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Flying into Santiago for the first time is a breathtaking experience, literally: most passengers hold their breath as the plane descends slowly across the spectacular snow-covered Andes. More surprises await on the ground. While Chile’s capital may not have Buenos Aires’ faded grandeur or Rio’s beaches, Santiago’s buzzing neighbourhoods, lively markets and inviting restaurants offer plenty of reasons to linger.

EAT

There is nowhere quite like Boragó, the sleek restaurant showcasing Chile’s incredible indigenous ingredients. During a decade spent experimenting with little-known ingredients, chef Rodolfo Guzman has discovered delicious ways to use 32 types of mushroom and Patagonian pine nuts the size of Brazil nuts. Along with other natural foods, they are showcased in Guzman’s creative degustation menus.

America has diners; Chile has fuentes de soda, or soda fountains. These simple places usually offer simple food, but Fuente Las Cabras is a little different. Top chef Juan Pablo Mellado Arana serves up a sophisticated take on comfort food, with dishes such as apio palta, or celery and avocado salad, and charchas de chancho, slow-cooked pork cheeks that fall apart on your fork.

Fresh flavours and eye-catching plating are the hallmarks of chef Carolina Bazán, who is rapidly building an international reputation. Channelling the lessons she learnt at restaurants including Paris’s acclaimed Frenchie, she helms the charming Ambrosia, a market-driven bistro housed in a residential setting.

DRINK

Keen to try some of Chile’s acclaimed wines? Then head for Bocanáriz, an always-buzzing wine bar in the chic Lastarria neighbourhood. Its impressive cellar stocks about 300 varieties, many of which are available by the glass. The English-speaking staff will point you in the direction of something that suits your palate, and a menu of small plates lets you sup while you sip.

The Pisco sour, arguably South America’s most famous cocktail, is the drink of choice at Chipe Libre. Whether you are savouring your first taste, or are an old hand ready to sample your favourite Pisco varieties, this Lastarria bar is the place to go. Team your drink with a plate of ceviche – fish cured in citrus juice – for a double dose of traditional tastes.

According to some, Azotea Matilde serves the best cocktails in town. What everyone agrees on, however, is that no other Santiago bar can beat it for views. This rooftop venue in Bellavista is both pricey and popular, so booking a table is recommended. If you want a memorable night out, this is a good choice.

EXPLORE

Santiago’s most eye-opening museum, the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, showcases the diverse cultures of South and Central America. In Chile alone, that includes indigenous people such as the Mapuche, known for their horsemanship and intricate metal jewellery, and the Chinchorro, who were mummifying their dead 7,000 years ago (and yes, there are some mummies on display).

Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda is one of the giants of Latin American literature, but you needn’t have read any of his poems to enjoy a visit to his Santiago house, La Chascona. Built as a hideaway where he could spend time with his mistress, this endearing dwelling has a dining room modelled on a ship’s cabin and contains a quirky collection of artwork and furniture.

The curators at the Museo de la Moda fashion museum have it easy. When assembling their exhibitions, they can draw on an astonishing collection of 10,000 items, originally worn by everyone from Madonna to John Lennon and Princess Di. Keep an eye out for a different sort of style statement: the pink Ford Thunderbird permanently parked in the courtyard.

MARKETS

Savvy souvenir hunters will want to head for Los Dominicos Handicraft Village, a kitsch-free zone that offers some of the city’s best browsing. Housed in a former monastery, it is packed with artisanal studios where you can buy direct from the makers. Look for colourful ceramics, textiles and lapis lazuli jewellery.

Seafood fans will enjoy a wander through the inviting Mercado Central, with its wrought-iron detailing and stalls piled high with razor clams, octopus and sea urchins. At lunchtime, fill up on fresh ceviche and aromatic fish stew.

For one-stop shopping, the centrally located Feria Artesanal Santa Lucia is hard to beat. There are more than 100 stalls, featuring everything from leather bags to alpaca scarves, as well as goods from as far afield as Peru and Mexico. It is a great place to explore with children, but come early to avoid the crowds.

SLEEP

High ceilings, tiled floors, sweeping staircases: if that sounds like your type of hideaway, welcome to the Lastarria Boutique Hotel. Breakfast and complimentary afternoon tea are served in the charming Deli Lounger overlooking the leafy courtyard. Step out the front door and some of the city’s best bars and restaurants are only a short walk away.

Whatever the weather, Luciano K Hotel offers its guests inviting spaces to chill out. When the weather’s fine, head to the sprawling rooftop terrace. If it’s a bit cooler, order a drink in the backlit bar and admire the chic renovation of this 1920s townhouse. The building has a glamorous back story: when built, it was the tallest structure in town.

OUT OF TOWN

What makes Valparaiso Chile’s most seductive city? Start with colourful houses tumbling down steep hillsides, cobbled streets and colourful murals. Add some quirky arts and crafts shops, restaurants with spectacular sea views and funiculars to save those aching legs, and you may begin to understand why so many people fall for Valparaiso.

Just 75 kilometres from Santiago, the Casablanca Valley wine region makes for an excellent day out. The area’s boutique wineries specialise in chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, with many of them taking an organic approach. Highlights include Bodegas RE (ask to see the unusual egg-shaped wine tanks) and Matetic Vineyards, which has an excellent restaurant.

On the weekends, active locals head for the beautiful landscapes of the Cajón del Maipo canyon. Hiking, rafting and climbing are all on offer, along with skiing in winter. If you work up an appetite, the area has plenty of restaurants and teahouses where you can fuel up.