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Why Santiago should be your next stop in South America

Chic boutique hotels, cosmopolitan restaurants and colourful street art make Santiago one of the coolest cities in South America, writes Andrew Conway.

It’s cocktail hour at Red2One, the rooftop pool deck on the 21st floor of the W Santiago, and the panoramic view is dazzling. The sky turns from blue to rose gold to purple. City lights stretching as far as the eye can see start to shimmer in the twilight.

An almost full moon rises slowly, illuminating the craggy, snow-tipped peaks of the surrounding Andes in a pale, ethereal light.

Mercado Central de Santiago
Visit the Mercado Central de Santiago for fresh produce © Diego Marin/Unsplash

As two classic pisco sours and a platter of beef empanadas arrive at our table, the DJ in the open-air upper lounge spins house music with a sassy Cueca beat.

The scene is sexy, sultry and quintessentially Santiago. South America is awash with magnetic cities, but Chile’s capital is arguably the coolest and most cosmopolitan of all. It is a vast, sprawling and bustling metropolis where hip hotels, fabulous food, high-octane cocktails, gritty urban street art, and dramatic mountain scenery collide in spectacular fashion.

This oh-so- exciting gateway to the natural wonders of South America is a stellar destination in its own right. Santiago is easily accessible via six LATAM flights a week from Sydney, and come December, there will be daily flights from Sydney via Auckland. 

Barrios and boutiques in Santiago

Santiago’s metropolitan area comprises a network of provinces and comunas, or districts, and within these lie different barrios. The barrios are relatively compact and walkable neighbourhoods, each with unique characters and streetscapes.

Head to Bellas Artes and Lastarria for culture, arts and antiques or Bellavista for its vibrant nightlife. Barrio Brasil has an incredible bohemian vibe. Then visit the modern high-rise enclaves of Las Condes, El Golf and Vitacura, dominated by the Costanera Center, the tallest building in Latin America.

Within these, you’ll find the best boutiques, galleries, museums, colourful street art and stylish hotels of all sizes. There are an array of take-your-pick restaurants, many of them alfresco perched on rooftops or streetside and serving ocean-fresh ceviche and other seafood by the bucket-load.

Barrio Paris-Londres, Santiago
Explore the barrios of Santiago © Gubin Yury/Shutterstock

Big global brand-name hotels like the W, Mandarin Oriental, Ritz-Carlton and InterContinental are safe bets when it comes to bedding down in the city.

But my favourite places to stay are the much smaller, more intimate and stylish boutique hotels. Many of them are contemporary restorations of historic mansions that once graced the city’s broad, leafy avenues.

Two standouts are both located just streets apart in fashionable Lastarria. The Singular Santiago is one of those sink-into hotels you don’t want to leave, with its updated neoclassical French architecture. It boasts 62 design-driven guest rooms, an intimate dining room, cool rooftop pool deck and bar, plus a spa. In the lobby, you’ll find the glam Bar Merced.

The newer Hotel Magnolia is equally chic, another beautifully renovated mansion with an excellent restaurant and rooftop terrace, perfect for an alfresco lunch, cocktails or twilight dinner, Santiago’s glow your backdrop.

Magnolia hotel exterior and lobby in Santiago
Hotel Magnolia is just one of the city's stunning boutique stays © Hotel Magnolia

Top restaurants

The joy of Santiago’s top boutique hotels – including The Aubrey in Bellavista, Hotel Luciano K in Lastarria, and those in Las Condes – is that they are surrounded by some of the city’s most applauded restaurants.

Nestled at the base of central and scenic San Cristobal Hill, Bellavista is one of Santiago’s social hubs. The barrio is lined with cafes, bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

Wander the maze of streets in retro-chic Lastarria and choose from an array of streetside and hole-in-the-wall eateries and bars. Always follow the lead of locals.

While the rooftop bar at the W Santiago in the central business district of Las Condes is a must-try, the hotel is located on bustling Isidora Goyenechea. This long avenue is packed with restaurants spilling onto the pavement.

My top picks are Karai, the W’s new flagship Nikkei restaurant, and ICA Cocina Peruana for its spicy ceviche. 

Chilean dining in Santiago
Whether fine dining or street food, Santiago's culinary scene is sure to wow © L: The Singular Santiago | R: Megan Bucknall/Unsplash

Santiago attractions

You’ll need to Uber or taxi between barrios as Santiago is a vast city. But, once you’re at your barrio of choice, simply walk and take in the head-turning sights and sounds. Don’t overlook the city’s urban street art: it is a living gallery in itself. Museums grand and small are stuffed with treasures reflecting Santiago’s rich and ravishing, but also often turbulent, history.

The National Museum of Fine Arts is a must-visit on three counts: for its magnificent building, park-like setting and prized art collection. On the darker side, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights commemorates the victims of human rights violations by the Pinochet regime from 1973 to 1990.

Museo Bellas Artes de Santiago
Take time to wander the city's museums © Luis Villasmil/Unsplash

The Mercado Central de Santiago (Central Market) is an enormous food market crammed with people and produce; Galpon Persa Balmaceda in Barrio Brasil is an antiques market on steroids; while upscale Vitacura just north of Las Condes offers chic boutiques, cafes and restaurants.

Busy commercial avenues quickly give way to much quieter residential streets in Santiago. Be sure to pack a good pair of walking shoes and wander at your own leisurely pace.

We wrapped up our visit with two more pisco sours and lunch on the rooftop terrace of The Singular Santiago. A fitting farewell to a singular city.

This article originally appeared in volume 42 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. Subscribe to the latest issue today.