Santiago: a South American surprise

The Chilean city has undergone a renaissance in the past few years - something the myriad of new museums, cultural centres and hotels bear testimony to. What’s more, thanks to the recent launch of the first ever direct flights from the UK with British Airways, Chile’s cool capital is even closer. Here’s how to spend a weekend in Santiago

credit: luzrosaa

Chile is poised to take centre stage in South America after decades of playing catch up with its neighbours and for good reason: while the often-overlooked South America country can’t match the raw energy of Brazil or the elegance of Argentina, it’s safer and more welcoming than many of its South American siblings. Chances are your first introduction to spindly Chile, will be the country’s capital: step forward Santiago. Check out TNT’s guide to the top things to see and do…

Eat empanadas

Empanadas - super South American pies - are everywhere in Chile but the best ones are sold in Empanadas Zunino (www.empanadaszunino.com). Situated on Puente Street, this old school bakery is famous for its empanadas – long considered to be Chile’s national dish. (Salvador Allende chose to celebrate his election as Chilean president in 1970 “with red wine and empanadas.”) The classic versions are filled with pino (meat) but other fillings on offer include queso (cheese), chicken, seafood and vegetable mixtures.

Say hello to Santiago’s symbolic heart

The bustling Plaza de Armas has been the symbolic heart of Santiago since the city's founding in 1541. This gorgeous square, whose beautiful fountain pays homage to the famous liberator Simon Bolivar, is flanked by blockbuster sights such as Catedral Metroplitana; a neoclassical cathedral that was built between 1748 and 1800. Expect to see scores of Santiaguinos strolling around the square on sunny evenings and weekends

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Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile credit: mura

Potter to Patronati

Not too many visitors – or locals for that matter – make it over the Rio Mapocho river to Patronato but those that do quickly discover its delights: the barrio (neighbourhood) is thronging with Santiago’s Arab and Chinese immigrants peddling everything from Chinese slippers to sweets, for peanut prices. Patronato is also home to Cementerio General (where Chilean heavyweights such as Salvador Allende, have been laid to rest) plus, there's the memorial to all those who disappeared during Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship.

Must see museum

If you only see one museum while in Santiago, make it the Musueo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos which translates as the Museum of Memory & Human Rights (http://ww3.museodelamemoria.cl/). Located over in barrio Yungay, the museum – which exposes the terrifying human rights violations that occurred under Chile’s military government between the years of 1973 and1990 – makes for sobering but essential viewing.

Make for Mercado Central

Looking to enjoy a sensational seafood lunch for a snip? Make for Mercado Central (www.mercadocentral.cl/) and grab a table at one of the stalls around the edge (the ones in the middle are aimed at tourists and subsequently boast tourist inflated prices). Even if you aren’t fanatical about seafood, the always lively market is worth visiting for the atmosphere and phenomenal people watching and photo opportunities alone.

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Mercado Central, Santiago, Chile credit: mura

Culture vulture

Spend even the smallest amount of time in South America and chances are you’ll find yourself suffering from cathedral fatigue - in which case check out Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda (www.ccplm.cl/sitio). This worthy addition to Santiago’s cultural scene consists of two exhibition spaces, a gallery, movie theatre and a fabulous fair trade crafts shop – the perfect spot to snap up a few Santiago souvenirs. Another striking cultural centre worth seeing is Centro Gabriela Mistral (www.gam.cl), named after the first Latin American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Visit Valparaíso

No matter how short your stay in Santiago, make time to travel one hour north of the capital to the port city of Valparaiso - or Valpo as the UNESCO World Heritage listed town is affectionately known. Spend even the smallest amount of time here and you’ll quickly discover the delights of the town’s 45 cerros (hills), overlooking the Pacific, that are dotted by sugar almond hued houses whose exteriors are made of corrugated metal peeled from decades old shipping containers. It’s a sleepy sort of place in which to rest, reflect and recuperate. Or as Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize–winning Chilean poet, put it in a letter to his poet friend, Sara Vial, in 1959: “I feel the tiredness of Santiago, I want to find a house to live and write in peace at Valparaíso.”

  • Valparaiso, Chile credit: nikkafilms

  • La Chascona credit: Kaye Holland

  • Valparaiso, Chile credit: miralex

Follow in the footsteps of Pablo Neruda

Speaking of which, fans of the beloved Nobel Prize-winning poet (who was also the most famous communist in post-WWII Chile) will want to tour La Chascona (www.fundacionneruda.org/es), the house where Pablo Neruda once resided with his mistress, Matilde Urrutia. Then take the funicular up to the top of Cerro San Cristobal for breathtaking views of the Chilean capital.

Cocktail hour

In the mood for an expertly made Pisco Sour (Chile claims to have invented this divine cocktail which sees Pisco mixed with sugar and fresh lemon juice)? Make a beeline for a bar in Bellas Artes or Bellavista - two postcard perfect barrios, packed with buzzy bars serving potent Pisco Sours.

Check into CasAltura

Naysayers will no doubt tell you that hostels are synonymous with uncomfortable, germ-ridden bunk beds, shared bathrooms and sleepless nights (caused by the fear that someone might steal your suitcase). The naysayers haven’t stayed at CasAltura (www.casaltura.com) - a gorgeous 100 year-old building that's more flashpacker than backpacker thanks, in no small part, to its stunning rooftop terrace. CasAltura’s location can’t be bettered either: the ‘boutique’ hostel is within easy walking distance of most of Santiago’s main sights.

BA launched flights to Santiago from London Heathrow on 3 January 2017

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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Santiago, Chile credit: tifonimages