My most vivid memory of Santiago is waking in the morning, looking out my hotel window and seeing the towering Andes for the first time. Mountain vistas just beyond the city’s tall buildings are one of the special pleasures of this beautiful South American capital.
A thriving city of more than six million people, Santiago has finally recovered from a difficult period in its rich history. In contrast to some nations in Latin America, Chile had a long tradition of peaceful democratic rule and was prosperous, thanks to its rich deposits of nitrates and copper. But on September 11, 1973, a bloody military coup appointed Augusto Pinochet as head of the government. Pinochet’s was a reign of terror, with opponents tortured or put to death. Thousands of Chileans were expelled or fled the country to escape the regime. While the wealthy prospered, unemployment and poverty soared during his 17-year reign. Pinochet was finally ousted in 1988, and order and democracy have returned. The many new buildings being erected show that Santiago is flourishing under a stable and progressive government.
This is a sprawling city with a narrow river wandering through it, but with a good look at a map, it is easy to get your bearings. Centro is the downtown area and the oldest part of Santiago. The artistic enclave of Bellas Artes and some unexpected neighborhoods within might make you think you had stumbled into Paris or Rio; streets are busy and filled with dozens of buses. History is found in the Spanish Colonial buildings in the leafy Plaza de Armas and the stately Civic Quarter; the grandest European-style buildings include the Municipal Theater, the National Library and the Museum of Fine Arts. The funky Bellavista quarter and the big Metropolitan Park are just to the north of downtown, across the River Mapocho.
Modern Santiago is growing to the east. That’s where you will find Providencia, an area with wide streets and lovely homes; it’s a popular place to stay because it is walkable and features many shops and restaurants. Further east, Vitacura is home to gourmet dining and to the Boulevard Alonso de Cordova, where the city’s most exclusive designer shops are found. Posh new condominiums and lavish shopping malls are beyond in the Las Condes district.
With historic squares, broad avenues, modern buildings, green parks, tempting shops, wonderful restaurants and diverse neighborhoods, Santiago begs to be explored.
A word of caution: Watch out for your belongings. Though generally safe, Santiago, like most big cities, has areas where thefts occur. Be careful when visiting the Plaza de Armas and Bellavista areas, and avoid walking around these neighborhoods at night.
Plaza de Armas, a square filled with palms and fountains, was laid out by Pedro de Valdivia, the Spanish conquistador who founded the city in 1541. It is the historic heart of the city, lined with handsome Spanish Colonial-style buildings, including the City Hall, National History Museum, Post Office and Metropolitan Cathedral, the city’s grandest church. Step inside the cathedral to see the gilt arches and the high marble altar set with lapis lazuli. Erected in the mid-18th century, this is actually the fifth church on this site. The first one was burnt down by Mapuche Indians just a few months after it was built, and the others were destroyed by earthquakes in 1552, 1647 and 1730. It is one of many buildings in the city rebuilt in Colonial style following an earthquake. The square itself is a lively scene, populated with artists, living statues, vendors, chess players and, of course, tourists.
Just one block southwest of the Plaza de Armas on Bandera is the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, Santiago’s most outstanding museum. Here you’ll find an unmatched collection of carvings in wood and stone, ceramics, and pottery and textiles from the early inhabitants of South and Central America and Mexico, especially the Andes tribes.
Constitution Square, the city’s most formal public space, is located about six blocks from the Plaza de Armas. It’s home to statues of heroes and to Palacio de la Moneda, the presidential palace. Tours can be arranged in advance by email (see Gob.cl/en/guided-tours/). The changing of the guard takes place every other day at 10 a.m. The plaza is the roof of an underground bunker built by Augusto Pinochet when he took over the government in the infamous military coup of 1973. Today it is a parking lot.
At the edge of downtown is the lushly landscaped Cerro Santa Lucia, a triangle-shaped hilltop named by Valdivia. According to some accounts, it was the spot where he founded Santiago in the name of the crown of Spain. The bare hillside was transformed in 1872 as part of an effort to turn Santiago into a European-style city, providing gardens, squares and terraces where fashionable residents could stroll and enjoy panoramic views. It was restored in the 1990s and an elevator to the summit was added. Castillo Hidalgo at the summit is an exhibition center for native art, and outdoor plays and concerts are held here in the summer. Enter at Avenida Alameda and St. Lucia, or take the elevator on St. Lucia Street at Agustinas.
The small artistic neighborhood of Bellas Artes, near the foot of Santa Lucia hill between the Alameda and Parque Forestal, is a favorite of artists and writers, home to pleasant bars, cafes and art galleries, an 18th-century church, and several museums. The grand Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts (Bellas Artes), built in the early 20th century, is two museums in one, showing Chilean and international painters, and incorporating the Museum of Contemporary Art. The attractive Museum of Visual Arts (Artes Visuales) showcases the work of some 300 local artists.
Take the funicular railway or a gondola to the summit of San Cristobal Hill in Santiago’s Metropolitan Park for an unforgettable view of the city and its mountains. At the top is a gleaming statue of the Virgen de la Immaculada. The park, a green retreat from city traffic, also includes a botanical garden and the city zoo.
Though it is seedy in spots, bohemian district Bellavista has colorful houses and a host of shops, sidewalk vendors and cafes. It is also the location of La Chascona, one of the intriguing homes of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. It was the romantic hideaway for Neruda and his third wife, Matilde, for years before they were married. Winding garden paths, stairs and bridges lead to the home with a bedroom in a tower and a secret passageway. If you love Neruda, consider this full-day Neruda tour from Viator.
The unique Barrio Paris-Londres is lined with small mansions erected in the mid-1920s when European style was all the rage. The streets are even named Paris and London. Some of the three- and four-story homes are now restaurants or small hotels.
Want a change of scenery? Escape to the posh seaside resort of Vina del Mar. About 74 miles outside of Santiago (an hour and a half by bus), Vina del Mar is known for its palm tree-lined boulevards, fine hotels and dining, miles of beach, and the country’s oldest casino. The don’t-miss sights include its famous floral clock (which actually works) and the archaeological treasures at the Fonck Museum, known for its Rapa Nui (Easter Island) collection. See Vina del Mar tours.
Chile is increasingly famous for its wines, and a tour of vineyards is a pleasant outing from the city. The Maipo River Valley, about an hour from Santiago, has the country’s greatest winemaking tradition and is home to more than a dozen wineries known for their fine reds. The elaborate estate of Concha y Toro is the country’s largest winemaker. The wineries of the Casablanca Valley are also popular. Many companies offer day tours from Santiago; see Viator for a selection.
Seafood is king in Santiago. Sample the delicious corvina (a drum or croaker fish), the locally farmed salmon or the Chilean specialty congrio, a fish resembling a conger eel. Patagonian lamb is also delicious. You’ll also notice that Chileans love bread; look for the marraqueta, a flat roll served almost everywhere. Fine Chilean wines add to the dining pleasure. Also keep your eye out for the national drink of Chile, the pisco sour. Though it originated in neighboring Peru, this drink is now served almost everywhere in Chile. The ingredients are pisco brandy (made with the skin of white grapes), lemon juice, sugar and ice. Sometimes egg whites are added for extra froth.
Central Market is a lunch tradition in Santiago, as popular with locals as with tourists. The market, a vast bustling emporium with a soaring roof, has been a fixture since 1872. It is filled with vendors selling every kind of fish you ever dreamed of — and some you never imagined. Hawkers will try to lure you into one of the many cafes in the market, but the place to go is Donde Augusto, where you may be dining beneath a photo of Bill Clinton or another familiar celebrity. The strolling musicians come free with your meal.
For a unique introduction to Chilean flavors and culture, adventurous eaters should head to Peumayen Ancestral Food in the Bellavista neighborhood. Here the chefs seek to highlight the traditional cuisine of Chile’s native populations, including the Mapuche and the Aymara. Wait staff offer information about the various dishes, which include rabbit and horse meat.
If you’re not expecting to find New York-style Italian cuisine all the way down in Santiago, Nolita will be a delightful surprise. Delicious fresh pastas, garlicky shrimp and classic New York cheesecake are among the offerings at this attractively designed spot.
Join the locals at the reasonably priced Liguria, where traditional Chilean cuisine is on the menu — plus excellent pisco sours. There are several locations around the Providencia neighborhood.
Sushi lovers won’t want to miss Osaka, where Peruvian, Japanese and other Asian flavors meet. Located at the W Santiago, Osaka offers a sushi bar as well as dishes such as ceviche, teriyaki steak and Thai scallops.
Shopping in Santiago
Chile is one of only a few countries in the world where lapis lazuli, a brilliant blue semi-precious stone, is found in abundance, and lapis jewelry is plentiful in all price ranges. Alpaca woolen stoles and sweaters are another local specialty, along with wooden crafts made by the native Mapuche Indians. A wide selection can be found at Los Dominicos in Las Condes; this picturesque craft village has more than 150 shops and stalls, many with working artisans on hand.
Bellavista, Santiago’s bohemian district, has many shops selling jewelry. For the best quality in jewelry and crafts, check out Pura on Av. Kennedy.
Bring your plastic to Vitacura, the city’s best spot for designer boutiques and other luxe offerings. (Start at Avenida Alonso de Cordova.) We also like Providencia for big-name international brands.
The crafts village of Pomaire, famous for its earthenware pottery, is about 43 miles from Santiago. Pomaire is often included in day trips to wine country or Isla Negra (the home of Pablo Neruda). See Viator for a few options.
–written by Eleanor Berman