Are there any cities with a more dramatic setting than Santiago?
Fringed by craggy, 20,000-foot peaks cloaked in snow, Chile's capital and largest city affords views of the magnificent Andes Mountains from just about anywhere in town -- and offers a good deal more, such as good food and drink, Spanish colonial heritage buildings, a sparkling central business district, a stylishly bohemian drinking and dining district and bracingly good modern architecture.
Santiago is typically a short stopover for travelers from North America, and that's understandable, if outdated. Chile is blessed with spectacular natural attractions such as the mountains and fjords of Patagonia in the far south and the world's driest salt desert in the far north. In their haste to explore wild nature, visitors pop in and out of Santiago's international airport and skip over the city.
More's the pity. Fueled by a turbo-charged market economy, Santiago and Chile have shaken off the cultural torpor and violent political repression of the Pinochet dictatorship, which ended in 1990. With nearly 6 million of Chile's 15 million people, Santiago is the showcase for Chile's extreme makeover.
The Andes, maybe 20 miles distant, are dazzling -- when smog, another less desirable consequence of Chile's recent reinvention, doesn't hide them. The smog is worst in winter. But by visiting in late September, on the cusp of the Southern spring, my wife and I were able to get clear mountain views.
We enjoyed an Andean panorama from expansive, gently curved, floor-to-ceiling windows in our room at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, itself reinvented and rebranded from its earlier incarnation as a Hyatt Regency. The Grand Hyatt rises above an upscale shopping and café-hopping neighborhood, easily accessed from the airport by an expressway bordered in springtime by a blooming profusion of cheery, orange-red California poppies.
Sporting the Hyatt Regency's trademark interior atrium, the 310-room hotel has lush gardens and ponds, a smart-casual patio restaurant that serves savory meat and cheese empanadas, and the intimate, Thai-style Anakena restaurant, where we were introduced to the national cocktail, the pisco sour. Made from brandy, bitters and lemon or lime juice, the drink is delicious and refreshing, with a well-disguised wallop of alcohol.
While dining in the prosperous Las Condes district, my wife, Georgina, suddenly found her handbag tied to her chair. To deter snatch-and-run thieves, a solicitous restaurant staffer explained. "This is South America,'' he said.There has been an upsurge in petty crime, according to media reports. We were cautioned to take care of our camera by a watchful local woman as we wandered, charmed, near the Metropolitan Cathedral at Plaza de Armas, in Santiago's historic center. For the record, we saw no untoward incidents and didn't feel unsafe, even after dark.
Mid-September is a festive time in Chile, thanks to Independence Day, which falls on Sept. 18, and Armed Forces Day, on Sept. 19. Banks, schools and many offices are closed, and Santiago's traffic, which can be ferocious, lightens up as thousands of city-dwellers abandon the metropolis to enjoy their free time. For visitors and the residents who remain, there are parades along major boulevards like
Avenida 11 de Septiembre
, parties, traditional music and dance and displays by skilled horsemen to mark the beginning of Chile's popular rodeo season.
One of the prime parade routes passed the four-year-old Ritz Carlton, a plush hotel in the city's prosperous El Golf district. Spacious guest rooms, good in-room technology, a snug, classy hotel bar and the superb Wine 365 restaurant and wine bar distinguish the hotel -- the first Ritz-Carlton in South America.
At 365 we enjoyed toothsome grilled fish and beef, but the real stars are on the list of 365 Chilean wines -- one for every day of the year. We especially liked a well-structured Carmenere -- a red wine descended from old vines transplanted to Chile just before phylloxera devastated the vineyards of France in the 19th century.
The Ritz-Carlton is located in a recently developed business district festooned with interesting new buildings with unusual shapes and sleek glass and steel skin. New high-rises alternate with lower buildings to preserve view corridors and a sense of human scale. Café Melba, an eclectic, quirky place run by New Zealand expat Dell Taylor, who also owns the well-regarded Pacific Rim fusion restaurant Akarana, is located near the Ritz-Carlton; the El Golf subway station is right outside the hotel.
Santiago's Metro subway system is modern, safe, clean and cheap. Santiago is reasonably priced, though Chile's prosperity has brought higher First World prices, especially compared with neighboring Argentina. The Metro stitches together the sprawling city, and stops at the main University of Chile campus, the Moneda presidential palace, the symbolic heart of town at the Plaza de Armas and near the Mercado Central -- the touristy but fun wrought-iron central market, which was imported piece by piece from England and assembled in Chile in the 19th century.
The Moneda, which earned worldwide notoriety when Chile's armed forces bombarded the building in a 1973 military coup, is today an attractive relic. You can't enter the gorgeous main building but can meander through the colonial-style inner courtyard, filled with imaginative contemporary art pieces. The Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda museum is located underneath the Moneda's outer plaza.
The lungs of Santiago, its major green parks, follow the bends of the Mapocho River, which flows through the city, and offer views from high points such as Cerro San Cristobal, which can be reached by two-seater cable cars.
Just north of the river, the Bellavista district offers block after block of crowded bars, music clubs and restaurants. Bellavista also contains one of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda's houses; it's now an eccentric museum, enlivened with art and mementos from Neruda's world travels.
Our favorite museum was the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, located off the Plaza de Armas, the lively public square laid out by the Spaniards in 1541. Located in the eye-pleasing, circa 1807 former Royal Customs House, the small but fine museum displays a trove of pre-Colombian art, recovered from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego -- a pleasing reminder of how creative and diverse the Americas were before Europe's Age of Exploration.
David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer. He covers airlines and airports, hotels and resorts, food and wine, and writes travel destination features.