The classic spot in Santiago for fish fresh from the sea is the Mercado Central, a most traditional setting for the bounty caught off Chile‘s 6,435km (3,990mi) coastline. The surprisingly pretty structure is a city landmark, officially designated part of Chile’s National Heritage and Historic Monument. It is also a must-see attraction for visitor’s to the capital.
Located just three blocks north of the Plaza de Armas and Iglesia Santo Domingo, the market is walking distance from most of the city’s major attractions. There are certainly some elements of a classic tourist trap—stalls selling the morning’s catch, fresh produce and medicinal herbs are interspersed with handicrafts and mariachi trios—but this is a fully functional market. Get here early (it opens before 6am daily, except election day) to watch chefs and restaurateurs compete for the finest seafood on offer.
Construction on the current structure began in 1868, four years after a fire destroyed the original 1817 Mercado de Abastos. Designed by Chilean architect Fermin Vivaceta, the market is built of primarily of iron cast in Glasgow, Scotland, a graceful bit of architecture accentuated with ornate flourishes that render the building as beautiful as it is durable. It was opened in 1872, was expanded in 1884 and today covers an entire city block.
Just about every city tour takes you through the market, where you can marvel at the selection of sea urchins, razor clams, octopi and all sorts of fish. The fishmongers slice and filet it all into oven-ready perfection with remarkable (and photogenic) ease, perfect if you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen.
If not, no problem! The Mercado Central is also home to a number of small, inexpensive, and extremely competitive restaurants. The scene is festive, with lots of locals, live music and very fresh, traditional dishes, but quality can be, shall we say, uneven. Ignore the waiters trying to drag you into their particular eatery and use your own best judgment when selecting a spot. If the place looks clean, smells fresh and has a local crowd enjoying a tasty selection of dishes, it’s probably a good bet.