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Santiago travel guide, tours & things to do

Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Adam Ford checks in from Santiago — Chile’s charming capital city...

Santiago is often regarded as simply an air travel ‘hub’ — a place you’re forced to go through to get to somewhere else.

Rightly or wrongly, think Frankfurt, Zurich or Kuala Lumpur. You get off one plane, you get on another. You get the picture. However, once you escape the austere confines of the airport and reach the city proper, Santiago starts to feel, well, interesting! The reality is that this is a dynamic destination in its own right and one that has a whole lot to offer visitors.

Enjoy this Santiago travel guide.

Santiago travel guide
Santiago travel guide

Top cultural experiences in Santiago

The centre of Santiago is a blend of the historic and modern.

The city was established by the conquistadors way back in 1541. Multiple earthquakes have made short work of many of the original colonial buildings, but there are more than enough surviving monuments to keep the most voracious of tourists happy.

Santiago travel guide
Santiago travel guide: La Moneda Palace

Pay a visit to the magnificent Palacio de la Moneda — the Presidential offices and former mint. The wonderful changing of the guard ceremony takes place every other day, and includes a couple of toe-tapping numbers from the accompanying military band. I bet the President loves to sit in his office and hum along.

Santiago travel guide
Santiago travel guide: See the changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace.

Nearby, the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes) is a superb example of 19th century beaux-arts architecture. The collection inside is equally engaging. There are regular special exhibitions in addition to the permanent collection of Chilean art. Check the website for details.

Santiago for history lovers

There are plenty of historical must-sees in Santiago.

Visit the oldest surviving colonial building in town — the San Francisco Church (La iglesia de San Francisco), which dates back to the late 1500s. Then take a stroll down the gorgeous cobbled Barrio Londres.

Over in the historic Plaza de Armas, the centre of life in the city since it was established, you can also visit the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago (Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago ) or the Royal Court Palace (Palacio de la Real Audiencia de Santiago). The latter houses the excellent National History Museum of Chile (Museo Histórico Nacional). There are various artists at work in the square out the front.

Santiago travel guide
Santiago travel guide: Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago. Image: Bigstock

Board the historic time capsule that is the creaking 1920s funicular in Barrio Bellavista (the bohemian quarter) for the short journey to the top of Cerro San Cristobal, which is adorned by a giant statue of the Virgin Mary. Up here you’ll get awesome views of the city and Andes Mountains. Up here you’ll get an appreciation of just how big Santiago is. At roughly six million inhabitants, this is the third biggest city in South America — although it’s well behind the sprawling metropolis of Sao Paulo, Brazil with its 11 million citizens.

Great places to eat in Santiago

Descend to Barrio Bellavista and explore the marvellous jumble of cafes and galleries.

Now we’re talking. It reminds me of Melbourne’s Brunswick or Collingwood, or perhaps Sydney’s Paddington or Marrickville — with a Latin twist.

Grunge chic is all the go here. Definitely check out trendy Patio Bellavista — a revitalised development of civic squares, cafes, restaurants and boutiques. You can’t go wrong. It’s also a great spot for live music in the evening. For a quick snack, try a completo — which literally means ‘hotdog with the lot’.

Santiago travel guide
Santiago’s street art adds colour to the inner city. Image: Bigstock

Time for a late lunch (or early dinner) and the chance to try a Chilean cabernet — some say the best in the world. Make your way to Barrio Lastarria — known for its plethora of gorgeous wine bars and bistros. At celebrated eatery Sur Patagonico, I’m persuaded to try my first carmenere — Chile’s signature grape. It’s a fantastic drop.

Where to shop in Santiago

Santiago is awash with designer label boutiques and luxury car showrooms.

Those with cash to splash should head for Avenue Alonso de Cordova in Vitacura. Very Toorak or Double Bay, darling.

For a more organic shopping experience, visit the Central Market (Mercado Central de Santiago) on San Pablo. The market opened in 1872. Today it’s largely a seafood market and the central plaza has a great (if slightly whiffy) selection of seafood restaurants and cafes.

Santiago travel guide
Santiago travel guide: Central Market

Ways to relax in Santiago

There’s not a blade of grass out of place in central Santiago, thanks to and ongoing program of civic improvement.

The city now enjoys a huge number of parks and gardens, which are packed with engaging modern sculpture. Any of them will be a fine spot for a little R&R.

Santiago travel guide
Santiago travel guide: Enjoy the city’s many public parks and gardens.

One of the best options is the long thin Parque Forestal, which runs alongside the Mapocho River through the centre of town. It’s a great location for some people-watching around lunchtime. The river (and we use the term loosely — it’s more like a concrete canal) flows best during September to November.

When the river is low, the concrete walls of the channel play a cultural role in the city. They’re covered in political graffiti.

Do you have any tips to add to our Santiago travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Adam Ford

About the writer

Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.


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