Santiago travel guide
The towering Andes provide an awesome backdrop for the sprawling Chilean metropolis of Santiago. The population of Chile's capital numbers more than five million but, with its pretty leafy suburbs and well-oiled infrastructure, it is not an intimidating city.
Santiago is a curious mix of skyscrapers and 19th-century European architecture, with some Spanish adobe bungalows thrown in for good measure. Threaded through this architectural tapestry are numerous green areas, busy markets, and quaint old squares. Street life is vibrant, and adding to the vibe is the presence of numerous chic sidewalk cafes, outside of which traditionally dressed women hawk their wares hoping to catch the eye of the tourists. There are also some impressive museums, great accommodation options for all budgets, excellent restaurants and some good shopping opportunities. The public transport is very good, making getting around in the city centre a pleasure.
Santiago exudes an aura of health and wealth in the inner city and fashionable suburbs, with a distinctly cosmopolitan and first-world atmosphere, but those who explore beyond the thriving centre will find that the glittering skyscrapers slowly give way to shabby shantytowns. The city is also one of the 10 most severely polluted in the world, thanks to its position in a bowl of mountains, which comes as a surprise in a country known for its pristine natural landscapes. Luckily, air pollution is only likely to be a problem in Santiago in the winter months, peaking between May and August, and the city tends to be beautifully clear in the sunny summers.
Santiago is an excellent base for exploring the Central Valley of Chile, with the lovely wine country on its doorstep and the artistic port city of Valparaiso a short drive away. National parks and even ski slopes are also within easy reach. Visitors may find, however, that the delights of the city itself make them loathe to leave.
Plaza de Armas
This square is the point from which all distances are measured in Chile, and the central point for the grid pattern of the streets. Be aware of pickpockets as gathering places of this kind are their favourite targets. The square is a useful starting point for sightseeing in Santiago as many attractions are close by.
Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art
It is worth paying a bit extra for a guided tour though, because the labels are not translated into many languages and are not as comprehensive as some might like. Having said that, the museum is a worthwhile attraction in Santiago, especially if travellers are not familiar with the intriguing ancient cultures on display.
Address: Calle Bandera 361
There are many restaurants to choose from and often the smaller ones are the best - and a bit cheaper. Mercado Central can be a bit expensive now because its popularity with tourists has grown so be on the lookout for bargains. It is crowded and chaotic, but the seafood is excellent and fresh, the architecture is interesting, and there is a festive feel to the place (partly thanks to the street musicians who frequent it). It is essentially a food market but there are usually some vendors selling souvenirs, jewellery and the like as well. Stay aware at all times of your possessions because markets of this kind are a favourite for pickpockets.
Address: Corner of Calle Puente and Calle San Pablo
Cerro San Cristóbal
There is also a zoo on the lower slopes, and picnic sites and two outdoor swimming pools spread throughout the park. The hill is situated within Santiago's biggest open space, the Parque Metropolitano, and is a peaceful and beautiful area; it makes for a good escape from the noise of traffic in the city below and busy urban sightseeing. The park area demands a few hours to enjoy properly and on a sunny day the swimming pools are a delight.
Address: Calle Pedro de Valdivia or Calle Pio Nono
There are many worthwhile things to see and do in Santiago for travellers. A fantastic way to start familiarising yourself with this vibrant and busy city is to pay a visit to the Plaza de Armas, Santiago's central square. Many of the main attractions of Santiago are in walking distance of this classic colonial meeting space. There are also brilliant walking tours with a group called Spicy Chile who offer about three different walks a day to give tourists an introduction to the city. The guides are knowledgeable locals and the tours are free (although tips are expected).
There are a number of small but interesting museums in Santiago, the best of which is the Chilean Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, a must-see for those interested in the ancient cultures of South America. Visitors travelling in Santiago with kids should also pop into the Museo Interactivo Mirador, a huge interactive museum with lots of educational activities and play areas. Another deservedly popular attraction in Santiago is Pablo Neruda's home: the late Nobel-winning poet's house is colourful, eccentric and romantic and worth a visit even for those unfamiliar with his poetry. It is called La Chascona, which means Tousled Hair, a name given in honour of his third wife.
San Cristobal Hill is a must for great views of the city and a refreshing dose of greenery and clean air. Santiago's parks and green spaces are a delight and it is never hard to find somewhere to relax in the shade. For not-so-clean air try the Mercado Central seafood market, a bustling market which offers a massive variety of seafood fresh from the ocean.
Many travellers stop off in Santiago as a base for adventures out in the surrounding mountains; it has become a renowned area for ecotourism and you can take your pick of exciting outdoor activities, including skiing, horse riding, climbing and hiking. If you are looking for a more mellow experience of the beautiful surroundings of Santiago then take a tour of the famous wine country just outside the city.
Chilean wine country is an especially beautiful region in the summer, and it is possible to hire bicycles to tour the area. Some groups of wineries have banded together to offer established tours along 'wine routes', of which the circuit of the Colchagua Valley is the most popular. Many tour operators in Santiago offer wine tasting packages as well. There is much to delight sommeliers in the region but it is also a fun experience for the uninitiated.
Vina del Mar
Vina del Mar's beaches are its biggest asset but although they are very picturesque they are not always safe for swimming. Visitors should be careful not to underestimate the power of the waves and currents and should obey directives from lifeguards when they are present.
Unsurprisingly, Valparaiso is renowned for a frisky nightlife and there is a surplus of cool places to eat and drink in the city. Apart from taking in the art, colourful architecture and numerous pubs, travellers should be sure to visit the quirky home of beloved poet Pablo Neruda, which offers glorious views over the city as well as insight into his life.
A famously nocturnal city, the nightlife in Santiago often stays lively until the sun comes up. Locals may only go to dinner at 11pm, getting to nightclubs after 1am and staying until dawn. While some visitors may not have that sort of stamina, they shouldn't be surprised to find that clubs in Santiago often don't fill until midnight.
Much of Santiago's nightlife caters to people between 18 and 35, and live music is popular, spanning a wide range of musical styles from electronic to rock and jazz. Internationally-renowned bands and musicians play at venues like the Estado Nacional Julio Martinez Pradanos (the national stadium) and the Espacio Riesco. Pio Nono has the highest density of bars in Santiago, and there are a number of high-end nightclubs surrounding the Plaza San Enrique. The Bellavista neighbourhood has a large number of nightclubs and bars, many of which stay open until as late as 5am, as well as a few relaxed venues with local music like tango, bolero and Latin jazz. Avenida Suecia, in the generally upmarket Providencia neighbourhood, was once considered the nightlife centre of Santiago, especially for foreigners, but the road developed a reputation for seediness and debauchery and most of the best venues have since closed down.
The legal drinking age in Chile is 18 and the locals are generally very welcoming and friendly on a night out. The party tends to spill out into the streets in a festive manner, especially in Bellavista where the sidewalks are extensions of the various bars and restaurants.
There is a huge theatre community in Santiago, with offerings ranging from small independent productions to large-scale operas. Established theatres like the Teatro Bellavista, Teatro Alcalá, and Estación Mapocho stage productions on a regular basis, but performances in English are few and far between. Tourists who don't speak Spanish will enjoy symphonies or ballets at the Teatro Municipal, Teatro Oriente and Teatro Universidad de Chile.
Shopping in Santiago is a mixture of the old and new as bustling craft markets sit in the shadow of brand-new megamall complexes. Santiago is a major shopping destination in Chile, and visitors will find everything from tacky tourist items to high-end local brand names and international labels.
There are more than a few shopping malls in Santiago. The air-conditioned malls are popular on hot days, and most have food courts and movies to entertain children while their parents shop. Alto Las Condes and Parque Arauco are two of the biggest and best of Santiago's malls, with more than one hundred shops in each and a variety of entertainment options. Mall Vivo Panoramico is a good shopping centre to find mid-range items, and the 'Drugstore' on Avenida Providencia has a range of funky boutiques. Malls in Santiago are open seven days a week.
For tourists looking more for handicrafts than haute couture, Santiago has a few good craft markets that are great places to visit on a nice day. Patio Bellavista has a wealth of locally-made goods, and is a good place to find Santiago souvenirs as well as good restaurants. Pueblito de los Dominicos, which is made up of small stores located inside an attractive old convent, also promises a wonderful array of local crafts in a picturesque setting. For cheap (but sometimes less authentic) Santiago souvenirs, Feria Artesanal Santa Lucía, on Cerro Santa Lucía, is another popular market with visitors.
Sought-after Santiago souvenirs include jewellery made with locally-mined lapis lazuli, folk art, and alpaca scarves and jerseys. Chilean wine from the region around Santiago is also a good souvenir, particularly from well-regarded wineries like Casa Julia and EQ.
Santiago Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport
Location: The airport is situated nine miles (15km) northwest of Santiago.
Time: Local time is GMT -3 (GMT -4 from spring to autumn).
Getting to the city: Several bus services leave regularly for the city centre. Official airport taxis are also available from outside international and domestic arrivals.
Car rental: International companies such as Avis and Alamo are represented at the airport as well as several local companies.
Airport Taxis: There are taxi ranks located outside both the Domestic and International Arrivals areas.
Facilities: Facilities at this well-equipped airport include business and internet centres, bureaux de change, banks and ATMs, duty-free shops as well as a variety of other retail stores, restaurants, cafes and bars, tourist information, travel agencies and hotel reservations.
Parking: Parking spaces are charged for in half hour increments; there are three different zones and expense varies according to proximity to the terminal building.
Public transport in Santiago is both efficient and practical for tourists. The Metro de Santiago is an easy and efficient way to get around in Santiago at a reasonable price and the system services most places of interest. MetroBuses serve the Metro stations to act as an extension to the rail system. Competing private companies run Santiago's many minibuses (micros), with their drivers working on a commission basis dependant on collecting as many fares as possible. Buses tend to race each other chaotically through the city's main streets and can be a dangerous option. Quicker and more comfortable are the colectivos, which have fixed routes and can take five passengers. They look like regular taxis, but display their route on the roof. Taxis can be hailed on any street corner, or radio taxis can be called to the door. Taxis are relatively inexpensive; it is always best to decide on a rate before setting off as not all of the taxis are metered. Although renting a car is possible, driving yourself around in Santiago is not recommended due to heavy congestion and limited parking. Santiago is also a good city for getting around on foot because it is arranged on a simple grid system that makes it easy to negotiate with a map.
The climate of Santiago is Mediterranean, with typically hot, dry summers and mild, moist winters. In summer, November to February, average temperatures hit highs of around 86°F (30°C). The summer months can be quite windy, with prevailing winds from the southwest. In winter, May to August, temperatures average around 52°F (11°C). Temperatures in winter seldom drop below freezing. Rain falls mainly during winter, which is a more humid season in Santiago. Snowfall is extremely rare in the city, although it is common in the Andes mountain range that looms above Santiago. Temperature inversions cause smog to be trapped in the valley for spells during the winter months, bringing heavy pollution. Unfortunately, the city is considered one of the most polluted in the world, largely due to its location in a natural bowl, and the smog is at its worst in winter. The best time to visit Santiago is in the summer months of December, January and February, although many people do visit in the winter to enjoy the skiing.
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