48 Hours In: Santiago

Chile's capital is gaining new flights from Europe, making this is a great time to go, says Simon Calder

Tall order: Cerro Santa Lucia and the high-rise city
Tall order: Cerro Santa Lucia and the high-rise city

Travel essentials

Why go now?

The Dutch airline KLM has launched flights to Santiago from Amsterdam, with good UK connections, and next month Air Europa starts competing from Madrid. The timing is ideal: February and March are the perfect months to visit the Chilean capital. As the midsummer heat dwindles, street life intensifies. The city makes the ideal starting point for an Andean adventure, or a stopover en route to the Pacific islands.

Touch down

You will have to change planes somewhere. KLM has the widest range of UK departure points, but note that the onward flight to Santiago stops en route in Buenos Aires. KLM's partner, Air France, connects via Paris. The Oneworld alliance (including Iberia, British Airways and the Chilean national airline, LAN) has good options. The main connecting point is Madrid, but Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires are also possibilities.

Santiago is also worth considering for a round-the-world trip, travelling on to Australasia – possibly via Easter Island.

From the airport, the best-value route into the city is the blue Centropuerto bus (00 56 2 601 9883; www.centropuerto.cl), which departs every 10 to 15 minutes for Los Heroes (1) metro station. The flat fare for the half-hour journey is 1,350 pesos (written $1,350 and equivalent to £1.50).

A taxi from the airport is likely to cost at least $20,000 (£22), though in the opposite direction reckon on only $15,000 (£16).

Get your bearings

The northern boundary of the city centre is marked by the Mapocho river; the western edge by the combined freeway and Metro line 2; and the south-eastern boundary by Santiago's main thoroughfare, Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O'Higgins (universally known as the Alameda). The central square is the Plaza de Armas (2), currently being restored (until July).

Beyond the centre, the Bellavista area to the north is full of shops and restaurants, while the Brasil neighbourhood to the west has some good places to stay.

The city is punctuated by a couple of steep hills, including Cerro Santa Lucía; a useful tourist office (3) is at the southern end.

The metro is modern and efficient. The principal line, 1, threads beneath the Alameda. With a flat fare of just $680 (£0.75) it is well worth taking just a few stops on a warm day – and appreciating the spectacular murals that decorate the stations of Los Heroes (1), Baquedano (4) and Santa Lucía (5).

Check in

The elegant Loreto Hotel (6) at Loreto 170 in Bellavista (00 56 2 2777 1060; loretohotel.cl) occupies a 1902 mansion which has been imaginatively flexed to create a 24-room hotel. Much of the original wood is still in evidence. The public spaces, including the roof terrace, are lovely. Doubles from US$132 (£88), with breakfast.

The Andes Hostel (7) is where the hostel concept meets a grand hotel. It occupies a fine building at Monjitas 506 (00 56 2 2632 9990; andeshostel.com) and offers distinctive double rooms for US$72 (£48), with occasional rooftop barbecues.

For a budget stay, the Traveller's Place Hostel (8) in the Brasil district at Almirante Barroso 457 (00 56 2 672 1284; travellersplacehostel.cl) is excellent: friendly, comfortable and cheap. A private double room costs $28,000 (£30).

All rates include breakfast and Wi-Fi.

Day one

Take a view

Begin the day at 9am as the gates of Cerro Santa Lucía open; approach from Plaza Vicuña Mackenna (5) and you'll appreciate the flamboyant architecture as you climb. The summit gives an excellent city panorama. Descend to the northern entrance; an elderly elevator (10am-2pm and 3-6pm, Tuesday-Saturday) can assist.

Take a hike

From the hill, take Huérfanos west. It rapidly becomes a pedestrian street, lined by shops – and handsome relics such as the Galería Imperio (9). Cross the Pan-American Highway (here known as Route 5) on the elevated footbridge (10) and continue to the corner of Plaza Brazil (11). Turn left down Avenida Brasil, to the Barrio Concha y Toro (12) – a fascinating outpost of decrepit Art Deco.

Continue south to the Alameda and turn left towards the centre. The mighty Palacio de la Moneda (13) rises on the left; the late 18th-century royal mint later became the presidential palace. The democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, died there after refusing to surrender in the coup of 1973 (10am-6pm daily, free).

Head north-east through retro shopping galleries to the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (14) in a colonial building at Bandera 361 (00 56 2 928 1522; precolombino.cl; 10am-6pm daily except Monday; $3,500/£4, free Sundays to 2 March).

Lunch on the run

You are one block from Plaza de Armas (2) and the Portal Fernández Concha (15) which has good-value food along the square's south side.

Window shopping

Start on the square's north side at the principal post office, Correo Central (16). Paseo Puente, lined by stores, leads north to the Mercado Central (17) – a massive fish market. The real bargains are over the river in the flea market at Artesanos Bellavista, skirting the huge La Vega market (18). On the smarter side of town, La Tienda Nacional (19) at Merced 369 (00 56 2 2638 4706) sells books, cards and music and hosts gigs.

An aperitif

"El Palacio Popular" is the boast on the walls of La Piojera (20), a Santiago institution west of the Mercado Central. For something more sophisticated, aim for Chinchinera (21) on the corner of Monjitas and de la Barra, just south of Bellavista.

Dine with the locals

At Bar Nacional 2 (22) on Banderas, the menu is short, the steaks succulent and the service brisk.

Baroque star: the Metropolitan Cathedral (AFP/Getty)

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The 18th-century Baroque bulk of the Metropolitan Cathedral (23) reflects the wealth and heritage of Chile. The gloomy interior is enlivened by features such as a glittering side chapel of near-solid silver and an altar whose scale mimics the Andes.

A walk in the park

The Parque Forestal is a long, thin park that parallels the river. It is strewn with elaborate monuments and, on a sunny afternoon, full of canoodling couples and vendedores ambulantes selling soft drinks and snacks.

Out to brunch

Both these options are close to the park. Bar The Clinic (24) at Monjitas 578 (00 562 2 664 4407; bartheclinic.cl; from 12.30pm) is owned by Chile's version of the satirical magazine Private Eye. The selection of 15 pintxos (tapas dishes) for $15,900 (£18) is ideal for two, and a glass of house wine just $1,500 (£1.60).

Como Agua para Chocolate (25) ("Like Water for Chocolate") is a 1980s Mexican novel and the name of a characterful restaurant at Constitución 88 (00 56 2 777 8740; comoaguapara chocolate.cl). It is excellent for seafood – particularly ceviche (fish cured in lime).

Cultural afternoon

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (26) (00 56 2 2499 1600; mnba.cl; 10am-6.50pm daily except Monday; $600/£0.65) has the best collection of 19th- and 20th-century artworks by Chileans. Equally impressive, though, is the structure itself.

Icing on the cake

Latin America's railways have fallen into disrepair, but Santiago has preserved its most spectacular termini. Estación Mapocho (27), which connected the capital to the north and to Peru, has been revived as an art space. On the other side of the city, Estación Central (28) is also impressive – and offers regular train services south to the city of Chillán.

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