After spending a month in Buenos Aires in October, we realised the value of longer periods of stability while travelling, not only for Amber but also for Claire and I. As such we decided that following a busy couple of months of travelling in November and December, we would lay low for a bit, try to save some money and generally keep things quiet during January.
Santiago was to be our base. The capital of Chile is often overlooked by travellers who use the city as a transit hub in order to reach Chile’s main draws such as Patagonia or the Atacama Desert. However, the city has enjoyed something of a revival recently, boosted by government investment and a subsequent cultural boom.
We had spent 3 days in Santiago in December while on our way to the Chilean coast for Christmas and had rather giddily / drunkenly claimed that the city was the best place we had ever been to. I think it’s safe to say this wasn’t necessarily accurate and could have had something to do with the fact we knew we were coming back for a prolonged period in January. However, even in this short period, we saw a city that was buzzing with a vibrant, young edge. It immediately felt more down to earth than the somewhat haughty Buenos Aires.
And now, having spent pretty much all of January in the city, our opinion hasn’t changed. We loved it and thought the best way to celebrate our time there was to give people a taste of the sheer variety of things to do. So below is a list of not far off everything we did in Santiago, from bars and restaurants to cultural spaces and viewpoints. It’s all there.
Plaza de Armas
Santiago’s main square. Avoid the dismal coffee shops around the perimeter but go for the cracking architecture and the buzzing atmosphere. Also contains the obligatory set of tables with men playing chess and it is no secret that I aspire to be one of those men when I’m older.
La Palacio de Moneda
This former coin factory is now the seat of Chile’s government and one of few central government buildings to allow guided tours (and an excellent one at that).
Paris / Londres
Two intersecting streets that transport you to their city namesakes in terms of architecture, even down to Victorian streetlamps. Londres 38 is the home of a former detention centre during Pinochet’s reign. Chilling graffiti outside reads “my brother was tortured here”.
Centro Cultural Palacio de Moneda
Underground space with decent coffee shops and a large exhibition area. We were lucky enough to be there at the same time as a Picasso exhibition.
Gabrial Mistral Centre
Another cavernous exhibition space in a unique building close to the excellent Lastarria neighbourhood. Also where Santiago’s youth dance troupes go to practice at the weekend.
Centro Cultural Estacion Mapucho
This former rail station was converted into a cultural space in 1994. Retains all the architectural grace and atmosphere of its original use but now accommodates coffee shops, restaurants and an exhibition space.
Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos
Even with my limited Spanish this was a memorable and informative experience, learning about the 1973 coup by Augusto Pinochet and the subsequent dictatorship that resulted in thousands of deaths, disappearances and incidents of torture. Very well presented.
Museo Nacional de Historia Natural de Chile
If you like taxidermy (and who doesn’t) this is the place for you. In many ways like going to the zoo just after someone has pressed the pause button. Amber loved it.
Museo Interactivo Mirador (MIM)
Essentially an enormous interactive playground for adults and children exploring physics, sound, nature and a load more. Who doesn’t want to spend their afternoon making enormous bubbles?
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Beautiful building also containing a contemporary art museum
Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino
Another very well curated museum showing off pre-Colombian artefacts from Central and South America. Nicely surprised by this, even Amber enjoyed it.
Cerro Santa Lucia
A park and a hill in one. Technically great views from the top but inevitably subject to pollution on the day.
Cerro San Cristobal
Another park / hill combination but far larger than Saint Lucia. We only dipped our toes into this one by taking the funicular to the viewpoint, but were thwarted by more pollution at the top.
Vast park named after one of the founders of Chile, Bernado O’Higgins (of Irish descent hence the name). Highlight here was the drumming groups that congregate at the weekend to practice, one of which was playing a bit of drum n bass. Respect.
All over Santiago you find high quality street art from Chilean and international street artists. This art adds so much to the experience of the city and gives a sense of anticipation to each corner you turn.
Parque Quinta Normal
Tranquil park towards the west of the city with the added bonus of containing the Natural History Museum. We tried to get Amber to nap in her stroller here and failed miserably. Still a nice park though.
Visually striking square adorned with playground items designed by the son of a surrealist artist. Surrounded by decent coffee shops and in a hip, slightly off the beaten track area called Yungay.
Only worth a mention as it was our local park so many hours were spent watching Amber intimidate / baffle local Chilean children twice her age with her strange brand of social interaction. Also, like Glastonbury, this park had its own Stone Circle, albeit far less depraved than its festival brethren.
Yes, they seem to have randomly allocated enclosures without any thought about how much space each animal needs but this was still an enjoyable trip. Importantly, the animals looked well cared for and they even had a red panda which is an absolutely beautiful animal.
Given the proximity to the Andes there are lots of hiking opportunities and this is apparently one of the favourites. For us it was a largely miserable, at times outright dangerous, scramble and stumble up a very hot, dusty mountain. Probably better attempted in the cooler months.
Peumayen Ancestral Food
A journey through Chile’s gastronomic history taking in horse, llama, tongue and sweetbreads. Not for the fainthearted but a wonderful experience and the best meal we’ve had on the trip to date.
More great food in the Bellavista neighbourhood. Traditional Chilean dishes, great service, well priced.
Emporio la Rosa
When ice cream is this good you wonder why you bother eating anything else. This is the best in Santiago.
The epicentre of Santiago’s fish trade complete with drunk Chilean fishmongers and a plethora of ramshackle restaurants offering first class fresh sea food. A must for atmosphere and flavours.
La Vega Central
The fruit and veg equivalent of Mercado Central and the place where all the restaurants in Santiago buy their ingredients. Chaos, a bit rough round the edges but a great atmosphere and cheap food.
Cheap, basic café serving up absolutely delicious home made Indian recipes at ridiculously cheap prices. I go where the curry goes and this was a massive hit.
Charming old school Chilean restaurant with wise old men in black and white waiting the tables, classic Chilean dishes such as conger eel, and an eclectic clientele.
With Chile and Peru in a constant state of war over who makes the better pisco this bar unites the two and presents the best selection of pisco regardless of its origins. Strong as well as it was after leaving here we think we lost Pink Bunny.
In the middle of the excellent Bellavista neighbourhood is this complex of bars, restaurants, cafes and shops. The central courtyard hosts occasional musical and other performances and was a great destination for a beer.
Cracking pedestrianised street around the corner from our apartment with loads of good quality bars.
Great boutique vineyard 30 minutes drive from Santiago in the foot hills of the Andes. Informative tour, great views of the city and a nice wine tasting in the gardens at the end.
What’s not to love?
The city really did surprise us with the variety of things to do and we remain confident that Santiago will soon become (if not already there) a destination in itself as opposed to a transit hub for those who choose to visit Chile. That said for anyone thinking of visiting it’s worth bearing in mind the following caveats:
- Pollution: apparently worse in the winter months it was still pretty bad in the height of summer. Made worse by the wild fires in the surrounding countryside
- Crime: we largely felt safe although that didn’t stop my bag being stolen (including passport and Kindle) in the main bus terminal. Annoying to say the least but petty crime like this and in particular in busy places like bus stations is common
- Weather: January is hot, hot, hot. Crazy that you can drive for just over an hour to the west and it gets cooler by 10-15 degrees. But it did at times become quite uncomfortable in the heat of summer
Despite these drawbacks Santiago was an excellent base for us and allowed us to recharge before taking on what was a particularly busy period in February. The city may lack the global appeal of its South American counterparts like Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro however we can safely say it’s been by far our favourite city on the continent so far.