Today, Santiago is a city that occupies the fertile central valley of Chile between the Andes and the coast, with the Mapocho River crossing the city from east to west. The most remarkable thing about Santiago, with its five million inhabitants, is perhaps its diversity. It is a city with many faces, great and varied changes, and a social and political landscape that sometimes takes us back to the colonial city it once was.
Almost 500 years after Pedro de Valdivia traced around the Plaza de Armas the 35 blocks that would compose the city in 1541, Santiago is now an extensive urban environment with skyscrapers and modern telecommunications networks. However, you need to explore it in order to discover its multiple facets that were shaped by history.
República & Dieciocho
Continuing eastward past the station and park along the Alameda are the neighborhoods of República and Dieciocho, which were once populated with the most privileged inhabitants of the country. At the end of the 19th Century and at the beginning of the 20th Century, they were heavily influenced by European culture, France in particular and enriched during the mining boom. The creole aristocracy created their mansions here and many enormous palaces still remain, although most of them now house various institutions and foundations. This area of past splendor spans the avenues of Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins, España, Norte-Sur and Blanco Encalada; this last avenue is where you will find Club Hípico , or the Riding Club, which was, in its heyday, the hottest spot where all of the best and well-connected would meet and socialize.
Around this same section of the Alameda, to the north side, you will find the Brasil neighborhood, with a history and origin almost as rich as the República area. At the turn of the 20th Century, however, the wealthy residents of this neighborhood began to seek more peaceful regions towards the mountains; although the buildings and homes in this once-luxurious neighborhood went through a period of slow deterioration, the area was recently revitalized during the 1990s by artists and craftsmen who used the old homes as lofts and studios. Today, the area has a certain bohemian/yuppie flair, and has become a neighborhood of funky shops and restaurants.
Slightly further east along the Alameda, you come to the city's civic center, where you will find the main ministerial buildings and the Presidential Palace, known as La Moneda . During the weekdays, the city center is a very busy place, with many shoppers, workers and university students going from one place to another. The University of Chile and the elegant Club la Unión are found right on Avenida Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins.
As you continue to travel farther along this main artery, the increasingly fevered pitch of the traffic and activity on the streets, as well as the taller buildings and larger crowds, all signal that you have entered the city's financial and business district. In an area comprising less than twenty blocks, you can see the Former National Congress , the Pre-Colombian Art Museum and the Courts of Justice. All of the buildings in this densely-packed region of the city center reflect differing styles of architecture and design, from old classical looks to austere, modern aesthetics. This is due in large part to a renewed zeal in building during the 1950s and 1960s, in which the designers and builders did not even try to stay in keeping with the former feel and tone of the buildings which preceded them.
One neighborhood that escaped this modern building surge is the Barrio París-Londres, which was completed in 1929 in what had once been the gardens and grounds of the Convent of San Francisco. Designed as a grouping of small mansions set along deliberately narrow and winding streets, this corner of the city was to be, from the beginning, an evocation of Europe in the middle of this developing urban metropolis.
To know more about the daily life of the city, it is worth going down Paseo Ahumada , built as a pedestrian-only passage off the Alameda. Four blocks from the Alameda, the street ends at the Plaza de Armas . Remodeled in 1999, this historic plaza is framed by the Metropolitan Cathedral , the Central Post Office , the Museum of National History and the Municipalidad de Santiago , or Town Hall.
The walkway along Ahumada becomes Calle Puente once you pass the Plaza de Armas , and this road leads to the Mercado Central and the Estación Mapocho . The current station building was erected at the turn of the 20th Century, and was originally the hub for supply trains from the coast, which brought agricultural products and seafood to the capital. The market was built around the same time, in order to create a venue to sell the products brought regularly into town. Today, the trains no longer run and the Estación Mapocho serves as a cultural center where a variety of events is held throughout the year. The market, however, continues to be a must-see for those who like to sample shellfish and seafood.
Bellas Artes & La Chimba
From this point, and extending to the east, is the wooded Forest Park , created during the building boom at the beginning of the 20th Century. It is here that you will find the National Museum of Fine Arts in the posh neighborhood of Bellas Artes. Towards the west extends the Parque de los Reyes, opened in 1992. Continuing toward the north along Calle Puente, and after traversing the metal bridge that spans the large Mapocho river, you will arrive at the most traditional and popular neighborhood in Santiago. Known since the early 20th Century as "La Chimba," this community welcomed the immigration of Chilean locals as well as foreigners throughout the 19th Century who sought a better life. Because the city authorities originally saw the river as a natural border of the city, the inhabitants of this community over the river were left to their own devices until city officials sought more space for their spreading metropolis. So at the beginning of the 20th Century, a streetcar station was built in the area. Half a century later, the streetcars stopped running, and the buildings were taken over by businesses that had grown strong in the community. Today the neighborhood continues to be a populous, colorful and boisterous place, and is one more facet of this city that definitely deserves a visit.
Returning to the Alameda route towards the east, past the side street of Ahumada, you will come to a large French, Neo-Classical building which houses the National Library , inaugurated in 1924. The library is followed by the hill of Santa Lucía , which was used during colonial times as a quarry, and later transformed into an elegant park around 1875. The park is located opposite the Casa Central Universidad Católica de Chile. The Lastarria neighborhood is a traditional center of artists and is home to many theaters, art galleries and restaurants.
As you near the end of the Alameda, you will come upon the Plaza Italia, the original easten boundary of the city. This plaza is a crossroads that gives visitors the choice of going north towards the outer boundaries of the Forest Park , and passing through the bohemian neighborhood of Bellavista, which is packed with restaurants, bars, dance clubs and art galleries. This route ends at the hill of San Cristóbal, where you will find the Zoo , an art gallery and the swimming pools of Antilen and Tupahue . Another possibility at the crossroads is to follow the continuation of the avenue, which becomes Avenida Providencia, once a residential district which now features boutiques, bars, restaurants, hotels and modern businesses.
Providencia & Las Condes
On the corner of Providencia and Suecia, there are many bars and restaurants; it is an ideal place to get a table on one of the wide street terraces and order up a cold beer. The avenue of Providencia changes names once again as you pass the San Carlos canal. From this point onward it is the Avenida Apoquindo. Parallel to this street and running in the same direction is the Avenida Kennedy, a road which passes right by the Club de Golf Los Leones and, after crossing Avenida Americo Vespucio, leads you into the heart of Las Condes. Las Condes is a neighborhood comprised of modern and spacious homes, as well as the two largest shopping centers in the country, Parque Arauco and Alto Las Condes , both south of Kennedy. From this neighborhood, the mountain range of the Andes and its ski resorts are almost close enough to touch; just continue towards the east for several more kilometers, and you'll be there!
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