Photo Courtesy of Pablo Garcia Saldaña
Nestled at the foot of the snow-covered Andes, Santiago was often overlooked en route to farther-flung destinations like Patagonia or the Atacama Desert. Today, it’s boom times in the modern, cosmopolitan Chilean capital. It's where past meets present with colonial architecture and shiny skyscrapers…, shady parks and nearby ski slopes, traditional markets and a burgeoning food scene, pre-Columbian art and avant-garde galleries—all in a delightfully warm climate that nourishes a thriving wine industry.
Santiago's mild climate is similar to parts of California or the Mediterranean. Seasons are opposite the northern hemisphere. From October to April (the drier, warmer months), little to no rainfall occurs and temperatures reach the upper 80s. Winter sees a few rainy days, with high temperatures in the 50s and an increase in smog. Come prepared with layers year-round.
Arturo Merino Benitez airport (SCL) sits about 20 minutes west of central Santiago. Book a "radio taxi" (look for Taxi Oficial or TransVip) at the baggage area inside the airport; it costs US$35–$45 depending on where you’re headed in the capital. TransVip also has a shared shuttle. Or you can take the Centro Puerto bus to the Los Heroes bus terminal.
The metro is the fastest and most efficient way to get across the city with its ever-increasing traffic, though trains can be full during rush hour. Most rides cost US$1.20-1.40 depending on the time of day. Buses, too, traverse the city. Buy a Bip! card for rides on both trains and buses. Taxis are readily available and safe off the street. In the evening, take a radio taxi and use the app Safer Taxi to locate a nearby driver.
On the other side of the Mapocho River is La Vega Central, Santiago’s main wholesale market, lively with the seasonal abundance of Chile’s warm valleys. Sprawling for several city blocks like a labyrinth, the colorful stalls and carts of this foodie paradise are a great place to find real Chilean food.
Santiago is the hub of the food and wine movement that has taken over Chile in the past five years. Visit a local feria (fresh market) or the iconic La Vega Central to sample the abundance of the long Central Valley. Young, innovative chefs are now experimenting with “Chilean Nouveau” cuisine in places like Boragó. Don’t miss the iconic spots Chileans frequent for sandwiches, completos (hot dogs with the works), and empanadas. For a taste of Chilean wines, a must-sip in the capital is Bocanariz.
The contemporary art scene is concentrated downtown on Parque Forestal, anchored by the Fine Arts Museum with its permanent collection and the adjoining MAC (Contemporary Art Museum). Nearby, off cobblestoned Lastarria, the MAVI (Visual Arts Museum) hosts modern exhibitions, and the cultural center known as GAM (Gabriela Mistral) offers concerts, exhibitions, and dance. Off the main square, the Museo Pre-Colombino showcases pre-Columbian art. The gallery scene is strong with established dealers and young upstarts in the Barrio Italia and Nueva Costanera areas. Chile’s national dance, cueca, is making a comeback, with nightclubs hosting a local form called cueca brava. In west Santiago, the Museo de la Memoria commemorates human rights abuses during Augusto Pinochet's military regime of 1973–1990. Many visitors also make the pilgrimage to Nobel Prize–winning poet Pablo Neruda’s home La Chascona, in Bellavista.
Santiago a Mil, or “Santiago by the Thousands” is the city’s largest festival. Held during January, this three-week event features both open-air and indoor theater performances. In September, when Independence Day kicks off spring, many Chileans head to Parque Intercomunal Padre Hurtado for a rodeo, games, and traditional foods such as empanadas and antecuchos (meat skewers).
As car ownership grows, so does the traffic. Whenever possible, avoid rush hour (7:30–9 a.m. and 6–8:00 p.m.). During the summer months of January and February, many Santiaguinos head to the coast, leaving the city delightfully “empty.” Many restaurants close mid-February for vacation. Santiago is generally a safe city, but pickpocketing can happen in crowded areas. Leave your bling in the hotel, be discreet with your phone and camera, and always be aware of your belongings.
Liz Caskey is partner of Liz Caskey Culinary & Wine Experiences, a boutique travel operator based in Santiago, Chile, and an American freelance food & travel writer who has called Santiago, Chile home for over 14 years. She focuses on weaving together the region's unique cuisine, wine, culture, and characters in stories and pictures (with her Chilean husband, a photographer). Follow her adventures in South America on her blog, Eat Wine, or find her on twitter @lizcaskey.