As British Airways launches direct flights from London to the Chilean capital, Sarah Gordon checks out the city’s leafy streets, pavement eateries, troubled history and inspirational poets
Santiago skyline (Dreamstime)
Set in the fertile Mapocho Valley at the foot of the Andes, one thing that Santiago offers in spades is fine views. No wonder conquistador Pedro de Valdivia chose this spot to found the Chilean capital in 1541, after a gruelling journey south across the Atacama Desert from Peru.
Great locations come at a price, though. Having been established in territory occupied by native Mapuche, Santiago was razed by locals just six months later, and in the following years was plagued by turf wars.
The last century was no less troubled, with the 1973 coup and brutal regime of General Pinochet casting a 17-year pall over the nation – memorials to its ‘disappeared’ citizens are still visible across the modern capital.
Today, life is very different. Chile is economically stable and its storied capital one of the safest in South America. This translates to its streets, where the metro is clean and efficient, sleek malls jostle colonial buildings and it has an exciting dining and nightlife scene. And then there’s that epic setting.
Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport is located about 15km north-west of the city centre. British Airways has just launched its first direct flight there (from January 03, 2017), taking 14 hours and 40 minutes from London Heathrow. Make sure you are awake about an hour before landing to enjoy the views as you fly over the Andes.
British citizens do not require visas for stays of up to 90 days. But be sure to keep the paper you are given on arrival; you will be required to hand it in as you leave. In Arrivals, there is an information booth, various currency exchanges and ATMs.
Plaza de Armas (Dreamstime)
Most tourists arrive in Santiago by plane, but there is the option of a dramatic bus journey across the Andes from Mendoza, Argentina. The eight-hour trip costs CLP24,000 (£28.50) and is remarkably scenic, eventually arriving at Terminal de Buses Santiago (terminaldebusessantiago.cl; Spanish only) on Avenida Bernado O’Higgins 3850.
Cable cars above Santiago (Dreamstime)
As ever, steer well clear of the drivers touting for business in Arrivals and instead head to one of the official taxi stands to ensure you pay a fair price. The Baggage and Arrivals halls play host to a choice of companies – Transvip, Delfos and Taxi Aeropuerto – that charge a reassuringly fixed rate upfront. On average, you will pay about CLP22,000 (£26) for a private transfer to the city centre, or CLP7,000 (£8) for a shared drop-off.
Two bus lines operate routes from the airport to the city centre. Centropuerto (centropuerto.cl) and TurBus (turbus.cl; both Spanish only) services leave from Arrivals and charge CLP1,700(£2) one-way.
La Moneda (Dreamstime)
Start with breakfast amid the mismatched furnishings and teacup lampshades of Café Bistro de la Barra in Lastarria.
Then stroll to the 18th-century presidential palace La Moneda, where President Salvador Allende died during Chile’s 1973 coup after refusing to leave. His statue is outside, engraved with words from the final speech he gave over the radio as the soldiers closed in.
From here, head north along Bandera to the palm-filled Plaza de Armas, the original centre of the city and its spiritual heart. Step further back in time with a visit to the Chileno de Arte Precolombino Museum to explore amazing pottery and art from across the Americas. Then refuel a few blocks north at Mercado Central fish market, sampling any of the great seafood restaurants that surround it.
In the afternoon, head to Santa Lucía hill, a pretty park with views across the city, then stop for coffee at one of the pavement cafés in Bellas Artes before crossing the Mapocho
river into colourful barrio Bellavista, once home to late Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The house he built for his mistress, ‘La Chascona’ (‘the messy-haired one’), was inspired by the sea, from its boat-style dining room to lighthouse-esque lounge.
Stick around this popular restaurant and bar neighbourhood for dinner at Restaurant 040. Enjoy a tasting menu pairing local Chilean wines and some unique dishes.
Graffiti in Bellavista (Dreamstime)
Top end: The Aubrey in Bellavista became Santiago’s first boutique hotel when it opened in 2010. Set in a mock-Tudor house formerly owned by a prominent politician, it mixes quirky designs with a beautiful pool and garden area, making for a serene escape. Doubles from US$195 (£157).
Mid range: Hotel Cumbres Lastarria blends colonial and modern styles to fine effect. Its Mediterranean restaurant on the eighth floor has some fine city views and the hotel’s location is also ideal for trips to the museums and galleries of the Lastarria district. Doubles from £136.
Budget: La Casa Roja is a hostel located in the student district of Barrio Brasil. But step inside its colonial building and you’ll find a nest of patios, a swimming pool, an al fresco bar and a well-equipped kitchen. Choose between dorms and private rooms, with doubles from CLP 27,100 (£32).
Both. The beauty of Santiago is its handy location. Within a two-hour drive are treks into the Andes mountains, multiple wine regions to explore, plenty of beaches and a wealth of artsy port cities. Some of these can be taken as day trips, while others are a great way to move on from the capital without having to travel too far.
Hikers should head to Cajón del Maipo, 25km south-east of Santiago, for dramatic mountain scenery and hiking, climbing and camping. The closest vineyards are Casablanca, to the west, and Maipo Valley, to the south. Both can be explored on a day trip, but if you want to indulge, stay at a vineyard hotel. Alternatively, Colchagua Valley is also celebrated for its wine and only two hours south of Santiago.
Lastly, the colourful seaside town of Valparaíso lies just over an hour west of the capital. Explore its tangle of cobbled streets, climb its hills and ride its creaking 100-year-old funiculars, with great views out over the coast.
Population: 6.54 million
Languages: Spanish; Mapudungun (indigenous Mapuche)
Timezone: GMT-3 (May–August GMT-4)
International dialling code: +56
Visas: Not required by UK nationals for stays of up to 90 days.
Currency: Chilean peso (CLP), currently CLP839 to the £UK.
Highest viewpoint: The best views of Santiago are to be had from the Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción statue, which lies atop San Cristóbal hill in the lush Metropolitan Park. Or you can head to the 300m-high Sky Costanera – the tallest building in Latin America – on Avenida Andrés Bello to enjoy 360° views of the city.
Health issues: Make sure you’re up to date on all routine jabs, with Hepatitis A and typhoid prevalent in parts of Chile. But, thanks to its dry climate, at least you shouldn’t have any problems with mosquitoes. Tap water is drinkable, though its high mineral content means you may prefer to stick to bottled water.
Recommended guidebook: Chile and Easter Island (Lonely Planet, 2015), Chile with Easter Island & Patagonia (Fodor’s, 2015) and Chile & Easter Island (DK Eyewitness, 2016) are fine resources. Web resources: Chile’s official tourism website is www.chile.travel/en.
Climate: The city enjoys a dry, mild climate. In summer (Nov–Feb), temperatures can climb to 30oC, while winters (May–Aug) see it fall to as low as 15oC. Spring and autumn can both be quite balmy (20–23oC), but be aware that the temperature can drop significantly in the evenings.
From Jan 03, 2017 British Airways will operate four flights a week leaving from London Heathrow (LHR) to Santiago, Chile. With a flight time of 14 hours 40 minutes, Santiago will become the airline's lengthiest route.
See www.britishairways.com for more details.
Main image: Plaza de Armas, Santiago (Dreamstime)