National Geographic Traveler associate editor Susan O’Keefe (on Twitter @sokeefetrav and Instagram @susanokeefe) always thought of Santiago, Chile, as a prelude to skiing in the Andes or hiking through Patagonia. But on a recent trip she was taken in by the city’s grand colonial architecture, wide boulevards, and charming neighborhoods.
Here are some of the high points of Susan’s trip, in her own words:
Memorable moment: Santiago has a growing sharing-economy scene and one of my favorite lunches was in the private cocina of Maria Eugenia Terragno, a former executive chef with LAN Chile airlines (she takes reservations via email at Terragno.firstname.lastname@example.org).
Her home—with an outdoor terrace and an enviable art collection—is located in the bohemian Bellavista neighborhood (one of three famous Pablo Neruda homes is here, too). Surrounded by black-and-white family photos, I sampled my first Chilean pisco sour and learned about wines from the Maipo (with its French-inspired wine cellars) and Casablanca valleys. I dined on Mediterranean-style dishes enhanced with razor clams and local peppers and olives. The entire experience was a great introduction to the people, food, and wine of the region.
Authentic souvenir: Bring home anything made with copper, lapis lazuli stones, or wine (marmalades, jams, and vinegars). Pick up a jar of merkén, a red-hued spice first prized by the indigenous Mapuche, to add smokiness to stews and potatoes. You can also find chocolate bars laced with merkén in gourmet shops.
Standout culinary experience: If you can splurge on one restaurant in Santiago, make it Boragó in the Vitacura neighborhood. Chef Rodolfo Guzmán and his team forage for endemic ingredients from the sea to the mountains throughout Chile. (Patagonian rainwater has even found its way into a few recipes.)
Try the tasting menu to sample an array of dazzling dishes that include local fruits, flowers, legumes, microgreens, multiple varieties of quinoa, and the strangest, most satisfying mushroom ice-cream dessert. The plating and presentation of the food—nestled in volcanic rocks, dangling from tree branches, arranged to resemble mountain peaks—is pure showmanship.
If that’s too fancy, pick up a completo, Chile’s answer to the American hot dog. Find them topped with sauerkraut, avocado, tomato, and homemade mayo at Dominó. Late-night dining has never been more delicious.
Doable day trip: Just an hour north of Santiago through the Casablanca wine valley brings you to hilly Valparaíso—aka the San Francisco of South America. Brightly painted homes hang off the residential cliffsides, colorful murals and graffiti decorate walls and sidewalks, and boutiques, empanada shops, and cafés spill from narrow passageways.
Access the city’s famous hills (cerros) by one of seven century-old funiculars (ascensors) and slowly make your way down to the bustling harbor. Start on Cerro Alegre (Happy Hill) with lunch on the patio at Montealegre of Casa Higueras, a lovely 1920s mansion turned boutique hotel with views of Valparaíso Bay. Afterward, stroll the area’s winding streets, stopping at La Dulceria to view candymakers creating beautiful fruit gelées and confections.
Don’t miss another of Pablo Neruda’s famous houses, the five-story La Sebastiana atop Florida Hill. This one has views of the Pacific Ocean, a garden, a captain’s bar (that only Neruda himself was permitted to stand behind), and furnished rooms where the poet spent time to escape the grit of Santiago.
Tip: If you’re short on time, take a guided walking tour that allows you to see the best of these neighborhoods as well as some lesser touristed hills.
Practical tip: In Santiago, stay at the Singular, a new boutique hotel in central Santiago’s historic Lastarria neighborhood for quick access to Parque Forestal, Cerro Santa Lucía, and the Beaux-arts-style National Museum of Fine Arts. Enjoy a glass of local Sauvignon Blanc and nibble on olives in the cozy lobby bar or on the swanky rooftop terrace with views of the city. The hotel is a quiet retreat (complete with spa, pool, and fitness center) in a big city and blends into the neighborhood.
Should have gone: If you’re looking to try Chilean seafood, head to the Central Market next to the Mapocho train station. Housed in an art nouveau building, the market is a bustling commerce center and home to several fresh seafood restaurants. Top it off with a mote con huesillo drink made with dried peaches and puffed wheat.