x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Savour the sights and tastes of Santiago

My Kind of Place: The Chilean city offers visitors to South America a slow-paced, leisurely holiday.

Cerro San Cristobal in Santiago. Kara Dillon for The National
Cerro San Cristobal in Santiago. Kara Dillon for The National

Why Santiago

Chants of "Viva Chile" were heard around the world late last year during the dramatic rescue of 33 miners from deep beneath the Atacama desert. Santiago now seems poised for its coming-out party. Cultural centres, theatres and museums abound in this capital city with a European feel. For those looking for a break from a whirlwind tour of South America, Santiago offers a chance to relax in a city with all the amenities of home. And, yes, it is the jumping-off point in a country blessed with diverse landscapes - from glaciers and fjords in the south to the world's driest desert in the north - including white sand beaches about an hour and a half to the west in Valparaiso, its bohemian centre, and Vina del Mar. Vina's anthropological museum features collections from Easter Island - including the only genuine Moai statue in the whole of continental Chile - for those short on time and money to visit the island.

A comfortable bed

The Aubrey Boutique Hotel (www.theaubrey.com; 00 56 2 940 2800) is housed in the renovated 1927 home of the Chilean politician Domingo Duran Morales and retains much of the original architecture. It sits beside San Cristobal hill - home to the country's largest urban park at 722 hectares - in Santiago's Bellavista neighbourhood, the centre of the city's arts scene, and a minute's walk to the former home of Pablo Neruda, winner of a Nobel Prize in literature. Rooms with a view of the neighbourhood cost US$240 (Dh880) per night.

For luxury outside the busy downtown, there is the recently opened W Santiago (www.starwoodhotels.com; 00 56 2 770 0000), 15 minutes away by car or the metro in the chic El Golf area, dubbed "Sanhattan" by the residents. A standard room with king-sized bed costs $294.17 (Dh1,080).

Find your feet

The top tourist attractions in Santiago's historic centre can be easily reached on foot, and the city is full of parks and cycle paths that offer shelter from the often heavy traffic. Start in the Plaza de Armas, the original centre of Santiago where the Spanish first founded the city in the 1500s. There you will find the central post office built on the site of the city's first house, the Metropolitan Cathedral, which has been rebuilt four times since its founding, and the national history museum.

Make your way south to the Presidential Palace, bombed by planes and tanks during the 1973 military coup, before strolling east through the pedestrian-dominated streets downtown, stopping for a quick snack of mote con huesillo (dried peaches and wheat husk soaked in sugary peach juice).

Hike up Santa Lucia hill for a nice view of the city before checking out Lastarria street. Lined with restaurants and cafes, Lastarria features an artisan fair from Thursday to Sunday, and blues musicians play here every night. From there, continue east through the Forest Park, admiring the view of the snow-capped Andes, before crossing the Pio Nono bridge to explore the Bellavista neighbourhood, full of patios and local food stalls.

Meet the locals

Head out to one of the city's parks in the evening and you'll find people enjoying ice cream, playing football or cosying up on park benches. For impromptu theatre, head to the Plaza de Armas where mimes, jugglers and clowns entertain the crowds.

Book a table

With 4,270 km of coastline, fresh seafood is to be found everywhere. Try Mercado Central (www.mercadocentral.cl; 00 56 2 671 0167), where hundreds of tables and chairs are arranged near dozens of restaurants and stalls selling fresh fish on ice, ready to be cooked and served (try the conger eel). Avoid the touristy restaurants in the middle of the market if you do not feel like paying nearly $40 (Dh130) for a four-course meal. Smaller outfits around the periphery serve dishes starting at around $5 (Dh20). For more traditional Chilean fare, including humitas (boiled corn leaf rolls stuffed with seasoned ground corn for less than $1.40; Dh5), there are a wide selection of restaurants.

Those craving a little Middle Eastern flavour should head to Patronato Street to the north of Mapocho River. This was once the centre of the city's Palestinian immigrant community, and a handful of restaurants and sweet shops still serve up delicacies including shawarma ($4; Dh15) and halwa.

Shopper's paradise

For local goodies, including jewellery and figurines carved out of the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, check out the handicraft stalls in the Bellavista neighbourhood or the shops in Patio Bellavista.

What to avoid

While Santiago is very safe, solitary night-time walks in the parks are not advisable. It's also wise to avoid the 1973 military coup or comments about the subsequent dictatorship inconversations with Chileans. It remains a controversial subject.

Don't miss

The views from the top of San Cristobal. Rising 880 metres above sea level, the hill offers a stunning perspective of the city. Everyone who comes to Santiago makes it a point of reaching the top, but not everyone knows a funicular at its base offers easy access. If you want some exercise, rent a bike or strap on your running shoes. The various parks, gardens and barbecue pits, the zoo and snack vendors offer stopping points along the way.