Nestled between the Andes and the coastal cordillera with views of snow-capped mountains that belie its Mediterranean climate, Chile's capital and largest city is finally shrugging off the conservative mantle it wore during and after the brutal Pinochet era that ended in 1990.
Today's Santiago is a city for art-lovers, foodies and wine buffs; there are dozens of vineyards on its doorstep, even within city limits. Its location also invites out-of-town excursions: there are five ski resorts within a two-hour drive (including South America's largest, Valle Nevado) and, in the other direction, the Pacific coast, surfing beaches and colourful World Heritage-listed Valparaiso.
It's also an ideal starting point for Latin American explorations with non-stop flights now from Melbourne (with LATAM) and Sydney (with Qantas).
Three of Santiago's must-see museums are La Chascona, the former home of Chile's Nobel Prize-winning poet-politician Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), which lies on a hill in Barrio Bellavista like a landlocked ship with its creaking floors and cabin-like rooms; the Chilean Museum of Pre-Colombian Art that showcases thousands of years of indigenous American creativity; and the architecturally impressive Museum of Memory and Human Rights for a glimpse of Chile's dark past under the Pinochet regime.
Santiago is surprisingly bike-friendly with plenty of bike lanes, parks and quiet side streets to explore. La Bicicleta Verde (labicicletaverde.com) rents bikes and runs "street art and market" and "parks and politics" tours, as well as tours of Santiago's oldest family-owned vineyard, right in the city, on its green easy-rider bikes. There's a bike-share scheme too, launched in 2013; you have to pay a monthly subscription, but the bikes are free for the first 30 minutes (see bikesantiago.cl). And every Sunday the streets along the Mapocho River, which runs east-west through the city, are closed to vehicles from 9am to 2pm.
There's no shortage of views in Santiago. Take the historic funicular to the top of San Cristobal hill in Bellavista and you'll also find a 14-metre high Virgin Mary, a zoo, botanical gardens and two outdoor swimming pools. Then there's the 300-metre-high Sky Costanera observatory at the top of Torres Costanera, the tallest building in South America, which opened in 2014 (skycostanera.cl). There are also dozens of rooftop bars; a popular one for mingling with locals over sunset pisco sours is Azotea Matilde, near La Chascona, which was named after Pablo Neruda's wife, Chilean singer Matilde Urrutia, and is accessible by a glass elevator from street level (azoteamatilde.cl).
Santiago has it all in the food department: from fresh seafood at markets such as La Vega Central, the largest market in Chile, to chic wine bars such as Bocanariz in Lastarria, where tapas-style dishes play second fiddle to Chilean reds such as syrah and merlot (see bocanariz.cl). You're spoiled for choice when it comes to cafes and sweet treats; try Bloom (bloomcafe.cl), Buffalo Waffles (buffalowaffles.cl) and Emporia La Rosa (for quirky ice-cream flavours such as rose petal and pepper chocolate, emporiolarosa.com) all in Lastarria. There are pop-up places such as Plaza de Bolsillo (Pocket Square), a vacant lot occupied by food trucks selling everything from espressos to samosas. And if you want to eat before 9pm, head to Patio Bellavista, a courtyard of restaurants with outdoor seating and artisanal souvenir stores (patiobellavista.cl).
The two hippest neighbourhoods, Lastarria and Bellavista, are peppered with boutique hotels. One of the best is the Singular, which opened in 2014. Built in a neoclassical style to blend into its heritage location, it's family-owned and has 62 stately rooms decorated with antiques, an underground spa and a speakeasy-style rooftop bar with views of San Cristobal. Rooms start at $US372 a night. See thesingular.com
Santiago is often ranked as Latin America's safest city, but pickpockets frequent tourist hotspots such as Plaza de Armas so keep an eye on your belongings when walking around. Australians don't need a visa to visit Chile, but there is a $US117 "reciprocity fee" payable on arrival at Santiago International Airport.
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of LATAM Airlines Group and Adventure World.