In Spanish bella vista means beautiful view –just what you'll find if you are up for an afternoon walk in this renovated neighbourhood in central Santiago. Long a haunt of the poet and painter set, over the past four years Bellavista has received a major upgrade as local clothes designers, independent coffee shops and boutiques moved in. Unlike typical gentrification, however, the transformation of Bellavista has not meant a wholesale sanitization, so don't be surprised by the stray dogs and the occasional abandoned mansion among revitalized 100-year-old storefronts.
Bellavista begins just north of the Mapocho River, across from Plaza Italia (the centre point on any tourist map), and is accessible by Metro Baquedano, taxi or on foot from downtown hotels. Constitution Street is the highlight, and is three blocks long, so begin the neighbourhood jaunt here.
The area is known as a hotbed of civic activism, including pacific but noisy protests at the University of Chile law school and petitions to slow the rampant overdevelopment that has stripped much of Santiago of its glorious architecture. When developers planned on ripping down the centre of Bellavista to make room for a highway, activists were so successful they forced the government to think outside the box, or in this case think "under the Mapocho," which is where it eventually stuffed the new highway. The developers' second assault – to install nondescript, high-rise apartment buildings – was also swatted down by local activists who persuaded the project owner to rethink his master plan. The result is Patio Bellavista – a complex that respects local architecture and has become a destination, with 80 art shops, 16 ethnic restaurants and pubs and lots of benches to people-watch.
NERUDA'S SECRET HOME
The first stop in Bellavista should be a guided tour of poet Pablo Neruda's labyrinthine home, tucked into the side of San Cristobal hill. What began as the Nobel Prize-winning poet's secret home for lovers is now a magnet for aficionados of art. Known as La Chascona, the home boasts original paintings by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and others. Neruda's ability to utilize space creates a sense of cozy comfort highlighted by whimsical details (such as escape hatches) and his personal art collection. Tours cost about $7, run Tuesday to Sunday (call ahead to reserve a spot) and are available in Spanish, English and French. La Chascona, Fernando Marquez de la Plata 0192; (562) 777-8741; www.fundacionneruda.org
If the day is clear, pay about $5 and ride the funicular (sliding elevator tram) as it crawls up San Cristobal Hill. Once off the tram, it's a steep but energizing 10-minute walk to the Virgin, and all of Santiago stretches out to the horizon – leaving no doubt that six million people live in this thriving metropolis. Stretching from the Andes to the coastal mountain ranges, Santiago is a sun-drenched valley with vast amounts of water and from this perch, one can imagine the Spanish Conquistadors making the decision to settle in the area. Take the corkscrew ride, round and round the hill back down to Bellavista by taxi, stopping for picturesque views – but beware of careening bicyclists and rollerbladers.
IL MAESTRALE DONATA
Unable to find fine ice cream in Santiago, Donata Bergmann created her own brand. Her il Maestrale Gelateria features Frutos del Bosque, a heavenly mixture of Chilean wildberries whirled into a purple smoothie. Or try one of the seven coffees and cakes. Reasonably priced and centrally located, it's a good spot to recharge your batteries. Patio Bellavista, Local 34 (entrance on Constitution Street); 56-2-762-1202; www.ilmaestrale.cl
THINK WARM THOUGHTS
Here you will find shawls and sweaters handmade with natural dyes, in bold and natural colours. Using fine baby alpaca wool, the garments at Kaltakun are pleasurably soft and comfortably warm. Shawls start at about $55 and scarves from $40. Patio Bellavista, Local 39. www.kaltakun.cl/eng
Heralded as the pioneers of Chilean sushi, Etniko sushi restaurant can be imitated but the best is still the best. With more than 5,000 kilometres of coast, the Chilean seafood menu offers a cornucopia of endemic delights, such as the picoroco (looks like a crab living inside a barnacle), plus some of the world's finest tuna from Easter Island. Open early evening until all hours, Etniko is noisy and fun. 172 Constitution St., on the corner of Antonio Lopez de Bello; 56-2-732-0119; www.etniko.cl
Take home a piece of handcrafted jewellery from noted Chilean designer Toty Garfe. Toty is a small boutique that has been at the forefront of innovative jewellery using Chile's blue semi-precious lapis lazuli in necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Bold modern concepts and modest prices make this a great stop for friends back home. Open daily, 10 a.m. to midnight. 50 Constitution St., Local 31; 56-2-762-1036; www.marazulchile.com
Special to The Globe and Mail
WHERE TO STAY
The Aubrey At this renovated 1927 mansion, dinner reservations are scheduled three months ahead and every fashion director in town is begging to borrow one of the 15 rooms for a shoot. As the first boutique hotel in Santiago, the Aubrey has unleashed a flurry of copycats – none of them finished yet. Wander in, flash your passport and ask politely for an informal tour of this architectural and design masterpiece. Rooms from $248 with lots of extras (breakfast in bed, free Wi-Fi, heated outdoor pool). 299-317 Constitution St.; www.theaubrey.com
Hotel del Patio This high-end backpacker hotel has high-ceilinged rooms, natural wood everywhere, bilingual and attentive staff, and loads of options for day trips and wine tours. Rooms from $124. Pio Nono 61; www.hoteldelpatio.cl