I am fast coming to the end of my time in my Latin home away from home. During these past 4 months, I have hiked in the Lake district, frolicked on the beaches of the central cities of Viña and Pichilemu, caught a rickety funicular up the steep, sinuous cerros of colourful Valparaiso, eaten fresh fish at a fisherman’s festival in historic Coquimbo, jogged on the beaches of La Serena, feasted at an asado in the rustic Chilean countryside of Rancagua and much more. However, every time I returned to my cosy apartment in Santiago Centro, I couldn’t help but feel comfortably at home in one of the world’s most-loved cities. I have realised that, beyond the obvious geographical charms of the city--its dramatic backdrop of the Andes cordillera and its buzzing, metropolitan atmosphere--the real allure of Santiago can only be experienced once you’ve stayed there for a while.
Beneath the veneer of a typical ‘city’s city’, with the towering condo buildings and malls, the flashy metro network, the ubiquitous roar of automobiles and the bustling crowds that swarm in the streets during the day, is a unique and charming cosmopolitan hub of culture, nature and adventure. Santiago blends the best of the Latin with the European which fuse together and form the irresistible ‘je ne sais quoi’ that filters through the 32 comunas of Santiago and which keeps tourists coming back for more.
I still can’t quite put my finger on what it is exactly that makes Santiago such an invigorating, enriching and comfortable a place to live in. However, I do have a list of 10 awesome, distinctly- Santiaguino experiences that I have had here, each with a signature quirk which, for me, encompasses an aspect of Santiago’s ineffable charm:
1) Shopping at Santiago’s La Vega and Central markets
Nothing reflects the spirit of Santiago more than its two main food markets: La Vega’s fruit and vegetable paradise and the Central Market’s world-famous cluster of fishmongers and seafood restaurants. Located in downtown Santiago, on opposite sides of the Mapocho River, with iron roofs and colourfully-painted walls further adorned by amateurish graffiti, these historic, covered markets are bustling labyrinths of bellowing vendors and frantic,bartering shoppers. Stray dogs weave in and out of the colourful stands to the sounds of street performers and, in the case of The Central Market, charming waiters enticing crowds of shoppers in 3-4 languages. Being swept up in the quotidian spectacle of serious, traditional Santiaguino food-shopping at these markets is a truly energising experience.
Me shopping at Santiago's famous Central Market
2) Visiting La Chascona
If Santiago’s downtown food markets are dizzying spots of gastronomical paradise, Pablo Neruda’s Santiaguino abode is a dizzying spot of cultural and anthropological wonder. The building and everything inside La Chascona (a name inspired by the wavy locks of Pablo Neruda’s wife) represents all that Pablo Neruda loved about being a citizen of the world: dadaist portraits, african, tribal artifacts, a huge dining table with meticulously-laid china, an intimate bar...the house is an entrancing, colourful hodge podge of cultures, epochs and movements represented in the form of eccentric objects that have remained intact since Pablo Neruda’s death, thanks to the work of the Pablo Neruda Foundation. A tour through the nooks and crannies of Neruda’s magical home nestled in hills of bohemian Barrio Bellavista, will take you on a hypnotising voyage through space and time seen from the perspective of the visionary poet.
One of Santiago's many Pablo Neruda murals located in Bellavista's craft market
3) Snacking on Chilean Street Food
They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach and, indeed, the same goes for countries: one of the key ways in which you come to know and love a certain place, is through its food! For a real lesson in traditional, Chilean street cuisine, a visit to any of the many food stalls of Santiago will school you in the way of the classic empanada, the guilty pleasure completo, the delicious sopaipilla, the rustic, feel-good queque and many more. A night out in Santiago just isn’t complete without a stumble over to a street stall to for a midnight munch!
4) Visiting El Cementerio General
A quiet walk through the maze of tombs, that is, Santiago’s General Cemetery is a soberingly beautiful experience. The mausoleums and tombs, which range from the gothic, to the neoclassic to the modern, are veritable works of art crumbling and leaning in the shade of the verdant trees which line the cemetery’s various sectors. A cemetery which is just as enrooted in the political as it is the religious, it is the home of Salvador Allende’s tomb and of a huge memorial of the ‘disappeared’ of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Maintained by a good-natured team of groundsmen and women, the beautiful cemetery transports you to a place of reflection and remembrance that one rarely accesses amid the hustle and bustle of inner-city Santiago life.
The gothic beauty of Santiago's General Cemetery
5) Drinking a Terremoto at The Clinic
Santiago is by no means lacking in charismatic and reasonably-priced places to drink. However, for a touch of the sophisticated and the edgy, The Clinic Bar, located a stone’s throw away from Santiago’s Fine Arts Museum, is practically an institution amongst Santiago’s younger crowd. Its decadent yet sombre interior, which pumps to hip-shakingly good soundtracks ranging from Motown to metal, is a weekend favourite. Beers, cocktails spirits and, of course, delicious Chilean wines, are cheap to come by at the downtown joint, however, the real reason behind this bar’s success is down to its unique takes on the classically Chilean Terremoto cocktail. The Clinical twists on this dangerously sweet and creamy concoction is a true, sophisticated treat for the daring, unsophisticated palate (and stomach!)
6) Wine-Tasting at Concha y Toro
On the subject of tasty alcoholic beverages, it is no mystery that Chile is home to some of the worlds most famous vineyards which produce some of the world’s most delicious wines. A visit to the country’s oldest vineyard, Concha y Toro, which is situated in the Metropolitan Santiago district of Pirque will prove to be a delectable journey through the senses as you walk through the vast gardens and vineyards of the birthplace of Don Melchor’s wine empire, with frequent tasting sessions along the way. To get a better taste for all that is to be expected on this veteran wine tour, click here!
A city that lies under the gaze of the Andes cordillera truly comes into its own during the winter with stunning views of the snow-peaked mountains visible from all parts of the city. However, Given Santiago’s proximity to the Andes and its below-freezing temperatures during the winter, you can do a lot more than just gaze at the snowy landscape from afar: popular resorts such as Valle Nevado and Farellones are fantastic winter wonderlands offering amazing vistas of the snowy Andes underneath clear blue skies. Alternatively, for a ski adventure off the beaten track, the smaller resorts of the Cajón del Maipo are homes to fantastic slopes of thick, virgin snow. It’s an amazing way to exercise in the fresh mountain air and can be easily done as a day trip from Santiago, as we at Cascada did last month!
The Cascada team at Lagunillas ski resort
8) Cheering with Chilean football fans at Plaza Italia
(I’m cheating slightly with this one- experiences like this happen once in a blue moon!) To be in South America during the World Cup Season was an amazing experience. Mundial fever permeated every conversation and filled the air with a contagiously jovial electricity. Better still, however, and an experience that I will remember forever, was being in Chile the night of Chile’s historical and triumphant victory over Spain. After the thrilling match, thousands of proud Santiaguinos descended on Plaza Italia, the historic square located at the very heart of the city, and chanted, sang, skipped, cried and embraced one another in triumph. As I danced with strangers in a sea of red, white and blue, fireworks and flares illuminating the dark skies with the colours of Chile, I felt optimistic, proud and hopeful and every Chilean felt the same.
9) Walking around Barrio Lastarria
For casual dining, theatre-hopping, coffee breaks and book-hunting, one need look no further than Santiago’s soulful and charismatic artsy neighbourhood: Barrio Lastarria. Taking a evening stroll through the narrow, dimly-lit streets of Lastarria which are lined with intimate wine bars and coffee shops humming soul music into the vibrant outdoors is simultaneously relaxing and invigorating. It’s reminiscent of a walk through Paris’ Latin Quarter/ any other well-known bohemian, coffee-culture havens, but with the added Chilean zest.
10) Enjoying the Panoramic View of Chile from the Cerro San Cristóbal
Nothing will make you fall in love with Santiago more than viewing it in all its Andean beauty from the city’s tallest public hill: the Cerro San Cristóbal. Be it by the 2hr climb on foot, the challenging, uphill bike ride through the sinuous cycle trail, or by the rapid yet rickety funicular service, making your way to the top of Santiago’s main look-out point is in itself an adventure. However, for all first-timers, nothing will prepare you for the views you will see on a clear day in Santiago: with the Andes cordillera towering in the distance over thousands of miniscule, colourful home buildings and grand, looming structures such as the ritzy costanera centre, which blush in the pastel light of the Andean sunset, you can almost feel the vibrancy of the buzzing city below fusing with the earthy calm of the natural landscapes that afford Santiago its signature charm
Santiago by night, as viewed from the Cerro San Cristóbal
For any information or advice about day trips to Santiago, contact our travel experts, native Santiaguinas who will able to tell you the difference between palta and the paine tower!