Santiago has long been saddled with a grim, smoggy, spiritless image, and until recently the less-than-alluring metropolis at the base of the Andes served mostly as a portal to Chile's more captivating charms, including the Atacama Desert and the ice fields of Patagonia. But take it from one who lives here—Santiago is no longer South America's ugly duckling. For starters, those nasty traffic snarls and noxious fumes have been thwarted by a 10-year, $800 million transportation and environmental overhaul now in its final months. Today, the surprisingly clean and easy-to-access metro covers twice as many miles as it did in 2001, and landscaping has begun on 346 acres of newly created greenbelts and parks. Crumbling architectural treasures, such as the 19th-century downtown restaurant Confitería Torres, are being refurbished, further evidence of Santiago's strong investment in civic improvement. Even older neighborhoods are developing distinct personalities: the historic central barrios of Brasil, Concha y Toro, and Bellavista are lined with mid-19th- and early-20th-century mansions and hip coffeehouses; Providencia has its trendy restaurants and funky boutiques; and the green, easternmost zones Vitacura and Las Condes, often referred to as Gringolandia, are full of swank hotels and style-conscious residents. Of course, Santiago's greatest selling point remains its ideal location—ski slopes are 31 miles to the east, the Pacific is 62 miles to the west, and wineries are found in just about every direction.
WHERE TO STAY Opened just two years ago in the restaurant-packed El Golf district, the Ritz-Carlton Santiago (15 El Alcalde; 800/241-3333 or 56-2/470-8500; www.ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $185) is the brand's first—and only—property in South America. The 15-story brick edifice, capped with a domed glass atrium, has 205 rooms, all outfitted in luminous brocades and silk florals. A 7,440-square-foot spa occupies the top floor, and just off the mahogany-paneled lobby is Wine 365, which serves more than 600 of Chile's best vintages to accompany a wide selection of tapas. • When the Concepción Bridge that spans Río Mapocho was completed in 2004, the luxe 139-room San Cristóbal Tower (0100 Josefina Edwards de Ferrari; 800/325-3589 or 56-2/707-1000; www.starwood.com; doubles from $305) became even more accessible to the pedestrian-friendly Providencia. Locally made bombones are left on pillows, chilled champagne is offered at check-in, and a squad of butlers attends to every need. • Boulevard Suites (5749 Avda. Kennedy; 800/228-9290 or 56-2/421-5000; www.boulevardsuites.cl; doubles from $150) takes up 14 floors of the Marriott tower in the city's eastern barrio, Las Condes. The 50 oversized, minimalist apartments have dark wood floors, chrome-and-glass living rooms, fully equipped granite kitchens, and wraparound mountain views. • The Hyatt Regency Santiago (4601 Avda. Kennedy; 800/228-9000 or 56-2/950-1234; www.santiago.regency.hyatt.com; doubles from $125) is shedding its nineties gestalt for 21st-century chic with a $6 million makeover, scheduled to be completed in August. Local designer Paula Gutiérrez has been entrusted with updating everything from the pool (mosaic inlays) to the 310 rooms (suede curtains, Philippe Starck floor lamps). As of press time, only the Grand Rooms had been refurbished.
WHERE TO EAT Social climbers and starlets dine on decadent French-Asian-Chilean fusion—seared Easter Island tuna with rice noodles and bittersweet black-sesame sauce—at Zully (34 Concha y Toro; 56-2/696-3990; dinner for two $68), set in a four-story mansion that was once home to Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro. Opening next month: a third-floor lounge with live jazz and blues, a billiard room, and a sushi bar. • Basque chef Xabier Zabala of Providencia's Infante 51 (51 Avda. José Miguel Infante; 56-2/264-3357; dinner for two $58) prepares perfectly grilled calamari, squid-ink black risotto, and seafood-stuffed eggplant. • Farther uptown, in Vitacura, Santabrasa (4260 Avda. Alonso de Córdova; 56-2/206-4110; dinner for two $55) is redefining the classic Argentine parrilla. Expect tender beef from the pampas paired with a bottle of Chilean Montes red, followed by an after-dinner Cuban cigar. • The nearby Blackburn Café (4330 Avda. Alonso de Córdova; 56-2/208-9113; lunch for two $25) is the new darling of the ladies-who-lunch crowd. Brainchild of Veronica Blackburn, also owner of a food shop that hosts occasional cooking classes, this chic little bistro is all about pretty food (layered salads, poached salmon, herb ice cream). • Orrego Luco, a leafy restaurant row in Providencia, recently welcomed 034 (034 Orrego Luco; 56-2/335-0692; lunch for two $18), a tiny café with a funky diner appeal—curved wicker booths and Yankee-inspired classics (carrot cake, waffles, green-tea lemonade). • Not to be overlooked is the resurrected Confitería Torres (1570 Alameda; 56-2/688-0751; dinner for two $38), a 126-year-old downtown landmark that reopened 11 months ago after being shuttered for two years. Claudio Soto has restored the red-leather booths, French doors, and oak bar and brought in tango dancers and bolero singers to entertain highbrow weekend crowds. They come to dine on his mother's abalone stew and congrio, (conger eel), bathed in a sauce made from picoroco, a type of Chilean shellfish.
WHERE TO SHOP Vitacura's Alonso de Córdova and Nueva Costanera Avenues are the zenith of Santiago shopping, combining international powerhouses like Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and Cristofle with the country's most important galleries, design stores, and independent boutiques. Fashion veteran Chantal Bernsau (3102 Avda. Alonso de Córdova; 56-2/494-8955; www.chantalbernsau.cl) fills a second-floor gallery with her jewel-toned silk dresses, blouses, and pants and her New Age "chakra-activating" jewelry made of quartz, fossils, and semiprecious gems. • Wool (4010 Avda. Nueva Costanera, local No. 1; 56-2/208-8767; www.alfombraswool.com) is known for its fabulous made-to-order rugs. Choose a tight, loose, or shaggy weave from natural or dyed sheep or llama wool. Each carpet takes two to four weeks to produce (some are handwoven in Peru) but can be shipped anywhere. • Miko (3894 Avda. Alonso de Córdova; 56-2/208-3513) offers spunky baby and toddler clothes: hand-knit sweaters, tassel-adorned jeans, embroidered onesies. • The best beachwear can be found at Enfit (4115 Avda. Alonso de Córdova, local No. 3; 56-2/288-7183; www.enfit.cl), a new boutique featuring those tiny Brazilian bikinis and their accessories, from pareus to sandals. • Galería Animal (3105 Avda. Alonso de Córdova; 56-2/371-9090; www.galeriaanimal.com), devoted to rising local talent, and Trece (3980 Avda. Nueva Costanera; 56-2/378-1981; www.galeria13.cl), the recently opened remake of what was the city's most important contemporary art gallery in the 1970's, are the sources for original artwork. • Pura (170 Calle La Pastora; 56-2/333-3144) stocks the finest handicrafts—downy alpaca wraps, woven baskets, and lapis lazuli-inlaid wooden platters—from around the country. • On the second floor of an old Providencia mansion, GAM (170 Calle Román Díaz; 56-2/474-5109), which stands for grupo anti-mall, is a fashion cooperative for emerging designers like Pippe Palacios, Karina Pizzaro, and Vicente Papia. Here, one-of-a-kind men's and women's clothing shares space with a retro hair salon.