Santiago: Capital of Cool

30 November 2014
Read Time: 3.6 mins

Once overshadowed by its neighbours, Chile’s capital is stepping up and claiming a rightful spot in the glittering mix of South America’s most vibrant and happening cities. When it comes to food, wine, art, fashion and culture, Santiago is now a genuine contender and if you look in the right places, you’ll find that Santiago is emerging from a chequered political past to deliver the goods to travellers keen on discovering what the buzz is all about.

 Bikes parked at Parque Forestal

While the city centre of Santiago has all the must-see icons, what do you do once you’ve hung out at Santa Lucia Hill, people watched in the Plaza de Armas and marvelled at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral? While staying in the city centre of Santiago might be tempting, the heartbeat of the city can be found pulsing in the lively barrios of Bellavista, Bellas Artes and LaStarria.

Located within walking distance of each other, stepping out and exploring Santiago at the ground level is possible (once you master the art of crossing the traffic-clogged roads). Yes, getting around in Chile can be a bit of a challenge at first, so arm yourself with a nifty ‘Bip!’ card to take advantage of Santiago’s efficient metro system.

While it gets ridiculously crowded during peak hour, it’s still a simple and cost-effective way to get around, once you get used to working your way through the commuter crush. Plus, many of Santiago’s metro stations are home to some impressive works of art including Chile’s longest mural, so commuting has an upside when you’re surrounded by beauty.

 Statues in Santiago

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Boho Bellavista

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One of Santiago’s most beloved neighbourhoods, Barrio Bellavista is a heady mix of colour and grit. Renowned for its lively bars and hip street art scene, Bellavista is at the vanguard of cool, delivering everything from so-hot-right-now Peruvian fusion cuisine to old school bakeries selling classic pastries and sweets.

 A colourful shop in Bellavista

Bellavista has been home to many of Santiago’s dreamers, thinkers and artists, including celebrated poet and national hero, Pablo Neruda. A visit to Pablo Neruda’s nautical-themed home (known as La Chascona) is like journeying deep into another world where the normal rules of life simply don’t apply.

Down the rabbit hole of Neruda’s eccentric mind, you’ll find a residence shaped by his unique artistry and penchant for collecting quirky items. There are secret passageways, portholes for windows, eyes hanging from trees, and colourful relics pilfered from around the world. But there’s much more to La Chascona than madcap keepsakes, as Neruda’s Nobel Prize medal can be found in his library and is a reminder of Neruda’s enduring influence.

 This piece of art outside of Pablo Neruda's house encapsulates the artist's quirkiness

Nearby, Cerro San Cristobal offers incredible views of the city, especially if you happen to score a rare, smog-free day. Stock up on some snacks from the street carts down below, then ride the funicular to the summit for a picnic in the gardens under the watchful eye of the impressive Andes that linger in the distance.
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The Beauty of Bellas Artes

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With a name like Bellas Artes, it’s no wonder the art of old and new is celebrated in this beautiful barrio. Coffee houses, antiques shops and vintage clothing stores sit alongside ultra-modern juice bars hawking hemp smoothies and boutiques filled with quirky fashion and kitsch decor. Yet, it’s not all counter culture and hemp smoothies in these parts. There’s plenty of old school charm as well, with classical architecture and parks filled with grand fountains and statues.

Located within Parque Forestal, the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts was established in 1880, making it the oldest in South America. An impressive building in its own right, a visit here reveals iconic works carefully sculpted by the masters of yesteryear as well as exhibits by contemporary artists, and with Parque Forestal at the door you can trade in art for nature in a flash.

 This clothing store in Bella Artes highlights the unique style of Santiago

Populated by everyone from joggers to parents pushing prams, this green space provides an essential life line to locals who live in crowded, high density housing. Due to most students and young people living with their parents, canoodling couples are relegated to urban parks where public displays of affection are aplenty.

When strolling through the park, be prepared to avert your gaze at times! On Sundays, the park is home to a sprawling flea market where everything from vintage clothing to antique clocks and second hand books are sold on blankets in the sunshine.

By night, get engaged with Chile’s tumultuous political history at The Clinic, a bar inspired by a left-wing, underground, political newspaper popular with Chile’s intelligentsia. A hip hang out with everyone from local students to curious tourists, The Clinic is much more fun than a political-themed bar sounds (and the bartenders turn out a mean Pisco Sour too).

 A picturesque fountain on Santa Lucia Hill

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The Rising Star of LaStarria

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This compact pocket of Santiago is jam packed with charm and is fast becoming a beacon for tourists keen on experiencing the whimsical slice of Santiago. With a distinct, old world flavour, here you’ll find boutique hotels housed in character-filled, period buildings, galleries, book shops and cinemas.

The cobbled streets of LaStarria are dripping with nostalgia, with second hand book sellers and artists and makers selling their wares via austere street stall set ups. It’s all very endearing, so why not give tacky fridge magnets and overpriced, mass-produced souvenirs the heave-ho and buy a unique handmade or vintage keepsake here instead?

 These intricately decorated skulls are the kinds of souvenirs worth buying

LaStarria is best experienced after sundown, so by night simply grab an outdoor table at a traditional restaurant and enjoy a drop of Chilean red wine washed down with a side of music courtesy of the street performers who collectively add colour and life to the streets. Or if you don’t mind eating on the go, grab a high-end hotdog from Hogs and wander about the streets filled with a curious mix of established locals, students, tourists and buskers.

When it comes to experiencing the creative spirit of Santiago, Bellavista, Bella Artes and LaStarria are the hubs to head to.

Jo Stewart

Jo Stewart is a Melbourne-based writer who writes about adventure travel, sustainability, wellness, nature, pop culture and beyond. When she's not rambling around the world, she can be found in Melbourne's bars, bookshops and band rooms.