Plazas, parks, and fountains share space with street performers, urban photographers, and historical buildings in downtown Santiago. Underneath it all, an ultramodern metro system whisks residents to and from work and play. It is this mix of old and new, neo-Baroque architecture and glass towers, haute cuisine and streetside sopaipillas (fried dough) that makes Santiago what it is today. All over, the city’s fairly bursting at the seams with restaurants, cafés, and hotels.
Santiago has come a long way from the triangular patch of land hemmed in by the Río Mapocho (which has since been rerouted, and has only one branch), when the city was founded by Pedro de Valdivia in 1541. Today the area of the original municipality is known as Santiago Centro, and is just one of 32 comunas (districts)—each with its own distinct personality—that make up the city.
You'd never confuse Patronato (in Recoleta), a neighborhood north of downtown (and the river), filled with Moorish-style mansions built by families who made their fortunes in textiles, and currently a place to buy inexpensive clothing and eat Middle Eastern or Korean food, with Las Condes, where modern skyscrapers built by international corporations crowd the avenues along with brand-name shops. The chic shopping centers of Providencia and Las Condes have little in common with the beer garden–style sidewalk restaurants that line Pio Nono, the main street in Bellavista, nor the crafts fair to the left side of the Pio Nono Bridge.
In the city, the comuna names rule conversation, and can make or break friendships. The most moneyed semi-central districts like Las Condes, Vitacura, and to a lesser extent, Providencia and Ñuñoa are considered part of the barrio alto (literally "high neighborhood, referring to both topography and social strata). It’s considered more bohemian to live and spend time in Santiago Centro, particularly the neighborhoods of Lastarria, Bellas Artes, near Parque Forestal, or even down in Barrio Brasil, where some of the city’s oldest architecture is found.
That is not to say that well-heeled Santiaguinos do not spend time downtown. Santiago Centro is central to many businesses, and all the bank branches and government architecture is here, including the stock market (though trading is mostly done online now). It’s also home to several arts and performance spaces including the Universidad de Chile Theater, Municipal Theater, and the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center.
Parks are a major meeting point for friends and families in the city, including Parque Quinta Normal (at the metro of the same name), Parque O’Higgins, where the military parade is held every year for Fiestas Patrias, Parque Forestal, and Parque Metropolitano, commonly referred to as Cerro San Cristobal, the larger of the two hills that overlooks the city. Farther uptown in Vitacura, the new Parque Bicentenario, with its duck and waterfowl feeding ponds and dog park, attracts families with children. In nearly all of the city parks you can find people playing fútbol, riding bikes, or just enjoying the green space as a retreat from what can be a busy city.
And it is busy. Santiago today is home to more than 6 million people—nearly a third of the country's total population. The city continues to spread outward to the barrios altos east of the center, and all over the city there are cranes building both office and apartment buildings. The tallest building in South America (another good orientation landmark) is the nearly 1,000 foot-tall Costanera Center, steps from the Los Leones metro station and home to a flashy, upscale mall, which some consider a shrine to Chilean consumerism.
Yet, residents are just as likely to run into each other at the supermarket, Vega, weekend fruit and vegetable markets called ferias, or in the neighborhood plaza. When they do, they stop to greet each other and talk for at least a minute or two, because even though at times it’s a hectic city, in many ways Santiago is just a giant small town at heart.