An insider's guide to Santiago
Chile’s capital Santiago is often ignored by travellers concentrated on seeing the country’s two most famous areas of natural beauty, the Torres del Paine and the Atacama Desert. However, having spent five months living in the city, I can confidently say that Santiago is definitely worth a visit and has more than enough to offer for a couple of days spent in the city before heading North or South.
First on my list of reasons why you should visit Santiago is that it is an extremely easy city to get around. The main neighbourhoods of interest are located around one central avenue, Avenue Alameda, which cuts through the city from East to West. This avenue is also conveniently followed by Line 1 of Santiago’s modern and efficient metro service, making it very simple for visitors to hop on and off the metro and navigate their way around the sites.
A good place to start in Santiago is with a visit to Cerro Santa Lucía, situated directly on Avenue Alameda and next to the Santa Lucía metro stop. The hill was conquered by the Spanish conquistador, Pedro de Valdivia, in 1541 and served initially as a look-out. It is now a pretty hilltop oasis which offers a slice of peace and tranquility away from the busy city below. Dotted with fountains and leafy walkways, the hill offers numerous vantage points over the city and can be used as a warm-up before climbing the larger, Cerro San Cristobal, in Barrio Bellavista.
If after walking up Cerro Santa Lucía, you find yourself in need of refreshment, the shaded streets and intimate courtyards of neighbouring Lastarria will provide the perfect setting. This artsy neighbourhood is full of cafes and restaurants where you can sit and watch the world go by. A popular cafe and ice creamery is Emporio de la Rosa opposite leafy Parque Forestal. On a Sunday afternoon, the park fills with craft-sellers, acrobats and musicians providing the perfect opportunity to sit back and enjoy the laid back atmosphere.
Another good weekend activity is to pay a trip to Santiago’s sprawling and busy market building, La Vega, on a Saturday morning. While Santiago can often seem fairly calm and ordered with its grid-patterned streets and high-rise buildings, especially in the eastern neighbourhoods of Las Condes and Providencia, La Vega, with its maze of stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and all manner of household wares, offers a chance to experience some of the loudness and chaos Latin America is famous for.
A trip to the market can be followed by lunch at the Mercado de Abastos Tirso de Molina, a red iron building across from La Vega, which opens every day and houses an array of good-quality eating options on the second floor. Service here is no frills and it’s certainly not the place for an intimate lunch but you’ll have a much more authentic experience than at the more touristy Mercado Central, while delicious juices and fresh fish dishes can be eaten here at very reasonable prices.
Finally, for those looking to learn a bit more about Chile’s recent history, I’d recommend a trip to the the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in the Quinta Normal park in the west of the city. The museum was built to remember the human rights atrocities committed between 1973 and 1990 under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and is filled with oral and written testimonies, videos, newspaper cuttings and photographs which help to explain this dark period in Chile’s history. For those heading on to the south, the museum will also help to provide some context as to why land ownership in the beautiful lake district region is still heavily contested today.