Santiago, one of South America's most sophisticated cities, is a thriving metropolis that's home to a third of Chile's entire population, and it is the civic, cultural, and historical nucleus of the country. In spite of this, Santiago is one of Chile's least-popular tourist destinations, and most visitors use the city only as a jumping-off point to locations such as Patagonia or the Lake District, or as a base while exploring the central region.
You won't find a rich, vibrant culture in Santiago that defines cities like Río de Janeiro or Buenos Aires, or an endless list of things to do and see, either. Yet as the city booms economically and memories of the stifling Pinochet dictatorship fade, Santiago is reinventing itself, and the arts, nightlife, and restaurant scene has never been better: Pay a visit to the city's spanking new cultural center and you'll see where Santiago is headed. Add to this the city's historical attractions and its proximity to ski resorts and wineries, and you can see why the capital city deserves at least a 1-day visit.
Santiago's salient feature is its one-of-a-kind location sprawled below some of the highest peaks of the Andes range, providing a breathtaking city backdrop when the air is clear and the peaks are dusted with snow. Visitors are unfortunately not always treated to this view, as dust and smog is a chronic problem in Santiago, especially during the winter months. From December to late February, when Santiaguinos abandon the city for summer vacation and the city is blessed with breezier days, the smog abates substantially. These are the most pleasant months to tour the city.
Architecturally, Santiago's city planners have shown indifference to continuity of design during the last century. Rather than look within for a style of its own, Chileans have been more inclined to copy blueprints from other continents: first Europe and now the U.S. Earthquakes have flattened many of Santiago's colonial-era buildings, and what remains has been left to decay to the point that tearing down an antique mansion is cheaper than restoring it to its former glory. Thus, it isn't uncommon to see a glitzy skyscraper or cracker-box apartment building towering over a 200-year-old relic, or to see cobblestone streets dead-end at a tacky 1970s shopping gallery. Some neighborhoods look as though they belong to entirely different cities. The residential areas of Providencia and Vitacura are an exception. Here you will find lovely leafy streets, manicured lawns, and attractive single-family homes divided by parks and plazas -- but even these two neighborhoods are being threatened by an unprecedented boom in condominium construction.
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