Capital attractions

If you're thinking of just passing through Santiago on the way to the rest of Chile, think again
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

As Chile's main gateway to the outside world, most people pass through Santiago on their way to other parts of the country, barely stopping except to wait for a connection. But the Chilean capital has far more to offer than visitors usually give it credit for, and, no matter what time of year, there is always plenty to arouse the interest of any tourist.

DOWN PAYMENT

There are no direct flights from the UK to Santiago. The usual route is via Madrid on the Chilean national carrier, LAN (0800 917 0572; www.lan.com), with connections operated by British Airways and Iberia. The lowest current fare is £647 return.

A taxi from Santiago airport to the city centre, 20 miles away, will cost around 11,000 pesos (£10). Minivans wait at the airport and set off for the city centre as soon as they are full, and serve downtown hotels; the fare is 5,000 pesos (£4). There are also buses running every half hour, with fares of around 1,000 pesos (90p) for a one-way trip.

INSTANT BRIEFING

On a clear day, it is easy to work out where you are in Santiago: the snow-capped peaks of the Andes tower over the city on the east side, while the less dramatic Coastal Mountains shield the city to the west. Santiago itself is crossed from east to west by a single avenue, known locally as the Alameda. It has three official names: Avenida O'Higgins in the commercial centre, Avenida Providencia in the residential district, and Avenida Apoquindo as it heads into the Andes. The Tourist Office, Sernatur, is at Avenida Providencia 1550 (00 56 2 7318336; www.sernatur.cl), and it opens 8.45am-6.30pm from Monday to Friday, 9am-2pm on Saturdays.

The bus network can be complicated if you don't know the city, but it is easy to get around on the Metro, which is quick, clean and safe. There are three lines, confusingly numbered 1, 2 and 5, and labelled according to their final destination in each direction. Tickets for a single journey cost 320 pesos (30p). Taxis are black with a yellow roof, and should all have a meter, but if you are planning a long journey it is a good idea to establish the fare in advance.

REST ASSURED

All rates include breakfast, and foreign visitors who pay in dollars can avoid paying VAT. Santiago's commercial district is convenient for the main city attractions. The best bet in this area is the Hotel Plaza San Francisco at Alameda 816 (00 56 2 639 3832; www.plazasanfrancisco.cl), where double rooms cost US$130 (£71). Another good area for accommodation is Providencia, slightly outside the city centre, but easy to reach on the metro. Choices here include the Hotel Diego de Velazquez at Guardia Vieja 150 (00 56 2 234 4400; www.hoteldiegodevelazquez.com), where double rooms start at US$75 (£41). In the district of Las Condes, which is also accessible by metro, is the Hotel Montebianco at Isidora Goyenechea 2911 (00 56 2 233 0427; www.hotelmontebianco.cl) where double rooms start at US$88 (£48), singles at US$69 (£38).

MUST SEE

Santiago is a Spanish colonial city in a dramatic location. The centre is dominated by two hills: the Cerro Santa Lucia, a pleasant green oasis with terraces and observation points overlooking the city centre, and the larger Cerro San Cristobal on the northern side of the Mapocho river. Topped by a large white statue of the Virgin Mary, its summit is reached either by funicular railway or cable car.

Close to the foot of this hill is La Chascona at Fernando Marquez de la Plata 0192 (00 56 2 777 8741; www.fundacionneruda.org). This curious house was once the home of Chile's Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, and is now a museum (open 10am-6pm daily except Monday). It is worth visiting for the eccentricity of the building and its contents.

The Plaza de Armas, Santiago's main square, contains the baroque cathedral (open 9am-7pm daily). Close by is the Casa Colorada, one of the few remaining examples of Spanish colonial architecture, which now houses the Museum of Santiago (00 56 2 633 6700); it opens 10am-6pm from Tuesday to Friday, 10am-5pm Saturday and 11am-4pm Sunday. Entrance costs 500 pesos (45p).

MUST BUY

The streets north of Boulevard O'Higgins - Ahumado, Estado and Huerfanos - are good for shopping; this is where you'll find the main department stores, Falabella, Ripley and Almacenes Paris.

Wine lovers should head for El Mundo del Vino at Avenida Isidora Goyenechea 2931 (00 56 2 244 8888) which has a vast selection of Chilean wines, most of which never appear on the shelves of British wine stores. Bottles are often open for tasting, particularly on Friday evenings. The store opens 10.30am-8.30pm Monday-Saturday, and 10.30am-8pm Sunday.

MUST EAT

Santiago is renowned for its seafood. One of the best places to try it is the Mercado Central, the indoor market area near Cal y Canto metro station. Among the market stalls are a number of cafés, the best of which is Donde Augusto (00 56 2 672 2829; www.dondeaugusto.cl). On Constitucion are Azul Profundo (00 56 2 738 0288) and Aqui esta Coco (00 56 2 235 8649; www.aquiestacoco.cl), both renowned for their excellent seafood. Another good area for restaurants is Avenida Isidora Goyenchea, in Las Condes. Good choices here include Le Due Torri (00 56 2 231 3427) for Italian food, and La Cascade (00 56 2 232 2798; www.lacascade.com) for French.

INTO THE NIGHT

The liveliest district at night is the Barrio Suecia, a collection of streets off Avenida Providencia, which contain very little apart from bars, restaurants and discos. Popular names to look for include Rio Vino, the Red Pub, Brannigans, and the Infierno disco.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Using the new LAN "Visit South America" airpass, you can also fly to Santiago from other Latin American destinations such as Lima (Peru), Guayaquil (Ecuador) and Buenos Aires (Argentina). This airpass aims to combine LAN's international and domestic routings to facilitate air travel within Latin America. The "Visit South America" airpass is bookable through Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk). A good example route would be: Santiago - Lima - Cusco - Lima - Caracas: costing from US$440 (£275).

A four-night "Santiago" arrival package with Journey Latin America, including a city tour and day trips to the nearby Concha y Toro vineyard and historic port city of Valparaiso, starts from £251 per person (based on double occupancy) including airport transfers and four nights' accommodation with breakfast at the Hotel Plaza San Francisco.

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