Secret Santiago: an alternative 36 hours in Chile’s capital

On its glossy surface, Santiago’s glass and steel financial district is a poster child for Chile’s international progress. But full of historic architecture, traditions and young artists embracing national identity, it’s also a perfect place to meet Chilean culture past and present.


Santiago’s five million plus residents live in a patchwork quilt of neighborhoods, laid out over the broad, flat valley between the Andes and the coastal mountains.

A recent New York Times itinerary for 36 hours in Santiago took readers to the city’s modern face: the upmarket eastern districts with their forward-looking galleries, glittering skyscrapers and classy restaurants. But Santiago today is more than a rapidly growing, prosperous metropolis – it is a multi-faceted city intent on rediscovering its own heritage.

Our guide to the capital takes you to a different, more traditional Santiago, through the city’s west and center. Here historic architecture dominates instead of glass towers, and young people look to the cultures of the past, breathing new life into Chile’s folk traditions.


Morning: Colonial Santiago
The historical and geographical heart of Santiago is the Plaza de Armas, which makes it as good a place as any to start your weekend. A wander through the square finds old men facing off over games of chess, street artists, mimes and (if you return on Sunday) large crowds gathered around street preachers.

Many of Santiago’s historical sights are just a short walk away. The Presidential Palace at La Moneda, the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art and the 16th century San Francisco Church, the oldest colonial building in Chile, are all scattered throughout the grid of streets that make up the city center. Stop by the Mercado Central near the Mapocho River to admire the fresh seafood and, if you’re hungry, enjoy a classic Chilean seafood dish at one of the small restaurants on its periphery.

Afternoon: A city’s memory
Hop on the Metro and head to Quinta Normal station (Line 5), where you’ll find the stunning modern structure of the newly inaugurated Museum of Memory (Matucana 501, +56 (2) 365165), documenting the history of Chile under the Pinochet regime from 1973 to 1990.

Wander east back to the center through the historic Barrios Yungay and Brazil, home to some of the city’s most attractive and interesting architecture, and a melting pot for Santiago’s young bohemian artists and musicians. As you walk, don’t miss the mini-Barrio Concha y Toro, a pair of Santiago’s most romantic streets.

In Yungay, the Café Yungay Viejo (Libertad 604, +56 (2) 6811108) and the Boulevard Lavaud restaurant at the historic Peluquería Francesa (Compañía de Jesús 2789, +56 (2) 682 5243) are great spots for lunch, while nearer to Plaza Brazil, major avenues like Cumming and Brazil are home to dozens of bars, cafes and restaurants.

Evening: The whole song and dance
If you spend the whole afternoon wandering Barrio Brazil, there’s really no reason to leave. Find a spot for an artisanal beer or a glass of wine at one of the neighborhood’s many cafes. For a night of live music, stop by Café Brazil (Cumming 562, +56 (2) 6982196), a neighborhood institution where live musicians play the classic folk songs of Violeta Parra and Victor Jara. Another good option for live music in the area is Galpón Victor Jara (Huérfanos 2136, (562) 657 9455), where young Chileans embrace their national roots with traditional dance and local music.

Santiago has dozens more performance spaces across the city, ranging from the new Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center in the center to the Amanda Cultural Center in the upmarket eastern district of Vitacura. For listings of events around town, see (in Spanish).


Morning: Fine Art and Fashion
Begin your day with brunch in one of the cafes of the Bellas Artes district, the network of streets surrounding the Bellas Artes Museum. Stop in to the Museum (Parque Forestal, on José Miguel de la Barra) to admire its elegant 100-year-old architecture and rotating exhibitions from Chilean artists. Then enjoy a different side of Chilean design in the fashion boutiques along Merced and José Victorino de Lastarria (where there is a weekend antique and book market), or in the newly christened Barrio Esmeralda.

Afternoon: Unmissable, but often missed
Cross the Loreto bridge and head west into Patronato, home to Santiago’s large Korean and Palestinian immigrant communities. Wander the streets of this multicultural neighborhood until you reach the city’s main market, La Vega. Between the river and the main market you will find La Vega Chica, filled with small restaurants serving traditional Chilean cuisine at the lowest prices imaginable. Most places are more or less the same (though the aggressive owners might tell you otherwise) so just pick what looks best and have a seat. For a real taste of typical Chilean cooking, this is the spot.

A walk north along Avenida Recoleta (or a short subway ride to Cementerios station) brings you to the General Cemetery, a moving and peaceful place to take in a bit Chilean history. Nearly 200 years old, the cemetery is full of beautiful mausoleums as well as the burial sites of famous Chileans like Salvador Allende, Violeta Parra and Victor Jara. Visiting on Saturday or Sunday finds families picnicking near the graves of loved ones and funerals processing along the tree-lined avenues.

Alternatively, for shopping, galleries and the highest concentration of street art in Santiago, wander the quiet streets of Bellavista, where Pablo Neruda kept one of his three houses, La Chascona (Fernando Marquéz de la Plata 192, +56 (2) 7778741). You will be amazed at the change in the neighborhood when you return in the evening.

Evening: Culinary traditions–past, present and future
Young people in Santiago are not the only ones reinvigorating the older Chilean traditions. In young chef Rodolfo Gúzman’s restaurant Boragó (Nueva Costanera 3467, +56 (2) 9538893),  the inspiration for avant-garde preparations comes from endemic ingredients and indigenous techniques. Meanwhile the Santiago classic Liguria (Providencia 1373, +56 (2) 2357914), popular amongst Santiaguinos of all ages, is a good choice for well-made Chilean food in Providencia.

For something even more traditional, try your luck at Rincón de los Canallas (Tarapacá 810, +56 (2) 6325491), a speakeasy from the days of curfew that still has a password (frozen since 1990 at “Chile Libre Canalla”). You’ll need to call for a reservation a day or two ahead. Come for atmosphere, simply grilled meats and pitchers of inexpensive alcohol.

If you’re up for a late night, head back to Bellavista. This Barrio may be quiet during the day, but by night cumbia, salsa, hip-hop and pop blare from behind every door and brightly painted wall. To party in true Chilean style, show up around 1am and stay until sunrise. Then make your way (taxi will be inexpensive, convenient and safe) to the Mercado Central for an early morning bite with the other late-night revelers.

Sunday: Into the wild
Sundays are quiet in Santiago, so give yourself the morning to rest and/or recover from a late night out. After waking, head to the Persa Bio Bio, Santiago’s largest flea market. Metro Franklin is nearest to the dull clothes and furniture shops toward the front, but walking farther back along Placer takes you to a series of warehouses vending knick-knacks, antiques and anything else you can imagine. Restaurants in some of the warehouses serve simple meals at low prices.

Lovely summer weather makes Sunday a good time to enjoy Santiago’s parks or the stunning landscapes nearby. Take a horseback ride into the nearby Andean foothills, or stay in town and enjoy a quiet afternoon on Cerro San Cristobal. Sundays are also a good time to catch up on whatever museums you may have missed. For dinner, find a local café and enjoy a last glass of wine in one of South America’s most rapidly changing urban centers.