Elegant but far from snooty, Barrio Brasil delivers culture, good food and nightlife by the truckloads
It all started in the early 1990s when a number of rock bands and eccentric artists moved in to vacant buildings in the vicinity of Avenida Brasil, west of central Santiago, to find creative inspiration and neighbours with high tolerance to noise and nuisance. It wasn’t all too difficult; the place was dotted with unglamorous car servicing garages, making any kind of cultural regeneration be welcomed with open arms. This once well-heeled district had been in decline since the 1950s, a destiny that was sealed after the area was severed from the centro histórico by the construction of the appalling Norte-Sur highway. Such was the state of its isolation, than the Barrio Brasil managed to escape some of the hideous architectural rationalism that assaulted the city in the decades to come. Indeed, the timeless scenery of this most picturesque of neighbourhoods has prompted authorities to declare it a conservation area in an effort to boost its development as a cultural hotbed.
The Barrio Brasil remains quaint and romantic in its cobbled streets and seigniorial mansions, but its double life of gossipy barrio and hippie conglomerate have rendered it irresistibly cool. This is an enchanting, inviting neighbourhood of wide open windows from where one can walk past a family lunch moment or hear a punk-rock soundtesting bursting out of a dilapidated fin-de-siècle loft. No wonder it has become de rigueur for locals and visitors alike. A great number of bars, designer restaurants and boutique hotels have surfaced in recent years without altering the ambiance of hip that is so innate to this beautiful area.
To get the most out of this barrio one must really just wonder along its streets and explore. For a general view of the place, try kicking off at Republica Metro Station and making a turn up Calle Concha y Toro, where you’ll reach its dinky little plazoleta and its entourage of magnificent palaces and cinematographic prettiness. The encircling mansions that in the past belonged to Chile’s most select upper-class families, including that of the Concha y Toro family (now renamed for their wineries) have inspired exciting redevelopment projects, such as the Zully bar & restaurant at number 34, now a leading attraction for its elaborate cocktails and stylishly decorated lounges.
Make sure you also check out the streets east of Avenida Brasil which concentrate, apart from a large number of hotels and hostels, a great deal of fine buildings with quite eclectic architectural styles; from the gothic Basílica del Salvador on Calle Huérfanos and Calle Almirante Barroso to the Art-Nouveau maisonettes of Calle Cienfuegos. Back to the north end of the palm tree lined Avenida Brasil, right where it merges with Plaza Brasil, you’ll find the epicentre of the neighbourhood’s 24-hour life. By day, you’ll find children playing among the vivid sculptures designed by Federica Matta, daughter of the renowned Chilean painter Roberto Matta. By contrast, night-time transforms the plaza into a meeting point for young people before the party moves on to one the many nearby clubs and bars. The square is wonderfully sited among some elegant and colourful palaces and the sight of the Iglesia de la Preciosa Sangre, on Calle Compañía, with its distinctive red-coloured bell towers. During early 20th century, this church and convent was well-known for providing accommodation to unmarried aristocratic girls who became pregnant or had a notoriously ‘immoral’ behaviour. Such was the chastise for Teresa Wilms, one of the most prominent of Santiago’s socialites forced into seclusion by her family in 1915 only to stage a subsequent scandalous escape with Vicente Huidobro, one the most celebrated poets at the time.
The Barrio Brasil narrates a tale of wealth and refinement in every corner that retains a slice of its opulent past. One of those corners, that of Compañía and Calle Libertad, is where the Peluquería Francesa – the local ‘french’ hairdresser’s – used to operate. Now transformed into a project blending the concepts of restaurant, bar and antique shop, the now called 'Boulevard Lavaud' offers a great tapas-style menu as well as the possibility of browsing through its hundreds of picturesque antiques, which can also be purchased. This side of the barrio draws closer to Plaza Yungay and its residential area, perhaps one of the most untouched traditional neighbourhoods in the central area of Santiago. Here are some beautiful cités and cul-de-sacs, particularly in the vicinity of Adriana Cousiño, Lucrecia Valdés and Hurtado Rodríguez.
On the west fringes of the district is one of the capital’s newest cultural regeneration projects, the Biblioteca de Santiago on Avenida Matucana. Inaugurated in the year 2004, this has become the city’s main public library, orientated to an non-academic audience and with a noticeable relaxed feel. The brilliantly redeveloped building, which was formerly a government storage, holds exhibitions as well as workshops and all sorts of activities for adults and children.
Just across from the library is the Quinta Normal, Santiago’s oldest public park. The Quinta Normal started off in 1830 as the Botanic Gardens or Jardines de Aclimatación, which was for years the single open space in the capital. The park’s original purpose was to provide the prospect of enhancing national research in natural sciences. To that effect, museums such as the Museo de Historia Natural were created on the inside, but evidently – and regrettably – at the expense of quality open spaces. In fact the Quinta Normal, as well as other parks in Santiago, just doesn’t feel green enough and it’s a little bit of a disappointment that not much has been done to make it an inviting place to unwind in the surrounding nature.
Just outside the northern entrance to the park lies a rather impressive Art deco church, the Basilica de la Virgen de Lourdes, truly one of the most remarkable churches of the capital. Absolutely packed on Sundays and not significantly quieter on other days, the so-called santuario is an emotive symbol of religious life in Santiago. At the other end of the park and just across Avenida Portales lies the structure of the Chilean pavilion at the Paris World Exposition of 1889. This remarkable construction, made mostly of assembled iron and glass, has now been converted into Santiago’s interactive children museum, the Artequín, which houses a screen-touching and button-pushing display of educational games for the appeal of curious kids and families.
Back to Avenida Matucana and heading south towards the Alameda you’ll find one of the capital’s latest additions to cultural life, the Centro Cultural Matucana 100, an art space that has grown increasingly popular since its inception in 2001. The M100 houses a large hall staging theatre and dance productions, gigs and various different forms of exhibitions by independent local and foreign artists. You shouldn’t finish a tour of the area without paying a visit to Santiago’s Estación Central, the city’s main Railway Station with its impressive Art Nouveau glass roof built in 1897 by the French company Schneider Cie. (which in spite of popular belief does not appear to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel, who was an employee in the company). After the disappearance of the Northern Railway terminal at Estación Mapocho this station absorbed all of Santiago’s train services.
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