When people think of Chile, what comes to mind are usually the breathtaking views of Atacama, treacherous hikes through Patagonia, and the stunning beaches along the coast. I’m not saying these three extremes are anything short of amazing, or else I’d be lying. However, Santiago, a metropolitan city of more than 6 million people that sits in the center of these marvels, is an amazing city itself and here are five must-see locations.
1. La Vega Market
From recent memory, the last 4 clementines I’ve eaten from different regions around the world were in the California, Brazil, Argentina, and here in Chile. What’s the commonality? They all had a Chile sticker on it.
After visiting the top market in Spanish-speaking Latin American according to various sources including The Daily Meal and National Geographic, it was obvious why Chile’s produce is so prevalent and why La Vega is so highly-viewed.
First, the produce section and value is of course, amazing. You can easily find a kilo of fresh apples or grapes for 500 Chilean Pesos ($1 USD), a third of the price at any local supermarket. You can spend anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour roaming around.
However, it’s not just the produce- the restaurants are great value as well, serving local chilean cuisine, as well as dishes from Peru, Colombia, and more, almost always under 4000 Chilean pesos, or ~8 USD.
My favorite parts of La Vega can be seen in the below map. Point 1 is the family that’s known to have the freshest fruit, Point 2 is where you can find fresh Ceviche plates for 2.5k CLP each, and Point 3 has palta (avocado) that takes the term buttery pear to a whole ‘nother level.
However, the hustle can get a bit hectic, and for a bit tamer shopping experience you can try Mercado de Abastos Tirso del Molina right in front of La Vega. The produce prices are similar, and on the second floor there’s about 20 restaurants serving the same food. My personal favorite is a Chilean/Colombian restaurant that overlooks the bridge (bridge is point number 4).
If seafood is more your style, across the river, you’ll find a seafood market, Mercado Central, that boasts similar low pricing and quantities, A kilo of clams or fresh reinta for 1000 CLP, and some good great meals under 4000 CLP.
La Vega opens at 6am daily, and closes at around 2pm on Sundays, 7pm every other day.
San Cristobal Hill
Although a very popular tourist attraction, ‘Cerro San Cristobal,’ is a must see and deserves it’s reputation. Many do not know, that the cerro is the largest urban park in Spanish-speaking South America outside of Parque Provincial Pereyra Iraola in Buenos Aires. With amazing views day or night, it is accessible by Funicular, a cable railway that goes directly up the mountain in 10 minutes, or also a great easy-moderate 45 minutes hike. Upon the climb, you’ll have great panorama views of all of Santiago where you will truly realize the sheer size of Santiago’s population of 6.3 million. There’s also multiple vendors who sell Mote con Huesillos, a summer-time non-alcoholic drink made from peaches and wheat cooked in cinnamon- a must-try!
Other sites within the park include a zoo, two huge public swimming pools (Piscina Tupahue Antiléna) a botanical garden (Jardín Botánico Mapulemu) a Japanese Garden, and a child’s play area, Plaza de Juegos Infantiles Gabriela Mistral.
The main entrance to the park is at Pío Nono 450, Barrio Bellavista; Baquedano.
The Big 3 Bohemian Neighborhoods
Santiago also has quite a bit of bohemian neighborhoods which are very safe relative to other Latin American cities with great nightlife. My favorites are Bellavista, LaStarria, and Barrio Italia. To take a quick glance at their exact locations, scroll to the map on this page.
Bellavista is the most popular of the three, and is where the main entrance of San Cristobal lies. There’s no shortage of restaurants, bars, cafes, and souvenir shops. My favorite dinner/snack spot is La Casa en el Aire, with a great mix of Chilean/Colombian food at very fair prices with live local music every night from Tuesdays-Saturdays. My favorite date-type spots to grab a drink are Etniko who makes great non-traditional drinks and has some tasty sushi, and the Aubrey Piano Lounge which has live music Thursdays and Fridays. A cool, lesser known place to grab coffee is a small contemporary museum/cafe called Cian that’s free to enter. It’s open from 11am to 9pm Monday to Fridays, and Saturdays noon-midnight on Saturdays. Stay updated with Patio Bellavista’s events which are listed on their website.
LaStarria is similar to Bellavista, with a bit less tourists and larger bars and clubs, with a cool, European vibe right by the Bellas Artes metro stop. There are a few great museums, most notably the GAM, but also the Museo de Artes Visuales and Museo Arqueológico de Santiago which all have very reasonable prices to enter. Two places off the main street that I enjoy are a flat-crust Pizza joint, Verace, and a Resto-bar, Bajo Llave. BL features one of the largest open patios in Providencia to sip some wine on a warm summer night that brings me back to evenings in Granada, Spain studying abroad. Liz Caskey has a more in-depth guide to LaStarria in her blog, EatWineBlog.
Barrio Italia is easiest accessible via Metro at the Santa Isabel metro stop. This barrio is the lesser-known and visited of the three, but does have the most boutique shops featuring unique art, clothing, and seemingly has an ice cream shop every 20 meters (not that that’s a bad thing!). Standout spots include an Argentinian Tango resto-bar, Masa Tango, an Italian restaurant that also sells fresh pasta separately, Da Noi, and Santa Bohemia which has great drink specials. Check out Barrio Italia’s Facebook page for events going on!
La Piojera is not for the faint of heart. The home of the “terremoto”, or the earthquake drink, will do exactly as it’s name suggests. While known to foreigners as the place where many of the longest nights in Santiago begin, it’s one of the most if not the most famous restaurant in Chile. Read a bit about the long history of La Piojera in this translated Wikipedia article. While not the safest place to hang out and not an idea date location, it’s a great place to meet with a group of friends and really see a different side of Santiago.
After being in metro’s everywhere from Chicago, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, etc, I can honestly say Santiago’s metro has the best combination of cleanliness, easiness to navigate, and speediness that I’ve seen in the world. Trains run between roughly 6.00AM and 11.00PM. The bus system is also awesome, and from using Google Maps Public Transit over the last year and visiting new destinations on a weekly basis, I think it’s only been incorrect once or twice. If you are staying in town more than a few days, get a Bip! card at any subway station 1350 CLP which you can recharge to pay for the fares, or you can just pay with cash/change (efectivo). Feel free to get this Metro map on your phone as well.
In addition, it is extremely easy to navigate Santiago by bike and in fact named as HostelBookers number 1 bike-friendly city in Latin America. If you go all the way from La Vega (the “Central” part of Santiago), through Providencia where the 3 neighborhoods and the Cerro are, past Constanera Center (tallest building in Latin America), all the way to to the skyscrapers of Las Condes up until Parque Bicentenario, there is a nicely paved dirt path the entire way if you just follow the river. I personally have not gone through Bicicleta Verde, but they’ve received a 5 star rating over 500 reviews on Tripadvisor if you’d like to rent a bike.
By Nick Kwan, Backpackr guest blogger. Nick is an Industrial Engineering student originally from Los Gatos, California. He’s been in Chile a bit over a year, and is taking time off to work on his startup, Medko, a platform that allows travelers, study abroad students, and expats to find a doctor that speaks their language all over the world with a focus in Latin America. In his free time, he loves playing basketball and cooking up some tasty latin-chinese fusion meals. To contact Nick with any questions, you can email him or check him out on Twitter