The world has (mostly) opened back up and we are free to travel, which has us dreaming of far flung destinations. May we suggest a trip way south of the border? You probably think of Patagonia’s rugged landscapes or the lunar peaks of the Atacama when you think of Chile (and we’ll cover that too). But the two large cities in the center, Santiago and Valparaiso Chile, have a lot of charm and a style all their own.
They blend European sophistication and architecture with tons of color and an irreverent spirit that makes them destinations in their own right. Plus, since both cities are a little off the beaten path, you’ll be able to avoid most tourists, since many people just use these cities as a landing spot or crash pad between outdoors adventures in the north and south of the world’s longest country.
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The capital city of Chile is full of history (you probably remember learning about Pinochet in school) and culture, with the country’s largest art museum (the National Museum of Fine Arts) and the national history museum, along with Pablo Neruda’s Chascona house-turned-museum and the museum of Pre-Columbian Arts.
There are also some excellent restaurants and the tallest skyscraper in South America – a great place to check out the views of the city and the Andes mountains beyond. The city is full of parks and green spaces, so just exploring, checking out the various street markets, and experiencing local life is a great way to spend an afternoon or evening as well.
This grande dame of a city used to be one of the jewels of the Pacific rim, but fell out of favor as a port city after the Panama Canal offered an easier way for ships to make it from the Atlantic to the Pacific. However, the beauty is still there if a bit faded, and Valparaiso is undergoing a bit of a renaissance (and some gentrification as the young hipsters move in).
Check out all the street art (highly suggest a graffiti tour so you can learn about the culture) – it’s not just gang-related tagging, but a true art form with different movements and trends. Each artist has their own tags and motifs and the best ones get commissioned to do murals around the world, and work for labels like Gucci, Fendi, Louboutin and Adidas. You can also see one of Pablo Neruda’s houses and walk along the coastline and watch the ships come in.
If you have some time, head to the next town over, Viña del Mar, and see the Vergara park and palace that overlook the city along with the Museum of archaeology, which has Moai (statues) from Easter Island and more.
Note that Valparaiso is essentially built on the side of cliffs overlooking the ocean, so it is super hilly and there are lots of stairs – prepare to climb or hire a driver. Hiring a tour guide plus driver for the day can be very affordable (under $100) and Ubers are inexpensive as well.
What To Buy
You can find a lot of international brands in Costanera Center, the mall in the aforementioned skyscraper. But it may be more interesting to explore the local shops and street fairs, and pick up paintings, photo prints and jewelry.
Copper and silver pieces are common, as is lapis lazuli (the national stone), malachite, amethyst, various quartzes, moonstone, and tiger’s eye. In Valparaiso, you can buy prints from local graffiti artists as well – bring some local color home with you! You’ll also be able to find alpaca scarves, sweaters, blankets, and more, plus great leather goods since you are in gaucho/cowboy territory.
What To Pack
You should save the outdoorsy gear for regions to the north and south and dress up a bit in the cities. Think jeans or casual pants, dresses and blouses (not t-shirts) and you’ll probably want good walking shoes since you’ll definitely want to explore both Santiago and Valparaiso’s winding alleyways, narrow streets and expansive parks on foot.
When To Go
Since you’re likely coming from the northern hemisphere, keep in mind that the seasons are reversed so summer is winter and vice versa. Santiago is a little warmer, but in general both cities have similar weather to the Bay Area.
What To Eat
All of the seafood and definitely sample the various unique (to most North Americans) flavors of ice cream. Grilled steak, lamb, and fish will satisfy the carnivores, and everyone can find a type of empanada they enjoy. Vegans and vegetarians will eat well too. There is a growing segment of the population that doesn’t eat meat and various kinds of plant-based options are everywhere.
Where To Stay in Santiago and Valparaiso Chile
Both cities abound with interesting old mansions or casonas that have been turned into elegant hotels. We definitely suggest you take advantage of that and stay somewhere historic and maybe a little bit quirky.
We suggest the Singular Santiago (the rooftop restaurant and pool are amazing and you can see the whole city!) and the Casa Higueras in Valparaiso, which also has great views and rooms with private balconies situated in a former millionaire’s home. If you’re lucky, there will be live music on the patio!
What To Know
Chile does require proof of Covid vaccination and you have to get your vaccines approved online and get a Pase de Movildad before arrival, where you’ll have to take another Covid test (or this was the case at the time of this writing).
Most people will speak a little English (especially at tourist sites), but knowing some Spanish definitely helps. Inflation has unfortunately hit Chile hard so if you are spending dollars or Euros, your money will go pretty far and ATMs will give you decent rates.
Also note that Chile has experienced some civil unrest lately, but mostly in the form of peaceful demonstrations and protests. As always travel with caution and keep your wits about you, especially in major cities like Santiago and Valparaiso.
Where To Next?
North to the Atacama desert or south to the Lake District and Patagonia!
Are you planning a trip soon? Where are you going and where do you want to explore? What is your dream destination? Let us know in the comments or in our Growing Younger Facebook group and remember that learning new things and exploring can keep your mind and body feeling youthful!
Photos: Jacqueline Zenn for Fountain Of 30
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