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Intriguing neighborhoods invite exploration of Santiago, Chile's capital city

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From traditional to trendy, simple to sophisticated, gritty to glamorous, Santiago’s varied neighborhoods expose the many facets of the city’s personality.

 

The Plaza de Armas is the traditional heart of Santiago. In a setting of palm trees, fountains and tropical plantings, elderly men hunch over their chess games, friends chat on benches, kids run around, and vendors and street artists sell their wares. The Baroque/Neoclassic Cathedral, the lovely 18th-century post office, the colonial city hall and the Museo Historico surround the plaza.

 

The Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, a block away from Plaza de Armas, is a must-see. The fascinating collection of more than 3,000 items spans about 10,000 years, covering an area reaching from Mexico to southern Chile. The visitor quickly gains an understanding of various times and cultures from the signs, both in Spanish and English, which not only name each object but describe its material, symbolic cultural meaning and function.

 

Casa Colorada, near the plaza’s southeast corner, houses the Museo de Santiago in a dark-red, 18th-century colonial home in which each room represents a stage of Santiago’s history.

 

It’s five blocks from Plaza de Armas to Palacio de la Moneda, the official seat of government. Sloping walkways on the sides of La Moneda lead to the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda, which opened in January 2006. The outstanding Expo Artesanias there offers a comprehensive survey of Chilean handicrafts. Its centerpiece is a long glass map of Chile, where small markers in each region indicate its products, such as textiles or ceramics. Wall displays of crafts have accompanying photos and dual-language information about the crafts’ origins and materials.

 

When it’s time to explore other neighborhoods, you could choose a taxi, which is inexpensive, but the subway system, the Metro, is faster, and stations are large and clean. Fares vary with the time of day but are less than a dollar per ride.

 

Bellavista is across the Rio Mapocho from the Baquedano Metro station. The neighborhood is a bit bohemian, filled with bars, discos, cafes and restaurants. On the weekends the streets are crowded with families heading to the Parque Metropiltano for a picnic, the zoo or a ride on the funicular for the view from the 2,800-foot-high summit of Cerro San Cristobal.

 

La Chascona, one of Pablo Neruda’s three homes in Chile, is on a leafy side street in Bellavista. It’s whimsical in design and decor—and even in its name, which translates to “the uncombed,” a tribute to the bushy red hair of Matilde, the wife of the Nobel Prize-winning poet. Visit www.fundacionneruda.org for a schedule of tours.

 

Patio Bellavista on Pio Nono is an attractive mixed-use space housing cafes, restaurants, a wine shop, art galleries and shops with Chilean crafts.

 

Bellas Artes, six blocks east of the Plaza de Armas, is central Santiago’s most appealing neighborhood. It has attractive streets, intriguing courtyards, boutiques, galleries, museums and cafes.

 

The 97-year-old Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is fashioned after the Musee du Petit Palais in Paris. A glass dome tops the huge interior central hall, and staircases and balconies are trimmed in Art Nouveau metalwork. There are rotating exhibits by Chilean and international artists.

 

J.V. Lastarria is Bellas Artes’ most intriguing street. At No. 316, a former mansion houses Hall Central, a shop selling trendy clothing, and Aji, featuring fabulous contemporary jewelry made of such diverse materials as metal, horsehair, fabric, paper, copper and silver.

 

Across the street is the enticing Plaza del Mulato Gil de Castro, a courtyard with ivy-covered walls, two restaurants, an art gallery and two adjacent museums — the Museo de Artes Visuales, featuring contemporary art, and the Museo Arqueologico.

 

Las Condes and Vitacura are neighboring upscale districts on the eastern side of town. That’s where visitors will find major hotel chains, international businesses and Santiago’s most exclusive shops.

 

In Las Condes, Pueblito de los Dominicos (9085 Av. Apoquindo) has almost 200 workshops, each featuring a Chilean craft, such as leatherwork, jewelry, baskets and ceramics.

 

Pura, at 3226 Isidora Goyenechea, carries the very finest Chilean crafts, items with distinctive, sophisticated and contemporary twists. Baskets are fashioned into light fixtures, leather is woven into placemats, shawls have leather trim, and stylish duffle bags are hand-woven and embroidered with big flowers.

 

Pura is representative of the high-class shopping in Las Condes/Vitacura, Santiago’s most exclusive shopping area. The tree-shaded Avenida Alsonso de Cordova, Vitacura’s main shopping street, has interesting boutiques and specialty shops, many of them former homes. In addition to the big international designers, such as Hermes and Vuitton, there are high-style local designers, interior design shops, art galleries, restaurants and coffee houses.

 

Despite changes and diversity, there is a singular constant in Santiago — the soaring Andes. On a clear day, they are a rugged, majestic, snow-capped backdrop to Santiago’s varied neighborhoods. When possible, book a room with a view of the Andes. You will never forget it.

 

Both the hotel itself and the views of the Andes are stunning at the 310-room Grand Hyatt Santiago (888-591-1234, www.santiago.hyatt.com). The superb design, sublimely comfortable rooms, lush grounds and fantastic service make the hotel a serene oasis in a bustling city. A 24-story, glass-domed atrium welcomes guests into a sunlit lobby that overlooks the beautiful gardens and a 10,000-square-foot, free-form pool and waterfall.

 

At approximately 560 square feet, the Grand Hyatt’s 249 split-level guest rooms are the largest in Santiago. The neutral-toned, contemporary decor features natural leather headboards, wood furniture from Argentina and suede curtains on the big windows, which offer expansive views of the city and Andes. Goose-down duvets, stacks of pillows and 320-thread-count sheets make the beds extremely comfortable. Room features also include flat-screen TVs, CD players, broadband access, three telephones, generous storage space and big marble bathrooms.

 

Guests in the 38 Grand Club rooms and 23 Executive Suites have access to a three-story, 16th-floor atrium lounge with dazzling city and mountain views. Grand Club rates include buffet breakfast, afternoon tea and cocktails with light food, the services of two concierges and the use of two computers with Internet access.

 

The Grand Hyatt Santiago has three restaurants—Thai, Japanese and Italian—as well as light meals offered in the lobby. The gym overlooks the pool area and is part of the three-level spa. A children’s playground and two outdoor tennis courts complete this urban resort setting.

 

The nearby 280-room Santiago Marriott Hotel (888-236-2427, www.marriott.com) is part of Boulevard Kennedy, a three-tower office complex. The Santiago Marriott has 220 rooms and 60 suites with either Andes or city views. Rooms feature Marriott’s Revive bedding system of triple sheeting, sheeted duvets, fluffier pillows and thicker mattresses. Other amenities include desks, high-speed Internet access, irons, satellite TV, four international power adaptors and safes large enough for laptop computers.

 

The Santiago Marriott’s 42 business suites have two bedrooms with a central meeting room. Deluxe rooms on the Executive floors offer access to the Executive Lounge for breakfast, snacks and evening cocktails.

 

The Santiago Marriott has a health club with a spa and fitness area, an indoor/outdoor connecting pool, two restaurants and a lounge.

 

Both the Grand Hyatt Santiago and Santiago Marriott are in Las Condes, 20 minutes from the airport and 15 to 20 minutes from downtown. It’s a five- to 10-minute cab ride to the nearest Metro station.

 

The 162-room Hotel Galerias is ideal for travelers who want to stay in central Santiago. With double-paned windows and six floors showcasing Chilean history, it’s quite removed from the noise and bustle outside. Hotel Galerias, which is part of an office building, was totally remodeled in 2005. It’s five blocks from the Plaza de Armas.

 

The rooms are simply decorated, in soothing neutral tones. Suites have a king bed, work area and living room, and can be easily joined with an adjacent standard to create a spacious area for families. Amenities include cable TV, complimentary wireless Internet access, safes and individually controlled air conditioning.

 

Vintage photos, pre-Columbian textiles, Mapuche jewelry and changing art exhibits are part of the decor. A business center offers complimentary use of four computers, and the Hotel Galerias also has a bar, restaurant, rooftop pool, sauna, whirlpool and massage services.

 

Remember that you will be exempt from some hotel taxes if you pay in U.S. dollars or with an international credit card. You will need to show your passport as well as your immigration card, which is issued at the airport when you pay the required $100 entry fee.--Mary Ann Hemphill

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