Chile’s capital Santiago is widely-regarded as the cleanest, most-modern major city on the South American landmass — but don’t think for a second that means it’s boring. A sprawling metropolis nestled between the Andes Mountains to the east and less than an hour from the Pacific Ocean which sits to its west, Santiago’s urban landscape is as diverse and grand in scale as the scenery that surrounds it.
Geographically speaking, the Bellas Artes district is located in the northern part of Santiago’s urban core, served by an eponymous stop on the Santiago metro’s “Green” line, as well as the adjacent one, Plaza de Armas. Set amid the city’s Parque Forestal the early 20th century Palacio de Bellas Artes, a museum erected to commemorate 100 years of Chilean independence, serves as the de-facto entrance to the district.
As its name might suggest to you, Bells Artes is hip — and, well, artsy — part of Santiago, home to students from many of the city’s nearby universities, as well as a sizable number of young bourgeois and creative types of all ages. The architecture in Bellas Artes is vaguely European, the district’s primary visual identifier the loud, often political graffiti that coats the exteriors of practically all its buildings.
In addition the aforementioned museum and park, Bellas Artes is home to dozens of restaurants, bars and shopping outlets, which range in price and ambiance from cheap, quick and casual to upmarket, upscale — and even downright uppity, in some cases. Cerro Santa Lucía, a tall hill topped by a building best described as a castle, is less than five minutes by foot down a street of the same name.
No matter your “scene” or daily budget, a stroll through Bellas Artes is non-negotiable if you have a genuine interest in understanding Santiago’s character, of which the neighborhood is an undeniably integral component. If you take a pronounced liking to Bellas Artes, several budget hostels exist within its boundaries.
Barrio Bellavista is located just north of Canal de Las Mercedes from Bellas Artes, bounded to the west and east by calles Loreto and Arzobispo and to the north by the massive Cerro San Cristobal. The mountain is capped with a statue of a virgin — far from a rare sight in Latin American capital cities — but nonetheless provides an incredible view not only of Bellavista at its base, but indeed the whole of the Chilean capital.
At the geographical and commercial center of Bellavista is Calle Pio Nono, a broad avenue lined with bars, restaurants and other establishments that, like those you find in neighboring Bellas Artes, vary widely in terms of price and intended customer. For example, just down the street from posh, 15,000 peso-per-head Patio Bellavista sits the hole-in-the-wall EmpanaTodo, a Mom-and-Pop empanada shop which sells 30 flavors of delicious, homemade — and, most-importantly, cheap — empanadas to college students and budget travelers alike. As of March 2011, you could get two fresh empanadas and a soft drink for just 1,800 pesos, or less than $4 US equivalent.
Architecturally, Bellasvista is of the same turn-of-last-century bent as its southerly, similarly-named neighbor, the main difference between the two being that few of Bellavista’s buildings rise more than two stories off the ground. The district is also notably less residential, particularly in the areas tourists are likely to frequent — namely, streets like Constitución, Ernesto Pinto Lagarringue and the aforementioned Pio Nono between Bellavista and Antonio Lopez de Bello. If you need to access the rest of Santiago, the best means of doing so is walking across the canal to the Baquedano metro station, which serves both the red and green lines of the Metro de Santiago.
In spite of Bellas Artes being arguably more artistic — demographically, anyway — Bellavista is decidely more colorful, both in terms of its graffiti and its buildings. If you’re looking for a place to stay in the area, check out the aptly-named Bellasvista Hostel, located in a conspicuously purple two-story near the intersection of Constitucion and Dardignac.
As is the case in most South American capitals, the so-called “downtown” area of Santiago isn’t the first place many tourists visit. Unlike the Centro portions of Lima or Buenos Aires, however, central Santiago is neither dangerous nor dingy, regardless of how light or dark it is outside. Well, mostly not — but more on that in a couple paragraphs.
Whether your goal is too see extremely local or extremely touristy sites, Centro has enough to keep you busy. La Moneda, the Chilean presidential residence, sits directly atop a metro station of the same name — and in the shadows of an extremely large Chilean flag, one I believe is incidentally the largest flag in the world, Chilean or otherwise. The grand Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, on which the palace sits, makes for a pleasant walk and is home to plenty of cafes and eateries to sit an afternoon away, if that’s more your style.
Centro is also home to Santiago’s famous, picturesque Plaza de Armas. Writing for BootsNAll Travel Network, Jody Hanson details the inside look she got at the people who live near the plaza in her article “People of Plaza de Armas.”
Toward the northern end of Centro – in other words, if you’re walking westward through Bellas Artes and continue heading west along the canal — sit two large markets, the Mercado Central and La Vega. While the former is most famous for – and indeed, most easily identifiable by — its seafood and seafood restaurants, the latter is more or less a fruit market. La Vega is the decidedly more local of the two, so much so that I might even characterize the streets that surround it as being sketchy, particularly in the evening or on Sundays, when the market is closed.
Lodging-wise, Centro seemed to offer mostly hotels, both of the budget and definitely-not-budget sort, but it doesn’t hurt to peruse HostelWorld to see if any high-rated hostels have popped up since I was there in March of 2011.
Las Condes and Providencia
As has been the case with many places I travel, Santiago’s most upscale neighborhoods have less to offer than their more working-class counterparts in terms of activities and culture. This is also the case with Providencia, Santiago’s nouveau riche residential area and Las Condes, the city’s up-and-coming central business district that’s even nicknamaed Sanhattan to characterize the predominance of high rises in the area. Central among these is the Gran Torre Costanera tower which, at nearly 900 feet and 70 floors, will be the tallest building in South America upon its scheduled completion in November 2011.