On a clear day, fresh after winter showers, Santiago basks in one of the most spectacular settings of any city in the world. A glance through the downtown blocks reveals a mighty circle of mountains - the snowcapped Andean peaks to the east, and a smaller coastal range to the west - that frames the Chilean capital.
A clear day, however, is rare in this smog-blighted metropolis. In art class, Santiago school-kids draw their horizons a murky gray and, although the air has cleared somewhat in recent years, pollution and noise are likely to cloud your first impressions, especially in winter.
Don't be put off. Santiago might be dirty and loud, and it might not match the grandeur of Buenos Aires - but it is cultured, quirky and ambitious. The city rewards the patient traveler. Beyond the conservative conformity of Santiago Centro, and the soulless towers of the Las Condes financial district, there are thriving culinary and artistic enclaves that are a joy to uncover. Gourmets feast on world-class cuisine in Bellavista and Providencia, bohemians gather in the charming old district of Barrio Brasil, while the city is dotted with fine museums and a flourishing arts scene. With a booming café culture and leafy, exotic suburban parks, Santiago has an infectious energy and a growing confidence.
And those mountains don't just sit there as decoration - there's a huge range of activities within easy reach of the urban sprawl. Trekking, climbing, horseback riding, skiing, kayaking and wine tours are just a few of the exhilarating possibilities at Santiago's doorstep.
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