It’s not every day that you’re blown away by the sight of a sprawling city nestled in the foothills of mountains, but that’s exactly what happens as you fly into Santiago, the capital city of Chile, on your way to your riding holiday in Torres del Paine. A metropolis with a view if ever there was one, Santiago is a bustling, energetic, cultural madhouse where you can drink potent Pisco Sours like they’re lemonade while staring out at the Andes from a rooftop bar. With each neighbourhood harbouring its own unique flavour and tone, this leafy city is a wonderful place for a leisurely stroll as you take in the grand architecture, marvel at the museums and picnic in the gorgeous hillside parks that punctuate the landscape.
Check out our recommendations on sights and activities and food to try while you wait for your connection to your ride!
SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES
As with any sprawling metropolis, you can’t possible see and do everything in one day. But if you’re looking for a few good suggestions, here are ours!
Oh and a side note – be careful on the metro! Hold onto any valuables with TWO hands, a foot and a leg. There are often very sneaky, very swift thieves about just waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting tourist.
Considered the historical centre of Santiago, the square is surrounded by many historical landmarks including the beautiful Metropolitan Cathedral, the Royal Court Palace and the Central Post Office, and is a great place to start your day to get a taste of the city. Lined with palm trees, the square itself is hive of activity where locals gather to relax, buskers perform and street artists and painters sell their work. But if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the square, slip inside the neoclassical Metropolitan Cathedral (it’s free to enter) and sit down, meditate or slowly walk around, marvelling at the beautiful baroque details.
A somewhat new addition to Santiago’s collection of museums (it opened in 2010), the Museo de la Memoria should be up there on your list. It commemorates the victims of human rights violations during the country’s 17-year dictatorship commencing in 1973. Entry to the museum is free, but I recommend purchasing the English translator gadget if your Spanglish isn’t up to scratch. The emotive photography and art displays come to life as you tune into the historical accounts of the Pinochet regime. This isn’t your normal out-of-date, stuffy museum collection that you often find in capital cities. It’s enlightening yet powerful and emotional, and a good way to freshen up on your Chilean history, without yawning with boredom. Chileans can be proud of this mixed-medium exhibition portraying their colourful and heart-breaking past.
If you’re a fan of Nobel prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, then you’re going to LOVE this next activity. Jump on the metro or take a taxi to the vibrant, leafy green suburb of Bellavista. We simply adore this barrio with its bohemian, artisan feel. It’s a melting pot of hip restaurants, art galleries, chic boutiques and brilliant street art. And while you’re there, it’s well worth a visit to La Chascona, one of three homes of Pablo Neruda. It’s kooky and out-of-the-box – Pablo was an incredibly quirky man with an obsession in collecting the strangest of items. Do yourself a favour and pay for an English guided tour, whether you’ve heard of him or not, the guides are extremely good in bringing this well-known poet to life.
There are many, MANY street markets (ferias) in Santiago, but one of the most notable is Los Dominicos, the perfect shopping hub if you appreciate hand-made craft. It’s a bit of a drive so jump in a cab, but it’s the epicentre for local artisans who make quality, handcrafted artifacts. The markets originally began as an artist’s commune supported by the Dominican monastery and are now a bustling craft market where shops sit cheek-to-cheek selling local jewellery, leather, ceramics, pottery, paintings and more. It’s here you’ll find souvenirs and handicrafts at the best price in the city – if you want the famous alpaca wool poncho, here’s your chance. You can spend hours here wandering the network of sandy paths shadowed by willow trees that reveal modest-sized stalls selling everything made under the sun. And the best part? When you purchase souvenirs from these markets you’re supporting local artisans and the gifts are unique to Chile. #winning
PLACES TO EAT
If you’re anything like me and are constantly thinking about your stomach i.e. what your next meal is going to be, then you’ve come to the right place. South America, and Santiago, is a food enthusiast’s dream! Check out these places where you can gorge on South American fare.
Off the beaten tourist path down a nondescript street and away from the popular ‘eat streets’ is where you’ll find the popular traditional restaurant El Caramano, the perfect place to get your first taste of Chilean fare. Walking through the doors you can instantly tell it’s a local’s haunt. The walls are covered in signatures, names and notes from past diners (keep an eye out for our Globetrotting shout out) and it’s here you can feast on delicious empanadas (a golden pastry envelope of goodness) as a starter and try Caldillo de congrio, a rich soup made with eel, tomatoes, white wine and cream. Many even swear by its ability to cure a hangover! Don’t forget to order a pisco sour, a national favourite!
Fish and all manner of seafood are a staple in Santiago, and this fish market is the place to go. If you’re feeling a little dusty after too many pisco sours, head here for lunch and try the hangover-curing fish stews. Skip the touristy restaurants in the middle and head for one of the tiny low-key stalls around the outside of the market…you won’t be disappointed!
Close to the Museum of Memories and Human Rights, this is an innovative dining experience. The name literally means ‘French barbershop’ and that’s exactly what this location was, dating back to 1868. The seafood here is excellent and locals frequent it so expect crowds on a weekend.
We can’t speak highly enough of the lovely Gloria who runs Vila Franca in Santiago. You’ll feel instantly at home when you meet Gloria, who will make sure you have everything you need to enjoy your stay in her vibrant city. Say hi to her from us!
Image credits: Gustavo Gomez via National Geographic, SantiagoChile.com, Violentology, MisBookings.com, Daytours4u.com, Franny’s Footsteps