Nowhere in Santiago feels more South American than La Vega. Wander the city centre streets with its uninspiring but earthquake-proof architecture and you feel you could be anywhere.
Not in La Vega.
Santiago’s main market, set in a shady part of town next to the murky Mapocho River, is gloriously, chaotically Latin American.
Fruit and vegetables are piled high inside and out, sellers brag about the size of their plums, housewives are scolded for squeezing the fruit, and flies buzz around the vats of olives and hunks of cheese.
Foreigners may not enjoy the pigs’ heads that look out from the butchers’ stalls, but the stray cats and dogs sure do.
Dirty and oppressively busy at the weekend it may be, but I love it.
Barely more than a single street, Barrio Lastarria is home to a fine collection of bars and restaurants frequented by people who wear designer glasses and black polo necks.
There’s a decent art-house cinema, a museum, a theatre, a tiny park, several boutiques, and a book and antique market at the weekends. You might also catch a glimpse of the man in a skirt and headscarf who sells doll heads from a blanket.
However, I like it best first thing in the morning. When the sun glints off the cobblestones and the terracotta walls of the Veracruz church and the smell of fresh bread wafts along the street, it couldn’t be lovelier.
3. Tostaderia Puerto Rico, Calle San Pablo (near the Central Fish Market)
I fell in love with this one the moment I saw it. Santiago is the capital of Nescafe-land, but this little shop sells and grinds beans from Brazil, Columbia, and Costa Rica. It’s worth ordering some for the smell alone (Costa Rican is the best).
Also on sale are herbs and spices, potions and powders, dried fruit, and baking ingredients.
Watch out for the old ladies with sharp elbows.
4. Bar El Ático, Irarrazaval 1060, Ñuñoa
Not only because it reminds me of home and plays the best music in the whole city, but because Bar El Ático is a sanctuary from reggaeton and Latin American pop.
Indie as it comes, I found my people here. The Pixies, Radiohead, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and The Like sound all the better when you’ve not heard them played out for a while.
5. The terrace of Emporio La Rosa, Calle Monjitas, Parque Forestal
Two minutes from home is one of Santiago’s most popular ice cream parlours. It’s not my absolute favourite (you can read where is here), but the ice cream is darn good and it’s in a great spot.
My pick: chocolate and chili.
6. The General Cemetery
Yes, once a goth, always a goth, but this is also the place to learn about Santiago’s culture and painful history.
It’s flower-filled and calm, albeit busy with families picnicking around the graves of loved ones at the weekend. I went on the nighttime tour for Revolver back in 2009 and paid homage to folk legends Victor Jara and Violeta Parra.
Perfect for history buffs.
7. Mimo’s Hairdressers, Calle Mosqueto, Bellas Artes
High on entertainment value, Mimo’s is an institution. It’s run by a crazy Argentinean named Miguel, and he really knows how to cut hair. Judging by his constant stream of conversation, he seems to know about a lot of other things as well.
He once spent many minutes telling me that the left side of my hair was like the sea and that the stubborn flick of hair above my right ear was the masculine part of my personality expressing itself.
Another time he refused to continue cutting until I’d promised to start a daily mantra that would harness my inner winner.
He often disappears for minutes at a time, returning with a violent sniff and talking ten to the dozen.
The salon itself is full of delightful misfits who smoke like chimneys and nod along to the deafening techno. They play songs that have lyrics in English like ‘suck me hard oh yeah’ and the resident Yorkshire terrier has a purple and green fringe.
As you leave, they all shout out, “¡Mira! ¡Que linnnnnnnnda!” It really is the most marvellous place.
By night, Pio Nono (Bellavista’s central street) is like an English wedding gone bad. Like us Brits, Chileans appear to have an amazing capacity for alcohol, but no off switch.
But while Pio Nono is full of lurching drunks slopping Escudo over each other, two minutes away on Constitución civilised dining goes on in expensive restaurants.
Bellavista’s as chaotic as Soho, with live folk venues fighting for space alongside neon-lit clubs, hot dog joints, and salsa hangouts.
During the day, it’s great for graffiti spotting. If you’re lucky, you might catch an old crooner singing ballads on the stage behind the Feria at the weekend.
9. Centro Arte Alameda
You just don’t get cinemas like this anymore in England. Independent films in a quirky space that often has design fairs, gigs, and club nights too.
10. The swimming pool on Cerro San Cristóbal
Stupidly expensive and only open for a few months of the year, but, by God, what a view! Surrounded by the Andes and jaw-dropping vistas of the city on clear days… I’d go every day if I could.
So, those are my favourite places in Santiago. What are yours?
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