Spindly Chile stretches over half of South America, from the driest desert in the world to massive glacial fields. Its slenderness makes it easy to explore the boggling diversity of volcanoes, geysers, beaches, lakes, rivers, steppe and countless islands. With simple infrastructure, spectacular sights and the most hospitable hosts around, the hardest part of a visit to Chile is planning your day.

This is definitely true of Santiago, the nation’s capital. Scout out the urban edge of this once-conformist city in design shops and chic clubs, or soak up some classic Latin culture at lively café debates that stretch all day. Once your urban fix is filled, stroll the city’s leafy, exotic suburban parks or take refuge in the Andean peaks just beyond the city’s skyline.

Although the air has cleared somewhat in recent years, pollution and noise are likely to cloud your first impressions, especially in winter. But do not be discouraged. The city – cultured, quirky and ambitious – rewards the patient traveller. Beyond the conservative conformity of Santiago Centro and the soulless towers of Las Condes, the 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 and bohemians gather in the charming old district of Barrio Brasil. There is also a 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.

Here are some of Santiago’s highlights.

Cerro San Cristóbal and Parque Metropolitano
With its 880m summit, steep funicular, and 5km of cable car, this enormous city park offers stunning vistas of the city. If smog hides the view, there are botanical gardens, swimming pools and a zoo to keep you busy.

Barrio Lastarria and Barrio Bellas Artes
Don your chunky black spectacles and turtleneck, then strike a pose amongst the designers and writers. With two great museums, a string of bijoux cafés and dinky design stores, these two central neighbourhoods are the heart of Santiago’s art scene.

Barrio Bellavista
Pablo Neruda was as skilled with the cocktail shaker as he was with the pen, so it is fitting that one of his houses now watches over the bar-lined cobbled streets of Bellavista where Chile’s most kicking carrete (partying) goes down.

Museo Chileno de Arte
Pre-Columbian ceramics, metalwork, textiles and stone carvings from all over Latin America chart the continent’s rich history and culture before the European invasion. Mummies and trippy shamanic accessories make for more offbeat finds in the Museo Chileno de Arte's collection.

Mercado Central and La Vega Central
See some of Santiago’s best food before it makes it onto your plate at the city’s best markets. The Mercado Central is a shining silver-mine of seafood while La Vega Central is the best for fruit and vegetables.

Maipo Valley Wineries
Sample big-bodied reds at top wineries without leaving town. From chichi boutique set-ups like Viña Aquitania to viniculture behemoths like Viña Cousiño Macul or Viña Concha y Toro, some of Chile’s finest wine is only a bus- or subway-ride away.

Cajón del Maipo
Ditch the traffic and the smog and head for the hills. You can hike, ride and raft your way along the steep-sided canyon of the Río Maipo, just two hours from Santiago.

La Piojera
It is riotously loud, reeks of sour booze and the name translates as “the louse-pit”. Yet with its dangerously potent drink mixes, aging barmen and rowdy, guitar-strumming regulars, this 90-year-old bar is a local institution.

The article 'Santiago’s urban edge' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.