Santiago seems to get overlooked when it comes to South American capitals, and when people come to Chile, most of them focus directly (and understandably) on the country's great expanses and breathtaking nature. For sure Santiago doesn't party hard like many of its neighbours, but not all cities should be judged or dismissed on their ability to stay up all night. Santiago, and the Chilean people in general are blessed with plenty of Latino spirit but it’s blended with a comparatively genteel nature and a certain elegance. You can even see it in the architectural landscape of the city if you think of it in these terms. You have all the beauty and refinement of colonial and classical monuments, cool marble and concrete modernism, Art Deco villas and 70s high rises; all smashed together, circumnavigated by the majority of Chile's inhabitants and surrounded by mountains. It’s mayhem, but somehow it functions. If you give it some time, you may be lucky enough to find your way into the underground art and music scene which exists almost as a family style network tucked away in earthen walled houses and shared in parks on sunny Sunday afternoons across the city. Don't necessarily come for the food, but stay for the people, although if you have a sweet tooth you'll be pleased to hear that I could swear to you that half the city smells like warm caramel...
Culture: Cafe Literario Bustamante
In the hottest hours of Santiago’s summer days you need to know some great spots where you can retreat to till the heat subsides. Café Literario is the perfect venue. Set in Parque Bustamante, this modernist building is a cool quiet place to stop, read and take a restorative coffee whilst surrounded by the calming design in glass, wood and concrete.
Nightlife: Placido Domingo
Santiago’s nightlife may seem a little limited on the surface – you have to meet people and find the underground scene – and although this party doesn't strictly happen at night, if you're in the right park on the right Sunday afternoon (Facebook will help you with the specifics) you will be treated to a selection of interesting, challenging and enjoyable electronic music. If you're really fortunate, you might even have the pleasure of watching a grown man Vogueing with a 3 year old princess. All this is a likely possibility. This is where we met the wonderful Maxi Cat who was kind enough to make a playlist for us (link)
Explore: Parque Santa Lucia
Santiago has a smattering of large, impressive parks around the city, each with a distinct character of its own and all well kept and charming. But if you’ve been wandering the central city and the heat is getting a bit much, there’s nowhere better to wander than Parque Santa Lucia. It’s a small park with beautiful architectural features and a fort. You can enjoy a leisurely stroll, enjoy the views of the city centre, or relax on the shaded side of the park for some people watching.
Coffee: Wonderful Coffee
Chile is famous for many things, but since maté is the caffeine kick of choice, coffee culture here is mostly decades in the dust. It’s not even unusual to go to a decent restaurant and be served Nescafe (coffee at its best?!) when ordering a coffee to round off your meal. That makes finding places like Wonderful Coffee even more enjoyable. There’s not much to say about the place – it’s pleasant enough – but the staff really know what they’re doing behind an espresso machine!
If you’re anything like me, you find a certain magic in old-school “up market dining”. The kind of place that didn’t evolve in décor, menu or even staff since the 80s. There’s a grace to it, and a lot of nostalgia. Put all of that on the 16th floor of a high rise, get the floor to revolve in order to enjoy the 360 views across Santiago and the Andes shimmering in the sunset, and you have the wonder that is the Giratorio.
Only in Santiago…
Even though you can get them all over the country, you’d be missing a sensory experience if you didn’t find your way to the bustling passage that runs along the south side of Plaza de Armas for a Completo. It’s easy to miss the fact that there’s a lot of Germanic culture gently mingled into Chile, but the second you see the Completo, you know everything. What could be more German than a hotdog in a bun with tons or sauce and sauerkraut?! If you’re feeling fancy you can make it ‘Italiano” and they’ll replace the sauerkraut with avocado. And if you’ve still got room (unlikely – Completos often come in pairs) find a bakery and try a Berlin: a custard filled close cousin of the real German "Berliner Pfannkuchen" doughnut.
Text and pictures by Ruth Bartlett