For the vast majority of people, Santiago is going to be the first place they see on their holiday to Chile. But what is the city actually like?
Like most cities, particularly in Latin America, the area around the airport is home to much of the city’s insecure housing, almost shanty towns.
This means that your first taste of the country is likely to be a rather unlovely picture of chaotic humanity in uncertain surroundings.
However, as you approach downtown you start to see shiny glass highrise buildings, smartly dressed people are bustling rather than chaotic and gone is any evidence of the Latin America stereotype of chicken buses and hooped skirts.
Chile is very much a middle income country and Santiago is its powerhouse.
The truth is that downtown Santiago feels much like a provincial city in Europe or North America, think Manchester, Boston or Lyon.
If Santiago was only the chaotic approach from the airport then it would be too intense for most of us. If it was just the efficient, international feeling downtown then it would be too anodine for many of us.
In fact, the city is a wonderful mixture of the two. Just different enough to be interesting, exciting and new. Just familiar enough to make us feel relaxed and able to explore.
Because Santiago has got just a handful of small, museums and cultural attractions you can actually relax and not dash around.
Instead, concentrate on wandering, shopping, eating and drinking free from that creeping guilty sensation that you should really be in a gallery looking at the umpteenth portrait of so-and-so-the-great.
At the risk of being a philistine, it really is quite liberating.
Why not follow our suggested walking tour of Santiago?
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list by any means but it is a fair indication of the sorts of areas that you are likely to see during a necessarily brief holiday to Chile.
The downtown area is largely 18th century Spanish colonial style, the only evidence of the earlier colonial period is the 16th century San Francisco church.
Across the road from the San Francisco church is the ‘Alameda’ which is the main pedestrianised shopping street. Also on this side of the road is the Moneda presidential palace, recognisable still from the iconic photos of Salvador Allende standing outside during the 1973 coup. The Plaza Mayor is also back here with its massive cathedral and lively park life.
In the heart of downtown is the pretty hill of Cerro Santa Lucia, site of the original colonial settlement of Santiago del Nuevo Extremo, the city founded by Pedro de Vaidivia in 1541. It is well worth a walk to the top for pretty views over downtown Santiago, the river (Mapocho) and up to the mountains.
The Rio Mapocho flows, cascades, through the middle of Santiago and it is around the river that you will find the oldest barrios or neighbourhoods, such as Bellavista. However, don’t expect the Seine, the Rio Mapocho is a fast flowing, dark brown river of melt water, sediment and who knows what else.
This old, cobbled neighbourhood is older and more picturesque than the rest of the city with its low, colonial style buildings and pretty position at the foot of the Cerro San Cristobal, just to the north of the Rio Mapocho.
Bellavista is Santiago’s bohemian sector, with lots of restaurants, bars, cafes and artists’ workshops where craftsmen work and sell lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone unique to Chile and Afghanistan.
If you want to get up to the top of San Cristobal hill, you head into Bellavista and from there take an old funicular railway to the statue of the Virgin at the top. The entire hill is covered by the Metropolitan Park, and is home to a zoo, public swimming pools and picnic spots.
Providencia and Las Condes
As you travel east towards the mountains from downtown you come first to Providencia, then Las Condes.
Providencia is the part of Santiago where most people on holiday in Chile will find themselves spending much of their time. For a start, there are more hotels here than in other areas. Secondly, it is in Providencia that you will find the most restaurants, bars and clubs as well as many of the nicer shops.
In short, whereas downtown is at its best during the day, Providencia is at its best in the evening.
As you carry on east into Las Condes you will see that the area becomes more residential with less obvious commercial activity. Houses start to appear in place of the more normal (particularly nice) apartment blocks. You will tend to find international shops, shopping malls and fine restaurants here but much of it along the lines of US style strip malls.
Alto las Condes is the most exclusive residential neighbourhood in Santiago and it is here that the houses start to really appear and space opens up as you hit the foothills of the Andes. By and large there is not much to detain anyone who is in Chile on holiday. The one exception to this is the artisans’ village of Los Graneros del Aiba (literally the Granaries of Dawn) or more colloquially Pueblo los Dominicanos.
The village stands next to the colonial church of Los Dominicos and its layout mimics a rural village with unpaved streets, mud ovens and dozens of workshops and shops that sell crafted goods from all over Chile. It is really a very good place to go shopping for good quality crafts and also lovely jewellery, leather and clothing made by young designers using Chilean natural resources.
What is striking about Santiago is its setting – it really is at the foothills of the Andes. The eastern suburbs of the city are in the foothills of mountains which are over 6,000m at their highest. The highest peak in the Americas, Aconcagua (6,962m), is incredibly close to Santiago.
The city literally lives in the shadow of the Andes, or the Cordillera (the mountain range) as they are always known in Chile. Much of the time you are surprisingly unaware of the mountains though. Partly this is to do with being surrounded by high buildings and partly because the air is often hazy making it hard to distinguish the shape of the nearby mountains.
On its other sides, Santiago is hemmed in by agricultural land, most notably vineyards. Some of the most recognisable wineries are actually within the city limits: Concha y Toro for example.
To the west is the Pacific Ocean, less than 100km by good motorway. Here you come to the Pacific port of Valparaiso with its eccentric and colourful houses dotting the steep hills of the harbour. Valparaiso is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
Just a little along the coast you come to beautiful, craggy sandy bays in villages such as Concon. The water might look inviting but there are penguins in the waters here, enjoying the cool Humbolt Current as it passes on its way up from Antarctica.
Want to visit Santiago? All of our holidays to Chile include time in Santiago.