If there’s an art to eating a completo hotdog, then I never learnt it. Lashings of mayonnaise end up down my front and, later that day, I discover the dried remains of mashed avocado behind my ear. The vendor, a smiling matron in a striped apron, looks on with an encouraging nod as I polish off Santiago’s beloved street snack. While some might mistake the mind-boggling pile-up of toppings for a sadistic challenge, it’s really an expression of the generous spirit of the people. Santiaguinos are eager to help, to please, to impress, to share — and there’s a real deference towards travellers, who are still a bit of a novelty here. So when I give the hotdog seller a thumbs up, she looks momentarily overcome before scuttling to the next cart to share the good news.
I’ve returned to the Chilean capital — a city I once called home — after a five-year hiatus. Eager to take my taste buds down memory lane, I head to the pretty, boho barrio of Bellavista to snaffle a pumpkin fritter known as a sopapilla with fresh, garlicy pebre sauce of diced onions, tomatoes and coriander. My next stop is a refreshments hut on the ramparts of the leafy Santa Lucía Hill. While I sip my ice-cold mote con huesillo, I’m rewarded with views across Santiago. It appears unchanged: there are the same glassy skyscrapers, charming colonial pockets and grand historical centre, and the distant diadem of snow-capped Andean peaks just visible through a light smog.
But in my absence a flux of funky new hangouts and municipal facelifts has injected glamour into the city. There’s Peumayen, with its daring reimaginings of indigenous dishes; funky expressions of Santiaguinos’ party spirit in the form of cocktail joints Sarita Colonia and CHPE Libre; and uber-luxe hotel The Singular, whose steps Kate Moss was descending recently. I visit Calle Bandera, too, which I remember as a ramshackle street of second-hand clothing shops, and discover a rainbow-striped pedestrianised lane with flowering troughs and people sipping coffee in deckchairs.
I’m relieved to find that these glitzy new additions haven’t rubbed off on the city’s ancient network of eccentric, gritty dive bars. In La Piojera, I’m greeted by a setup that has resisted change for nearly a century. There’s sawdust on the floor, graffiti on the walls and meat-tastic dishes including churrasco on offer. This, for me, will always feel like the real Santiago. The barkeep slops a beaker of terremoto to me. The strong cocktail of pipeño wine, grenadine and pineapple ice cream is named rather darkly after the earthquakes that rock the capital from time to time. One glass is enough to leave me unsteady, which seems an appropriate end to my trip as in the last few years, as I’ve discovered, Santiago has begun to shake things up.
See & do
La Chascona: National icons don’t get much more romantic than Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. His artsy love nest, built in 1953 for his flame-haired mistress, has been preserved as a museum at the foot of San Cristóbal Hill. The couple had an eye for interiors and collected fabulous objets, including art by such famous friends as Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. A visit is a step back to Santiago’s bohemian heyday, and offers a glimpse into Neruda’s sensational biography of exile, fame and assassination.
Museum of Memory and Human Rights: Santiago’s vibrancy belies the atrocities committed in living memory by the Pinochet regime. The permanent collection at this powerful museum bears witness to life under the military dictatorship and honours the victims.
Take a hike: For views of the Andean cordillera (at its least smoggy after a spot of rain), head to the top of Santa Lucía Hill with its charming gardens and ramparts, or take the old-fashioned funicular to the towering statue of the Virgin atop the much larger and wilder San Cristóbal Hill, stopping off at the scenic Antilén Swimming Pool for a dip.
Cementerio General: Santiaguinos hold flamboyant celebrations here in the run up to Día de los Muertos (1 November). Take a guided tour of its ostentatious mausoleums, including the resting places of President Salvador Allende and musician Víctor Jara, both victims of the Pinochet years. After-dark tours come complete with a ghoulish guide.
Mercado Central: This working fish market is housed in a pretty 19th-century building near the Mapocho River. Tourists head for the restaurants in the central courtyard, under a wrought iron dome, but the smaller places around the periphery serve up ceviche, caldillo de congrio and seafood empanadas at a better price.
Plaza de Armas: This grand central square with its imposing neoclassical cathedral is the heart of the city, and great for people watching. The perfect antidote to the colonial pomp is the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art: chock full of Mesoamerican and Andean art spanning 10,000 years, housed in a mansion on the square’s southwest corner.
Foto Ruta: For a different angle on the city, sign up for a tutorial and tour with a local photographer. It can be a private one-on-one affair or taken in a small group, and is open to everyone from novices to pros, and you don’t need special kit. Even a phone camera will do. The day kicks off with a customised workshop and then moves out on to the streets to capture holiday snaps worth framing.
Concha y Toro vineyard: The vines of internally renowned Concha y Toro can be visited from Santiago central on the metro (Line 4 to Plaza de Puente Alto). Book ahead for tastings and cellar tours in English.
£ Emporio La Rosa: Get in line: there’s always a queue at this ice cream parlour. Some 17 years since it opened its doors, Santiaguinos are still enraptured by the ever-evolving menu of exotic flavours — currently including rose, cherimoya (custard apple) and the caramelly lúcuma fruit.
££ La Diana: Housed in a former monastery, La Diana restaurant with its multilevel dining nooks and fantastical assemblage of upcycled antiques and junk is a sight to behold. The aesthetic is chic yet playful, like something The Lost Boys would have created for themselves in Neverland if they’d actually grown up. It’s right next door to a retro games arcade, too.
£££ Peumayen: The pinnacle of Santiago’s culinary reinvention is the much-lauded Peumayen, a pilgrimage for foodies since it opened in 2013. The menu draws from the ancient cuisines of Chile’s native peoples — the Mapuche, Aymara and Rapa Nui — with their unusual meats and forgotten flavours. Opt for a tasting menu for a culinary tour of the nation and its indigenous roots from the Atacama Desert right down to Patagonia via Easter Island.
Chipe Libre: To hear it from a Santiaguino, the pisco sour is a Chilean invention. Talk to a Peruvian and it’s a different story. Relations between the countries over this matter are… sour. But a new bar in Lastarria has sidestepped the squabble by declaring their premises ‘The Independent Republic of Pisco’. It’s the bar del día, with an extensive cocktail menu and tasting flights dedicated to the South American brandy. Reserve ahead for a table in the leafy patio. José Victorino Lastarria 282. T: 00 562 2664 0584.
For live music: One of the best windows into Chilean culture is joining in a knees-up to the high-tempo, folkloric rhythms of a live Cumbia band. Popular venues include Fonda La Peña de Nano Parra and Onaciu, both in Bellavista.
Pío Nono street: Santiago’s nightlife thoroughfare is the place to start any evening out. Begin with drinks in Bar Constitución or the classy restaurant hub of Patio Bellavista before moving on to one of the road’s countless beer halls. The city’s best gay clubs, like Espacio Bunker, are a few streets over on Bombero Núñez.
Bio Bío flea market: Hop off the metro at Franklin and go digging for treasure in this charmingly chaotic complex of galpónes (warehouses) and street stalls. Antique furniture, vintage cameras, retro posters, surgical supplies… you name it, you’ll find it at Bio Bío. Try local street food here, too. Just keep an eye out for pickpockets. (Open Saturday and Sunday).
Barrio Patronato: This bustling low-rise area is the city’s garment district, full of wholesalers touting wares at bargain prices. It’s also home to the city’s Lebanese and Korean populations; Sukine is a great spot to recharge with bibimbap. Immediately west of Patronato are the giant produce markets of La Vega, worth dipping into for the sheer spectacle.
For souvenirs: Alpaca shawls and lapis lazuli jewellery are among the souvenirs up for grabs at downtown’s Santa Lucía Artisanal Market, and its more touristy counterpart in the restaurant hub of Patio Bellavista. The artisan village near Los Dominicos metro has the most upmarket offerings of the three, with some artists’s work available to buy at their workshops.
Like a local
Catch a game: Santiaguinos obsession with the beautiful game reaches fever pitch during international matches, and when local teams Colo-Colo and Universidad de Chile (known as La ‘U’) go head to head for the El Clásico derby. Important games are likely to be held at Estádio Nacional where an area of benches is always left vacant to remember the political prisoners executed in the stadium under the dictatorship.
Café con piernas: Perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of Latin America’s machismo culture, café con piernas — or literally, ‘coffee with legs’ — are coffee shops where the waitresses are dressed provocatively. These establishments range from the downright seedy (signalled by blackout windows) to the more palatable. Cafe Bombay is an accessible place to experience this uniquely Chilean phenomenon. Teatinos 273. T: 00 562 2696 0664.
La Piojera: Over a century of serving up powerful terremoto cocktails and hearty meat platters to Santiago’s working class folk, The Fleahouse (as the bar’s name translates) is still going strong, and is a beloved institution.
Providencia Bed & Breakfast: This spic-and-span, family-run guest house in the well-heeled suburb of Providencia, just east of Santiago’s centre, has six airy rooms in the atmospheric environs of a century-old manor.
Matildas Hotel Boutique: Ideal for a romantic escape, this Belle Époque mansion in Barrio Brasil is a classy oasis in a pretty, offbeat part of town. Enjoy the local weekend markets, and the boating lakes and museums in nearby Quinta Normal Park.
The Singular: By far the most lavish five-star around, occupying prime real estate among the elegant bars and shops of Lastarria, The Singular feels like the swish town house of one’s dreams. The service, the restaurant, the rooftop bar — all singularly excellent.
Getting there & around
British Airways launched the only direct flights between the UK and Santiago at the start of 2017, flying from Heathrow four times a week.
Average flight time: 15h.
European carriers such as Iberia and Air France offer one-stop flights via their European hubs, while Avianca flies via Bogota, and the likes of American, Delta and United via US hubs.
Average flight time: 17h.
It’s possible to explore the majority of Santiago’s attractions on foot. For sights further afield, buy and load a Bip Card (at any metro station) to use on the metro system, or rent a city bike. The bus network is notoriously complicated and best avoided. labicicletaverde.com bikesantiago.cl
When to go
Santiago’s spring and autumn seasons (late-September to November, and March to May respectively) are particularly lovely, with mild temperatures and clear skies. The summer months either side of new year promise highs of 35C, while winter is much cooler, with increased smog and showers.
Rough Guide to Chile. RRP: £16.99
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Pablo Neruda. RRP: £7.99
No (2012 film)
How to do it
Cox & Kings offers three nights in Santiago at Plaza San Francisco Hotel from £495 per person, with private transfers and excursions. Excursions include a half-day tour to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, a half-day tour to a winery and a full-day tour to the city of Valparaiso. Excludes flights.
Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)