Before our trip to South America, we had heard of Rio’s fun, beach vibe and Buenos Aires’ hip, Europe-meets-Latino culture, but we had heard next to nothing about Santiago. Even during our first two months in South America, fellow travelers had little to say about the city other than “stop-over,” “not much to do,” and “only need a day or two.” Our low expectations were quickly blown away as we found Santiago to be one of the continent’s most underrated and enjoyable cities.
Arriving after a 6-turned-8-hour bus ride from Mendoza through the Andes Mountains during which we 1) prayed that our double-decker bus would not topple over the sides of the steep, winding roads and 2) for a third time, passed through the extremely intense Chilean border control, it didn’t take long for us to fall in love with Santiago.
Each day we found more and more reasons to love the city:
- Jumping on the subway from the bus station to our hostel in the center of the city, we quickly discovered a public transportation system that was easy, safe and affordable.
- Santianguinos are friendly, open and love to chat with tourists to practice their English. As soon as we arrived at our hostel, a group of off-duty hostel employees from Chile and Venezuela invited us out to a nearby bar for drinks (free drinks, might we add). We spent the rest of the night socializing and getting our first introduction to pisco, a strong Chilean grape brandy.
- The center of town, which is clearly more of a middle-class neighborhood for expats and Santianguinos in their 20s and 30s, was lively, clean and safe. We often found ourselves relaxing (and even dosing off) in the green Parque Forestal outside of our hostel.
- Main tourist sites are not at all crowded and appeal to all of the senses: beautiful panoramas of the city atop different hills, incredible smells and tastes at various local markets, and a quiet calmness throughout the cities various parks (including, Parque Metropolitano, the largest urban park in South America).
- Restaurants and bars serve a range of international, regional and local fare in a cosmopolitan and trendy ambiance. In the Lastarria neighborhood, we enjoyed a pisco tasting at ChiPe Libre with a fun, knowledgable bartender, and in Bella Vista we enjoyed the lively atmosphere, replete with packed bars, restaurants and street music.
Santiago may not have many famous tourist activities but we could’ve spent weeks exploring the different neighborhoods. We would’ve loved to shack up in an AirBNB and spend a few weeks in the city but unfortunately, we found ourselves running out of time as we entered our last month in South America.
Things To Do:
- “Wally” Tours for Tips offers two great free tours at 10 AM and 3 PM. The earlier tour took us through the Central Mercado, where fresh fish first comes into Santiago before being distributed to other regions. The tour continues with visits to fruit, vegetable and meat markets and the unique Santiago cemetery, which, in our opinion, rivals the famed Recoleta Cemetary in Buenos Aires. The afternoon tour offers a bit more of the historical points of Santiago and Chile, and we learned about the country’s harsh military dictatorship in the 1970’s while visiting the Presidential house, Plaza de Armas and more.
- Take in a panorama of the city atop one of its high viewpoints. Cerro Santa Lucia offers a great viewpoint in the middle of the city atop an old fort. Cerro San Cristobal offers an even higher viewpoint, but make sure to climb the hill (or take the funicular up) on a non-hazy day for the best views. At the top is the statue of the Virgin Mary, a modest attempt to take on Rio’s Christ the Redeemer.
- Bella Vista is a trendy neighborhood that really comes alive at night. Walk the main street Pío Nono for packed bars that also offer beer and Chorrillana, french fries topped with cheese, beef and a fried egg. The parallel street, Constitución, is a bit more contained and offers great restaurants. We stopped by Galindos for some beer and a late night snack.
- Day trip (or more) to Valparaíso. Alie took an early morning bus to visit Valparaíso for the day. The hilly port city is quite the contrast to Santiago – chaotic, rundown and forgotten since its heyday in the 1800’s, the UNESCO World Heritage city has recently made a comeback as a bohemian, colorful and artistic hub. Tours for Tips has two great tours there as well.
Accommodations: We stayed in Hostal Forestal, and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a social and reasonably priced hostel. It is located next to Parque Forestal, where we relaxed most afternoons, and is centrally located, close to the restaurants, bars and sites. The most central and lively neighborhoods for tourists are Lastarria and Bella Vista.
Days Stayed / Recommended: We saw the sights of the city in 2 days but would recommended another 1 to 2 (or maybe even 10…) days to just enjoy the Santiago way of life – we certainly would’ve liked to!
Local Food: Despite not being known for its food (we were told that Santiago has many Peruvian immigrants that open up restaurants catering to Santianguinos looking for a better meal), we found plenty of awesome food in Santiago:
- The ceviche at the Mercado Central is famous; stalls line the perimeter of the market and offer various fish dishes. We made the mistake of trying a different, more local market next door (which we do not recommend).
- We tried out some Chilean staples including: sopapillas, a fried pumpkin dough ball topped with tomato and spicy sauces (delicious); machas a la parmesana, clams broiled with Parmesan cheese (delicious); humitas, a tamale-like cornmeal dish (pretty solid); and pastel de choclo, a beef, chicken, egg and olive corn pie (not our favorite).
- Emporio La Rosa is a internationally acclaimed ice cream shop conveniently located right near our hostel.
- The summertime mote con huesillo, a delicious apricot and farro tea-type drink with a whole apricot inside, was offered all over town in street stands.
- We enjoyed many a pisco sour, pisco mixed with lemon juice, egg white, and sweetener and highly recommend a tasting at ChiPe Libre.