Art and fashion

Barrio Italia: A historic hub for modern design in Santiago

In the southwestern corner of Providencia, this quiet residential district has become one of Chilean capital’s top shopping and dining destinations.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011  
Barrio Italia expresses the essence of Santiago's charm: that of a well-kept secret. (Photo: sebaera Barrio Italia expresses the essence of Santiago's charm: that of a well-kept secret. (Photo: sebaerazo/Flickr)

About 20 years ago, a cluster of antique vendors began selling their goods under the narrow metal awnings that line the stretch of Calle Caupolican between Avenida Condell and Calle Girardi. In the years since, the cluster of shops and cafes that have opened on the surrounding streets have come to define the area’s personality, making this tranquil corner of Providencia – the Barrio Italia – a hub for Santiago’s thriving art and design community.

Long a quiet residential community, the area bounded by Avenida Bilbao to the north, Avenida Irarrázabal to the south, José Manuel Infante to the east, and Parque Bustamante and Avenida Vicuña Mackenna to the west, maintains the tranquil air of a well-to-do early 20th century residential district.

Most of the buildings that flank the spacious, tree-lined avenues are no more than one or two stories high, many with calm central courtyards. That dozens of these now house some of Santiago’s most fashionable stores and restaurants is less than apparent at first glance. As much as anyplace in Chile’s capital, these express the essence of the city’s charm: that of a well-kept secret.

Some of the houses have been opened to accommodate spacious, airy gallery spaces. Many others have been divided according to their original floor plans, with glass walls installed to separate several individual retail spaces, often preserving the central courtyard area for open-air seating. The dozens of shops here bring together the best of Santiago’s spare but colorful contemporary design aesthetic with the elegant detail of its historic architecture.

Though the concentration of design shops may set Barrio Italia apart from other Santiago neighborhoods, it is the area’s focus on maintaining its historic identity that makes it special. Unlike other prominent gallery districts in Santiago like the eastern district of Vitacura, Barrio Italia is very much the neighborhood it has always been, maintaining historic buildings and vendors like the Teatro Italia, the classic Almacén (a small corner grocer) on Caupolicán, and the Sombrería Girardi hat maker as eagerly as it has encouraged the appearance of contemporary shops and restaurants.

Quiet chatter and the smells of fresh-baked pastries and coffee have not replaced the rough grind of sandpaper on old wood and the waft of musty air from piles of old books. Barrio Italia has welcomed the wave of youthful, forward-looking Santiago, creating a neighborhood that lives up to Santiago’s growing reputation as an international hub for the young creative class of Latin America, without losing track of its uniquely Chilean character.

Comprehensive maps of Barrio Italia’s shops, restaurants and heritage locations are placed on prominent corners around the neighborhood and can be found online at www.barrioitalia.cl. To reach Barrio Italia, take Metro Line 5 to Bustamante (on Avda. Bilbao), or Santa Isabel (Avda. Santa Isabel) and head east toward the mountains.

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