The wedge-shaped Centro is the oldest part of Santiago, and the busiest. It is hemmed in by three fiendishly hard-to-cross borders: the Río Mapocho, the Autopista Central expressway (which has only occasional bridges over it) and the Alameda, where the central railing puts your vaulting skills to the test. Architecturally, the Centro is exuberant rather than elegant: haphazardly maintained 19th-century buildings sit alongside the odd glittering high-rise, and its crowded paseos (pedestrian precincts) are lined with inexpensive clothing stores, fast-food joints and cafes staffed with scantily clad waitresses. Government offices, the presidential palace and the banking district are also here, making it the center of civic life. You'll find some interesting museums, but it pays to head to other neighborhoods for your lunch and dinner.
Barrio Lastarria & Barrio Bellas Artes
Home to three of the city's best museums, these postcard-pretty neighborhoods near Cerro Santa Lucía are also Santiago's twin hubs of hip. East of the Cerro, Barrio Lastarria takes its name from its narrow cobbled main drag Lastarria, which is lined with arty bars and restaurants. You'll find cheaper cafes and tree-lined parkland over at Barrio Bellas Artes, as the few blocks north of Cerro Santa Lucía are now known. José Miguel de la Barra is the main axis.
Tourists associate Bellavista with Pablo Neruda's house and the Virgin Mary statue looming over the city from the soaring hilltop park on Cerro San Cristóbal. For locals, Bellavista equals carrete (nightlife). Partying to the wee hours makes Bellavista's colorful streets and cobbled squares deliciously sleepy by day. The leafy residential streets east of Constitución are perfect for aimless wandering, while the graffitied blocks west of it are a photographer's paradise.
Barrio Brasil & Barrio Yungay
Toss aside the map, but don't forget your camera – wandering through these slightly sleepy barrios west of the city center is like stepping back in time. Characterized by vibrant street art, socialist students, crumbling old-fashioned houses, down-to-earth outdoor markets and a range of hole-in-the-wall eateries, these barrios históricos (historic neighborhoods) offer a charming counterpoint to the high-rise glitz of Santiago's business sector. True, the area is short on tourist sights and has a dodgy reputation after dark – but a stroll through the neighborhood offers a glimpse of faded grandeur you're unlikely to find elsewhere in the Chilean capital.
A spindly monkey-puzzle tree shades Plaza Brasil, the green heart of the hood. A wave of urban renovation is slowly sweeping the surrounding streets, where more and more bars and hip hostels are popping up. Incongruous among the car-parts shops between here and the Alameda is pint-sized Barrio Concha y Toro, featuring a gorgeous little square fed by cobblestone streets and overlooked by art deco and beaux arts mansions.
Barrio Italia has rapidly transformed over the last decade into Santiago's most electric neighborhood with funky cafes, provocative art galleries and hip new hotels lining the parallel avenidas Italia and Condell. A hub of the city's nascent coffee culture, it's a great place for lunching and brunching (and one of the only neighborhoods hopping on a Sunday morning).
Shopping is one of the main draws here; independent booksellers, antique restorers and local fashion designers all hawk their made-in-Chile goods at miniature shopping arcades that are plotted out like mazes in the rooms of historic homes. Exceedingly trendy, it retains much of its blue-collar character.
Head east from the Centro, and Santiago's neighborhoods slowly get swisher. First up: Providencia, a traditionally upper-middle-class area that's short on sights but very long indeed on drinking and dining possibilities. The 1970s and '80s tower blocks along the area's main artery, Av Providencia, aren't aesthetically interesting, though some house fascinating caracoles (old-fashioned shopping malls). The more residential side streets contain lovely early 20th-century buildings and manicured bike lanes.
Las Condes, Barrio El Golf & Vitacura
Glittering skyscrapers, security-heavy apartment blocks and spanking-new malls: Las Condes is determined to be the international face of Chile's strong and steady economic growth. Its westernmost corner, known as Barrio El Golf, is home to posh eateries, gorgeous mansions and luxe hotels. The even ritzier neighborhood of Vitacura, to its north, contains Santiago's most exclusive shopping street, Av Alonso de Córdova, as well as high-end bars and restaurants. The tongue-in-cheek nickname 'Sanhattan' is sometimes used to describe the financial district around the Costanera Center, the tallest building in South America. As you'd expect, these upper-class neighborhoods see a steady stream of business travelers. While they lack some of the soul found elsewhere in the city, they deliver on fashion, shopping and good eats.
Worth a Trip: Barrio Recoleta
Bustling Korean eateries and Middle Eastern takeout counters, a happening marketplace overflowing with ripe fruit, a colorful jumble of street vendors, an achingly hip cocktail lounge – this burgeoning barrio just west of Bellavista is a slight detour off the beaten path. Here are a few spots you shouldn't miss.
Art Gallery Hop
Ground zero for the exhibition of contemporary Chilean art – and a choice spot to observe a fashionable crowd of Santiaguinos in their natural habitat – is the gallery circuit around Av Alonso de Córdova in Vitacura. Drop by one of these art spaces for an opening to see the champagne-fueled scene at its most happening. Check the galleries' websites for upcoming events and times.