A Vibrant Capital
Capital of Chile and home to one-third of its entire population, Santiago is a sophisticated yet sprawling metropolis that serves as the country's cultural, administrative and financial hub. It may not possess the grandeur and tourist appeal of Rio or Buenos Aires, but Santiago is every bit as cosmopolitan and lies in a spectacular natural setting in the lap of snowcapped Andean peaks.
Pedro de Valdivia, the Spanish conquistador who founded the city in 1541, had it built according to a simple grid pattern and even to this day Santiago remains an orderly city that's easy to navigate. It's a place where the old rubs shoulders with the new—where centuries-old churches and mansions cower beneath skyscrapers and cobbled streets lead to 70's shopping galleries. The city is divided into 32 comunas, each with its own unique character, including elegant suburban neighborhoods, modern business districts, hip shopping areas and vibrant bohemian quarters.
Santiago may be noisy and oppressed by dreary smog much of the year, but it deserves more than just a passing glance by travelers who use it as a stepping stone to Patagonia, the Lake District and other more famous Chilean tourist destinations. The city's historic center has a fascinating selection of museums, churches and cultural centers and the Bellavista neighborhood is bursting with world-class restaurants, art galleries and pubs. There are also a number of exotic parks, chic shopping centers and two panoramic hilltop outlooks worth a visit. Nor would a trip to Santiago be complete without skiing the nearby peaks or touring the country's premier wineries right next door.
Depending on where you choose to stay in Santiago, you could end up taking away utterly disparate impressions of the city. Downtown Santiago hotels are the cheapest, as well as the closest to museums and historic attractions, but this area has a grittier aspect and is clogged with traffic on weekdays. The nearby Providencia neighborhood, on the other hand, offers pleasant lodging along leafy streets lined with restaurants and shops, and if luxury is what you're after then the upscale elegance of Las Condes is your best bet. No matter which Santiago hotel suits your fancy, getting around town via the Metro is a snap.