Santiago usually serves as a gateway to Chile’s top tourist attractions: incredibly beautiful nature spots and world-famous national parks. In fact, Protected Wilderness Areas make nearly 20 % of the country. That is why most visitors usually pass through the Chilean capital either on the way to the snowy wonders of Patagonia in the South or to the otherworldly landscapes of the sun-dried Atacama Desert in the North. Few travelers come to the city for its own sake. And, indeed, Santiago’s rather monotonous skyline dominated by modern skyscrapers does not strike you as a particularly remarkable or unconventional place. Instead, this South American megalopolis has a pretty unassuming character that takes time to open up to you.
Yet, it would be a pity to miss on the chance to get to know Chile’s most important city and appreciate its discreet charm. So here is a brief guide to Santiago’s best places to visit during a short stay.
Santiago’s Brief History Overview
Santiago was founded by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia in 1541 in the area that was originally inhabited by Picunchos, a local Indian tribe.
Although for the first few decades, Santiago lived under permanent threat of destruction by hostile indigenous groups, it grew rapidly to become an influential colonial city under the Spanish rule. Three centuries later, it was proclaimed the capital of the independent republic of Chile.
Santiago was built at the juncture of two tectonic plates. This is the reason why it experiences a lot of seismism. Since the early days of its existence, the city has been struck by multiple deadly earthquakes that razed most of the original colonial architecture to the ground. That is why sleek contemporary high-rise buildings that are seismically resistant prevail in Santiago today.
Unlike Lima or Quito, the Chilean capital does not impress visitors with opulent colonial architecture. However, the most significant buildings in the historic center have been preserved, and you can see them all on a one-day walking tour.
Santa Lucia Hill
You should start your tour around Santiago with a short climb to Cerro Santa Lucia, located in the very heart of the city. It is here at the foot of Santa Lucia Hill that Pedro de Valdivia laid the first stones of the future metropolis on February 12, 1541.
Originally, the hill was used by missionaries as a place of worship. It also served as a strategic point to look over the city and its surroundings. That is why a few fortifications were added on the slopes of the hill in the early 19th century. One of them is the Hidalgo castle that housed a Spanish garrison for a short time. After Chile became independent, the fortress was transformed into a museum. In most recent times, it has been mostly used as a restaurant and an event center with a beautiful garden.
In 1872, the entire hill was remodeled into a beautiful park. Until today, it has remained one of the favorite places for the locals to enjoy peace and quiet in the middle of the bustling city.
On the southern slope of the hill, there is a beautiful neoclassical Neptune fountain. From here, you can climb to the very top of the hill and enjoy a spectacular view over the neighboring districts.
Once you descend from Santa Lucia Hill near the Neptune Fountain, you can follow Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins to get to La Moneda, the presidential palace. It overlooks Plaza de la Ciudadania.
La Moneda is a monumental neoclassical building, which was originally built as a mint. It was partially destroyed during the military coup led by Pinochet. Since then, it has been restored, and today you can even visit the palace inside with a free guided tour. The tour needs to be scheduled in advance.
You can also attend art and cultural exhibitions that are held regularly at the Cultural Center of La Moneda Palace.
Plaza de Armas
After visiting the presidential palace, follow Calle Morandé until Compaña de Jesús, then turn right to get to the main square and historical center of Santiago, Plaza de Armas. This elegant square features some of the best buildings preserved from the colonial era.
First of all, explore the city’s most important religious edifice, the Metropolitan Cathedral, built in mid-18th century after an older church had been destroyed by an earthquake. In addition to the beautiful altar, there is the Museum of Sacred Art inside the Cathedral.
On the Cathedral’s right, there is a Central Post Office Building. It is a relatively recent construction dating from the end of the 19th century. What makes it interesting is the fact that the Post Office replaced an original house once owned by none other than Pedro de Valdivia.
The National History Museum is on the Post Office’s right. It is an excellent place for history buffs to learn about the history of Chile.
In a small adjacent Bandera street to the left of the Metropolitan Cathedral, there is the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art. It is a haven for all aficionados of indigenous cultures and art as the museum has one of the largest collections of ancient Indian artifacts in South America.
Yet, my favourite building near Plaza de Armas is Edificio Commercial Edwards on the corner of Calle Estado. It was created by Eugenio Joannon in 1892. The architect studied in Paris and was inspired by Gustavo Eiffel's style.
Once you get hungry, you can follow Calle 21 de Mayo to get to the Mercado Central, Santiago’s Central Fish Market. This place can be a feast for both senses: your eyes and your taste buds. Never mind the strong fish smell as here you can eat the best seafood in Santiago. After wandering wistfully among the food stalls with giant squids, mouth-watering lobsters, and weird sea creatures like urchins, you can choose a table at one of the market restaurants. I recommend you try a freshly made ceviche or a hot and delicious paila marina, a popular Chilean seafood soup.
The market sits inside an intricate wrought-iron structure built in 1872. It creates a delightful retro style ambiance that complements well your gastronomic experience.
After the hearty lunch at the Mercado Central, cross the bridge over the Mapocho River, turn right, and take Calle Bellavista to explore Santiago’s trendiest district with a similar name Barrio Bellavista.
Tucked between the river and San Cristóbal Hill, this bohemian neighborhood has been favored by artists and intellectuals since the 1960s. Today, it has only grown in popularity with the locals and tourists alike. With a wide array of funky bars and restaurants, fancy shops, and art galleries, Bellavista remains the hippest place in town to go out at night and quite an eye-catcher to walk around during the day. The colorful graffiti-lined facades of most buildings make the whole area look like an open-air museum of urban art. On weekends, the main street Pio Nino also hosts an arts and crafts market where you can shop for some original gifts.
Take a stroll among the labyrinth of little streets and alleys to feel the neighborhood’s cool vibes and enjoy some of the most brilliant examples of street art in South America. To reach Cerro San Cristóbal, turn into Calle Pío Nono.
Bellavista’s most distinguished resident and Chile’s greatest cultural icon was, no doubt, Pablo Neruda, a poet and a Nobel-prize winner. His former house La Chascona is located at the foot of San Cristóbal Hill. The name of the house translates roughly as “the woman with a tousled hair” and refers to Neruda’s third wife.
Today, La Chascona has been transformed into a museum that pays homage to the poet and offers visitors a glimpse into his life. The house has an original design that reflects Neruda’s love of the sea. For example, the kitchen looks like a ship’s cabin, and the dining room resembles a lighthouse. The museum also features a rare collection of the poet’s personal possessions, including the portrait of his wife by Diego Rivera and other interesting artwork.
Cerro San Cristóbal
To wind up a brief tour of Santiago, go to the summit of Cerro San Cristóbal, the second-highest hill in Santiago. Towering 300 m above the metropolis, it offers some of the best views over the entire city.
The funicular that can take you to the top of San Cristóbal Hill is located at Plaza Caupolicán, not far from La Chascona. Do not be surprised if there is a huge line of tourists waiting for their turn to get inside. The funicular is quite old and does not accommodate a lot of people. If you do not want to queue up for a whole hour, you can walk up the hill by taking a lane on the left of the funicular. Note, however, that the ascent can be quite exhausting, particularly, on a hot summer day.
The funicular takes you to the Sanctuary of Cerro San Cristóbal with a 22m-high statue of Virgen Mary at the top of the hill. At its foot, there is also an amphitheater and a small church where Pope John Paul II held a mass in 1984. However, the most impressive thing here is the breathtaking panorama of the boundless Santiago below. If you get to the summit at the right hour, you can also witness a sunset, which is said to be very beautiful.
Cerro San Cristóbal is, in fact, the largest green park in Santiago with lots of entertainment. It houses an observatory, a zoo, a Japanese garden, a huge playground for children, and two public swimming pools. If you want to explore further, you can either walk around or take a cable car to the other end of the hill.
After you descend from Cerro San Cristóbal, relaxing at one of the cafes or bars in Bellavista and savoring its nightlife can be a perfect way to cap off the day in Santiago. Yes, the Chilean capital might not be the city that sweeps you off your feet straight away. Yet, it can easily take you in for a warm embrace and give you a few fond memories.