical aspects including the Captain’s Bar, one of two bars that Neruda used to entertain his multitude of friends. Though I think his Summer Bar, pictured below, was my favourite.

SantiagoThe house is set on the hillside and more rooms were added to the original, so they are on multiple levels with staircases and gardens between. The dining room is lovely as is the living room which has huge windows to make the most of the views. Needless to say later development below means it’s not the same view Neruda and his mistress Matilde Urrutia enjoyed.

He originally bought the house as somewhere he could secretly spend time with Matilde, but he later left his wife and they married. More about his life, including his role as a Chilean ambassador in various countries, is told in a film at the start of the tour. There’s also an excellent audio guide. No photos are allowed inside the house, but the ones I’ve included of the outside and through glass will give you an idea of what La Chascona has to offer.

SantiagoOne tip is to try to go fairly soon after it opens at 10am as it gets busier as the day goes on. So with a limit on how many people can go in at any one time, you may find you wait a while. Although there is a very interesting mural to look at on the outside wall of the building and you may find some aspiring young dancers are practicing a routine as we did.

SantiagoJust a short walk from here is the funicular train that takes you to the top of Cerro San Cristobal. There is a huge park up here that would take quite a bit of time to fully explore. We were happy to enjoy the fabulous views of the city and just climb a little further up to see the 14 high white statue of the Virgin Mary that sits on top of the hill.

SantiagoBack on ground level we walked up Constitucion, a hub of restaurants and cafes in the Bellavista neighbourhood. We chose an alfresco table at Sangucheria Ciudad Vieja and I had a delicious fried hake sandwich while we watched people meandering along the colourful street.

SantiagoA little further down Constitucion is Patio Bellavista. This is another option for eating as has plenty of restaurants and also some small shops and stalls that are worth browsing around.

SantiagoAs we had that lovely rooftop pool to sit by we decided to head back but went via the Centro Gabriela Mistral, an impressive cultural and performing arts centre in Barrio Lastarria. It was named after a Chilean poet who was the first Latin American woman to win the Nobel prize for Literature and is a wonderful space with exhibitions and daily events.

SantiagoThen it was a quick stop at ice cream shop Emporio La Rosa that was just across the road from our hotel. Delicious ice cream and there’s also a small branch at the bottom of Calle Lastarria.

Our second city day was a bit fuller, starting with a walk to the Mercado Municipal. But on route we spotted an impressive looking building and realised it was the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes fine art museum. A quick detour inside revealed a stunning main hall with sculptures and a glass and iron ceiling.

Back on track to the market and it’s mostly about the fish. Piles and piles of the freshest fish and seafood on stalls and lots of restaurants and cafes where you can sample it.

SantiagoWe’d read the restaurant prices increase as you go further into the middle of the market, but there is actually a really nice seating area in the centre, so we probably would have eaten there if it had been lunch time.

SantiagoIt wasn’t, so we walked along a pedestrianised shopping street to the Plaza des Armas to look at some of the beautiful buildings that line the palm tree shaded square. Then we popped into Santiago’s Catedral Metropolitana before heading to the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino.

SantiagoThis is a great museum which was reopened in 2014 after a huge renovation. It includes exhibits from most of the pre-Columbian cultures in Latin America including Maya stone work, Aztec jewellery and Andean textiles. A statue of Xipe-Totec, the god of spring, is shown as a man covered in a monkey skin with both male and female body parts – very strange!

SantiagoElsewhere there are some excellent figures of men chewing coca-leaf with the characteristic lump in their cheeks. And the Sala Textil is a room kept very cool and with lights that are motion activated. Some of the textiles they are preserving are thousands of years old and very fragile.

In the basement there’s also a really good Chile before Chile section which covers the local indigenous people. There are wooden Easter Island statues, Inca tunics and bags that look surprisingly current and something that looks like a grass skirt but is actually a quipu. It was a very clever way of keeping records using knots tied in strands of wool attached to a single cord.

SantiagoSantiagoAfter an interesting lunch at El Naturista vegetarian restaurant we spent most of the afternoon wandering around Cerro Santa Lucia. This is another of Santiago’s hilltop parks and this one is right in the city centre.

It’s really beautifully put together, apparently by 150 prisoners who the then mayor enlisted as free labour. There are terraces, stone staircases and you can climb to the Torre Mirador at the top, though I thought there were some pretty spectacular views lower down too.

SantiagoOur final visit was to the Inglesia de San Francisco, the city’s oldest surviving colonial building. It’s heavy stone walls made it an incredibly quiet place to escape the busy road it sits on.

SantiagoJust round the corner from here is a small neighbourhood called Barrio Paris-Londres which was developed on the grounds of the church and consists of two cobblestone streets that cross and unsurprisingly are called Paris and Londres.

They are lined with European style townhouses, so quite different to other architecture in the city. Londres also has one of buildings Pinochet used as a detention centre. We chose not to visit there or the Museum of Memory & Human Rights which tells the detailed story of his appalling regime. We heard it was not for the faint of heart and decided it wasn’t for us, but others we met said it was very interesting.

SantiagoAnd that pretty much sums up our Santiago sojourn. As mentioned we also did a day trip to the seaport of Valparaiso, but I’ll write a separate post about that featuring some of the extraordinary street art and murals that cover many of its houses. And we visited another of Pablo Neruda’s fabulous homes there too.

Final thing to mention is that getting from the airport to the city is very easy by taxi as there is a transportation desk in the arrivals hall and it costs 20,000 pesos. To go back we asked our hotel to book a cab and they quoted more than twice the price. When we objected, the helpful guy on reception booked us one online with TransVip which was back to same price we paid to get there.

That was actually an example of how helpful and friendly they were at The Singular, which is something we found at many places in Santiago. Our limited Spanish always got us what we needed. Another reason to recommend this capital city as an excellent place to spend a few days and start your Chilean adventure.

Click on an image below to scroll through more photos in the gallery and check the Chile section of my blog for more posts about my trip very soon.

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