Once sleepy and conservative, Chile’s capital and largest city is now one of the world’s most up-and-coming destinations. The change has come to Santiago in recent years as better freeways have made transportation throughout the country easier, allowing new infusions of art, culture and food to permeate the capital.

“Santiago used to be boring,” said Nicholas Sahli, a managing partner at Singular Hotels and a native of Santiago. “But today, you see a great mix of colours, tastes and spirits.”

In fact, a recent American Express Travel survey ranked Santiago as the world’s number two increasingly popular destination (right after London), based on travel bookings with the most year-over-year growth. The city also is drawing expats eyeing South America; modern infrastructure (including an improved public transportation system) and safety make Santiago more appealing to some than other Latin American options.

Knowing some Spanish is vital, however, and Santiago has a unique accent that can take some getting used to, even for seasoned linguists. “People here are friendly, but their Spanish can be very difficult to understand, even for someone who speaks it fluently like me,” said Matthew Newton, an expat originally from Melbourne and the founder of TourismTiger.com.

Still, lots of sunny days and plenty of green space more than make up for any communication challenges. “The weather is a darn sight better than most anywhere in Europe,” said Newton, who also has lived in Lisbon.

Where do you want to live?

Foodies should turn to the modern barrio of Providencia, just northeast of downtown, which is home mostly to upper middle-class residents and most of the city’s “trendy food places”, Newton said.

Young professionals tend to live in Bella Artes, located 4km to the north of the city centre, which has its share of new restaurants. Just one kilometre east of Bella Artes, hipsters and bohemian types flock to barrio Bellavista for its vibrant street art, funky bars and history – it was the one-time home to the late Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda.

Sahli lives in La Dehesa, a large suburban area about 30km northeast of downtown at the foothills of the Andes Mountains. Though the area was once used primarily for agriculture, a construction boom over the last 15 years has turned it into an upscale residential area with families.

What do you want to live in?

Most locals live in houses, but rising real estate costs mean more people are moving into the five- to 10-storey apartment buildings being constructed throughout the city. Most expats also move into apartment buildings. While the architecture generally isn’t anything to write home about, the Bella Artes neighbourhood has more colonial-style, charming buildings, and Bellavista has more “bohemian colour”, Newton said.

Where can you travel?

Residents love Santiago’s central location in the middle of Chile. “In one hour you can be at the beach, and two hours to the south, you will be in the wine valley,” Sahli said.

Newton especially likes the coastal town of Valparaiso, 120km to the west of the capital. “It is one of the most quirky cities in Latin America when speaking of architecture and town planning,” he said. “The streets push into the hills and there’s loads of great street art wherever you look.” Nearby Viña del Mar offers more traditional and laid-back coastal resort amenities.

Flights to Buenos Aires and other South American cities are cheap, fast and plentiful, making travel throughout the region easy.

How much does it cost?

While Santiago is still affordable compared to European and North American capitals, costs are rising and the city is more expensive than many other Latin American capitals. Santiago ranks at 88 in Mercer’s 2014 Cost of Living Index, near the middle of the pack among the 211 cities evaluated across the world.

Overall, the cost of living is about half of what it is in New York City or London, according to Expatistan.com. Much of the savings come from housing; an 85sqm apartment costs about 760,000 Chilean pesos ($1,200 US) in monthly rent.

The extensive public transportation system, including the efficient metro, means residents living within the city can avoid the expense of owning a car (city parking can be especially pricey), but the metro can get excessively crowded at rush hour.