Santiago City and Culture

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Santiago City and Culture
Santiago is the hub of Chilean culture, with vibrant theater, art, and dining scenes. The city's architecture ranges from European-influenced neoclassical to sleek, cutting-edge, contemporary styles, reflective of Chile’s recent boom times.
By Liz Caskey, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Liz Caskey
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    Plaza de Armas: Santiago's Soul
    Plaza de Armas is the heart and soul of the city, and dates back to colonial days. All distances in Chile are measured from here. Civic life takes place around this downtown area, sprawling over a block on each side with fountains, palm trees, and theatrical street shows. The plaza is ringed by the colonial cathedral, baroque post office, government offices, and Spanish-style arcades. Plaza de Armas is a meeting point for people from all walks of life and is a perfect spot to people-watch or admire the beautiful horses of the police force, which patrols downtown on horseback.
    Photo by Liz Caskey
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    The Mighty Alameda Boulevard
    Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins is popularly known as Alameda, a boulevard bordered by poplar trees. It is the artery of central Santiago, originating in Plaza Baquedano and extending nearly five miles through the downtown area. Along the way, the Alameda winds past landmarks like Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center, Santa Lucia Hill, the National Library, Club de la Unión (and the next-door stock exchange), San Francisco Church, Paseo Ahumada, and La Moneda, and through historic neighborhoods such as Dieciocho and Barrio Concha y Toro. The Alameda runs all the way to the Estación Central train station.
    Photo by Walter Bibikow/age fotostock
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    The Hippest Neighborhood in Town
    Tucked between Santa Lucia Hill and the verdant Parque Forestal, the Lastarria neighborhood has effervescence like no other place in town. The architecture feels European, with grand dame buildings and cobblestone streets. There are dozens of charming cafés where you can stop for a steaming cortado (Chile’s version of a latte), and boutiques, bars, restaurants, and famous ice cream parlors like Emporio La Rosa. Museums like MAVI (Museo de Artes Visuales), GAM (Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center), MAC (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo), and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes offer a plethora of art and culture. Luxury boutique hotels also abound, such as the Singular Santiago, Hotel Ismael 312, and Hotel Cumbres Lastarria.
    Photo by Liz Caskey
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    Barrio Italia: The Home of Design
    Barrio Italia, in a traditional area of Providencia packed with colorfully painted homes dating to the turn of the 20th century, is the center of all things design in Santiago. Located on Avenidas Italia and Santa Isabel and spilling into the surrounding streets, the neighborhood is home to an array of artisan shops, cafés, antique dealers, art galleries, furniture designers, and fabulous restaurants like Casa Luz. Take a tour to meet young designers eager to help you choose a pair of handmade shoes, jewelry, clothing, or interior design objects. For a treat, stop at Xoco Por Ti, a chocolate bar that serves liquid single-origin chocolate shots. Very local and very cool, Barrio Italia is an ideal shopping excursion, especially on Saturdays.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    The Local Art Scene
    Santiago’s local art scene has flourished in recent years. Visit the renovated Pre-Columbian Museum, one of the finest collections in the Americas. Check out some of the city’s major art museums: Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC), Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts), and Museo de Artes Visuales (MAVI). There are also cultural centers like Centro Gabriela Mistral (GAM), Centro Cultural de la Moneda (located under the reflecting pond of the government palace), and the somber Museo de la Memoria (dedicated to the victims of human rights abuse during the dictatorship). The gallery circuit in hub areas of the city like Italia, Lastarria, and Nueva Costanera in Vitacura offers insight into contemporary multimedia work.
    Photo by Stefan Bar/age fotostock
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    Opera and Theater
    Teatro Municipal in downtown Santiago is the most important opera house and stage theater in the capital. Built in 1857 in neoclassical style, it showcases opera, ballet, the Santiago Philharmonic, and various other concerts. Santiaguinos love theater and take in live performances year-round. Each January welcomes a new iteration of Teatro Mil, a large festival featuring hundreds of performances at reduced prices, aimed at making making theater accessible to all budgets. Other excellent venues include top theaters like Teatro Mori in Las Condes or Matucana 100 in Barrio Yungay. (Note that all theater is in Spanish.)
    Photo by José Enrique Molina/age fotostock
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    Chile's National Dance
    Chile’s national dance is called la cueca, and evidences the country's Andalusian, Arabian, and African roots. The dance is a parody of a mating dance between a hen and rooster. Moving around an imaginary ring, dancers wave handkerchiefs above their heads and follow a progression of turns, steps, slides, and stomps, dancing towards and away from their partners. La cueca is heard and danced nearly everywhere during September's independence holidays. Men wear a Chilean cowboy hat, poncho, riding pants, boots, and spurs, while women don a chinita, a flowered dress with an apron that is typical in the countryside. In Santiago, la cueca has made a comeback at year-round spots like El Huaso Enrique.
    Photo by Hoberman/age fotostock
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    A Regional, Seasonal Cuisine
    Chilean cuisine blends European types—Spanish (particularly Basque), French, and German—with native Mapuche culinary culture. It is a regional, seasonal cuisine with simple techniques and flavorful, hearty dishes ranging from meat stews to seafood. Chileans love empanadas—baked or fried dough pockets stuffed with cumin-scented meat, cheese, or seafood. During summer, try pastel de choclo (corn pie), porotos granados (cranberry bean, squash, and corn stew), and Chilean tomato salad at Divertimento or Doña Tina. For dessert, Chileans love manjar (milk caramel), which appears in many sweets, including ice cream, crepes, pastries like mil hojas, and dulces chilenos (merengue puffs).
    Photo by Melissa Hom/age fotostock
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    Vibrant Fresh Markets
    A highlight while in the capital is a trip to the main wholesale market, La Vega, on the north side of the Mapocho River. Blocks of vendors hawk seasonal produce and exotic foodstuffs, including that grown in Patagonia or the desert north. While at the market, try typical homely fare like humitas (corn and basil tamales) in the summer or hearty cazuela (chicken stew) in the winter. Don't miss the Mercado Central, a fish market and historic landmark, to see what the Humboldt Current has brought in from the Pacific. Stay on for lunch in the scenic market; its classic spots include Richard, El Galeón, and Donde Augusto.
    Photo by Walter Bibikow/age fotostock